American families spend anywhere from $100–24,000 per year on youth sports for their kids. This isn’t a mistake, as anyone that played youth sports for the duration of their childhood will tell how much of a lasting impact there is into adulthood. Sports are an amazing vehicle for personal growth and life lessons at a critical development stage for children.
And parents are willing to shell out the big bucks to make sure their kids have a good youth sport experience.
For the sake of this article, let’s define “youth sports” as participation in a competitive team sport for kids ages 5–18. While high school sports are in many ways a separate entity, the responsibilities and issues are just as pervasive (if not more so) at the high school level.
Prior to college athletics, there is a measurable social dynamic between the coach, the parents, and the athlete. We’ll give it a shiny name and call it “The Relationship Triangle for Youth Sports”. That’s largely what we’re going to examine; the impact of relationships between the roles, and how devastating it can be to all parties involved if a member of the coach-parent-athlete relationship neglects their duties or attempts to fulfill the duties of another role.
Let’s face it: the stakes are much higher in youth sports than we may want to admit.
Forget about scholarships because those only apply to 1% of athletes. The truth is, strong experiences in youth sports lead to better lives for the participants. The stakes are high and the season goes quickly.
We’re going to take a look at each role in the Relationship Triangle for Youth Sports individually, the responsibilities of the role, and then discuss how a role can f&%* it up for everyone else if they neglect their role’s responsibilities.
Let’s also take a moment to presuppose a few things about youth sports so that we’re all on the same page:
For the sake of this article we can assume:
- The parent you are picturing very much loves their child and wants the best for them.
- The child you are picturing likes sports and isn’t being forced to play them.
- That even if you haven’t loved every coach you’ve had, that the one you’re picturing is (objectively) competent enough to perform the job.
- That my goal with this article is to improve the individual relationships relevant to youth sports. I’m not purposely bashing any one category of it.
- Winning is important. The well-being of a child always takes precedence over winning, but winning still matters.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the roles of each member of the triangle:
The Child’s Role
The child is the performer, which is the role being analyzed most often. If youth sports were a business, the children would be the employees. As such, their performance on the field, personal growth, and relationships with teammates (among other things) would be viewed by the other 2 roles in the triangle as the “products”. Both roles are continually working to improve the products in different ways, hoping that by the end of the season, they will achieve their goals.
Other than choosing to be on the team and being good teammate, the role of the child is simply to give their best effort at all times.
Responsibilities of the Child:
#1. Internalize the spirit of competition.
Learning to win and lose gracefully is a life skill. Winning matters. Children that can’t internalize this should seek out more appropriate activities or participate in intramural sports.
#2. Internalize the fundamentals of competitive sport (see The Coach’s Role).
Children must know how to treat others properly, play the game correctly, and strive to develop intangible skills like work-ethic.
#3. Give their best effort.
Children, just like adults, can’t be expected to give 100% everyday, but should strive to give the best they have each day. Even when life gets in the way, level of effort is always controlled by the child.
The Coach’s Role
The coach is the leader of the team- period. This is not negotiable. Because this is true, it’s his or her right to make judgment calls and decisions regardlessof the opinions of others. It’s up to him if he factors in the opinions of others. If youth sports were a business, the coach would be the CEO of the company.
The coach’s job is to get the team to maximize their performance- period. Decisions should always be made from that lens. Generally speaking, the coach’s individual choices should not be analyzed under a microscope. His or her performance should be evaluated based off a broad body of evidence, usually at the conclusion of the season.
Responsibilities of the Coach:
#1. Teach the fundamentals of competitive sport:
- Competition– How to win, lose, and accept role on team.
- Skill Development– The fundamental skills needed to excel in a given sport. In basketball, layups and free throws would be examples of fundamental skills.
- Sportsmanship– How to treat opposing players, teammates, officials, and the coach.
- Work-Ethic and Character– Putting children in situations where they are forced to dig deep and do more than they thought possible, and teaching children that one’s character is defined by who they are when no one’s looking.
- Commitment To Excellence– Doing things right the first time. Teaching kids that if you want to succeed, they must commit to doing the little things incredibly well.
#2. Communicate with parents.
Other than developing the fundamentals of competitive sport, communication to parents must be a priority of the coach.
It is imperative that you establish strong lines of communication.
You will undoubtedly breed confusion and resentment against your biggest support system if you don’t.
Don’t like talking to parents? Don’t think it’s worth your time? Then don’t coach. You have to like working with people enough to deal with them.
Know a lot about the sport you coach? You’re an expert. Know how to get athletes to do what you ask? You’re a teacher. Know how to keep parents in the loop? You’re an effective communicator.
Combine an expert, a teacher, and an effective communicator, and you’ve got a good coach.
#3. Share coaching philosophy with the community.
The leader of the team should share his or her coaching philosophy and vision for the season with parents and athletes from day 1.
What is the goal of the season? What should parents expect by the end of the season? What is your goal for the kids? What does winning mean to you?
Without sharing your vision, the best you can hope for is the blind leading the blind to success. The worst you can expect is a team and group of parents that don’t believe in your ability to lead. And why would they? They have no foundation to interpret why you operate as you do.
