What really makes a coach great?
For parents of young athletes, it’s that time of year again: cleats or sneakers by the door, duffle bags in the backseat, uniforms in constant need of laundering, and calendars scheduled full of practices and games. Yes, you may be a pro at managing your child’s sports endeavors (most of the time, anyway), but have you given much thought to the most important part of your child’s athletic experience: his or her coach?
According to Todd Patkin, every coach has the opportunity to make a powerful impact on your child’s life, and it’s your responsibility to make sure that the impact is a good one. While many coaches give selflessly of their time and make their athletes’ well-being a priority, unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.
“Every year, we all hear stories and read headlines about overly intense, aggressive, and even abusive coaches,” points out Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness , “These men and women are so focused on winning at any cost that they bully, berate, embarrass, and insult their players, which can cause great damage to these young people’s self-esteem, confidence, and overall emotional well-being on and off the field.”
Patkin, who has held a lifelong interest in athletics and whose son is currently an avid basketball player, has been surprised by how many parents he has met around the country who are upset with their children’s sports coaches. As a result, he urges parents to stay aware of how coaches interact with their children and what type of influence they’re having, and most importantly, to hold them accountable.
“I like winning as much as anyone, and I definitely think that one of a coach’s goals should be to help his or her team hone their skills and perform at as high a level as possible,” he says. “But parents and coaches alike should remember that what constitutes a great coach isn’t a winning season—it’s a leadership style that builds up, nurtures, and mentors young athletes in a way that makes them more confident, motivated, and capable human beings.”
Here, Patkin offers some tips for parents to use when evaluating their children’s coaches, as well as standards of behavior every coach should strive to meet: Realize that harsh coaching methods do cause damage. There’s no question that harsh coaching methods, such as calling players out, getting in their faces and “motivating” them through fear, do more harm than good. In the short term, these tactics cause anxiety, shame, and low self-esteem. Over time, a bullied athlete’s weakened confidence and sense of self-worth can eradicate motivation and love for the game. And worst of all, it can transfer to other areas of the young person’s life, making him or her less confident socially and academically. After all, it’s a short step from believing I’m not good enough on the field to I don’t have what it takes to succeed at all.
“I believe that some coaches may think that their tactics are working if their teams are performing well or improving,” Patkin shares. “But what they don’t know is that their star player dreads practice and has a knot of anxiety in his stomach for days before a game. Remember, it’s your responsibility as a parent to make sure that your child’s coach is not negatively impacting her love for the game, and much more importantly, her overall self-esteem in all areas of her life for years to come.”
Think about what a coach’s job really is. Your child does not play on a professional team. His coach’s goal should not be to build a career, but to teach and guide young people who are in the midst of their mental, emotional and physical development. Ideally, what a coach teaches during practice will also help kids develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in many other areas for the rest of their lives. When you look at it that way, coaching is as much about growing children through positive motivation and attitude as it is about imparting the mechanics of swinging a bat or kicking a ball.
“I know from personal experience that success in any area of life is achieved mainly through encouragement and positive reinforcement,” Patkin explains. “While I am not an athletic coach, I did lead my family’s business for many years, and actually grew it into the number one commercial auto parts company in the country—while knowing relatively little about the parts themselves or the workings of vehicles. Here’s my point: Many of the same strategies I used to motivate employees can be translated into coaching young athletes. It’s every bit as important for your child to feel special and valued as it is to make sure they’re learning the rules of the game.”
Watch a replay of the coach’s motivations. This topic has been alluded to already, but according to Patkin, it bears repeating: What is motivating your child’s coach? Is she in it for winning (and only winning), or does she want to make a difference in young people’s lives? While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, make sure that your child’s coach does not use her position primarily to brag about her successful seasons and coaching record.
“To some extent, a coach’s goals should match the level of athletics in which your child is engaged,” Patkin adds. “For instance, if he is doing YMCA coach-pitch baseball, his coach’s main motivation should definitely be centered around having fun and helping kids. But if your son is a high school baseball player and his team has a legitimate chance to go all the way to the state championship, it’s okay for the coach to put more of an emphasis on winning vs. losing as long as the players’ physical and psychological well-being are still a firm first priority.”
Has the coach done some emotional intelligence warm-ups? Everyone knows that a coach should have a broad knowledge of his or her sport. But were you aware that coaches should also strive to possess a high level of emotional intelligence? If you aren’t familiar with the term, emotional intelligence is a quality that enables you to be empathetic, an effective communicator, to navigate conflict, etc. If you’re emotionally intelligent, you’re better able to manage your own emotions, pick up on what others are feeling, and react constructively to setbacks—all of which are qualities that coaches should strive to have.
