By: Dean Ehrenheim
Youth sports can evoke many images…good and bad. I remember an “Aha!” moment that reminded me about the true nature of sports. My second son was playing center field on his first T-ball team. He had his game face on. He anxiously bounced back and forth from one foot to the other, just waiting for the kid on the other team to whack one out his way.
Then it happened. The ball was hit and bounced out near the unmanned pitching mound (remember, this was T-ball). The ball dribbled out past second base into center field. Trevor snatched up the ball and readied his throw. But he stopped in mid-swing. Without moving his lips, his body language shouted, “What the heck?” Then I looked at his target. Why was anyone surprised… the first baseman was chasing a butterfly and oblivious to any baseball game being played. The runner passed by first without a challenge. Then Trevor looked to his next mark, second base. There sat his second base players, twin girls scooping up dry dirt in their hands and making perfectly shaped pyramids. Runner rounded second. By this time, Trevor, clever 4-year old that he was, saw the reality of the situation and began running after the hitter, arm stretched out, ball in glove, racing to make the tag. By this time it was too late and the hitter gained, what I am sure, was his first infield home run. Frustrated beyond belief, Trevor dropped the ball, slapped his leg with his glove and walked back to center field pushing his chin into his chest and shaking his head the whole way.
It couldn’t have been scripted any funnier. I learned that day that T-ball was not about baseball. T-ball is backyard fun for kids and parents. Of course it should teach the fundamentals of baseball (hitting, catching, running), but for kids it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about having fun! After seeing this episode, I realized what a challenge these parent coach volunteers had in coaching T-ball. It was like herding cats.
Coaching your child in T-ball has its own set of challenges and is very different from coaching your children in more sophisticated levels of athletics.
I was able to help coach my two oldest sons in high school swimming. I enjoyed having that shared experience and felt I could help them reach their potential. But I was not their main coach and felt awkward sharing too much information with them at meets and practices. They were good about dad helping out, but as my little T-ball outfielder Trevor, now 21, said to me the other day, “I don’t know that I was always ready to hear what you had to say back then.” And it was true, not bad nor good, just true.
It is important to determine if coaching your child will build that great experience sports can create.
One parent coach success story is track and cross country coach Tony Rowe of Daviess County High School. He coached both of his boys at County. Not only was he “dad,” he was a productive coach, having 10 Kentucky State Championships and numerous individual state champions.
Mark Rowe is currently following in dad’s footsteps and has coached track and cross country at Owensboro High School since 2010.
“I liked running for my dad. It was an exciting time and I didn’t know any other way,” Mark said. “I knew if I ran I would run for him. My best memories are cross country and track meets growing up.”
Coaching when things are going great is easy. But when your child athlete hits an athletic plateau, things could be strained.
“I know it had to have been tough at times for my dad,” Mark said. “Especially my senior year; I didn’t run as strong as I had hoped. But we both worked through it together.”
Coach Rowe says, “I tried not to put too much pressure on my boys. I tried to be dad at home and not talk too much about running there.”
Second son Matt, now coaching with his father at Daviess County, mirrored the comments from brother Mark, but added, “On those times when you just think your Dad (coach) is being too hard on you because you are his kid, you just have to learn to brush that off– I mean don’t take it personally.”
Remember, it’s their memory and experience you are trying to shape. For those ready to step into the parent coach role, here is some ordinary advice to consider:
Separate the Parent from the Coach
Don’t bring the game or practice home. Make sure when you leave the field, pool, court or track you take some time to shift gears into parent mode.
Treat Your Child Fairly
Parents know more about their own kids than they do other kids. Don’t use that against them. Allow them to be kids and act like kids. Even though your expectations may not be unreasonable, you can’t expect perfection all of the time. The natural tendency may be to push them harder because of that special insight. Don’t treat them differently because they didn’t make their bed; don’t focus on what happened in the ‘parent world’ when you are coaching.
Talk Openly with Your Child
Treat your child like an athlete. But also explain that there may be times when the roles between parent and coach become blurred. Allow your child to respectfully share when they believe that is happening. As coach, you have an opportunity to watch and shape your child like no other time, but creating good communication is essential to benefit from this opportunity.
Establish Rules of Conduct
Part of communication is establishing some clear expectations. One coach set a rule that any parent who yelled at an umpire would get their kid benched. That meant, even as coach, he couldn’t yell at the umpire because he didn’t want to bench his own son. In addition, make sure you set those same clear rules of conduct for your child and for you.
Keep First Things First
Remember your primary role is parent. Don’t let anything interfere with that. Keep in mind that sports are an experience for the kids and they should enjoy that experience. If you can coach and help create that positive experience– all the better. These memories, good or bad, will be for a lifetime.