Being a parent-coach presents a unique set of challenges. Coaching is all about relationships, but sometimes the relationship between a parent and child poses different demands to that of an athlete and their coach. Balancing both can be difficult — particularly in team environments, where we must strive to be fair not only to ourselves and our child, but to their teammates. But there are ways to navigate this pathway and be an effective and impartial parent-coach.
Below, we present five tips for successfully coaching your own child.
Set the Boundaries between ‘Parent’ and ‘Coach’
Perhaps the hardest part of being a parent-coach is needing to have two different, completely separate relationships with your child. To be an effective coach to your child (and a fair coach to their teammates), you cannot be their parent at practice or on gameday. And to be a good parent, you must endeavour not to bring your coaching home with you.
Disconnecting these two distinct relationships can be immensely challenging, but there are a few practical tips to help you separate the roles of parent and coach:
- Avoid talking about your sport on the way home: if your child wants to discuss practice or the game, that’s fine, but avoid bringing it up yourself. Treat the car journey as family time, and talk about other things.
- At practice, you are ‘Coach’: or whatever name the other athletes have for you. But not ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’. This helps to reaffirm the coach-athlete boundary, while also showing your child’s teammates that they aren’t receiving preferential treatment.
- Don’t over- or under-play your child: this can be tricky. Objectively determining whether your child warrants more or less playing time than one of their teammates — and striving not to overcompensate in either direction — is hard for all parents. If you’re in an environment that permits it, a policy of equal playing time could remove a lot of the pressure on you both.
- Leave practice in the past: whatever happens at practice or on gameday should stay there. Sometimes outcomes might leave us or our child feeling disappointed, but these emotions should never come home. A parent’s love is always unconditional.
Another significant challenge for parent-coaches can be managing a wide range of different expectations — primarily those of their child, their child’s teammates, other parents, and their own. As coaches, we must understand the many competing interests and concerns held by the various stakeholders involved in our team, and strive to ensure that everyone feels valued and acknowledged.
Managing Expectations with Your Child
Managing our child’s expectations, and those of their teammates, can be a delicate balancing act. While, at home, our child may be used to receiving the majority of our attention, at training and on gameday we must treat all of our athletes equally.
Once again, though we must be careful to avoid perceptions of favouritism towards our own child, it’s also important that we don’t overcompensate and be overly harsh in our treatment of them, or overlook them when their behaviours or actions merit positive attention.
This can be a difficult line to tread; if we’re too ‘easy’ on our child, their teammates may notice and resent it; but if we’re unjustifiably hard on them, they may struggle to understand our behaviour, or feel like they’ve been treated unfairly or neglected.
Similarly, we must be consistent in how we treat our child when they exhibit negative behaviour. It’s likely that our response when they misbehave at home is different to that when one of our athletes breaks the rules at training. But when our child misbehaves in front of their coach — whether at training or on gameday — they must be treated the same as their teammates.
In these instances, it could help to receive a second opinion, perhaps from an assistant coach or another parent, to help us determine if how we treat our child is consistent with the way we treat other athletes on our team. This fairness and consistency is integral to adequately managing the expectations of our child and their teammates.
Managing Expectations with Other Parents
Managing the expectations of other parents can be equally tricky. Some parents will also be looking for signs of preferential treatment towards our own child — perhaps in how we allocate the team captaincy, award Player of the Match, or give extra responsibilities (such as running warm-ups) to members of our team — once again making it vital that we’re consistent in how we treat our athletes.
Furthermore, many parents will likely take a keen interest in how we resolve behavioural problems on our team. While our approach to misbehaviour may be rooted in our parenting style away from sport, it’s possible that other parents will have their own parenting styles, and thus their own ideas regarding how to address misbehaviour in a sporting environment.
Again, we must strike a balance; while we should be open-minded, and not stubbornly assert that our own approach must be right, we should also set boundaries, and help parents to understand that interfering in practice or on gameday will likely diminish the sporting experience enjoyed by their children.
