In sports, goals and points and touchdowns are important. In coaching sports, leadership, communication and trustworthiness score pretty high, too. Whether your child is 5 years old and mostly interested in orange slices at halftime, or 16 and competing on the varsity team, it’s the coach who assures she’s hydrated throughout the game and recognizes concussion symptoms after a fall. He’s the adult present as your child interacts with peers, develops (and maybe loses) interests and builds new skills and values.
“It’s important that coaches understand that they’re not just out there to teach a kid how to field a grounder. You gotta be a role model, and you gotta teach them about sportsmanship,” says John Engh, chief operating officer for the National Alliance for Youth Sports, based in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Given the responsibility of your child’s coach and the influence that coach can have, parents, you ought to know a thing or two about the whistle-clad team leader.
Here’s what to expect from a good coach:
Communication. Before your child's league begins, the coach should go over basics with the players and parents, such as playing time policies and player evaluations, so that everyone is on the same page. She should also cover her coaching philosophy, like how much she values winning, which will likely vary depending on the age and level of play. "If you don't see that communication from a coach in the preseason, it's kind of a red flag because you're probably not going to see that communication during games," says Robert Price, owner of Elite Minds LLC, a sport psychology consulting service based in North Potomac, Md.
Discussing these standards and polices up front will create a guide for how the player-coach-parent relationship will play out on and off the field. If not, Engh asks, "How are they going to know the values of the league and what's appropriate?"
If parents and players have questions about the coach's standards and policies, they should feel free to ask. And if Coach Dave doesn't have answers, or isn't willing to share them, then consider that a red flag, too.
Training. Something that coaches ought to cover in that preseason communication: What's their training? Ideally, even young kids playing at the recreational level should be coached by adults with some certified training in both coaching and the sport's fundamentals, say Price and Engh.
There are many training courses and certifications out there, through the community parks and recreational department, the league and more. Many of these courses not only teach safety, like concussion symptoms, but also approach appropriate techniques and philosophies for various ages.
In terms of training in the sport, parents should vary – but not lower – their expectations. Your 14-year-old's elite club baseball team that practices four times a week? Dig into that coach's motivation, skill level and his highest achievements in playing and coaching that sport. Your 6-year-old's recreational soccer team? Hopefully that coach has been trained in the fundamentals of the sport. If not, Price suggests that parents work to bring in an "expert" – even if it's just a high school player – to attend practice once a week or every other week to share his or her skills. This guest player can "bring a levity and really intrigue the kids," Price says.
Compatible coaching style. Some coaches yell, while others barely raise their voices. Some are obsessed with winning, while others would rather spend practices singing Kumbaye. Most coaches are somewhere in between. When checking out teams and coaches, "parents just have to ask themselves one question," Price says, "Is that type of discipline or coaching going to be effective for my kid's personality?" You can tell a coach's style by simply observing one of his or her practices, Price says.
Or maybe it's a league change you want to make if, say, you're unsure of how your 12-year-old would transition to a competitive club hockey team. Watching a few of the games in that league and observing what kinds of coaches it employs can be helpful, Price says.