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How to deal with over-competitive coaches

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Teaching sportsmanship

What is the best way to deal with an over-competitive coach? Team sports are in important part of the lives of many children. It helps kids stay active, learn about teamwork and sportsmanship, and it's just plain fun. It also helps kids learn about competitiveness - hopefully appropriately.

Over the years - and a couple dozen teams between all the kids - we've seen a wide range of competitiveness, and competitiveness in coaching. From the non-competitive "let's just have fun" coach to the completely over-bearing, yelling at 8 year olds as if they were professional athletes, we've seen it all. The best coaches of all were somewhere in between, balancing supportive coaching and encouragement with a healthy attitude about sportsmanship balanced for the specific age group. But sometimes, when the coaching reaches that over-bearing and inappropriate stage, something has to be done. How do you know when it's time to do that?

Look for and interpret the signs

Most kids will have a less than perfect experience with a sports team at one time or another. Often, those are situations to just push through, stressing a commitment to the team, and so on. But sometimes there are signs that the situation is more serious than that.

One of the most obvious signs is that your child begins to exhibit negative emotions and signs of stress over something that was previously enjoyed. Not wanting to go to games, tears, stomach aches, and even verbal resistance are big signs that something is not right, and if they repeat game after game and become even more intense - well, it's a big warning sign.

Talk with your child more extensively. Why, exactly, are they resistant to the team and the games? Did something specific happen? Has there been belittling, yelling, favoritism?

Look to see how other kids on the team are responding to games, perhaps asking other parents. If there are other kids exhibiting similar signs, it is - at the very least - reassuring to you and your child that there is a bigger issue there.

Try to sit closer to the team bench during games to ascertain what is going on. Listen without interfering to try to observe the team and coaching dynamic. Is the interaction between players and the coach something you are comfortable with?

Check the league guidelines for the age groups. Many leagues have very specific rules and regulations about coaching at various age levels, with increasing levels of competitiveness as the kids move up in the league. Is the coaching meeting this standard?

Initial approach

If after all this, you determine that there's a problem, you next have to decide how to deal with it.

The easy thing is, of course, simply removing your child from the team and the league. I personally view this as a last resort, because I also want to balance the desire to reinforce the idea of teamwork and commitment to a team.

Try talking to the coach, but do so carefully. You don't want the conversation to be instantly adversarial. You could start by asking to talk to the coach about his coaching philosophy and how he came to be a coach of kids in this age group in the first place (usually because of his own child on the team). Then you can express your concern about how it's going and how your child has been unhappy, and so on. It can be a great opportunity to express to the coach ways in which you child responds to coaching the best, and things that could help the situation. Diplomacy is essential.

Sometimes a coach, in their excitement, forgets that they are coaching little kids and maybe doesn't realize how they are being interpreted. A simple conversation like that can turn things around.

If that doesn't work

Sometimes, however, it doesn't work. If the problem persists, it may be time to go up the chain of the league. Start with the organizer immediately above the coach, and again, take care how you express your concerns. Make sure you indicate that you have tried talking to the coach, and you still have concerns. Again, a bit of diplomacy is essential.

What happens from here is highly personal. If there is no improvement, you may need to pull your child from the team. The coach, in turn, may get defensive toward you. While I have found that most coaches are reasonable in the end, there's the odd one who, well, isn't. If you at least are aware of this possibility from the outset, it can help you decide how to handle the situation. I can handle a grumpy (former) coach - my child's health and happiness is my priority.

After the situation cools down, you may want to consider getting involved in league administration yourself. Kids sports leagues are usually all-volunteer organizations and perhaps could use your skills and point of view in improving the league for all the kids involved - and keeping kids team sports the fabulous outlet and learning experience it should be.

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