[Editor's Note: This blog post is an adapted excerpt from the Navigating Your Child's Education Podcast episode "What makes a good coach?" featuring a candid conversation with Coach Hartings. Make sure to check it out here.]
With over half of high school students across the U.S. competing in interscholastic sports, it’s safe to say that coaches have a strong influence on our young people. In my own journey as an athlete, parent, and coach, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of coaching. Coaches can have a tremendous impact on their players—both positive and negative. It’s important for parents to carefully consider who is influencing their children when it comes to athletics and coaching.
As parents make sports-related decisions for and with their children, we must first consider our own motivations and values as it pertains to athletics. What do I want for my child? Am I hoping that my child will one day get a college scholarship for athletics? Do I want my child to play on a competitive team with a coach that will maximize their potential? Am I concerned about my child developing character traits that they will carry long after they’re done with youth sports? How do I define a successful athletic experience for my child? These are the types of questions we as parents must ask ourselves and answer honestly. Determining our own values will help to guide our decisions as we choose athletic opportunities for our children.
Once we determine our own motivations and values for having our children involved in youth sports, we can then consider what athletic opportunities best fit our goals and will best help our children to grow. Whether your desire is for competitive play or character-building or some combination of the two, we ought to consider the following...
School Sports vs. Club Sports
The worlds of school sports and club sports are vastly different, including the timing and length of seasons, the costs, the team structure, and culture, and, of course, coaching. There is really no choice in coach when it comes to school sports, but there are lots of options and decisions to be made in the realm of choosing a team or coach in club sports. I always encourage parents of young athletes to carefully consider these options and seek out coaches that align with their motivations and values.
There are several practical ways to learn about coaches to find out who might be the right choice for a young athlete. Establishing direct contact with coaches prior to committing to a team and asking other parents what their experience has been with a particular coach are two of those ways. Observation of a coach during practices and games can also be very telling, particularly how they respond to a player who is not meeting their expectations, and how they respond to officiating with which they do not agree. These scenarios often reveal whether a coach is a transactional or a transformational coach.
Transactional Coaching vs. Transformational Coaching
A transaction is typically understood as an exchange between people. In transactional coaching, a coach offers his time and expertise in exchange for players earning him wins. His primary focus is getting the next win. This drastically affects the way he interacts with his players; his behavior before, during, and after a game is determined by what’s on the scoreboard. This approach often leads to poor treatment of players and an unhealthy team culture. In the past, I unknowingly operated as a transactional coach at times. I realized in the same way that I can pour much time and energy into learning football schemes and plays, I also need to devote myself to becoming a better coach. This led to my learning about another way: transformational coaching.
A transformation is typically understood as a dramatic change. In transformational coaching, a coach’s primary objective is to develop character in his players. In my own high school football program, I maintain a highly competitive spirit because that’s part of who I am. But I hold as a higher priority developing my players to lead courageously and act responsibly to make the world a better place. The reality is, a small percentage of people I coach will play sports beyond the high school level. Rather than just focusing on what I can get out of each player performance-wise and athletically, I emphasize building their character in a way that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. A transformational coach cares to see transformation in their players, not just physically but as a whole person.
Shame vs. Encouragement
While each coach brings a unique personality and coaching style to their team, parents need to be aware of coaches who rely on shaming to elicit the performances that they want from their players. Shame is a powerful tool, but it is an unhealthy way to communicate with long-term negative effects. It can come out in a coach’s words, body language, or treatment of players, often resulting in a player feeling embarrassed and/or discouraged.
A healthy alternative to shame is encouragement, speaking positively into a player in order to elicit different behavior. In my own past coaching experience, it sometimes felt natural to call out a player for poor performance in front of their peers. I realized through studying coaching and through my own players’ performance, this type of shame-based correction is harmful and ineffective. I know understand the importance of offering encouragement and correcting, when necessary, in private or in a one-on-one situation rather than make a public spectacle.
Sports-related decisions can be difficult for families to make--what to play, when to play, who to play for. It's also not uncommon for a young player and his family to find themselves in a challenging situation with a coach. Perhaps a coach holds a different philosophy than they do, or sees a young person's abilities differently than the parents. Perhaps a young athlete is feeling defeated by a lack of playtime or discouraged by interactions with the coach. We as parents sometimes have to navigate the line between pulling our kids out of a difficult situation and encouraging them to see it through. I, too, have found myself in these situations as a player, parent, and coach. The place that I keep coming back to for wisdom and truth is my faith in God. Through reading His Truth and seeking Him in prayer, time and time again He guides me by His peace to make the right decisions for myself, my team, and my family.