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The Parent/Coach January 18, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Football, Love, Parenting/Children.
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One of the hardest things in the world to do is coach your son or daughter in some team-oriented environment, and do so in an equitable manner. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to coach sports teams with and without my sons playing, and the experiences have given me a unique view into the world of the Parent/Coach.

Big Time Spender
With apologies to Billy Joel for shamelessly stealing his play on words in this heading, all of us would love to be known for spending huge amounts of time with our families, but specifically with our children. After all, we’ve all heard the horror stories of the neglectful parent, who sees their children at dinnertime (if that), but is otherwise completely disengaged from the child’s life.

I’m not immune to this desire, and early on found countless reminders that I needed to respond to the “play with me” request/demand. I have fond memories of watching the movie “Hook,” where Robin Williams portrays Peter Panning, a corporate pirate (with intentional irony) who has completely lost touch with his son and daughter (and yes, I realize it was “panned” by many critics). Invariably, watching this movie would remind me to cast aside the trappings of adulthood, and sit down and just play. Whether the result was a mock swordfight with my oldest, or flying my youngest around the house like Superman, it was always well worth it.

Older, but not Mature
As my sons grew older, they developed an interest in playing football. Given their builds, this isn’t really surprising, but it presented me with an interesting option. I could “leverage” my interest in football and coaching into a way to spend more time with them.

Now, for those of you paying attention, this is a flawed strategy from the beginning. Yes, coaching your child will mean that you have the potential to spend more time interacting with them than if you’re purely a spectator, but there is no guarantee that this will be the reality.

In fact, one of the side effects of a parent coaching their own child is that they often feel justified in not spending as much time with them. It’s an easy trap to fall into, as you can honestly say, “I just spent two hours with my son and his team.” Unfortunately, if you’re a good coach, you won’t be focusing your attention solely on your child. You’ll be focusing on the whole team. Conversely, if you’re focusing on the team, you really aren’t interacting with your child.

Myth Congeniality
So let’s get this straight: coaching your son or daughter in any team activity will not result in you spending the right kind of time with them. What’s worse, is you (and your child) may find that you take on a different persona when you’re in “coach mode,” and this can be difficult to understand for a child.

Years ago, when my father was actively preaching, I noticed that he had a very different personality in the pulpit than he did in the living room. The same man who would go off on tirades about the latest political blunder or express moral outrage at something in the school… he seemed to poised, cool-headed, and completely under control. Who is this man that looks suspiciously like my father, yet behaves so differently? He even speaks differently… more eloquent, more polished, more carefully pronouncing words than at the dinner table.

Over time, I’ve understood that public speaking (and public behavior in general) demands a certain change in the way you present yourself. If people behaved in private the way they do in public (especially people who are in the public eye all the time), it would border on psychotic.

Coach/Player like Oil/Water?
Complicating matters, if you’ve never coached youth sports before, you have no idea what your coach personality will be. Will you be Tom Landry (cool, calm, calculating), or Bill Cowher (manic, frantic, pedantic)? History tells us that there is no Right Way ™, but you should know if Your Way is compatible with the personality of your child. (Hint: It doesn’t matter if your off-field personality is compatible or not.) If your child’s personality isn’t compatible with your coach persona, “spending time with Dad” (or Mom) can be a case of nightly torture.

Additionally, you know your child very well. You know their strengths and weaknesses. Right? Well… maybe. You know them from a parent’s point of view. You may think you know their abilities, but us parents are very poor at judging our children objectively. As a result, you may develop (perhaps subconsciously) expectations for your child’s performance that, when mixed with your coach persona, bring out a raving lunatic. (Sometimes this happens on the field, sometimes at home. It’s less embarrassing at home, but no less painful for the child.)

Playing Time, or Doing Time?
It may surprise you to see me list this last, but of all the complications of coaching your own child, the amount of playing time they get is generally the easiest problem to solve. Now, don’t misunderstand. It’s still a problem. However, the problems I’ve described above are difficult to address unless you’re willing to change your personality, or step down in your decision to coach your child.

The best way to address playing time is to put another parent in charge of making this decision (and ensuring that this parent isn’t dealing with their own conflict). For instance, you can divide up positions on a basketball team, and put your child in one of the positions that you don’t manage. Likewise, a football coach can choose to work with offense or defense, basing this choice on the decision of where the child is likely to play.

The Best Choice
What’s the best way to avoid these issues? Be an Assistant Coach if you have a child on the team, and only take the position of Head Coach if your children have moved up. One of the most pleasant (and not surprisingly, successful) seasons I’ve had as a coach was being the Head Coach on a team that neither of my sons played on. Our practices were at the same time, and we were involved in the same sport, so our post-practice dinner table conversations were spirited and lively. We talked X’s and O’s, to be sure. But we also talked about coaching styles and motivation.

So yes, spend time with your sons or daughters, and be involved in everything they do. Just make sure you take off the Head Coach hat before you do.

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