A dad of four and veteran coach shares his insights on how to make your child's next team season - whether you're coaching or cheering from the sidelines - a success.
New Yorker Sean O'Neil has coached his kids' soccer, baseball, and basketball teams over the past eight years. His children (twin boys, age 12, and two daughters, ages 6 and 8) are in season almost continuously. We chatted with O'Neil to discuss important issues coaches and parents will face this season, whether on the baseball diamond, soccer field, or basketball court. From coaching strategies to playing-time concerns, here's the drill:
Most parents are pretty concerned about whether their children are getting to play enough. What's your approach?
Playing time is tricky, because it depends on the expectations that the team has for the season's outcome. For many teams, this can correspond with age. If it's a recreational team for very young kids, for example, then winning ought to be much less emphasized. As children get older, there will be more of an emphasis on the ability of the players and whether the teams are winning. Travel teams are also more competitive, regardless of the age level. Few people would argue with those two extremes, but meeting expectations is a real challenge, and one that I've seen terribly mismanaged.
Generally, I'll lay out my expectations and policies to the kids and parents before the season begins. This lets everyone know where you're coming from and tends to reduce complaints and bad feelings. I usually remind the parents, especially when the kids are young, that although I'm sure their kid is headed to the pros, the rest of the team won't play past the 6th grade. I tell them that my sole objective is to make this as fun as possible and to keep all of them interested enough to want to play next year.
What kind of support do first-year coaches need?
You'll need volunteers to help you have a successful season. One mom or dad should be in charge of snacks and provide a snack for the first practice. Then get a snack schedule together for the remaining practices.
Assistant coaches are great to ensure little Suzie's teeth don't get bashed in by a wayward bat, or to stand just past the infielders to discreetly kick-stop any balls from hurtling too deep into the outfield. They can also help kids engage in activities, because the key is changing activities frequently - which you can't do without enough coaches to explain situations and to rotate kids through different drills.
Also, some coaches feel the need to stretch, warm-up, condition and cool down. Conditioning, in my mind, is overrated. If you're only practicing one or two times a week, taking valuable skill and playing time with wind sprints and push-ups seems like lost time. Most of the kids I've coached have boundless energy, so I'd rather put that to use by getting them to run around on the playing field building skills.
If parents get upset about decisions you make, from playing time to how you run practice, how should they address them?
I always encourage parents to come to me directly with their issues. That way we can at least deal with it. We won't always come to agreement, but at least we know where each other stand. If someone is withholding their concerns, then problems can build, and then dinner-table discussions happen in front of the child, and everything gets worse.
What are ways parents can improve their children's experience?
The worst thing is when parents' competitiveness and feelings of unfairness interfere with the sense of "team" I'm always trying to build among my players. If a kid notices their parents' unhappiness, then the kid will internalize that, and that can become cancerous.
What tips do you have for first-year coaches, especially those who coach their own children?
Check your Division I scholarship dreams at the door. Coaching your own kid is tough, and anyone who says otherwise is not being truthful. Parents tend to hold their children to a higher standard, and your history with them inevitably invades the practice field. My best advice is to step back and evaluate them fairly - but that's much easier to say than do!