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Is Your Kid's Sports Coach Building Team Spirit or Shattering Self-Esteem?

Summer is almost here, and with it come the ill-fitting baseball uniforms, iodine swabbed skinned soccer knees, and a load of sports uniform laundry that will keep the washer going continuously until September. Legions of children sign up for summer sports across the country and enjoy the benefits of exercise, fresh air, and personal goal-setting and challenge. Setting up a child in a habit of exercise is a huge benefit in itself. But for some children, summer sports may wind up being a miserable time that builds frustration rather than character. Who sets the tone for the summer and manages the balance between a self-fulfilling or self-defeating experience? The youth sports coach, of course.

While the media portrays only the most extreme examples of coaches crossing the line - the Pennsylvania coach that paid a kid to hit an autistic boy with a ball to keep him from playing, or the coaches from Utah that orchestrated a win by setting up a child who was a brain cancer survivor to strike out - the line between good coaching and coaching needing parent involvement is usually not as clear.   “Was it okay for the coach to use that tone?” “The coach is manipulating the line up so that kids hardly play at all.” “The coach has the whole team staying after the lost game to do extra push-ups and sit-ups.” These are the more common scenarios that force parents to question, “Do I step in and confront or help my child work it out him or herself?”

To make the picture even muddier, researchers say that there is an interweaving of coach behavior coupled with a child’s own feelings about sports that play into the relationship.  From about ages 8 to 12, peer comparison, how a child feels he or she measures up, is perhaps the strongest factor in determining how a child feels on a team or while involved in sports. Feeling unattached to the team, low moral decision making among the team, and witnessing sports violence are also factors that lead to low sports self-concept. So, it may not just be the coach using harsh tones and criticism that affects a child long-term, but whether or not the criticism is directed toward distancing the child from other players in a negative way. If this behavior happens repeatedly toward particular children on the team, it signals limitations in the coach’s ability to manage stress, to balance pressures to win with the job of team-building, or to deal with personal issues that might find their way onto the soccer field or basketball court.  

According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a non-profit organization that provides education and training toward positive sports activities for children, the standards for coaching behavior and communication toward children are clear – coaches have a primary role of creating a positive environment that leads to challenge and fun in youth sports.  Sportsperson-like coaching should lead to a child’s enthusiasm to play more, not to quit the team.

Faced with that decision about whether or not its time to confront the coach for a particular behavior or pattern of conduct, the following questions might help point out some of these more challenging situations:

1) Are criticisms of playing skill given in a way that alienates a child from the rest of the team?

2) Does the coach give the child a chance to prove him or herself or get better via more playing time, or does the coach widen the skill gap by “benching” the worst players for most of the season?

3) Are kids discouraged from talking to parents about their reactions to the coach, for example, calling them “crybabies” if they talk to parents?

4)  How does the coach respond to a loss?  Are specific team members forced to “pay” for the loss with excessive physical tasks or with public “shaming” in front of the team?

5) Does the coach expect team building among the players themselves, or does he or she repeatedly allow players to target a less -skilled player with ridicule?

Not every day on the baseball field or hockey rink is a good one, but the end of the season should leave your child with a high score for self-concept and feeling like an important part of the team.


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