Not every grassroots coach is going to be the next John Wooden
| 9 min read
While each coach is unique, there are recognizable categories that most fall into. We parents need to evaluate the good, the bad and the don’t-go-there so that we can confidently decide which one will work best for our kids.
Here are 13 you’re bound to encounter.
How about a former high-level player, such as a professional of international repute (domestic in a pinch)? THE EX. This person has a resume dripping with experience and accolades, a shoe contract, and surgical knees as proof. There is no question that the EX knows the game, but playing it and teaching it to kids, often very young ones, are not necessarily compatible talents. Even if he has the patience and stamina to get eye-to-eye with a scrum of 8-year-olds, can he distill his years of sophisticated drill work to a squirmy, attention-challenged audience? With an EX, the initial excitement of having a celebrity coach can wear off from his side or yours, with the players left dangling in the middle.
The INTERNATIONAL is a subset of the EX. These are the former pros that competed in leagues across Europe, Latin America and Africa. Parents swoon over the accent, which even if indecipherable, conveys legitimacy. As with the EX, we have to sweep back the curtain and evaluate the entire package. Sometimes things get lost in translation.
There’s MR. KNOW IT ALL. With the ramrod posture of Washington standing in the bow of the boat, confidence oozes from this character, and even without much wind, it can swell into arrogance. One of his introductory lines is, “I’ve been around this game for 40 years,” even if he’s barely 30. Because he knows everything, he’s not shy about sharing his knowledge, which can test one’s patience, and after a while, endurance. He likes to hear himself talk, so you’ll often see his players sitting on their soccer balls or standing around, shifting from leg to leg.
A more enlightened coach knows to speak sparingly. Keeping the players active and engaged, learning by doing rather than by being lectured, is a more effective method. The difference between Mr. Know It All and a coach that really does know his stuff, is that the REAL DEAL doesn’t feel compelled to advertise it. Real Deals are generally a quieter breed, with a genuine smile instead of a superior smirk.
Beware the NARRATOR. This coach disgorges a nonstop drone, a verbal “Flight of the Bumblebee,” directing each player’s every action and movement. You’ll hear him shout, “Chris, get your head up! Cameron’s open in the middle. All right, Cameron, find Noah. Good. Noah, man on behind you! See, Max. Max, Archie’s open for the cross.” Screaming now, “Archie, make the run. Max, hit it! Archie, TAKE THE SHOT!”
His game-long urgency, which keeps his players at DEFCON 5, robs them of initiative, creativity and the freedom to make mistakes. With his voice reverberating in their head, how can they hear themselves think? Where is the space for them to learn to solve the problems that a fast-moving game will roll their way? Rather than teach his players necessary tools, he infantilizes them and keeps them dependent upon him. Should this coach be absent from a game, the sideline falls silent and the team goes to pieces. Unaccustomed to listening to, or trusting, themselves, the players run around like the proverbial headless chicken.
A hybrid of the Know-It-Alls and the Narrators is the CRITIC, though knowledge and chatter are hardly prerequisites for inclusion in this clan. These folks find fault with everything. If they’re not sniping at their players, they’re teeing off on the officials or grumbling about the parents. In their parboiled brains, their way is superior to everyone else’s, and their criticism wrings excellence from their players.
There are long-time Critics who have generated considerable success, which doesn’t absolve them from being unpleasant to deal with and unbearable to play for. No kid likes being picked apart, yet parents continue to flock to Critic-run teams because they get the wins.
And then there is the EVANGELICAL… For the Evangelicals, soccer is an all-consuming, lifelong journey that carries one from youthful ignorance to an exalted state of grace. All it takes is commitment. Not the regular, run-of-the-mill, 20-other-things-on-your-plate, half-assed, commitment. No, the kind of commitment that requires a monastic dedication that eschews all earthly distractions in favor of learning, training, competing, and repeating the same again and again, year-round forever and ever.
Despite their own love for the game, Evangelicals lack perspective. They can’t see that the majority of their players are looking for a pastime, not a be all and end all passion. And in his insistence on focus, commitment and specialization, the Evangelical coach can drain the life out of a wonderful experience.
One coach your kids will have fun with is the BUDDY. He’s a blast to be around, and everyone – kids, parents, even the referees – flock to his sideline. He’s comfortable and relaxed, and his charm puts everyone at ease. The GOOD BUDDY knows the game, is a strong teacher, and he promotes an atmosphere that’s loose and light. Players look forward to practices, at the end of which, they fall back into the car, exhausted, but happy. Then there’s his “evil twin,” the BAD BUDDY. He, too, is committed to fostering a fun environment. But where the Good Buddy understands the alchemy of recreation-infused learning, the Bad Buddy is flying blind. He may be an innocent bystander snared by a league desperate for volunteers, or a divorced dad looking to share quality time with his kid, but his pitch to the team runs like this:
“I need to apologize up front. I don’t really know what’s going on. I’ve never played ______ (fill in the sport) but my kid really really really wanted me to coach. So, I figured, why not? At the least, we’ll have a great time.”
The Bad Buddy knows his limitations but presumes that an honest effort should suffice. He’ll be a booster and an entertainer, perhaps even a skillful party planner, but under his watch, most players will tread water, and many may lose interest. The parents with a short fuse certainly will.
The quote, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” widely attributed to Green Bay Packers’ Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi, captures today’s generation’s memory of the iconic football figure. He also said, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” Get the picture? This single-minded focus on winning motivates a litany of faux Lombardis, the FLOMBARDIS, whose numbers populate the pros on down to the youth ranks.
People tend to respect the “win at all costs” coach. Even as they balk at his methods, they relish the results. Parents who believe that winning on the field equates to winning in life are drawn to these teams. A Flombardi drills his players with military precision, either barking like a martinet or intimidating with a scowl. He is Scrooge-like in his approval, and players and parents dive for the few crumbs he drops. The genes for humor and warmth didn’t crack his genetic code so fun will be in short supply. But the team will win.
The WHINER also wants to win, but he doesn’t have the chops to develop his players, so he dons the mantle of the victim instead. The game is rigged. My team is young. How will we score? Five-year-olds are more mature than the Whiner.
The Whiner starts early and never gives up. Through the season, he will continue to complain about his players, while groaning about game times, the unfairness of the competition, the unhinged demeanor of the opposing coaches, the bias of the officials, the uselessness of his team parents, the league’s lack of responsiveness, and anything else that irks him in the moment. What he won’t do is teach his players skills, strategy, sportsmanship and everything else critical to their understanding of the game. And if the team happens to win all of its games, the Whiner will complain about the size of the trophies.
We see far too many SCREAMERS in youth sports. Actually, we hear them before we see them. Screamers tend to have a reputation for being mean; their volume can definitely frighten younger kids. I prefer to think of them as emphatic communicators who scream because they don’t think their players are listening. In truth, their players have struggled to withstand their eardrum blistering onslaught for so long, tuning them out has become a survival mechanism … which causes the coaches to keep screaming.
A MARTYR wears his suffering in silence, albeit with great pride. Still, it doesn’t hurt his reputation to have someone notice the effort he puts in while deeply aggrieved.
Anyone can get caught in the trap of martyrdom – even me. When my daughter woke up and realized that she was the only girl on a basketball team with nine rampaging 6-year-old boys, she abruptly, if unsurprisingly, decided her afternoons and weekends could be more engagingly spent with Barbie and Ken. I soldiered on as the coach.
If the Martyr remains focused on the mission, his players will have a good experience. My boys had fun each week, even if I had to stifle my inner groan every Tuesday and Saturday afternoon. None of them had an inkling that I’d been a martyr to the cause of coaching. They deserved all of my energy, focus and attention no matter what, and they got it. My advice, if you’re going to be a Martyr, take it all the way — be a martyr and a professional, too.
And you thought you were just signing your kid up for sports. Who knew that the categories of coaches could rival the number of flavors served at Baskin Robbins. For all their quirks, those mentioned above share one important quality: They have a heart, the most essential quality of all.
Excerpted from What Size Balls Do I Need: A Road Map for Survival in the Dizzying World of Youth Sports by Steve Morris.