American families spend anywhere from $100–24,000 per year on youth sports for their kids. This isn’t a mistake. Most people that played youth sports can tell you how much of an impact they have into adulthood.
Sports are a vehicle for personal growth and life lessons at a critical development stage for children. Parents have proven they are willing to shell out a lot of money to make sure their kids have good experiences.
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 we’ll discuss 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 Youth Sports Triangle”.
We’ll primarily 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.
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 seasons are over in the blink of an eye.
Let’s 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 very much loves their child and wants the best for them.
- The child likes sports and isn’t being forced to play them.
- Even if the parent doesn’t love their child’s coach, the one in the triangle is competent enough to perform his/her job.
- The goal of this article is to improve individual relationships in youth sports so that all parties flourish. Not to bash one category of it.
- Winning is important. The well-being of children 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) are viewed by the other 2 roles in the triangle as the outcome or “products”.
The parent and coach work to improve the products in different ways. The goal by the end of the season is improvement and growth.
Other than choosing to play sports and being a good teammate, the child is most responsible for giving 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, like adults, can’t be expected to give 100% everyday. They should strive to give the best they have that day.
Even when life gets in the way, level of effort is always controllable 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 regardless of 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. Decisions are 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. This evaluation usually takes place at the conclusion of the season.
Responsibilities of the Coach:
#1. Teach the fundamentals of competitive sport:
- Competition- How to win, lose, and accept a role on the 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- Ask children to do more than they thought possible. Teach children that one’s character is defined by who they are when no one’s watching.
- Commitment To Excellence- Do things right the first time. Teach kids that if they want to succeed, they must do 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.
The coach doesn’t like talking to parents? Then they shouldn’t coach. They must like working with people enough to deal with them. Remember:
- A coach that knows a lot about their sport is an expert.
- A coach that can get athletes to do what they ask is a teacher.
- A coach that keeps parents involved is an effective communicator.
An expert, a teacher, and an effective communicator make 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 by the end of the season?
- What should parents expect to see by the end of the season?
- What does winning mean to the coach?
Without sharing their vision, it will be the blind leading the blind. This often leads a group of parents to believe the coach can’t properly lead their kids.
And if the coach provides no foundation to interpret his actions, why should they?
A good coach shares his or her vision so everyone else can get behind it.
#4. Provide a medium for feedback, and be open to receiving it.
At the end of the day, coaching is a job. Accepting feedback is crucial to a coach’s development.
It is a coach’s responsibility to be open to other perspectives. It is also his or her responsibility to provide a preferred medium for receiving feedback.
Whether it’s email, phone calls, or chats after practice, the coach must establish firm boundaries. This is the only time or setting that parents are welcome to solicit feedback on the team or their athlete.
It’s a coach’s job to refer parents to their 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.
Support includes providing transportation, encouragement, and communicating with the coach. Undivided support should be the essence of all of their actions.
If youth sports were a business, a parent would be like a member of the board of directors.
Parent support is so essential to the Youth Sports Triangle that good coaching and child development cannot happen without it.
Responsibilities of the Parent:
#1. Support the child.
The parent should get the child to practice on time. He or she should celebrate him or her after a big win, and emotionally support their child when things don’t go their way.
#2. Support the coach.
The parent should know the coach’s vision, buy into it, and reference it during times of adversity with their child. Listen for common language you hear the coach using most often, and reinforce it at home.
Treat your child’s soccer season as a marriage. Understand that the coach and parent have the same goal, which is to be successful.
But remember, he or she may try to accomplish that goal differently than you might.
As a parent, supporting the coach is as much about what you don’t do as what you do. Speaking negatively about the coach or enabling gossip in front of your child can permanently break relationships within the Youth Sports Triangle.
Parents with experience in a sport should not overrule or disagree with the coach’s judgment. Your experience can be an asset to the coach, but it is his or her decision whether they choose to utilize your skills.
#3. Communicate concerns by asking real questions.
Inevitably, concerns will arise when you are the parent of a student-athlete. The magnitude of them will differ, but they will come. There is too much at stake.
It is the parent’s responsibility to handle their concerns like an adult. They can do this by asking questions that allow them 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 be doing at home or that Michael could practice on weekends that could lead to more playing time?”
