Coaching Your Own Child

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Coaching Children - My Experience Coaching My Own Child

This article appeared in the Dugout Newsletter in January of 2003. If you enjoy this article, I hope you'll consider signing up for the free monthly newsletter. You can sign up here.

There are many reasons people get involved coaching children: A love for the game; a long playing background; a desire to give something back; or sometimes it's simply that there are no other volunteers. Another reason and probably the most prevalent, is the desire to coach your own children. There are some coaches who want to coach their kids so they can develop them into the next Derek Jeter or Roger Clemens. If that's you, then I'm sorry, but you are doing it for the wrong reason and more than likely it will damage your relationship with your child. Most of us want to spend quality time with our kids doing something that we enjoy and helping a community need. As most parents, we want our children to be successful on the field and in the interaction with their teammates. Our goals for our children aren't any different from the other parents of kids on the team, but there is a difference in the role we play. As a coach we have taken on a different role with our child and that role of coaching children doesn't always fit squarely with our other role of supportive parent.

To Coach or Not to Coach?

Since my two boys started Little League, I have coached one of them each year. Coaching children has been a great experience for me and my kids have been really excited to have their Dad be their coach. In the spring of 2002, I was trying to figure out if I was going to coach my older or younger son. As most parents I was trying to figure out the fairest way to make the decision. It wasn't an easy decision and I was having a difficult time deciding because both of my kids were lobbying hard that I should coach their team. As it worked out the decision was made for me by my oldest son. A few weeks before the season I took him and a couple of his friends to the field to play catch and hit the ball around a little bit. His friend was worried about the increased competition that year as they were going to be the youngest players in the division. As we hit, I worked with my son's friend and he was a sponge, taking in everything I said and trying it out. It was a lot of fun for me to work with him. Then it was my son's turn to hit. Well, he got up to the plate and took a few swings and didn't connect. Not only didn't he connect, but everything looked off balance. As I tried to work with him on correcting some problems, it became apparent that he didn't want my help. He proceeded to tell me that he had been playing baseball a long time and knew how to hit. I tried to tell him that I understood that he knew how to hit, but even college and professional players have coaches to help them with all aspects of the game. It didn't seem to matter how I stated it, he didn't want my help. I got home and told my wife that the decision was made; I would be coaching my youngest son this year. I didn't tell my oldest son why I had come to that decision, but I was convinced that it would be difficult to have the role of coach when my son didn't want to listen to anything I said. By not coaching him, I thought I had basically solved the problem and this stage he was going through would only last a year or two.

Not Coaching Didn't Solve the Problem

I really believe that while not coaching him that season made the season easier, it certainly didn't solve our issues. He wanted to pitch (which he had never done before) and his coach had no experience teaching pitching mechanics. He struggled to get the ball over the plate the first couple of practices. I asked him if he would like to work on it with me. He said he did because he really wanted to pitch. We went out to work on pitching one evening and it was about as successful as the batting practice. He wanted to do it his way whether successful or not. I got frustrated and he got mad. He stomped into the house saying that "I never let him try anything" and "I'm always telling him what to do".

I think it would have been easy for me to blow off those statements as an exaggeration by an 8 year old, but I will never forget that I felt the exact same way towards my Dad when I was young. I won't go into the details here, but that feeling really affected our relationship when I was growing up and as you can imagine it didn't bring us closer together. I got to the point where I wanted to do the opposite of what my Dad said, just because I didn't want to admit that he was right and I was wrong. With my own son, I wasn't sure what to do. The one thing I was sure about; I knew that I didn't want to go down the same path that I did with my Dad.

After some thinking and talking it over with my wife, I made a couple of decisions. The first was to give him some space. The second was to get some advice. I talked the situation over with some close friends and I also went online and purchased a couple of books dealing with youth athletics and started reading. What I learned from all those sources helped me gain a better understanding of why I was having a difficult time with my son.

Expectations

The first thing I realized was that my expectations were different from those of my son. I didn't remember what it was like to be a young kid playing baseball. Not that I couldn't remember, I just didn't think that far back. I remembered what it was like to be a high school and college player. I remember how baseball instilled in me a number of values that I believe helped me in school, in life, and in athletics. Dedication; hard work; perseverance; were just a few of the important things that I learned while playing. These are the life skills that I hope my kids will also learn as they grow and I believe athletics provides a great opportunity to learn. The key word there is 'will'. I was getting so involved in trying to help him be successful; I forgot he's only 8. When I look back at myself at 8, hard work wasn't in my vocabulary. I played baseball for the pure joy of it. I didn't work on anything. I played and improved because I played a lot and had a good time. I watched my son the next couple of practices and saw that he wasn't concerned about his swing or his throwing mechanics. He played hard and was mainly concerned about having a good time and playing with his buddies. Baseball was exactly what is was supposed to be for an 8 year old.