“Remember, everyone, but especially the young, can be made or broken by others’ words,” points out Patkin. “Words hurt more than sticks and stones, despite what the children’s rhyme says. As I have said before, a coach—who is also a leader and mentor—has the responsibility to make sure that he or she is setting kids up for present and future success, not filling them with self-doubt and hurting their self-esteem. So, if you’re watching a practice or cheering at a game, try to gauge what the coach’s emotional intelligence quotient might be, based on his behavior. If you come to believe that it isn’t benefiting the players and may even be hurting them, don’t be afraid to act, whether you speak to the coach or even try to find a different team for your child.”
Does the coach score points through caring? It’s true: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And in sports, it’s crucial that coaches care about athletes as people, not just as players. Watch to see if your child’s coach gets to know her on an individual basis and incorporates that knowledge into their regular interactions. It’s always a good sign if, for instance, a coach keeps tabs on your daughter’s academic achievements and compliments her for doing well on a test, or asks her, “I know your family was going to go hiking over the weekend. Did you enjoy it?”
“Coaches should always show love, because most people simply don’t get enough of it!” Patkin asserts. “Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know of because people, kids included, will do anything to keep getting those things. And when players know that they mean more to their coaches than the numbers on their jerseys, they’ll naturally have a greater desire to excel.”
Does the coach strike out through criticism? Criticism: It has to happen in order for improvement to take place. But there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Many famous coaches in sports history have chosen the wrong way: berating players and shaming them in front of the team, insulting them for making mistakes and delivering advice in anger. Unfortunately, these approaches tend to only alienate players and make coaches an object of fear rather than respect.
“Here are a few rules of thumb I suggest following to evaluate a coach when it comes to criticism,” shares Patkin. “First, he should criticize only in private, not in public. A coach should pull a player aside for a one-on-one discussion, not yell at him in front of the whole team. Also, a good coach should make sure the player knows he cares about more than just the mistake. Ideally, he’ll try to accompany each criticism with a few compliments. Remember, we all tend to be our own worst critics—even kids. Many young athletes will tend to focus on what they’ve done wrong, not the many things they’ve done well. The ratio of compliments to criticism they receive from their coaches can shape their self-perception for a long time to come.”
Does the coach scout each practice for all-stars? It’s practically impossible for anyone to hear too many good things about themselves. On the sports field, compliments act as confidence—and thus performance—boosters, and they also improve motivation, team spirit, determination, and more. With that in mind, a good coach will always start each practice with the intention of catching as many players as possible doing well, then praise them in public and in private whenever the opportunity arises.
“And if she wants to go the extra mile, a great coach might even send out a team newsletter that includes short write-ups of players who improve, who are team players, who give their all in practice, etc.,” Patkin adds. “Again, kids will work hard to keep getting recognized because it simply feels good. Who knows—they might remember a coach’s praise for the rest of their lives!”
Has the coach added “positive thinking” to his or her paraphernalia? All coaches have clipboards, whistles, and water bottles—and they should all have a positive attitude, too! With few exceptions, players will develop their attitudes, outlooks, and expectations based on what they see from their leaders. Coaches should be proactive about getting their teams in a winning mindset by saying things like, “We’re going to have a great practice today,” or, “I know everyone will do their best during the game,” etc. “Here’s a great saying I’ve found to be true: People generally perform at the level that is expected of them,” reports Patkin. “So without putting negative pressure on the athletes, your child’s coach should let them know that she believes in their ability to accomplish great things. I can’t help but think of Lou Holtz, the legendary college football coach whose philosophy of positive thinking was instrumental in inspiring his teams to achieve many amazing successes, often against the odds.
“If you’re still not convinced, consider the well-known study conducted by Harvard’s Robert Rosenthal in the mid-sixties. Teachers were given a list of students in their classes who were supposedly on the cusp of an academic growth spurt—but in reality, the children on the list had been randomly selected. Now, here’s the interesting part: That school year, the children who had been identified as ‘special’ performed much better than their peers (who, remember, were actually no different) because the teachers had expected them to achieve and treated them accordingly. Let me tell you, the same thing can happen with coaches and athletes. Look for a coach who expects the best from her players and you won’t be disappointed.”
“Obviously, you should try to avoid becoming the type of ‘helicopter parent’ that is fast becoming a stereotype in our society,” Patkin concludes. “But at the same time, always be vigilant and don’t hesitate to step in if you feel that a coach’s attitude or actions are harmful to your child. If possible, discuss the situation with your child before approaching the coach so that your child doesn’t feel blindsided or betrayed by your involvement. And yes, the older your child is—especially if he or she is in high school—you might want to think twice about taking on a coach unless actual harm is being inflicted. Ultimately, though, always remember that no sport or tournament or trophy is worth sacrificing your child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.”
Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness (www.findinghappinessthebook.com): One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.