Share your vision so everyone can get behind what you’re doing.
#4. Provide a medium for feedback, and be open to receiving it.
At the end of the day, coaching is a job. In every job you’ve had since high school, accepting feedback has been crucial to your development. Coaching is no different.
It is not only your responsibility to be open to other perspectives, but to provide your preferred medium for receiving feedback to children and parents. Whether it’s email, phone calls, or chats after practice, establish firm boundaries; this is the only time/place/setting that parents are welcome to solicit suggestions on how your team or an athlete may perform better. Kindly refer them to your preferred medium when parents deviate from it.
The Parent’s Role
The parent is the support system for both child and coach- in that order. Whether that support comes from providing transportation to practice, encouraging their child, or communicating effectively with the coach, undivided support should be the essence of all of their action. If youth sports were a business, a parent would be like a member of the board of directors.
The support a parent offers is so essential to the triangle that good coaching and child development cannot happen effectively and consistently without it.
Responsibilities of the Parent:
#1. Support the child.
Get your child to practice on time. Celebrate her after a big win, and emotionally support her when things don’t go the team’s way.
#2. Support the coach.
Know the coach’s vision, buy into it, and reference it during times of adversity with your child. Support the common language you hear the coach using most often.
Treat your child’s soccer season as if it were a marriage- you (and your spouse) are “married” to the coach of the team. Understand that the coach’s goal is the same as yours, which is to be successful. Accept that he or she is going to try to accomplish that goal differently than you might.
Truly, supporting the coach is just as much about what you don’t do as what you do. The moment you start talking negatively about the coach in front of your child (agreeing with your kid or enabling gossip counts), you break the relationship triangle, possibly for good.
Just because you played soccer in college does not give you permission to overrule or publicly disagree with the coach’s judgment. Your experience could be an asset to the coach in many different ways, but ultimately it is up to the coach whether they choose to utilize your skills.
#3. Communicate concerns by asking real questions.
Inevitably, concerns will arise. The magnitude of them will differ, but they will come. You love your kid too much for them not to.
It is your responsibility to deal with your concerns like an adult. If you choose to ask the coach questions, ask questions that will allow you to take control in a supporting role.
For example, “I’m trying to understand your reason for not playing some of the reserve players last game. Is there anything we can do be doing at home or that Michael could practice on weekends that could lead to more playing time?”
Disguising a diss as a question to your coach is not appropriate. Sending an email like, “Can you explain why Dylan isn’t playing more?”, is not a question. It’s disrespectful, selfish, and unless the coach has the spine of a jellyfish, it won’t help Dylan see the field more. “Questions” like this do a mediocre job of hiding the fact that you don’t believe the coach knows what he’s doing.
Use phrasing like, “I’m trying to understand…”, “What can we be working on?”, and “How can I help?”
#4. Respect the coach’s preferred medium for feedback.
Respect the coach’s boundaries and use his preferred medium for receiving feedback about the team. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like writing emails and would prefer to call him after work. It’s a fair compromise, because again, it’s not about you.
If the coach doesn’t communicate a preferred medium, offer to help support him or her by setting one up.
Where The Disconnect Happens
The Child F&%* All Up When…
The adults in the Relationship Triangle don’t put him or her in a position to succeed.
Yes, this means that the child can’t directly break the triangle. They wholly rely on the two bases of the triangle to coexist harmoniously. Their behavior on the field is usually a mix of the coach’s leadership style, the parent’s attitude, and their own unique personality.
Look, some kids are a pain in the ass and make things difficult. I feel comfortable saying that after 9 years of coaching. But being difficult to deal with is not the same thing as being responsible for the whole system falling apart.
If the coach and parents do their jobs and serve their roles well, the child will have a successful youth sports experience.
The Parent F&%*s Everything Up When…
#1. They try to play the role of coach from the sidelines or the driver’s seat.
There should only be two separate instances where coaching happens: at practice and when in-game adjustments are needed. In the case of the latter, adjustments are made between the leader of the team and his players.
Coaching should not happen from the stands in the middle of a game. It should not happen 15-minutes after a tough loss on the car ride home. Regardless of your emotional state, it’s about how your kid will feel the moment you open your mouth.
You are allowed to give feedback. But do your child a favor and don’t do it during games. Don’t do it15 minutes after on the car ride home when your child is still emotionally attached to what just transpired. Ask first if it’s okay to talk about, and then have a conversation… the day after.
Here’s why this is important:
Children lack the ability to internalize multiple corrective cues at once.
This is a relevant part of their development until they are at least 16 years old. How often have you seen coach yell something, then dad yells the same thing, and still nothing happens? The coach gets frustrated, while the dad sits in the stands thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with him? Why isn’t he fixing it?”
Because he doesn’t think like you do. Not because he won’t- because he can’t.
It doesn’t take much yelling before your son isn’t even focusing on the game anymore. Instead of worrying about his defensive stance, he’s thinking about how embarrassing it is that he’s been yelled at 3 times in the span of 2 minutes by people twice his size, how stupid he is, and how one of his ruthless middle school buddies are going to tease him for it tomorrow at school.