Here, it could be helpful to work with our athletes to establish a set of team rules and behaviours at the start of each season. This will provide a framework for athletes to hold each other to account, help us to be consistent in upholding team standards, and provide a set of guidelines to share with parents so that they understand our team processes and feel included in them.
Managing Your Own Expectations
In managing our own expectations, we must strive to focus on the process, not the outcome. Of course we want our child to perform to the best of their ability, but our priorities should be to help them enjoy playing sport and develop, not ensure that they achieve certain results on gameday, win competitions, or become a professional athlete.
Social comparison and premature professionalism are seeping further into youth sports, and this can have a profound impact on how children perceive themselves and the way they participate. As parents and coaches, our own attitudes and behaviours can either reinforce anxieties surrounding performance, or help to reassure kids that the process is what really matters.
Effective ways to help alleviate the psychological impact of expectation include:
- Not putting pressure on our kids to achieve certain goals.
- Praising their efforts, rather than outcomes.
- Having open, honest conversations about our expectations, and discouraging perfectionist tendencies.
- Clearly admitting, and moving on from, our own mistakes.
- Showing our kids that our love and support is unconditional — not predicated on athletic performance.
We must also be careful not to view our child’s sporting activities as an investment (in terms of either time or money), or tie our own sense of worth to their sporting success. This will, in turn, help us to remain calm and unemotional when regulating our expectations.
Think About Gameday
As parent-coaches, we have a unique responsibility to try not to become too emotionally invested; offer support without becoming a distraction; and set a good example for the other parents around us. If we set positive standards, we can work with others to uphold them.
Intrusive sideline behaviour is a common sight in youth sports. It’s natural for both parents and coaches, caught up in the emotion of supporting their children and athletes, to issue outpourings of encouragement and instructions — but it’s rarely productive, and can often rob young athletes of their focus.
Just imagine attempting a task while a crowd of onlookers unremittingly shouts advice and instructions, some of it contradictory; that’s not an environment conducive to learning, concentrating, or performing to the best of your ability. Yet we constantly subject children to this very scenario.
In the long-run, these sideline interventions can harm athletes’ problem-solving and decision-making skills, diminish their creativity, negatively impact their motivation and enjoyment of the sport, and increase the pressure and anxiety they feel while participating.
Team Selection and Game Management
The way we allocate playing time can be particularly challenging when we coach our own child. Children often want to participate as much as possible, and can feel disappointed when they aren’t picked in the starting lineup or don’t play as many minutes as they’d like on gameday. And this disappointment can be heightened if an individual feels like they’ve played less than they deserve because our child has received preferential treatment — or if our child feels like they’ve played less than they deserve because their coach (and parent) has treated them differently to their teammates.
Allocating playing time so that every athlete on our team feels valued and receives adequate opportunities to learn and participate is obviously essential. But even when we do this, teammates, parents, or even our own child might perceive that we have done this unfairly.
A simple way to minimise frustration or disappointment is to establish a clear team policy on playing time. In grassroots settings where the primary aim is to participate, learn, and have fun, we may adopt a policy of equal playing time for all. If we wish to make our environment slightly more challenging, we might simply opt for a minimum amount of playing time for each participant. If our athletes are older and driven to achieve certain outcomes, such as winning a competition, we might consult with them to establish a policy on playing time and find that they prefer a team selection based on merit.
No matter what our policy is, the key is having a clear idea of how, and why, we select our teams and rotate our athletes on gameday, and then staying true to our approach.
Consider how you might involve other parents, the team manager, or the assistant coach in selecting things like the Player of the Day and team captain. Getting other parents involved in the process takes the pressure off you and is a good way of involving parents in the team environment — just make sure they are selecting based on some agreed principles, such as effort or showing good sportspersonship, rather than simply picking the “best player”.
Team talks and debriefs provide valuable opportunities to frame objectives, assess what happened in the game, and facilitate self-reflection — encouraging athletes to think about their performance and helping them to become better learners.
