Volunteer coaches mean well, but they don't always do well. Here's
how to handle the worst.
by: Rick Wolff
Most youth league coaches are kindhearted volunteers. These
women and men try hard to make sports enjoyable and rewarding for
But some coaches can be dictatorial, disorganized, or sneaky. Concerned parents should watch out for difficult coaches as carefully as they watch for problem teachers.
Here's a look at some of the most worrisome coaching types and how to deal with them.
THE DRILL SERGEANT
You've seen this one: He runs practices and games in a strict, no-nonsense fashion. He benches or chastises players for making a mistake. His philosophy seems to be "The only way to have fun in sports is to win -- all the time."
Children take their sports seriously enough without this kind of pressure. Under the Drill Sergeant, your child is apt to play all season motivated by fear of losing or making a mistake. Good coaches say that the kids who are having fun on the field are the ones who win, not the other way around.
What to do: If you know before the season starts that your child has a Drill Sergeant, try to move the child to another team right away. Don't wait; once team rosters are set, it's hard to make changes. Tell the league's commissioner that you think it's best for your child and the coach.
Coaches who act like drill sergeants can terrify young players.
If the coach is in charge of an elite team or you can't get a transfer, try talking with the coach in a nonconfrontational way. If that doesn't help, talk to your child. Say that coaches are different-this coach especially so-and that she shouldn't let the coach's harsh methods bother her. If you can't get the coach to act like a mature adult, maybe you can get your child to be the grown-up.
This coach takes winning too seriously, but he knows better. Early on, he tells the team: "If I raise my voice during the game, please understand that I'm just yelling because of the excitement and because I want you to play well."
This disclaimer given, the Screaming Apologist feels he has carte blanche to berate umpires and to verbally abuse players during the game. Once the contest is over, the coach is all smiles and sweetness again. Meanwhile, your kid starts to flinch at the thought of playing for this maniac.
What to do:
Give the coach a chance. Explain, in a quiet, private discussion, that you're concerned about his outbursts. Many coaches will change their ways when they realize someone is watching. If the coach says he can't control himself, try moving your child to another team.
THE BIG LEAGUE KNOW-IT-ALL
As you might suspect, this is the coach who wants all the players to do everything precisely the way he says to. That can be a problem, especially if your child wants to try a different approach-say, a batting stance that feels more natural to him.
Most big league ballplayers will tell you that there are many different ways to hit a baseball. Some batters choke up. Some take long, looping swings. As long as it works, it's okay. There will be plenty of time in junior high and high school to hone techniques to perfection. At younger ages, it's much more important that kids just enjoy playing the game.
What to do:
If you see the storm clouds gathering on your kid's face when a coach insists, "Hold the bat this way!" speak up. Remind the coach that when a child is nine or 10, his individual style of holding a bat or dribbling a soccer ball really doesn't make much difference.
My son wanted to try switch- hitting when he was eight. One of his coaches told him no, he should swing right-handed only. I saw the disappointment in my son's face, so I asked the coach in a calm, direct manner, "What better time to learn how to switch-hit? Why discourage him now?" The coach got my point.
Every community has one. This is the coach who looks for every loophole in the league rule book to make certain his team is the best. There's often some politicking or eligibility-rule bending to stack his team.
During games, the Conniver might order his weaker hitters to try to get walks, instead of swinging away, or encourage his kids to heckle their rivals. This does happen.
What to do:
Again, speak up. Find out how teams and players are selected before the league coaches and commissioner get together to go over rosters, and make your suspicions known. If the season has already started, talk with other parents who share your concerns and, as a group, send a letter to the commissioner, specifying the incidents.
THE CASUAL COACH
Believe it or not, the Casual Coach may do more to take the fun out of your child's athletic experience than any other type of volunteer coach.
Letting the kids have fun is great, but being too casual is a problem.
At the start of the season, he tells kids and parents that "all that matters to me is that everybody has fun." While that may sound promising-and good coaches live up to that promise-the Casual Coach uses it as an excuse. He doesn't take time to organize practices ("Let's just scrimmage again, okay?") and routinely arrives late or misses practices and games. This coach doesn't really teach skills. He doesn't keep track of the players to make sure they all get to play different positions and get similar playing time.
Before long, you'll find your child's enthusiasm for the games and practices drooping. Why? The coach's lax attitude has given youngsters on the team the message that they don't need to care either.
What to do:
Offer to help. Tactfully tell the coach some of the things you think should be happening and why, and add that you would be glad to assist him in any way you can. Remember, your object is for your child to learn skills and have a chance to enjoy using them.
Rick Wolff has written widely on the subject of sports psychology and kids, including his 1993 work, Good Sports: A Concerned Parent's Guide to Little League and other Competitive Youth Sports. Wolff played minor league baseball with the Detroit Tigers' organization and has served as the psychological coach for the Cleveland Indians baseball team.