By Maggie Avedisian, Ph.D.

Clinical Child Psychologist

This is the first post in a series of guest contributions on coaching children by Dr. Maggie Avedisian who sees adults, couples, children and adolescents as a psychologist in private practice here at Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services. With doctorate and post-doctorate specializations in both clinical and developmental psychology, Dr. Avedisian is also the proud mom of two athletic superstars. She can be reached at (703) 723-2999 or by email.

As each Fall athletic season begins and boys are recruited into (or placed onto) various school and county leagues, my voicemail and e-mail Inbox receive an inevitable bombardment of concerns from pare nts about the “best coach.”

Parents often have the same concern season-upon-season: “My sons’ coach is mean and I don’t think he can succeed with someone mean;” “His self-esteem is being harmed;” and of course, “What should we do?” I rarely hear from the parents who love their sons’ coaches: obviously, they have no complaints.

In an effort to address the question of what makes a “perfect” coach, I turned to parents who love their sons’ coaches, talked with coaches, looked at the recent research on the effects of athletic coaching styles on boys, and sought the advice of a life coach (*I should note that while there are many similarities about coaching boys and girls, the differences illustrated in research literature are strong enough to separate the topics, and focus on only coaching boys in this article.)

The first goal of my journey was to address the complicated question of how to best coach boys in team athletics sports, the second was to identify the responsibilities of parents, and, finally, to get some understanding of what works to motivate young boys.

Boys generally from age five (but as early as 18 month olds) are often placed into organized sports. Some parents have the high hopes that their son is a potential superstar. Some say they just hope for a little exercise. Others say they hope their children can develop meaningful friendships through team activities. Parents, regardless of their reason for placing their son on a team, want the “perfect” coach for their son. What is the “perfect” coach for parents?

Coaches also have various hopes when they take on the commitment of training boys. Some coaches are fathers who want to spend more time with their children. Others want to impart a love for the game. And, still, some want to provide leadership for boys. Most coaches, regardless of their hopes for winning, want to be good coaches (note: not “perfect” coaches). The qualities of a good coach are often listed in psychology and other research literature as patience, leadership, and love of the sport.

A coach is defined as someone who gives instruction, tutors, trains and directs the people who are working with them. In examining the broad picture of coaching in general, I spoke with Jayson Blair, a prominent certified life coach in Loudoun County, Virginia, who works with adolescents and young adults who struggle with motivation, self-esteem, direction, attention, organization, interpersonal relationships, realistic expectations and social skills. He says that, in many ways, these are the same issues that athletic coaches have a chance to help at an earlier stage.

Coaching kids in any arena of life – be it athletics, teaching, or life coaching – is a huge responsibility, and Blair says coaching is a process of teaching skills, helping to develop intuition, self-awareness, building character and modeling the real world in a safe and encouraging environment. Some of the primary techniques that help make good athletic coaches, according to Blair, are to understand and motivate players and to help them grow through a safe process that will be strikingly similar to the not-as-safe world they will face beyond 18. Winning can be important, Blair says, “But it is in making mistakes, losing and losses that we learn the most about ourselves and have the greatest opportunity to grow.”

Coaching a team, Blair says, requires special characteristics.

Blair points out that the being able to provide each individual with both positive and negative feedback can be difficult to manage in a team situation. But the challenge, he says, goes far beyond equity of attention.

“The challenges each child brings to the setting can be a good basis from which to find ways to motivate them individually and teach them how to work together,” he says, “but coaches must also work to understand each player and attempt to tailor approaches individually while taking into consideration the broader needs of the group, and how each individual approach impacts the larger ecosystem that includes the players, other coaches and parents. In this, they are teaching young people how to be responsible in a broader world beyond just themselves.”

Blair sees the most valuable qualities in coaches, when excluding the role that the understanding of the sport itself, are strong powers of observation, intuition strong enough to make smart decisions and intelligence and strength that allow them to solve complex interpersonal equations. Blair says coaches need to understand and modify their coaching styles to individual players, while managing the collective impact on the team’s ecosystem, in order to develop skills and character both on and off the field.

Parents reasons for placing their children in competitive athletics is often based on their understanding that team sports is important developmentally for socialization, leadership, understanding how to take direction and discipline to enhance character. Coach Bowman, a well respected coach for Loudon County, Virginia football team, includes in that array, a child’s desire to be on the field. He emphasizes that a children’s desire to be there is a big part of the mix of things going right on all levels. Thus, as the old adage goes, “you can lead a horse to water…”

With all the best intentions for their children, parents often forget (or neglect) their children’s desires. There is no doubt that there are many “wannabe” fathers who hope their sons “make it” because they did not.

This is not a myth. Mothers come to me frequently stating their sons (regardless of ability level) have no real desire to play the game, but do so because their fathers push them. Ask your child and talk about their desire to participate. Know what your child desires. Ask your sons coach what they think. By encouraging this dialogue you will find that some should not be on the field. Most parents know these truths about their own complicated motivates, and often use the excuse that the coach is not doing what is needed to keep their son motivated.

Maybe the weakest link is not coaching style, maybe the weakest link is the child’s desire to be in competitive sports and the refusal of some parents to see this apathy in the name of their vicarious redaction of their own youth. It seems, in this area, that above all else, coaches need understand the desires of parents, but not cave them, and, instead to learn to place oneself in the shoes and eyes of their players and act in their best interests.

