Training Your Child Athlete? 5 Essential Coaching Strategies to Consider

As parents, we take on many different roles in our children’s lives – teacher, chauffeur, and even boss in a family-owned business. Every day, we keep our children safe and coach them in important life lessons when opportunities arise. So why not take on the role of coach for your child’s sports team? After all, you are going to all the games and practices. Without parent coaches, many little leagues would simply not survive.

Coaches play a critical role in the life of a young athlete. Listen to any Sports Hall of Famers acceptance speech and you will hear many tearful references. These references to coaches who inspired, supported them on their path to success.

Coaches often take on a surrogate parent role and can change a youngster’s life in profound ways off the court. Coaches are community builders; without sports, fundraising and celebratory events that go along with them, communities and neighborhoods would lack energy and purpose.

Past Research

Much has been written about parent-coaches, and the topics range from the very basic question “Is it a Good Idea to Coach My Child’s Sports Team?” to the more advanced, “How to Coach Your Elite Athlete Child.”

In his article, “Should I Coach My Child?”, Larry Lauer, Ph.D., tackles the subject from a research-based perspective. However, Lauer tells us that having a parent-coach experience with your child can enhance your child’s athletic performance significantly. This is because you know his or her strengths and weaknesses better than anyone.

Over time, the parent-coach relationship can strengthen the parent-child bond, lead to new friendships for you and your child, and create a lifetime of happy memories when handled well. 

3 Parent-Coaches Who Made a Difference 

Earl Woods

Iconic golfer Tiger Woods credits his father’s early coaching of him with his professional career success, writing in his father Earl Woods’ memoir Training a Tiger (1997), “The best thing about [my early year] practices was that my father always kept it fun. It is amazing how much you can learn when you truly enjoy doing something.”  

Jim Rapinoe

Jim Rapinoe, father of World Cup Women’s Soccer sensation Megan Rapinoe once told reporters, “I was one of her first coaches by default for three years.

If I didn’t coach her nobody else would in those days, it was hard to gather a girls’ team together but I along with a few of the other fathers formed a team.

Walter Gretzky

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s father Walter coached his son as a sideline parent, building backyard rinks every winter developing exercises and drills, instilling strategic hockey insight into Wayne, and accompanying him to most games.

Knowing you have a child interested in and maybe super-talented in sports is one thing; successfully taking on the role of coach to your child or child’s team requires careful planning, reflection, and training.

Yes, coaches need coaching, too. No doubt, jumping into a coaching experience without some education, experience, or mentoring – formally or informally – can lead to disastrous results or long-lasting negative effects for you and the child-athlete.  

Thankfully, first-time and veteran parent coaches don’t have to endure these drawbacks or go it alone. Let’s explore some strategies recommended by experts:

Five Essential Strategies to Consider for Parent-Coaches

1. Familiarize yourself with coaching theory

Information, and certification are available online, in a classroom, or by way of the many books and articles written on the subject. Safe to say, coaching ultimately combines aspects of many disciplines: psychology, management & leadership, parenting, life mentoring, fitness consulting, medicine and social diplomacy.

Familiarize yourself with coaching practice.

A toolbox full of theory, tips and tricks is needed. The Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) offers online modules for as little as $15.00. Starting as an assistant coach provides a good hands-on training opportunity.

2. Communicate

Have conversations throughout the season with your child-athlete, the rest of the family, other parents, and members of the team.

To other parents, describe your interest and background in coaching, your commitment to safety and fair play, and the expectations you have of them as supporters of their child-athletes.

Communicate with your child

With your child, explain how you plan to separate yourself as parent/coach and remind them that you can’t be showing the same level/type of affection you show at home.

That any criticism you extend to them is as a coach and related to their behaviour on the field or court, not who they are as a person.

Communicate with your spouse

With your spouse and other family members, explain what the commitment of being a coach entails in terms of time, and ask for their support.

Invite them to become a member of the team family, as game helpers, event volunteers, and cheering fans.

3. Reflect on Your Coaching Experiences and Challenges.

From time to time, solicit feedback from your assistant coaches, or other coaches you know well (even if they coach other sports, the challenges are similar).

Have someone videotape an entire game so that you can view and assess your game behaviour and interactions with players, officials, scorekeepers, fans and others. Depending on what you see, seek out relevant coaching lessons or tutorials.

Knowing the age group of the athletes you will be coaching will help you understand their level of competitiveness. Ask your players how many years have they played sports, it may be helpful to group some experienced kids with others new to the sport. There is no wrong time to get kids involved in sports.

4. Hire assistant coaches to help manage team dynamics. 

In the height of competitive play, it’s easy to lose track of player substitutions, and make sure all players get equal time in the game. Assistant coaches can be assigned this task.

Same for sitting down with players to offer constructive criticism – this is especially true if your child is the target. Parents will be less likely to accuse you of unfair coaching practices when they see other coaches sharing in the tough tasks of assigning starting positions or remedial coaching.

Other uses of an assistant coach

An assistant coach can also be designated as the team point-of-contact for administrative questions related to practices, equipment, scheduling, etc., allowing you more time as head coach to focus on reviewing gameplays, strategy, tournament registrations, and individual player development.

5. Above all, have fun. 

Participating in sports is one of the most entertaining, exhilarating and satisfying experiences a person can have in life. Participation in sports helps to develop skills that will last a lifetime. These skills spill over positively into non-sport life – at work and home.

Tiger Woods said that he continued to play golf year after year since age 3 because it was passion. 

Wayne Gretzky’s father knew he had to keep the fun in the game when planning practice for his son.  

Know the Basic Drawbacks of Parent-Coaching

  1. Your child may feel extra pressure to perform well, sensing higher expectations from endless hours you spend talking. Also strategizing about games, practices and tournaments with him and others.

  2. Your child may feel isolated from team-mates who are reluctant to talk to your child for fear that what they say will get back to you. This dynamic creates a different player experience

  3. The arrangement can lead to family conflicts on and off the field or court of play, with your spouse (who may not agree with your coaching style or the amount of time or resources it takes from family life), or other children in your family who don’t get to share the same parent-coach experience with you

  4. Your child may experience role confusion and stress when you are in the coaching role, not understanding angry outbursts or criticism aimed at him or her. Confused by the lack of usual displays of love and affection shown at home. This is especially true for young children

  5. Your relationships with other parents may become strained, particularly if they perceive that you favour your child with more playing time or attention, starting lineup or team captain designations.

By the title Coach, the authority and respect comes along with it. Coaches are looked up to as leaders, and role models. How you view the game in your head and your heart is how it will play out in real championship games.

The decision to become a parent coach is a big one and should not be taken likely. Will it be a winning experience? You can make it so – thankfully, the world of coaching is well-supported with resources and mentors, regardless of sport or experience.

Yet, thinking about becoming a coach? Get started…same as what you would tell your child- athlete – jump in, learn the ropes, practise, learn from mistakes, and have fun. Do it now – a little league team is waiting!