As I thought about that, it made me think of how my son and I used to play ball in the backyard all the time. I also realized he hadn't asked me to play in awhile. My inability to take off my coaching hat and just have fun had affected more than just me trying to coach him, it also affected our ability to just have fun together.

Emotions

By taking a hard look at what had happened, I also realized how easy it is to become emotionally over involved in your child's sports. The first time he got on the mound to pitch, I was really nervous for him. I thought it was something he really wanted and I was afraid he was going to fail. I think that's one reason I wanted to work with him on his pitching. He told me he wanted to pitch and as his parent I wanted him to be successful. I felt my intentions were good, but motivation must come from within. You can't force kids to be dedicated, they have to learn it. It's funny how I want him to learn about perseverance, hard work, and dedication, and yet I wasn't giving him the space to learn. I always wondered why some parents become so emotional when they're at their child's game. I think by coaching kids and my son up to this point, I was shielded from many of the emotions that parents go through as they watch their child. I was simply too busy coaching kids to have time to focus on every move he made. I've never thought of myself as a controlling person, but the sense of having no control while watching my son's game was more difficult than I imagined.

Aligning My Expectations

I now realized that my expectations didn't match up with those of my son. In addition, my focus when I watched him play was on him succeeding at my expectations. No wonder I was so worried about him pitching that day. Since my expectations had been focused toward competition, I felt bad when he didn't do well that day. I thought he would be discouraged and not want to pitch anymore. When I asked him how he liked pitching after the game, he said he really liked it and thought he did pretty well. It's funny how the comment of a child can sometimes catch you off guard and make you feel stupid about worrying. That's how I felt when he told me about his experience. He didn't expect to get on the mound and strike everyone out. He just wanted to try it out. He felt good about the experience and that made me feel good about it also.

Sports provide opportunities to learn many lessons. After that game I decided to turn my attention to benefits that would be more aligned with what he wanted to get out of playing. I decided to try and support him by emphasizing those benefits. Here are a few that I think are important:

  • Positive thinking
  • Respect for coaches, umpires, teammates, and the rules
  • Dealing with winning and losing
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership

This list will probably be different for each child and parent; for me, these were items I felt wouldn't require me to push him to perform at a higher level. Since that is what started us down the path, I wanted to make sure I didn't complete the circle and end up back to where I started.

Communication

A couple of days after that game, I felt confident enough to have a talk with him and to tell him what I had been thinking about. The first thing I told him was that I was sorry for the way I had been trying to help him. I told him that he was right about me not letting him try anything and that I would try to do better. I let him know that I enjoyed playing in the yard with him and I hoped we could start playing again with the goal of having fun. I also told him that I would try not to coach him unless he asked me to. I wanted to let him be in control of the situation.

He's In Control

After our talk everything went really well. I felt that our relationship was back on the right track. We started playing in the yard again and even though it was tough, I managed to play and have fun instead of coach. A few weeks later, he asked me why his coach hadn't put him in to pitch anymore. I told him that he had pitched twice and both times had a difficult time throwing strikes. I told him he probably wouldn't get another chance unless he could show his coach that he had improved and could throw the ball over the plate. I left it at that and a couple of hours later he asked me if we could go out in the yard and work on his pitching!

When we got out in the yard I asked him why he thought he was having a tough time throwing strikes. He said he didn't know. I said I thought maybe he was off balance and suggested a game to work on it. I had him pause at the top of his leg kick to make sure he was balanced and then throw the pitch. I'd call balls and strikes and tried to act like a real pro announcer. It was really fun.

We did this for a couple of weeks and added a few more fundamentals along the way. He then asked his coach to give him another chance at practice. He did much better and his coach let him pitch in the last game of the season. He pitched pretty good in that game and I was really happy for him.

Once I stopped pushing, he ended up learning something about perseverance and dedication after all.

Conclusion

Many parents with good intensions let youth sports drive a wedge in the relationship they have with their child. I hope, if nothing else, this article has given you motivation to think about the relationship you have with your own child. Take a step back and see if your expectations and interaction are age appropriate. If not, make a change in your approach. You may think that your child could be the next Roger Clemens or Derek Jeter but you must keep in mind that the odds are against you. Only 1 in every 100,000 kids that start playing baseball will make the major leagues. Every one of those kids will want and should have a good relationship with their parents. Make sure that athletics is something that binds you together and doesn't split you apart.

Side Note

I coached my older son in 2004 as a 10 year old and what a difference two years made. By not coaching him for two years, he was really looking forward to having his Dad be his coach again. We talked about our relationship as father and son as well as coach and player before the season began. We agreed to both work on keeping those relationships separate. We went over what had gone wrong in the past and we both agreed we didn't want those same problems to happen this time. We both were able to hold up our end of the bargain and we had a fun season together, both as a coach and player, and father and son.