Who will coach your child?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, June 2008

Parents ask about picking the right coach for their child. While the Internet provides information, most content is user generated and often anonymous, so posts are as much marketing as credible recommendations. Most parents lack the time or ability to watch several coaches and choose the best one.

When people discuss the best coaches, we cite won-loss record and experience. We ignore the talents which make a coach great, and we rarely discuss the players’ needs and motivations. We view coaching as one profession. However, coaching differs greatly between levels. A college coach may succeed at the college level where much of his job is to evaluate, recruit and sign players, but these skills do not translate when coaching 10-year-olds. A youth coach may have great enthusiasm and create a great environment, but these skills may not translate to a varsity high school team.

Ettore Messina, the Head Coach of CSKA Moscow, arguably the world’s best non-NBA team, recently responded to a similar question on his blog and wrote:

“The first thing that I would consider as a father is the quality of the coach. Many parents…may be attracted by the system that focuses on the result. But there is a huge difference between playing sports on the professional level and teaching it to the youngsters. You’d better send your kid to the place where the focus is on the development of his personality and his qualities of a player, as it’s much more important at that age.

Coaching is not one thing, but a diverse set of skills. A college coach has different requirements and duties than a youth coach or a high school coach. We place more value on the college game, because it is on television, and the coaches make a lot of money, so we believe a college coach is better than a high school or youth coach. However, the college coach is better at college coaching, which differs greatly than coaching at lower levels, but he is not necessarily a superior coach. To evaluate coaches, and to pick the best coach for your child, we must differentiate the goals and objectives in the different developmental periods of a child’s life.

In a 1993 study, kids were asked what they considered fun about their sport. They answered:

  • 8-years-old: Being able to do the skill
  • 9-years-old: Learning and improving skills
  • 10-years-old: Playing with friends
  • 11-years-old: Competing with others about the same ability
  • 12-years-old: Competing against a challenging opponent
  • 13-15-years-old: Winning games

[Shi, N. and Ewing, M.E. (1993). Definitions of Fun for Youth Soccer Players.]

Coaching at these age groups is not restricted to one objective. However, coaches cannot ignore the players’ primary motivation because it does not meet their adult expectations. For 10-year-olds, playing sports is a social endeavor. A coach must understand these motivations and create a social environment, while a coach with 15-year-olds faces a different challenge.

In Benjamin Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People, he describes three distinct phases of a child’s development. A child’s needs differ in each phase; therefore the coaching style and objectives differ from phase to phase.

In the Early Years, a coach’s most important asset is his engaging personality and positive attitude. Creating a positive, fun environment where the athletes feel secure and comfortable is more important than teaching ability or winning games. If a coach makes every player feel important, he has succeeded. During this phase, it is important for the player to develop the passion for playing the game, as without the passion for playing, he is unlikely to work hard enough to become a great player. A coach who inspires a love of the game during the Early Years accomplishes far more than anyone realizes.

Messina wrote:

Until kids turn 12-13 it’s not only sport, it’s more a game. By game I mean something that can be played with a lot of mistakes. It should involve a lot of fun. It’s like in school when you experience all the fun when you start to read, to count or to discover something new. It’s more a game for the first 4-5 years. Then it becomes more serious and you should start asking those kids to be much more selective in their understanding and their learning. You start pressing them a little bit more to organize their ability to study. The same in sports, it should not be about fundamentals until at least 10. For sure, you can teach your children to know their body through the use of the ball: how to catch, how to roll, how to run with the ball etc.”

In the Middle Years, teaching is important. During this phase, players need a coach who teaches them how to play the game and gives them the tools for future success. The quality of a coach’s feedback determines his worth, as a player must learn the proper skill execution during this phase.

Messina warns that “you should not hurry to make your kid a pro athlete that has four or more trainings a week and dedicates a lot of time to sports. Personally, I think, this should not happen until the kid turns 14-15. Young kids that are exposed to a very high level of pressure physically, technically and mentally, usually, cannot stand this kind of pressure. I would like to find a teacher for my kid who will be able to offer a reasonable level of challenge to the young players and develop some kind of group mentality, still respecting everybody’s personality.”

During the Late Years, players need a “finishing” coach, a coach who can bring together the player’s passion and fundamental skills to create a great performance. During this phase, sports change from a fun, learning environment to a more competitive atmosphere where winning and performance are important.

So, how do you select a coach for your son or daughter? First, watch your son or daughter and decide on his or her phase of development. Look for those characteristics in a coach. When your son or daughter finishes practice or a game, is he or she happy? Messina wrote that he looks at his son’s mood and the team’s togetherness. “If I see that my child comes home perfectly adequate and most of the times positive, and his team is playing with a good sense of togetherness, for me that’s the sign that you might want to stay with this coach.”

I spoke to a guy who runs a youth basketball league, and he said that he had three parents approach him and tell him that traveling team coaches were telling them that if they do not start their child on a traveling team now (as nine-year-olds), their child will never make it to high school basketball. In the business of youth sports, this is a familiar sales pitch. Businessmen play to the hopes and dreams of parents who want to provide their children with every possible opportunity.

However, is travel ball necessary for nine-year-olds? Is it beneficial? Why does a nine-year-old need a travel team? Is it a more positive, fun environment for the player? Does the coach make every player feel important? Does the coach inspire a love of the game? If the travel team accomplishes these goals better than a recreational or neighborhood team than the travel team is worth a look. However, if the travel team is like most travel teams, where winning games takes precedence, does a nine-year-old need that performance pressure? Many believe it toughens the young athlete and helps his ultimate success. However, what is the ultimate goal of youth sports: to produce professional athletes or to provide a fun, positive experience where kids can make friends, learn sports and develop their mind and body?

Picking the right coach for your child is often difficult because so much focus and attention is placed on winning or the system the coach employs. However, depending on the age and phase of development, these things matter very little. When picking a coach, look at the overall environment and see if it meets your child’s developmental needs.

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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