While watching my three children play on various youth and high school teams the past 13 years, I have learned too much about a persistent, disturbing and palpable tension between parents and coaches. Most coaches want the parents completely out of the way, to say nothing, to never call or email them, to not have a conversation about their kid and his or her progress or whatever might be on the minds of the parents. I often wonder if coaches would prefer if the parents would just never even show up for the games. Some act like they would be perfectly happy if we didn't exist as long as they had our credit card numbers.
But there's one big problem with that attitude: Parents usually pay the coaches' bills. Most coaches don't seem to appreciate that fact enough. We are their customers, and they treat us with trepidation and distrust, almost like pariahs. Businesses that treat their customers this way are suspect and often unpleasant to deal with. They risk losing customers and revenues.
Their credibility gets damaged.
Coaches often don't make eye contact or any contact with parents, if they can pull that off. Especially on travel teams, which tend to cost considerably more money than recreational ones, coaches often don't want anything to do with parents who are funding their livelihoods which, to be honest, are mostly fun and not particularly intellectually taxing or stressful. Coaching rewards
and stimulates. It's generally not as hard as other jobs and more fun and exciting. I know from experience. I coached a girl's grade school basketball team for three years. It's more pleasure than pain and a lot more refreshing than, say, the monotonous, anonymous and often thankless corporate grind that millions of people endure every day.
Yet most coaches don't want the parents to have any involvement in the fun of it all. They just want us to pay the money and not be seen or heard. Our joy is irrelevant to them. But our joy is relevant to us. They need to understand parents also want to enjoy the experience.
Most coaches want to control your kid too exclusively. But this is the main source of conflict. Parents also want to control their kids. Since birth they have raised the kid. They want the kid to derive happiness and fulfillment playing sports. Coaches need to appreciate and respect that more. Coaches want parents out of the way and out of sight and want no input from you on any
of it. But parents can provide unique and valuable input to coaches about their kids such as what motivates them, what inspires them, what bothers them. This information could help coaches customize their coaching for particular kids. Instead, they want none of parents in any way, shape or form. They want to take your kids and mold them the way they see fit without taking advantage of all the information and insight a parent could share with them to make the
experience more fun and rewarding for the kid.
The biggest point of contention between parents and kids often centers on playing time. In often secretive and conniving ways, parents ask coaches why their kid isn't playing more. In baseball, for example, parents will cite statistics about their kid having a higher batting average than a kid
starting ahead of them. I have personally heard about parents doing this. Parents do a whole lot more than this to wedge their kids into starting line-ups and push their kids' agendas above every other kid on the team. In Little League baseball, I have seen fathers maneuver their ways into head coaching jobs precisely so they can give their sons more playing time over more talented players whose fathers are not coaching.
There is no denying that each parent cares more about their own kid's playing time and joy playing the sport than anyone else on the team. Parents are selfish this way. They don't want their kid to be emotionally scarred by sitting on the bench and feeling they aren't good enough. They don't want to see their kid get hurt psychologically by being told he or she is inferior to other players. They want their kid's sports career to go as far aspossible. Yes, they re-live their own youth sports experiences by watching their kids do the same. Few parents readily admit this, but it's true and human nature. We compare our sports careers to those of our kids, harbor misgivings about the mistakes we made in not achieving all we wanted to in sports, and hope our children go farther and achieve more than we did without making the same mistakes, which often means practicing more than we did. We don't want them to have the same misgivings later in life about what they could have accomplished had they been more dedicated.
I have been careful to almost never debate with any of my kids' coaches about why my kid should be getting more playing time. But I did it once and have no regrets. One season a few years ago, the coach placed my kid ninth in the baseball line-up, meaning the coaches figured he was the ninth best hitter, which isn't a compliment. I questioned the coach: "Is he really
the ninth best hitter on this team?" Based on my son's track record and knowing the abilities of his teammates, I knew he ranked higher than that. Even though I'm biased towards my son, I knew more about my son's ability and emotional state than the coach and am usually quite objective about his ability compared with other kids.
If the coach thought he ranked ninth best, I would have accepted that. But I did question it. As it turned out, that coach had misjudged my kid. After the coach moved him up the fifth and sixth spot in the line-up, my kid ended up being one of the team's better hitters. I questioned the coach because I feared my kid would be so distraught and traumatized over being relegated to ninth, a spot he had never been in his baseball life, that he would figure he wasn't any good and quit. I didn't want him to quit because I knew he had potential and, as it turns out, I have been proven correct.
When I approached the coach, I didn't say I thought my kid should be batting higher in the line-up. I asked the coach a question and did tell him that I thought my kid might consider quitting if the coach didn't think that much of him as a hitter. My kid didn't tell me this but I had a
visceral sense that he might stop playing soon thereafter.
Was I wrong to do this? Maybe. But I made a parental judgment call based on knowing my kid emotionally better than anyone else. I did what many parents can't resist doing, which was stand up for my kid at a pivotal moment. I didn't want him to hurt, but most important, I didn't want him to quit because I believed he would regret that for many years. So I stepped in. I told the coach I didn't want to be a big hassle but that I just wanted him to re-think his decision. In restrospect, I don't think he knew my kid's ability well enough at the time compared with many others on the team. So he put them ahead of my kid in the line-up. Because of the way I approached the coach, without getting mad but simply asking a question and not threatening him, I believe he appreciated and benefited from the feedback. He gained insight about
my kid that only a parent could provide. I didn't threaten that my kid would quit and that he better move him up in the line-up. I simply told him he might based on the coach's decision.
