A recent Washington Post “On Parenting” column counseled a baseball-coaching dad whose 9-year-old son was whining, interrupting and throwing tantrums during practice and games to reconsider coaching his son. How sad.
Allow me — a mother of two boys who played recreational youth baseball for a total of 16 years and whose father, my husband, was their parent-coach for nearly all of those years – to suggest some alternatives.
What is a whiny, tantrumming kid to learn if dad stops coaching him? That his father, who has volunteered his time to be with not only his son but a bunch of other baseball players, will give it all up and consign his son to someone else’s team just because the kid complains? The columnist suggested that the child would not act out with another coach. I respectfully disagree. It appears this child has not learned how to manage himself even with his father on the field. Is it reasonable to assume the kid will change his spots completely with another coach? No.
“The opportunity this parent-coach has before him is to work on a couple of key mental skills that all children will need to develop through their sports participation,” said Dr. Caroline Silby, a nationally noted sports psychologist. “These include focusing on what he can control, respect for his coaches, teammates, and the rules of the game, navigating ‘imperfect’ feelings like disappointment and stepping outside of his comfort zone.”
What about loyalty to the son and to the team? If the father decides not to coach, the child learns that whining trumps loyalty. That’s no lesson. Surveys show that 90 percent of youth sports are coached by parents. Recreational sports leagues would fall apart without parent coaches. And that doesn’t take into account the legions of parents who drive carpools, keep score, take care of uniforms, and play one of the most important roles off the field – No. 1 fan.
First of all, the 9-year-old player is just that – a player – when he is on the field with his teammates. A father CAN be “dad” at home and “coach” on the field. He has to be. If a child cannot grasp the difference, even at 9 years old, he will never understand how people can fill different roles depending on their job. (Think bus driver vs. carpool driver, for example, and how a mom can fill both jobs. If a mom let her kid whine about his seat on the bus, she would lose control of the bus. And she probably can’t just quit that job or make her kid ride a different bus). The same is true for the coaching dad. He needs to set rules for all of the members of the team – and enforce them – for his kid and the others. If those rules include not interrupting the coach when he is talking, anyone who talks receives the same treatment – whether that is being benched for an inning or running laps around the field. Pretty soon, they all will get it, including his son.
Parent-Coach Teaches Fairness Is Fundamental
This all assumes that the parent-coach treats all team members fairly and does not play favorites with his son or anyone else. That’s hard on a dad. Fathers love their kids and want to give them everything they can. But on a baseball team, each player gets a position depending on his ability to play that position, nothing else.
That’s difficult for a 9-year-old to understand, according to Silby. To a 9-year-old, “fairness” means exactly equal, she said. “A quick conversation about providing opportunities for each player that fit with that player’s needs for development could allow the child to see his situation, the coaching situation and the meaning of ‘fairness’ very differently,” she said.
In the Post example, the son wanted to play second base. Fine, if he is reasonably competent at that position. If not, he should play somewhere else and PRACTICE at second base until his skills improve. Who knows, the kid might discover that playing catcher is more fun. Or that he’s a better outfielder than he thought. Success improves self-esteem and diminishes whining and tantrums. Win-win.
Practice Is Opportunity for Learning
Practice is the key to most everything on the baseball diamond. My kids’ dad-coach used to counsel, “You play like you practice.” In other words, if you concentrate and work hard during practice, you will concentrate and work hard during games; and that usually brings better results. Silby says turning the son-player into a motivator on the practice field will also improve the relationship with his dad. For example, she said, the player can spread enthusiasm to his teammates or model mental toughness by NOT breaking down if he is disappointed. That will earn his dad-coach’s respect (and maybe a little reward for working on his attitude).
The exception to the rule is if the player has advanced so far along in his sport that he needs the kind of training that an expert coach can provide, rather than the father-volunteer coach. But that usually doesn’t happen until the player is older than nine.
Parent-Coach Develops Special Relationship
Above all, there is the special relationship the dad establishes with his son by being his coach. The son learns his dad is generous with his time, cares about the team and works hard to gain success. Observation is the best teacher. The son and his dad can discuss strategy on the way to and from games and the father can share his knowledge and insight about a game he loves. And the son can help his coach too, by telling him things like his teammate Timmy or Joey would really like to try pitching, but is too shy to ask. Those shared conversations go far beyond the field. It becomes “our team,” as opposed to “my team” or “your team.”
And someday, when the son grows up, he can coach his own kid in the sport that bonded him to his dad when he was only nine.