It’s not about how you feel- it’s about meeting the athlete where he or she is at developmentally and, sometimes, socially.
#2. They justify loving their child when making poor decisions.
Youth sports are a unique circumstance where loving your kid too much can actually hurt them. Parents must keep their unconditional love at an arm’s length when making choices about how to handle situations. Be objective and rational. Don’t be afraid to let your kid handle adversity on his or her own.
For example, the coach and athlete should have a relationship that isn’t interfered with by parents. Don’t speak for your child if he has a question for the coach. Encourage them to initiate the conversation themselves, especially if it’s a difficult conversation to have. Support them through it by practicing the conversation at home.
It’s a unique phenomenon because parents do this kind of thing believing it will prevent their kids from experiencing pain. The action comes from a loving place. But without a healthy dose of objectivity and a willingness to dole out some “tough love” for your kid, he or she will miss out on an amazing opportunity to grow.
#3. They prioritize their child’s needs over the team or bring money into the equation.
$24,000 a year for youth sports is no small sum. Parents have proven they are willing to pay for high quality sport experiences, and at least in America, those figures are only increasing.
But in youth sports, as in business, everything has a market. You can’t justify complaining about your child not playing if everyone else paid the same amount of money, just like you can’t buy a brand new car at sticker price and go back to the Toyota dealership after 2 months and demand leather seats.
Here’s the truth- you made a choice to pay. If you put yourself in a hole financially doing so, that’s on you. Maybe a tough pill to swallow, but letting money cloud your judgment on what should happen for your kid in sports is wrong. Paying to play buys you nothing more than a spot on the team.
#4. They make youth sports about themselves, or overcompensate based off their experience with sports.
We’ve all met the superstar dad that goes a little too far, thinking Jr. is going to have the crack at the big leagues that he never did.
For every crazy sport parent story you hear on ESPN that creates the Julian Edelmans of the world, there’s a thousand other adults reminiscing on how an overbearing parent ruined sports for them.
Here’s a fool-proof question that will determine if you’re overdoing it with your child:
Who initiates or drives the conversation more often about the sport your child plays- you, or your child?
If they are equally as invested as you are, the answer will be about equal- 50%. Anything more than 50% from the parent is too much.
The Coach F&%*s It AllUp When…
#1. They lack empathy.
What you were as an athlete goes along way to determine what you’ll be as a coach. People innately resonate with people that remind them of themselves. If you were the star athlete, guess which athletes you’ll naturally relate to the most?
It is your job as you grow into your role to do all that you can to learn about how your other kids perform, too. How do you motivate a timid child if you were the aggressive bruiser on the team? I don’t have that answer, but it’s your job to find it. Empathize with all your kids and learn all that you can about how they experience the world around them.
Empathize with your parents, too. It’s not easy to watch your child sit on the bench. Don’t play them if they aren’t ready just to make mom happy, but empathize with where she’s at when you talk through the decision with her.
#2. They lack a growth mindset.
A coach that is unreceptive to feedback or dismissive of other’s opinions does not belong in coaching. The “my way or the highway” drill sergeant coaching style died in the 1970s, and for good reason.
By the last day of the season, you should be a different coach than you were on day 1. Challenge yourself to make 1% improvements on even the most perfunctory tasks.
Lead by example and your team follow. They’ll be less afraid of failing if you show them it’s okay to fail.
#3. They try to take on the role of parent.
Your job isn’t to support or be a cheerleader. You are the leader. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
- Stop giving out atta-boys or atta-girls like candy.
- Respect your athletes by giving them specific, corrective feedback that actually changes their behavior. Don’t sugarcoat the fact that they aren’t performing the skill correctly.
- When you say “good job”, mean it. Kids are the ultimate sniffers of BS- they always know when you aren’t being straight with them.
A coach that says he treats all his or her athletes the exact same is a shitty coach– period. Another point for empathizing with your kids. Don’t pick favorites, but absolutely reward and set particular kids up to shine when they earn it.
#4. They make it about themselves or overcompensate based off their experience with sports.
The moment you start thinking about your own self-glorification as a coach, you’ve lost.
Coaching is servant leadership. You are the facilitator of experiences that a group of kids will never forget as long as they live. Facilitation, not manipulation.
If you’re serious about coaching, it’s okay to say you want to win a state championship- but don’t operate from that. Determine (and constantly tinker with) the best process for building up skilled, strong children for your chosen sport. Let your ever-evolving process lead you to that goal.
The Relationship Triangle for Youth Sports does not work if the parent tries to be the coach, the coach tries to be the parent, the parent believes their judgment is better than the coach’s, or the coach lacks empathy and communication skills.
The child is never responsible for the system breaking, even if he or she is a royal pain in the ass.
To all the coaches out there, this is not about you. To all the moms, dads and legal guardians that put their kids in sports, it’s not about you either.
Youth sports, from ages 5–18, are about building strong and skilled kids and teaching them lessons they’ll carry with them forever. As such, the stakes are incredibly high and the learning curve is even steeper.
Remember that your behavior will make or break your child’s experience with sports.
Know the responsibilities of your role in the Relationship Triangle, and execute on them to the best of your abilities. Your kids will do the rest.