Other than this case, I have never pleaded that my kid should get more playing time and he's played for many different coaches. I know when I coached I didn't appreciate parents pushing me to play their kids more. One time after a basketball game, a parent came up to me and said: "Why don't you play my daughter more? She could miss just as many shots as your daughter
did who played almost the whole game."
He insulted my judgment, my kid's ability, and implied I favored my kid. It was at the moment that my joys of coaching were dampened. At that moment it was more of a hassle than a joy.
Whenever my kids have not been in the starting line-up or not received much playing time, I have never pleaded with the coach for more. My approach is always to stress to my kids that if you are good enough, you will get plenty of playing time. And the way to increase their chances of that are to practice, practice, and practice more. Make yourself so skilled that the coach is eager to give you plenty of playing time. One of my kids, for example, wasn't getting much playing time in a high school sport. I wasn't going to complain to the coach. My view, which I shared with my kid, was that she didn't practice enough in the off-season to make herself good enough to make sure she deserved lots of playing time. The onus was on her, not the coach and not me, to get better.
The tough reality for kids, but it's what parents and coaches have to teach them about life, is that it's always their responsibility to get better if they want more playing time, to excel, and enjoy the psychic benefits that success brings.
Which draws us to a crucial point. Kids have to get better to get more playing time, and as they grow older this intensifies at the travel team level. With each successive season, the pressure mounts. But let's tell it like it is: Almost invariably, coaches usually have more interest in winning because it caresses their egos, gives them job security, and draws more talented players to their teams. The kids have to get better or they're out of the mix and their competitive sports' lives evaporate. So they keep practicing often because parents keep paying for their travel teams, extra lessons, and personal trainers. They need to maintain an edge on the other kids and the
parents keep unleashing money to keep their kid ahead of the other kids. The coaches, and the camps they run, keep rolling in the cash. They're in the driver's seat.
But they don't want any part of the parents who fund their existences. Meanwhile, the kids become increasingly stressed out, constantly worried about getting better, and irritated at their parents for reminding them they have to practice on their own to get ahead of the other kids. Or else they risk being outplayed, sitting on the bench, being unhappy with the sport, and
facing the often unwelcome reality that they need to find something else to do.
Are the kids having fun? Sometimes, but it's mixed in with a lot of anxiety and paranoia. You can imagine them thinking this: If I don't stay in the starting line-up, especially after all the money Mom and Dad have poured into my private lessons, are they going to be disappointed in me?
Meanwhile, the coaches create a paranoid atmosphere around the team, often not giving the kids any real idea of whether they will be starters next season but instead leaving everything a mystery. So the kids keep practicing harder and getting better so the team gets more skilled, so the coaches are better positioned to win more games, so they can keep their relatively nice jobs
making pretty decent money considering it's basically fun and a control trip to coach kids because you decide who plays and who doesn't.
The kid is caught in this adult maelstrom of madness. Are they having fun? For the most part, not all that much. But I will say this. When I have pushed my son in recent years to practice more baseball, which he has sometimes done so reluctantly, it has resulted in him playing exceedingly well. I asked him whether he enjoyed last baseball season during which he excelled.
He said he did. He likes playing well. It's more fun.
But what ends up happening is kids keep going and going on the athletic treadmill until one day they decide they're not having fun playing the sport, which is sad because that's what playing a sport is supposed to be about. Sometimes they stop playing as early as sixth grade. The attrition
accelerates during high school as competition intensifies. For some kids they stop having fun and for others they're just not good enough and can't keep up.
Sports careers end. Kids move on, go to college, get jobs (some as coaches no doubt because it's a good living), and talk about their youth sports days. In too many cases, I suspect, they don't remember the joys of playing the games but rather the frustrations dealing with their parents and coaches. To this day, even in a different era, I feel emotionally scarred by all the negative commentary and screaming my high school basketball coached inflicted upon me. My coach, like too many today, knew he could ride his personal power trip controlling kids because he decided who played and who didn't. Because I wanted playing time desperately because sports formed so much of my identity and ego back then - and the coach knew this -- I had to endure whatever psychological abuse he felt like unloading.
In too many cases, the system has broken the kids' spirits. But the parents aren't the only ones to blame and they get too much of it. Coaches are at fault as well. What's needed is for coaches to trust parents more, ask about their insights about their kids, use them as sources to help
them coach more effectively and, most importantly, make the experience more fun for the kids. They should collaborate more with parents rather than alienate them. Avoiding parents, treating them like the enemies, makes parents distrustful of coaches and sours the dynamic. They become less inclined to support what the coach decides. More open and consistent communication between parents and coaches would tear down the walls of distrust and acrimony that have been erected for too long.
Most parents are not monsters about their kids. Most are reasonable and realistic about them even though they naturally root for them over all other kids. To reduce the tension, coaches should embrace parents much more than they do. Parents don't want to meddle as much as they want their kids to be happy. I wonder often if coaches are more interested in keeping their
comfortable coaches jobs, winning, and being in control than making sure their players are enjoying themselves. Too often, I believe, coaches aren't as interested in the happiness of the kids as they are the happiness of themselves. They are to blame as much as, if not more so, than parents for kids not enjoying playing sports as much as they should.