“A parent could come to a soccer coach and say that they want their child to be a forward just like a parent might walk into my office and say that their child might need to work on managing their finances,” Blair says.
“In reality, as a coach, I need to listen to the parent, but I also need to get their child working on what’s the best opportunity for them grow, whether its playing as the goalie or learning organization and empathy first, before finances and academics.”

Parents can akin coaches to teachers. There is no perfect teacher or perfect coach. One child adores the teacher and the other finds them intolerable. The same happens on the field. I find that often in both situations children adapt better than their parents do. I also find parents fueling fires that do not exist for children. Needless to say, but I will…do not talk badly about teachers or coaches to your children. It is very disconcerting to a child to have their parents belittle the authority of a coach or teacher, and then be expected to perform for that person.

The juxtaposition is cognitively and emotionally disabling for children, and often gives the children a real world example of hypocrisy from their own homes, as parents talk down coaches behind their backs and openly praise them and encourage their children to listen in front of the coaches faces With that said, this article was not intended to address the extreme end of abusive coaching, which is best dealt with swiftly and decisively by removing your child from the situation.

Results of a recent study by Coatsworth and Conroy (Developmental Psychology. Vol 45(2), Mar 2009, 320-328), showed that competence and self-esteem reflected perceived competence provided by coaches. In other words, when coaches provide praise, children seem to perceive themselves as more confident and capable of performing.

In this study, children did seem to think they could do better when coaches gave them praise. However, this does not suggest that children will do better, it suggests they “think” they will do better, which, in and of itself, is an important part of the battle. Does thinking positive lead to actions? The answer seems to be, sometimes. Positive self-image and belief in one’s ability can be the beginning of changing actions and behaviors. “I think I can”, “never give up”, “try and try again” are examples of how we hope to train children to stay motivated. In competitive athletics, the lines are blurred and the studies are nearly non-existent.

Should coaches provide false praise for children who are trying, but not really doing well athletically? As a developmental psychologist, I have absolutely no doubt that praise can provide a basis for developing positive self-esteem. The line of what’s too much or too little in this regard can be drawn, in many respects, when looking children at different ages and stages of development and athletic competition. Feedback is crucial to personal growth on the field. While clinically I know that the presentation of feedback is important, studies in on this topic are lacking. We know that negative feedback, when handled wrong, can be devastating.

So, should coaches not lie to children, but give only positive feedback? Joe Russo, a longtime coach of boys Lacrosse in Vienna Virginia (and highly respected by the parents on his teams) stated it like this “I try to establish a high level of player accountability early each season. This sometimes requires being strict and demanding.

Finding the proper balance of discipline and fun can be challenging. He goes on to say that “insincere pep talks” are not how he prefers to challenge his teams. A good coach, he stated, is willing to help a player by pointing out and teaching how to improve his game.

Since I believe that lying to children at any age is wrong, the question for coaches might very well be how to impart corrective messages or negative feedback in a way that helps the child learn, does not obscure the truth and teaches them that necessary losses and mistakes are the way that we learn and we grow. In other words, the goal, it seems, from a clinical perspective, is not too much unlike being a psychologist: helping people build their self-esteem so they honestly accept their strengths and weaknesses, and know that it is the strong child that can look at something that they are not doing well and tackle it with enthusiasm.

It should be noted, however, that if a child thinks that they can do better and doesn’t, it provides coaches what Blair likes to call a “teachable moment” where young people “can learn that their effort and improvements are important no matter the end result, that friends do not abandon each other when things get rough, that someone has to lose and how to do so with the same grace and understanding of the victory.” Most importantly, he says, “you won’t believe how many clients I have who come to see me as young adults and say that from their childhood on they have never felt someone truly believed in them.”

Parents who love their sons’ coaches tell me that the greatest quality they found in a coach was the ability to connect with their sons in order to help the youngsters improve skills. That connection is not readily quantifiable, although there is no question that the connection they speak of is not limited to athletics. It ranges from a high five, or a simple “good job”, “to try it this way.” They appreciate direction, attention and pushing their sons to the limit.

Yelling does not seem to bother most parents, and most parents who love their sons coaches are not too phased by some uncomplimentary names their sons may be given by coaches or teammates (my favorites are “Sleepy” and” Dopey”). While many parents use the line “I just want my sons to have fun,” they also do not like it when their team loses. That apparently is not fun, at least not for parents. The whole coaching package is quite a feat: providing individual attention, making the game fun, and developing a winning team.

I end this brief blog with Coach Russo’s quote that parents ability to align with the coaches philosophy is an important aspect of his ability to coach. “I consider it a great responsibility and privilege to coach young people and I see it as my duty to ensure that they play the game as it was meant to be played,” he states. “Parents and players who are aligned with this philosophy make coaching much easier.”

Note: This is a first in a series of posts on coaching children in athletics. Part II involves interviews with children and looking at their perspective on what makes a good coach. I would also like to thank Coach Bowman and Coach Russo for their time and thoughtful consideration of responses. Both coaches give of their time and energy without having sons on their teams. They do so for the love of children, and the game.