Don’t disguise a diss as a question. Sending an email with, “Can you explain why Dylan isn’t playing more?”, is not an appropriate question.
It’s disrespectful, selfish, and probably 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 is doing a good job.
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 on the phone after work.
This is a fair compromise. Remember, youth sports are 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&%*s It All Up When…
The adults in the Relationship Triangle don’t put him or her in a position to succeed.
This means that the child can’t directly break the triangle. The child relies 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.
Some kids are a pain in the ass. It might feel like things would be easier if they would stop behaving a certain way. After 9 years of coaching, I feel comfortable saying that.
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 It All 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 coach and his or her players.
Parents should not coach their child from the sideline in the middle of a game. They should also not discuss a child’s performance 15-minutes after a tough loss.
But parents are allowed to give feedback and coach their child. Please, do your child a favor and don’t do it during games or on the ride home. They are emotionally attached to the outcome.
First, ask the child if it’s okay to talk about. 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.
So when coach and dad both yell out corrective cues and nothing happens, don’t be surprised.
And when the coach gets frustrated, and dad sits in the stands thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with him? Why isn’t he fixing it?”
Know that it’s not because it won’t, it’s because he can’t. He doesn’t think like you do yet.
And 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.
He’s thinking about how stupid he is, and how one of his middle school friends are going to tease him about it.
Youth sports are about meeting the athlete where he or she is at developmentally. Playing the role of coach and parent messes everything up.
#2. They justify loving their child when making poor decisions.
Youth sports are one instance where loving your child too much can 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, especially if it’s a difficult one. 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.
Parents must be objective. They must be willing to dish out some “tough love” for their kid, or they 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.
You can’t buy a brand new car and go back to the Toyota dealership after 2 months and demand an upgrade to leather seats.
This might be a difficult truth, but you made the choice to pay. If you put yourself in a hole financially doing so, that’s on you.
Allowing money to cloud your judgment is wrong. Paying to play buys you nothing more than a spot on the team.
#4. They make it about themselves.
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 a Julian Edelman, there’s thousands of 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 All Up When…
#1. They lack empathy.
What a coach was as an athlete usually determines their coaching style. Humans innately resonate with others who have had similar experiences.
If the coach was a great athlete, guess which members of the team they’ll naturally relate to most?
It is a coach’s job as they grow to do all they can to learn about how all the members of their team perform best. How should the coach motivate a timid child if they were the aggressive bruiser on the team?
I don’t have that answer. It’s the coach’s job to find one.
It’s also his or her job to empathize with parents. It’s not easy for a parent to watch their child sit on the bench. The coach shouldn’t play them if they aren’t deserving just to make mom happy, but should empathize with her situation.
#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, the coach should be a different person than one day one. He or she should challenge themselves to make 1% improvements on even the most perfunctory tasks.
Kids will be less afraid of failing if they know their coach is willing to fail.
#3. They try to take on the role of parent.
A coach’s job isn’t to support or be a cheerleader. They are the leader of the team, and should always say what they mean and mean what they say.
- Don’t give out atta-boys or atta-girls like candy. They should make children earn praise.
- Respect your athletes by giving them specific, corrective feedback that actually changes their behavior. They shouldn’t sugarcoat the fact that they a child is not performing a skill correctly.
- When coach says “good job”, they should mean it. Understand that kids smell BS from a mile away. They usually know before the coach does if they did a good job or not.
A coach that says he treats all his or her athletes the same is not a good coach- period. This should be expressed to his or her athletes.
#4. They make it about themselves.
The moment a coach begins thinking about his or her own self-glorification, they’ve lost.
Coaches should understand that coaching is servant leadership. They are meant to facilitate experiences, not manipulate children or circumstances.
It’s okay for a serious coach to to say they want to win a state championship. But they should not operate from this place.
The coach should determine the best process for building up skilled, strong children for their chosen sport. Tinker with the process constantly. This ever-evolving process should be the focus that leads to a championship.
There is a social dynamic between parents, children, and coaches that can maximize or ruin a child’s participation in youth sports.
The Youth Sports Triangle does not work if the parent tries to coach, the coach tries to 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.
Coaches, this is not about you.
Moms, dads, and legal guardians, 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 incredibly steep.
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 children will do the rest.