By Alex Flanagan
You know the email. It’s the one you receive at the start of the sports season from the head coach of your child’s team. It’s a letter promising his or her priority will be for the kids to have fun. The second goal will be to teach them some of the great life lessons sports have to offer along the way.
You automatically trust the author of this email, even though you probably don’t even know their last name. You are sure they have your child’s best interest at heart. They are a coach, after all. Which you don’t stop to consider is only, by definition, a person who instructs players in the fundamentals of a sport and directs team strategy. Not an educator. Not a person trained in child psychology or in working with children at all. Whatsoever. You forgo a family vacation or buying the new set of tires your car so desperately needs so your kid can wear a jersey with the word “elite” or “premier” on it.
Your child now spends more time with this coach than with you. All you ever do is drive, like a chauffeur, to and from practices, clinics, and games. It’s okay because you and your child are part of a special group now and it feels good. Maybe, fingers crossed, if your child can stay with it and do well, who knows – it’s possible they just might end up with a scholarship or at the very least playing this sport will somehow help them get into a good college.
Then you sit through the first game and maybe another before you start wondering if anyone else is seeing what you are seeing. How has this kind and seemingly rational adult, morphed into the crazy, screaming and demeaning coach Walter Matthau plays in the movie the Bad News Bears? You question it. “Is this just a tough coach being hard on the kids or is it crossing the line?”
Your kid isn’t having fun. Yet. “They will,” you tell yourself. Even if they don’t, you remind yourself that nothing good comes without discipline and hard work. So at the very least, your child will learn a good work ethic.
Eventually your kid starts complaining and making excuses about why they don’t want to go. First, it’s practices. Then it is games. Their stomach hurts. They tell you they have to study for a test. You put your foot down and make them go. You lecture them about how you won’t allow them to let their teammates down. Here come the tears and the stress and the anxiety. You don’t totally believe them and instead secretly think your child might be lazy. So, you search the internet and you read books and articles about how to motivate them.
You hire another coach – someone from an academy or who runs a skill clinic, thinking if you help your child master the fundamentals, they might realize their potential. But your child dreads this even more. They are tired. They want to play Fortnite or spend time on Instagram. You feel like you are being a good parent because you haven’t left them any time to do that. You take them for some ice cream after games to try and make it fun. It’s not.
Now you start thinking that you know your kid, and something’s not right. So you pay closer attention. Somewhere along the line you realize you have turned your child over to another adult whose style isn’t in line with what you believe in or what any modern-day parenting expert believes in. This coach is authoritative. He insults players and singles them out when they make mistakes or miss a step. He criticizes the kids and gets mad when they do have fun or laugh with each other. He embarrasses your child and disciplines him for being late even when you called two days prior to explain you had a conflict and your child would be late. It is suddenly clear the coach plays favorites. You can see it in the eyes of the kids too. How defeated they feel when he tells them if they were smarter, practiced harder, took things more seriously, they would be better. They believe him, because he’s their coach. So, they do try harder. Deep down the kids start to wonder what’s wrong with them. Some start doubting their talent and talk about quitting. You won’t allow it. If you do you will be called out by other parents for being soft. Your child will be seen as weak and teased at school for giving up.
You are completely aware that if this coach were a math teacher, it would be not only appropriate, but your moral obligation to go report this adult’s behavior to the principal. But this is sports and we live in a culture where coaches are allowed to curse, scream and yell at kids.
You want to speak up, but if you do, you risk alienating your kid or making their situation worse. This coach who is losing it on your child and calling them less than flattering nicknames for running the wrong play or missing an open shot sees nothing wrong with his insane behavior and the effect it is having on your child. Even more heartbreaking is the school or club organizers and the other parents don’t either and you know they won’t be willing to back you up.
You go re-read that email you got at the beginning of the season. You sit down and write your own email to the coach explaining your child is miserable and that you need his help, but you don’t send it. Because you know it won’t change anything. You know by now this isn’t about your kid. This is about an adult who gains power and ego gratification from winning … and coaching. You’ve been tricked. And because in our society good parents don’t let their kids quit sports once they have committed, you are stuck. And so is your kid. So, if you are like most sports parents you remain silent and hope your kid will come out the other side okay.
Alex Flanagan co-founded I love to watch you play in 2015. She was flying home from an NFL work assignment when a learning specialist, who was sitting next to her, shared 5 reasons she shouldn’t feel guilty missing her son’s game. She shared their conversation on her own website alexflanagan.com and the response was so overwhelming it inspired her to co-create ILTWYP to help parents like herself navigate youth sports.