And while we’ll probably feel more comfortable talking directly and candidly with our own child, we should consider the tone we use when talking to them in front of the wider team. Obviously, team talks should not be an occasion for us to criticise our athletes or point out their faults.
Don’t Damage Your Child’s Motivation
As parents who want the best for our children, it can be easy to inadvertently slip into the habit of over-coaching. This can be detrimental not only to our child’s development, but to their motivation to participate in the sport.
According to Positive Psychology expert Lara Mossman, coaches usually fall into two categories:
- Controlling Coaches, who tell athletes what to do, take away their ownership of their own learning processes, and usually demotivate them,
- Autonomy Supportive Coaches, who empower athletes to make decisions for themselves.
Athletes working with autonomy supportive coaches usually feel a greater sense of control over their own development, are more intrinsically motivated to learn, and take more enjoyment from their sport.
But, while we may strive to adopt an autonomy supportive approach — it might even be our natural coaching style — we might find that our manner changes when we interact with our own child; perhaps we become more controlling, maybe without intending to or even realising it.
So we should not only be conscious of the type of coach we are, and how we motivate our players; we must be self-aware, consistent in our approach, and ensure that we always treat our child the same as their teammates.
If we’re mindful of our coaching and motivational style, and how we work with our child, we can even make our relationship with them a strength; we have far greater knowledge about them and their context — the myriad socio-cultural factors that affect how they learn and what motivates them — than an ordinary coach would have. This information should make it even easier to challenge and empower them, and guide them in directions in which they’ll feel compelled to learn on their own. Of course, remembering the importance of managing our expectations, we must also be careful not to be too hard on our child when seeking the best ways to motivate them.
This appreciation of the motivational benefits attributed to knowing our own could, in turn, be considered an endorsement of the athlete-centred approach to coaching. A fundamental component of athlete-centred coaching is getting to know the athletes we work with as people in order to individualise our approach. This means learning about the same socio-cultural factors — things like their home and school life, family and social relationships, and the other hobbies they engage in — that we know about our own child, so that we can tailor the way we coach and interact with them to suit their individual needs.
In this case, endeavouring to treat our child the same way we treat their teammates requires us to go further in getting to know the athletes on our team. And this will make us a better all-round coach.
Let Your Child Be Themselves
Finally, our child’s primary recreational and sporting pursuits should not be dictated by which ones we happen to coach; we must give our children room to make their own choices by providing opportunities to experience other sports and hobbies, and letting them choose which ones to devote their time to.
This means encouraging our children to engage in a variety of activities — particularly in sport, where increasing evidence shows that a multisport approach helps them to develop more well-rounded movement skills and transferable technical skills, and also avoid overuse injuries and burnout.
Furthermore, we should strive to let our child be themselves within our coaching environment. Sport provides great opportunities for children to experiment, express themselves, and develop their identity, but this may be difficult if they feel like their parent is constantly watching over them. Perhaps take a step back where possible — maybe during drinks breaks, or pre- and post-training, when they’re socialising with their teammates — or encourage your assistant coach to work with them more (if you’re fortunate enough to have one), so that they regularly interact with a coach besides you.
A few small, simple adjustments like this can have a huge impact on how free they feel, and give them invaluable space to develop skills, build relationships, and form their personality within the team.
After all, the primary purpose of youth sport is to have fun and fall in love with physical activity. It can only achieve that if we empower children to pursue the activities that they’re passionate about, give them the space to develop on their own, and allow them to participate with freedom.
The Key Points
- Clearly define the boundaries between parent and coach. At training, you are not ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’; at home, you should avoid discussing your sport unless your child wants to.
- Manage expectations: you and your child should strive to focus on processes — not outcomes.
- Think about your actions on gameday; avoid disruptive sideline behaviour, be thoughtful in your team selections and allocation of playing time, and be considerate of your team talks and how you interact with your child in front of their peers.
- Try to empower your child through your coaching. Remain self-aware, and avoid slipping into command-style coaching approaches.
- We should give our kids room to experience a range of different sports and hobbies, and allow them to pursue the ones that truly excite them.