Overcoming the Challenge of Being a Parent and Coach to a Young Athlete

When you love a sport and also have a family, chances are, one of the most defining moments of your life is that in which you discover that your son our daughter shares your passion for your sport and you gleefully enroll them in their first classes and competitions. As your child grows and develops a keener interest in his/her sport, you start having to face challenges you perhaps never considered in the early days. Everyone has bad days; a child may refuse to work as hard as they can during a training session, display little commitment to the team or even express little interest in an important match. The problem is only exacerbated, of course, when you are their parent and their coach, for your duties are not only to your child but also to the team as a whole. Research has proven, however, that although being both coach and parent is not for the faint-hearted, it is definitely something that can be achieved if you are willing to be honest with yourself and your child. These are just some tips shared by coaches of young athletes.

1. Know yourself: Before biting off more than you can chew, take the time to sit down and really think about who you are and about your strengths and weaknesses as both a coach and parent. Will you honestly be able to separate your roles as parent and coach? One useful golden rule to live by is: be a coach on the field and a parent everywhere else. You need to be extremely disciplined and be able to stick to strict rules, such as not discussing errors committed during a game during family meals, and not bringing up personal problems on the field. The latter, especially, can be highly detrimental to a child, who should not have to address family issues in front of fellow athletes.

2. Know your child: Is your child cool, calm and collected or are they quite emotional? It takes a very confident and mature little child to be able to take instructions and even a little chiding from their coach, without taking it personally. If your child is already struggling with their self-image or undergoing a stressful period (this might be the case if there has been a loss in the family or if parents are undergoing a divorce), it may not be the ideal moment to coach them. If you decide to go ahead and do it, you ought to be prepared for the fact that the child may be more likely to snap or to take criticism less objectively.

3. Make sure your child has the chance to pursue other sports and interests: Make sure your chosen sport is also your child's. Give them the opportunity to try out other sports as well, to ensure they aren't playing your sport simply because they feel pressured to do so.

4. Give them a break: Most young athletes have the chance to rest from a sport after the season is over; does your child? Not allowing children to take a break from a sport can lead to burnout; if they rest for a month or two, they are far more likely to come back to their sport with a surge of renewed energy and interest.

5. Once you have decided to take on the role of coach, do your duty by the team as a whole: A coach has many roles which parallel and overlap with those of a parent. One of these lies in drug prevention. A coach has a specially important role in the latter, for many reasons. First of all, a coach spends a considerable amount of time with children and adolescents, which bestows him/her with an excellent opportunity to tackle an issue which unfortunately finds its way into many sports: substance abuse and performance enhancers. Secondly, athletes are often looked up to at school; they are therefore role models for others, which is another reason why it is important that they remain drug-free. Coaches can enhance their role in drug prevention in many ways; first of all, they need to lead by example. Secondly, they need to clearly state to their team that certain habits will not be tolerated. Thirdly, they can enlist the role of the team captain, and even have speakers talk to children and adolescents about substance abuse. The topic can be sensitive when a parent is a coach, as their child can feel like their parent is using training sessions to 'preach' to them. Yet by asking interesting speakers to enlighten the team on the importance of a healthy lifestyle, it will soon become apparent that all athletes need to take health, sport and wellness seriously. You should also feel free to establish rules regarding sound nutrition and exercise, to boost the team's performance.

6. Stay positive: The old adage that winning isn't as important as how you play the game may not always feel true, but young children should not feel pressured to win. While it is important to have goals that the team as a whole can pursue, winning needs to be placed in a healthy perspective and the coach should show that he/she values aspects like the effort placed, teamwork and faithfulness to the strategies and tactics established. Above all, the coach/parent should always be positive, even in the face of loss. Positive reinforcement has been found to boost the enjoyment of sport and self-esteem; surely, these two objectives are some of the most important reasons for pursuing a sport in the first place.

7. Be fair to your child: It is important to check yourself constantly to ensure you are not being unfair (by being too lenient or too tough on your child).

8. Be prepared for the challenge: Brace yourself for the fact that although you may be ready to be parent and coach, your child is younger and may find it difficult to understand some of your decisions and to differentiate your roles as parent and coach.

– Jenni Falconer

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