Parents: You Are the First Coach
At first, it was some friends of mine who are teachers complaining about how unprepared some of their incoming students are. You know, that handful of little ones who should have some basic skills taught by their parents, yet show up to first grade completely lacking in certain areas that are entirely the parent’s responsibility. Thanks to mom or dad not holding up their end of the bargain, these kids become the boat anchors of the class, tend to be the most misbehaved, and drive the underpaid, underappreciated teacher nuts.
Then, as an observant father, I began to notice something just as damaging.
As my children are getting a bit older (8, 6, and 4 years old), they are all trying different sports. My son, the oldest, has played baseball, basketball, flag football, soccer, and done gymnastics. My middle child plays soccer, softball, and gymnastics and my youngest does gymnastics and is chomping at the bit to do the team/ball sports. All three are showing reasonable levels of natural ability, and the older two tend to be the best players on their respective teams. Is it because my wife’s and my genes are so superior that we are breeding super athletes? That would be great if it were the truth, but I know it’s not the case.
The reason my kids are outperforming most everyone on their teams is because we practice their sports with them on days they don’t have formal practice. You know, we play catch. I rebound for my son and shoot around with him. My wife kicks the ball around with my girls. We encourage them to do cartwheels in the living room. I throw the football with all three of them in front of our garage. We take an active role in the lives of our kids. Weird, right?
You Don’t Know the Game? Neither Do They
What I am seeing among many of their little teammates is that the parents of their teammates are doing absolutely zero with those kids away from practice. And that sucks. Before you begin to throw a hissy fit about how you don’t know anything about soccer, have never played basketball, or would almost certainly break your neck if you tried a handstand, I have a little secret for you: I don’t either, I never have, and without a doubt would end up in the hospital alongside you. It’s not an excuse.
Both my wife and I were scholarship athletes in college. I played college football for Eastern Kentucky, and my wife played volleyball for San Jose State. We’ve both maintained an association with our respective sports—she coaches club and high school volleyball, and I am a strength coach at the local university. Neither of our two sports are represented in the above listing of my kids’ sports. Okay, my boy plays football, but flag football. I was a center for 13 years. So when they teach drive blocking for flag footballers, my son will definitely have an upper hand. We are simply two parents doing the best we can, with limited knowledge. The only secret we have is that we show up and play, regardless.
Keep Score, or Put on a Glove
Those of you who think that you are doing your child a service by not keeping score in their games; that winning and losing isn’t for kids, and it’s all about fun, I have one thing to tell you: You are dead wrong. This isn’t some sociological or political position, or an attempt to incite an argument. This is coming from a dad who watches not only his son and daughters, but the sons and daughters of others interact with one another, during and after games. They all ask what the score was. It’s innate for someone who plays a sport to establish a winner and loser. They do it on the playground when we all aren’t around, so we are basically making ourselves look like fools to our kids when we attempt to justify the silly reasons no one is counting points.
Listen, I know the intent of not keeping score is to save our kids the weight of defeat. None of us want to see our kids hurt. But what about the kids who have next no experience in the sport they are trying, who may get the feeling that they are the worst player on the field? Think that doesn’t cross their mind? Think again. My son’s basketball team is a mix of first and second graders. Many of them, regardless of age, can’t get the ball high enough in the air to get it to the hoop. That isn’t a lack of talent, that’s a lack of repetitions. That responsibility falls to the parent more than the coach, especially at this age, due to the fact that they only “practice” once a week.
If you are going to sign your children up for these activities, you better be prepared to practice with them.
Whatever pain you are saving them by not establishing a winner or loser is only being replaced by the cold hard truth that their lack of practice is making their lives considerably harder for them among their teammates. Kids are brutal. They tell the truth, most of the time. I’ve seen it countless times: that one kid who is totally a fish out of water gets teased, or worse, ignored by the rest of the kids on the team. 99 % of the time, if that kid’s dad would put on a baseball glove and simply play catch with them, he’d save them the humiliation of being the worst kid on the team.
Almost All Youth Coaches Are Not Coaches
They are just some wonderful moms and dads who are literally taking one for the team. My wife was the head coach of my daughter’s softball team, and my son’s soccer team. She played softball in high school, but never played soccer. She was just a mom who stepped up to make sure that the league had enough teams to carry on a season. So, she did what most youth coaches do, and faked it all season.
If you are a parent who is sending their child off to some coach and team and expect to see monumental improvements over the course of the season due to the coach’s tool box of drills or level of expertise, you are in for a major letdown. I have assisted every year on my son’s baseball teams, his basketball teams, and one of his flag football seasons. Like any self-respecting strength and conditioning professional, I coached hustle, good listening, and great effort. I teach that because it’s all I know. Our current basketball coach is a contractor, so if we are teaching the boys how to pour concrete, we have the right guy. But instead we have a dad who loves his son so much that he’s taking on the responsibility of coaching something he knows very little about, so his boy can have a team to play on.
It’s not your kid’s coach’s responsibility to teach them to throw, catch and swing. It’s yours.
What’s even more disturbing are the parents who push their kids to play these sports, then do nothing to compliment it. Maybe they think of it as cheap daycare, or a way to buy them an hour or so of freedom each week. Those kids really pay a price. Driving them to practice, bringing a snack bag for everyone once every two months, and cheering at the games isn’t enough.
Don’t Be a Dream Killer
Maybe your kid’s success in sports just doesn’t seem that important to you. After all, only 1-2.6% of high school athletes playing one of the big three sports (football, basketball and baseball) will receive a Division I athletics scholarship. From that bunch, 9.7% of baseball players will get the chance to play in the pros, whereas football and basketball plummets to 1.1-1.6%. But is that reason enough to blow off of the parental responsibility to go outside after work and play some Around the World with your eight-year-old? Not at all.
My son loves basketball. We are diehard Warriors fans. I’ll never forget last year’s NBA Finals, when in game 7, it became obvious that we were about to lose. My son looks over at me with only a couple of minutes left and simply says, “DAD?!” The tone and tremble of his voice made it crystal clear to me that he was suffering.
See, he has it in his mind that he’s going to play in the NBA. Now, he’s a white kid from San Luis Obispo, whose mother is 5’4”, and whose father is an ex lineman who still weighs the same as he did his junior year in college. The proverbial deck is completely stacked against him. But do you think any of that is going to keep me from going out and shooting hoops with him? As you might imagine, the answer is an overwhelming “no.”
Your Kids Need Your Coaching
Our kids get denigrated as “just being kids,” or told they have a lot to learn. But on the contrary, the only difference between us and them is experience, and the jadedness that we all carry from watching dreams fall to the roadside. In fact, they have something that we all lost somewhere along the way on our journey: faith in themselves.
If you are going to put your kids in youth sports, the $200 sign-up fee is just the beginning. They need you to take part, take an interest, and participate beyond a ride to practice and a mom in a team sweatshirt on gameday. They need us to make our best attempt at participating and helping some good folks just trying to do an acceptable job. Get off of your ass and do the best job you can playing catch, kicking the ball, or swinging a racket. Not all of our kids are going to be the starting shooting guard in 2033 for the Golden State Warriors like my son is, but you never know.
We're handicapping our kids by shielding them so much: