Coaching from the stands: Offer support, not instruction

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness in November/December 2008.

Last weekend, while coaching at a recreation volleyball league, I saw a familiar scene. The teams scrimmaged at the end of the one-hour clinic. A 7th grader stepped to the service line, and her father said something to her. She served underhand because the game was close, and she wanted to get her serve in the court. Her father told her to serve overhand. She looked at her father and dismissed him. She served again. The next time her serve came around, her father implored her to serve overhand. She did. She scored. She served again and missed. It happened to be game point. She said that she always misses on game-point.

This is a very recreational clinic-league. It uses the principles of “Games for Understanding” to teach basic volleyball skills to young, recreational players. The coaches on each court are volunteer parents who receive brief instructions from me, the clinician, before each drill or segment of practice. Everyone enjoys the experience, and it lacks the performance pressure and intensity of a typical youth league. The atmosphere is more like a group of kids at the park for a picnic.

This changes, of course, when the parents on the sideline send different messages than the parent-coaches and the clinician. Even in such a relaxed atmosphere, the player felt pressure when her dad started to tell her what to do, and she hesitated to try a less automated skill (serving overhand) because of the game setting and her father’s presence. According to Zajonc’s Theory of Social Facilitation:

  • Audiences increase arousal
  • Arousal inhibits learning new responses
  • Arousal facilitates the performance of well-rehearsed responses.

When an audience (parents) is present, players tend to play harder and perform better in skills which they have mastered. However, the audience hinders development, as players tend to do what they can already do rather than try new skills. Even though her dad encouraged her to serve overhand, she hesitated because the crowd’s presence created a game-like environment.

We learn better in practices than in games because we are more open to trying new skills, while games create pressure to perform. To develop a new skill, we must be willing to make mistake after mistake. If we are unwilling to make mistakes, we will only do what we can already do, which limits improvement.

When a parent instructs from the sideline, most kids react negatively, especially internally. Rather than concentrate on their performance, they internally focus on their parent, trying to please or ignore the parent. Their attention leaves their task, and they have an internal monologue about their parent and how they wish their dad would be quiet or leave them alone.

On my basketball team last year, I had a girl who could not function with her father in the stands. In practice, she excelled. In games, she struggled. She only heard his voice and constantly looked toward him for approval. When he showed his disappointment, she tensed up even further to the point where she missed numerous lay-ups because she was so tight, she lost all fine motor control.

Parents play a large role in a young athlete’s development. However, they do not always play a positive role. In Little League, our star pitcher was Robbie. He was bigger and stronger than the other kids, and his dad certainly had Major League dreams. His dad sat behind home plate and yelled at Robbie after every pitch. He attended every camp with his son and remembered bits and pieces and yelled them at Robbie. He yelled “Release point” all the time. The other teams joked about it.

Robbie was by far the most erratic pitcher in the league. He would throw a one-hitter and we would lose because he would walk 10 batters in a row. The whole league was scared of him because he threw hard and had zero control of his pitches. He literally threw one off the top of the backstop in a game! I don’t know for sure that Robbie would have performed better if his father sat quietly in the stands because his father was omnipresent all the way through Little League.

I played All-Stars with Robbie one year and his dad was the only non-coach parent to attend any of the practices; every other parent dropped off her kid and returned two hours later to pick up her son. Robbie’s dad followed him everywhere he went. If he ever allowed Robbie to relax and just pitch, he may have developed into a good pitcher. Instead, as soon as he hit high school, they put him in right field.

Playing youth sports is all about exploring and discovery. It is, after all, play. Parents and coaches often inhibit the child’s play in an effort to help the child. Rather than instructing the child on every pitch or yelling at his daughter to serve overhand, good sports-parents allow the child to control his or her environment. The athlete needs to make decisions and develop the skills, and parents need to support the development, rather than attempting to dictate it.

When parents become too controlling, kids lose interest. Sports like skateboarding are on the rise because they lack adult interference. Kids learn by watching other skaters and trying tricks on their own, and they enjoy the experience. Skaters help fellow skaters; it is a collaborative sport rather than a competitive sport.

When I watched the X-Games this summer, Bob Burnquist said after his turn on the mega ramp that the competition was not about winning, but about pushing the limits of what people think possible or what their bodies can do. That is a true sporting pursuit and the reason that most people play sports and compete.

We like challenges, we like learning and we like pushing ourselves to see what we are capable of doing. Unfortunately, in many mainstream sports, the behavior of coaches and parents creates an environment where players want to do what they can do or they want to play an easy opponent to win.

Kids now grow up in an environment where parents hold their kids back to give them a better chance at sporting success; when I was a child, parents fought to move their kids into older age groups to give their child a better chance at sporting success: my parents lied about my age to enroll me in my first basketball camp two years early so I could compete against 7th graders when I was a 5th grader. Today, I train 11-year-olds who play against 13-year-olds, but it’s in the 11-year-old age bracket, not because they are playing up!

While parents should try to give their kids an opportunity to be successful, oftentimes, that calls for the parent to do nothing. It means supporting the child from the stands during a game rather than barking instructions. It means encouraging the athlete’s self-discovery, regardless of the sport, so it retains its fun and innocence, much like skateboarding, rather than resembling the pressure to succeed of professional sports.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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