Your son tosses the game-winning touchdown pass, so of course you want to pump your fists and cheer like a maniac. Or your daughter hogs the ball on the soccer field and you’re inclined to shout your disapproval and ask if she could please pass the ball already.
When you’re the coach, though, it’s all eyes on you. And if you’re sticking your kids in marquee positions, chances are someone in the stands is not happy.
It’s a tough line to walk for parents, who make up the majority of coaches working with the millions of kids playing youth sports every year. And as these volunteers navigate the challenges of coaching their own children, they’re under more pressure than ever from other parents clamoring for playing time, improved performance and those hard-fought wins.
“It’s a lot of work and it can be exhausting, especially when you have a parent that’s not happy,” says Liz Hocker, 41, who has coached her 10-year-old daughter’s softball team in Austin, Texas, for the past five years in a competitive league.
“My philosophy is that my daughter needs to work hard and show that she should be out there playing the position I put her in,” she said. “I try very hard to treat her like every other player, as much as I can.”
Parents who sign up to coach appreciate the experience because it’s (usually) fun and creates dedicated time with their kids.
Ideally, they’ll do it all while treating their child like every other player. After all, favoritism can cut both ways: For all the grousing about the coach’s kid getting this or that, coaches are more inclined to treat their own kids more harshly or demand more from them on the field than the other way around, experts say.
“It’s just natural they would be tougher on them,” said John Engh, chief operating officer of the nonprofit National Alliance for Youth Sports, because a father is used to talking to his own child more directly and is likely to use his son as an example for the rest of the team.
Most parent-coaches do a good job being fair with positions and playing time, said Frank Smoll, a sport psychology professor at the University of Washington and co-author of “Sport Psychology for Youth Coaches,” a how-to guide due out in September.
To avoid even the appearance of unfairness, Hocker has benched her daughter in the first inning of the first game. Rick Kay, who has coached his two sons and a daughter, ages 19, 17 and 10, in baseball, soccer and basketball, also sat his kids out more.
“I went out of my way to play my kids less than I felt they deserved to play because I didn’t want that to be an issue,” said Kay, 47, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. The other kids “see that he’s out and hopefully understand that everyone has to sit out at some point.”
Having a parent become a coach can be confusing for kids, and parents should make sure the separation of those roles is clear, said Smoll.
Before the season begins, set ground rules with your child, he says, and meet with the other parents to explain your philosophy and expectations.
“Parent at home. Coach at practices and games,” is Smoll’s motto.
Ask your son or daughter to call you “Coach” on the field. “That helps, in the child’s mind, to solidify the role separation,” Smoll said.
Engh suggests a rule against talking to your kid about practice or a game on the way home. “No one else has to hear it from the coach,” he said.
When it comes to positions and playing time, Smoll said they need to be earned. Relying on statistics can help with the tough decisions, but there may be injuries or absences to contend with.
For children, criticism is always difficult to hear, especially when it’s mom or dad talking. Experts recommend enlisting good assistant coaches and relying on them to talk to your child if there’s a problem.
And at the end of the game, your kids need to know you love them, regardless of how they played.
“It’s ‘I love you because you are you, not because you’re an all-star,’” Smoll said.