Maybe the youth league reached out to you in desperation. Maybe you volunteered. How ever it happened, you found yourself coaching your son or daughter's team. Before you knew it, you were knee-deep in playbooks, video, drills and strategy, parents and kids hanging on your every word and looking to you for direction. You've acquired a new hat. No longer just Dad, you are COACH.
This can be one of the most rewarding times of your parent life. A time to bond, spend quality time with your child. You can watch him develop as an athlete. You can encourage her leadership skills. You have the best seat in the house from which to witness your child's greatest athletic successes or foibles. As fantastic as it sounds, it is not without risk of pitfalls. Through diligence and careful attention to your own behaviors, as well as your child's, you can ensure the experience is one you and your child will cherish for a lifetime.
So how do you manage your hats? How do you embody the best of "Coach" and "Dad?" It is tough, if not impossible to fully separate the two. But it is possible to adjust the volume of one or the other just a bit.
A good starting point would be to ask your child how he or she feels about you coaching the team. If he is less than enthusiastic, talk about his reasons. Does she think you will be harder on her? Is he afraid you will expect so much and he will never measure up? Maybe it is the opposite reaction. She is thrilled. Why? Is she excited to spend more time with you? Does he think he will get to play more or get special treatment?
Understanding these reasons can help you to define what kind of coach you want to be, and what type of learning or training environment you want to offer. This plan should be one that you explain at the beginning of the season, to both players and parents.
But first, have the talk with your child. Let him know you have two hats, "Dad" and "Coach." When you are at practice or games, the "Dad" hat comes off and the "Coach" hat goes on. Let her know what that means. No special treatment, but no exceedingly higher expectations either. You might want to ask what your child expects from a coach. If your child is very young, she may not be able to articulate this. If your child is older or has played for other coaches before, ask him what he liked or didn't like about other coaches' styles. While you can't necessarily custom-make yourself to suit your child's needs, since you bring your own experiences and personality to the job, it may be helpful to know what has or hasn't worked with your child. Likely he isn't the only one who felt that way.
In your discussion with the team and parents, outline clearly what your expectations are of each of them. Let them know how you plan to run your practices, what level of involvement and commitment you expect from them, and what you will give, yourself, as their coach. Tell them in clear terms that if they are committed, participate fully and do well, they will play and will be successful. Let them know, too, that if they fall short in these areas, they may not play as much or be as successful. Some coaches, for example, have a rule about being on time to practice (this shows commitment). If a player is late or misses a practice without valid reason, he or she may not play at all in the game, or at least may not start. As with parenting and making rules for your children at home, a coach should be clear with expectations, and with consequences. When these are laid out, they are objective and clear cut. Everyone follows them, including your own child. This can help you to avoid the appearance of favoritism, which is often perceived by others, parents and teammates alike.
Assuming you have passed these hurdles, you are now COACH. Your child knows the rules and expectations. Oh yes, you are also DAD. The line between the two can start to blur anytime ("Hey, that was an illegal hit on my son!!" "Did my daughter just totally blow that scoring chance?"). Resist, resist, resist. If you need to, have some word or phrase that can bring your mind back to Coach-mode. For the time being, all players on your team are just that. You as coach will be equally excited or concerned no matter which player is involved. Encourage everyone, often. Provide positive feedback often. Teach, redirect, inspire everyone, often.
So when do you get to wear the "Dad" hat again? You can decide on a physical line, if that will help, when "Coach" turns into "Dad." The parking lot, the car, leaving the sidelines. Whatever works for you and your child. Let your child know what that point is, and stick to it. No post-game analysis from "Dad." No tirades in the car on the way home. No strategy session. Those are the responsibilities of "Coach." No, "Dad" has a different job. Support. Encourage. Understand your child and what he needs. Allow a wind-down period before even talking about the game. Maybe wait until your child brings it up, whenever that might be. If you let your child know you are there to talk when they decide to talk, they will feel more free to open up. It will be on their terms.
When they do talk, listen. Ask open-ended questions. Encourage them to think. "What do you think the team did well today?" "What was your favorite part of the game?" "What did you do best?" "What made you proud?" Let them know you are there for them anytime they want tips or extra help with any skills they might want to work on. You can even ask them what they thought you, as coach, did well or poorly, too!
If your child wants to talk about specific players, let them--but be sure you, in "Dad" mode still, temper your own comments. It is best not to discuss specific players' performances or any "insider" information you may have. This can put your child in a very uncomfortable position the next time she is with her teammates, knowing "secrets" you may have shared or opinions you offered. If you and your child discuss strategy, do so in general terms, again without mentioning specific players. Remember here you are "Dad."
Above all, let your child know that you love them unconditionally, and that this is in no way tied to their performance on the field. The double-whammy of feeling they let down both coach and dad in one, can be an overwhelming feeling for kids. Encourage your child with praise, reward with smiles, hugs, high-fives. Offer feedback at every opportunity, in a positive way, and be specific. You may even notice your child emerging as a leader on the team, thanks to your example of commitment. Teammates may start to look to the "coach's kid" for guidance. This would be an excellent thing to point out.
And enjoy yourself. Time is fleeting. The days may seem to go slowly, but the years fly by. Your mini-mite will be a full-grown behemoth before you know it. Embrace this opportunity for the gift that it is. Good luck!