Youth sports thrive on parent-coaches. One estimate finds that parents of players make up 90% of all youth sport coaches (1). Parents have a unique relationship with their own children, and when it comes to coaching your child’s team, it is not easy to separate being the parent from being the coach. The parent-coach/child-athlete relationship in youth sports is one that has not been widely studied, but given the large percentage of parent-coaches and anecdotal reports of negative circumstances associated with parent-coaches, it is important that this issue be examined more closely. Two studies to date deal with this issue. They will both be presented, revealing positive and negative aspects of the parent-coach/child-athlete relationship. Recommendations for making this relationship as harmonious as possible follow.
Research has shown that parental involvement and support is a necessary and important part of a child’s participation in sports. However, there is such a thing as too much involvement, and it is possible that in the unique environment of youth sports, having dad, or mom, as coach can push parental involvement toward the over involved end of the continuum. If this is the case, it could create a negative experience for the child-athlete of the parent-coach. Barber, Sukhi and White (2) conducted a study comparing parent-coached and nonparent-coached youth recreational athletes. They hoped to discover if there was any difference between the two groups in motivations for participation or in anxiety level associated with competition. Although their study had methodological weaknesses, it revealed that the parent-coached athletes did not experience significantly higher anxiety related to competition than their nonparent-coached peers. The study also showed no significant difference in motivation for participation. Having fun was the predominant motivation for both groups of athletes. Although this study alone cannot be used to draw any conclusions, it is a source of encouragement that the parent-coach/child-athlete relationship may not be a source of undue pressure on the child.
In addition to the encouraging findings from the Barber et al. study (2), a recent study by Weiss and Fretwell (3) gives us a better understanding of the feelings and perspectives of the child, the father and the teammate. Their study sheds a little more light on the some of the positive aspects involved in the parent-coach/child-athlete relationship, as well as some of the negative aspects. The good news is that there are many positive aspects perceived by both parents and their children that are supportive of the parent-coach/child-athlete relationship. One positive aspect includes being able to spend quality time together. Additionally, the child perceives that he/she gets special attention, praise, and perks, such as being on familiar terms with the coach. In the child’s perception, having your parent as a coach is an opportunity to receive motivation and technical instruction that others on the team do not have. In the perspective of the parent, being both coach and parent provides the opportunity to teach values and skills, the opportunity to see how their child interact with friends, and the ability to see their child’s accomplishments and take pride in them.
The study also revealed particular negative aspects related to the parent-coach/child-athlete relationship. The negative aspects of having a parent as the coach mentioned by the sons in the study were feeling pressure and higher expectations; being subject to unfair behavior and more criticism for mistakes; being on the receiving end of the coach’s anger; feeling that the father-coach lacked empathy and understanding of the son’s perspective. Fathers reported feeling that it was difficult to separate the role of coach from the role of parent. They also mentioned sometimes rebellious behavior by their sons as another negative aspect. A final negative aspect of the parent-coach/child-athlete relationship is the perception that differential treatment exists for the coach’s son. This perception exists not only in the minds of the sons, but also in the minds of the fathers and other teammates. In the view of the sons, they received more negative feedback from their fathers than the other team members. Fathers viewed themselves as placing more pressure and higher expectations on their sons. At the same time, the fathers felt they gave more recognition to other players. Teammates of the coaches’ sons reinforced the fathers’ views, saying that the “the coach was more likely to disadvantage his son compared to his teammates” (p. 298). However, some of the teammates did report feeling that the coach showed favoritism to his son (3). This differential treatment serves to highlight how difficult it is to separate the role of father from the role of coach and the conflict that might come with it.
While in both studies it did not appear that the parent-as-coach relationship interfered with the overall experience of the child-athlete, it is important to recognize that these studies have limitations and cannot really be generalized to the whole population of parent-coaches and child-athletes. These studies involved a small number of participants who had not quite reached adolescence or who were just hitting adolescence. In addition, the level of competition was not the highest level of competition. Both of these last two factors could affect the amount of pressure and anxiety perceived by the children. More research in this area is definitely needed.
Recommendations for the Parent-Coach
If you are going to coach your child’s team, there are several things you can keep in mind so that the experience is a positive one. First, it is necessary to separate the coach-parent roles as much as you possibly can so that you treat all athletes the same (3). This may be difficult, but it is necessary. Second, force yourself to treat all players equally and fairly. While you are coaching, think of your child just as you would any other team member. Third, it is essential to pay attention to your relationship with your child off the field. Once the game ends, your child needs you to take off your coach hat and put your parent hat back on. They need you to be supportive of them and not critical. Fourth, talk to your child and discuss their feelings about you coaching their team. When they are younger, they may enjoy having their parent as coach, but in adolescence, kids tend to want their independence from their parents, and this may not be the best or most appropriate time to coach your own child. In addition, the level of play may make a difference in your relationship with your child. The more competitive the league, the more room there is for the negative aspects to creep in. Some organizations do not even let parents coach their kids at higher competitive levels. Finally, other suggestions for creating a smooth relationship with your child and other team members include: educate yourself about the sport, only coach if you really understand the game, and do not have any pre-conceived ideas about your own child (3).
(1) Brown, E. W. (1998). Social interaction in coaching your child’s team: Harmony or hassle (Part I). Spotlight on Youth Sports, 20(4), 1-5.
(2) Barber, H., Sukhi, H., & White, S. A. (1999). The influence of parent-coaches on participant motivation and competitive anxiety in youth sport participation. Journal of Sport Behavior, 22, 162-180. Retrieved August 5, 2003 from Academic Search Premier database.
(3) Weiss, M. R. & Fretwell, S. D. (2005). The parent-coach/child-athlete relationship in youth sport: Cordial, contentious, or conundrum? Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 76, 286-305.