What's behind the 'Letter from a Volunteer Coach'?

Photo: Coaches make a difference in children's lives, on the field and off AP photo

WASHINGTON, May 16, 2013 — Below is a letter that’s been circulating in youth sports circles for the last month or so. Written by Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC, it’s meant to be a reminder to parents of kids who play youth sports. It also highlights some of the pervasive issues surrounding participation in youth sports.

According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, “Children will follow the example of adult role models, positively or negatively. Children will copy or imitate sports behaviors witnessed, including the development of values based on that behavior. Adults must be a positive role model exhibiting sportsmanlike behavior at games, practices, and at all times while giving positive reinforcement to the children and supporting their coaches, staff and other volunteers.”

“Parents,

Today I heard a comment made about me behind my back. I started to turn around and look, but then decided better of it and kept my eyes on the field. My wife hears things like this more often than I do, because many of you don’t know who she is. She tells me what you say.”

One way to help maintain proper boundaries between coaches and parents/fans is to always have spectators sit across from the bench. No coach, regardless of the level of play, needs to have parents over-coaching him or her by talking directly to players or, worse, calling out “suggestions” to the coach during the game.

“I have received angry emails, full of ‘suggestions,’ about who should be playing where and how I lost that day’s game for the kids. I thought I’d write an open letter to all of you parents, even though I might never send it.

“I’ll start it this way: ‘I am a volunteer.’ I’m the one who answered the call when the league said they didn’t have enough coaches. I understand that you were too busy. I have some news for you. I’m not retired. I’m busy too. I have other children and a job, just like you do. Not only do I not get paid to do this – it costs me money.

“I see you walk up to the game 15 minutes after it started, still dressed for work. Do you know I’ve already been here for over an hour? Imagine if you had to leave work early nearly every day. I’ve never seen you at a practice. I’m sure you’re plugging away at the office. But I’m out here, on the field, trying my best to teach these children how to play a sport they love, while my bank account suffers.”

It’s a common misconception that coaches work at jobs that aren’t as important as others. How else would they able to take so much time away from their desks? Can a doctor coach? Can an attorney? In fact, coaches are just like other parents; they just make coaching a priority and work extra hours at night or on the weekends to make up the missed time.

“I know. I make mistakes. In fact, maybe I’m not even that great of a coach. But I treat the kids fairly and with respect. I am pretty sure they like coming to my practices and games, and without me or someone like me, there’d be no team for them to play on. I’m part of this community too and it’s no picnic being out here on this stage like this. It’s a lot easier back there with the other parents where no one is second guessing you.” 

One of the biggest problems in youth sports is the focus on winning at all costs. Clearly this coach understands that he is being judged (however unfairly) by a win-loss ratio. Although the coach doesn’t mention the age of the kids on the team, it appears they are old enough to have some skills and are in a league that plays real games.

The other interesting point is that “there’d be no team….” In small communities, one of the biggest impediments to youth sports is finding willing coaches. Not skilled ones, but willing ones. Every sport has training programs for parent coaches. The problem is finding the parents who will devote the time.

“And I also know you think I give my son or daughter unfair advantages. I try not to. In fact, have you ever considered that maybe I’m harder on him than on the others? I’m sure he hears plenty of criticism at school from classmates, who hear it from you at home, about what a lame coach I am.

“And if, even unconsciously, my kids are getting a slight advantage because I know them better and trust their abilities, is that the worst thing in the world, considering the sacrifice I’m making? Trust me, I want to win too. And if your son or daughter could guarantee we’d do that, I’d give them the chance.” 

Parents who coach their own kids are almost always the “my kid’s the greatest” coach or the “I’m going to prove that I’m not favoring my own kid” kind. Parent coaches should not be expected to put their own kid at a disadvantage simply because he or she is coaching. Other, non-coach, parents need to understand that the coach’s kid may actually be one of the better ones on the team and that equal playing time does not equal favoritism.

“I want to win, too. And if your son or daughter could guarantee we’d do that, I’d give them the chance.” This statement by the volunteer coach indicates that he, too, is motivated by winning. Of the entire letter, this part is the most concerning from a parent’s point of view because the coach contradicts his earlier statement about fairness.

“After this game is over, I’ll be the last one to leave. I have to break down the field, put away all the equipment and make sure everyone has had a parent arrive to pick them up. There have been evenings when my son and I waited with a player until after dark before someone came to get them.

“Many nights I’m sure you’ve already had dinner and are relaxing on the couch by the time I finally kick the mud off my shoes and climb into my car, which hasn’t been washed or vacuumed for weeks. Why bother cleaning it during the season? Do you know how nice it would be if, just once, after a game one of you offered to carry the heavy gear bag to my car or help straighten up the field?”

Coaches can alleviate some of that physical labor of coaching by asking for a team or equipment manager. However, the letter writer was correct in that coaches are always the last to leave the field and often have garages full of equipment, lost and found, and dirty shoes. 

“If I sound angry, I’m not. I do this because I love it and I love being around the kids. There are plenty of rewards and I remind myself that while you’re at the office working, your kid is saying something that makes us all laugh or brings a tear to my eye. The positives outweigh the negatives. I just wish sometime those who don’t choose to volunteer their time would leave the coaching to the few of us who do.” 

Although the coach writes that he’s not angry, it appears that he is. And, rightfully so. But his other point — that he gets to spend quality time with all of the kids whose parents are not participating — is valid. 

Coaching youth sports today is a high-stakes game, depending on the sport and the community. Parents are under a lot of pressure to perform, are often under-trained in first-aid and sacrifice a great deal of time and energy to helping kids have positive experiences.

For more sport-specific information about how to coach, check with your sport’s national governing body.

Lacrosse

Soccer

Football

Baseball

Softball

Volleyball

Hockey

Basketball

The Positive Coaching Alliance


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Jenni McNamara

With over ten years’ experience in the youth sports as a parent, coach, administrator, and fan, Jenni McNamara has seen how good sportsmanship can positively affect kids and families, but also how poor sportsmanship can have a devastating impact on their physical and emotional health.

As a volunteer with USLacrosse, first on its Youth Council and now on its Board Development Committee, Jenni has seen a national trend toward integrating sportsmanship into activities at the youngest ages. Her company, CHILL Manager ™, provides tools for organizations looking to enhance their sportsmanship efforts.

She writes a blog on sportsmanship at www.chillmanager.blogspot.com and her training information can be found on her website: www.chillmanager.org.

 

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