Kicking butt and taking names - is my kid's coach a jerk?
November 30, 2009 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Help this mom understand the difference, in coaching youth sports, between being competitive and being an asshole.

The littlest Darling is turning nine on Wednesday and playing basketball in a U10 rec league at the Y. This is his fourth year at the Y and his second year in U10, but it's our first experience with a pair of coaches whose style really rubs me the wrong way.

Being neither a dude nor particularly competitive, I'd appreciate some perspective from those of you who have been through this before - so I can figure out if I should suck it up or request a new team placement, stat.

Both coaches yell, a lot - pretty much constantly through the whole practice. Practices are for 90 minutes, rather than the 60 suggested by the Y. The pace seems frenzied to me, and they blow their whistles constantly, and there's a lot of "No, no, no - didn't you hear what I just said?" The boys don't look like they're having much fun. I'm certainly not having fun watching.

I had a brief conversation with another mom last week, who said that the main coach also coaches two other teams. She said, "Coaching basketball is his thing, and he's kind of obsessed with winning." The guy isn't abusive towards the boys, but he's very tough - "like the Army, I guess," in the words of my son.

The last two coaches he had ran (what I thought were) disciplined and active practices, but they focused on teaching the boys skills and encouraging sportsmanship. They took a much more positive (dare I say nurturing?) approach.

The way I see it, my son's got the rest of his life to be yelled at by some jerk. For now, he's nine and it's the Y, for goodness' sake, and I'm paying (not a huge amount, but still), so do I go with my gut and ask that he be reassigned? Or am I overreacting/projecting? I'm still feeling my way through this boy parenting and team sports thing.

What characteristics do good coaches have? And what defines a bad coach? How much focus on competition and winning is appropriate for third graders?

Thanks in advance for the advice, and apologies for the tome.
posted by Sweetie Darling to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total)
How does your son feel about the practices? If he enjoys them, then it's not a problem for now. Some kids love to feel that pressure and drive to win. If he hates the practice, regardless of whether the coaching style is proper, you should place him somewhere else.

In my opinion, this much focus on competition is not appropriate for Y participants in the third grade- but I'm coming from a 'kid who hated all the sports his parents put him in's perspective, and not a parental one.
posted by Think_Long at 6:58 PM on November 30, 2009

Even were I inclined to defend the pathetic spectacle of an uptight middle-aged dweeb trying to relive his youth by making basketball his "thing", the blunt fact is that yelling at nine and ten year-olds doesn't do anything but upset them. This guy isn't a good coach, and if this is the personality he's known for he probably isn't a good parent either.

See if you can get the other two coaches to consider expanding their times.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:59 PM on November 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

Abuse is abuse, it sounds the same in any situation. I would follow your gut feelings on this, hopefully there are other venues for your kids to participate where the coaches are more enlightened.
posted by HuronBob at 7:01 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a difference between raising one's voice with enthusiasm during practice and the sharp report of a yell. This guy saying "no" like that indicates his head is all wrong about coaching kids. Rather than shutting down and shaming like that, his first response should be corrective action to avoid whatever happened.

Just because winning is this guy's "thing" doesn't mean it's anything resembling the right tack for him to be taking with nine year olds. I've seen plenty of coaches who get in on the action and motivate their players to perform well without that winning is everything mentality.

Ask your kids if they're having fun, and let them know that it's ok if they aren't (sometimes kids are afraid to express discontent in situations where a would-be alpha male is involved). Your gut is probably right to have them reassigned.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:08 PM on November 30, 2009

I'd pull my son out unless he was obviously having the time of his life at it.
posted by alms at 7:11 PM on November 30, 2009

Data point: in the junior development league for Australian rules football "Auskick" they don't even keep score during the games.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:19 PM on November 30, 2009

As a counterpoint I learned a lot more and improved the most when I had more demanding coaches, that being said I am not your son.

It really depends on whether or not he is showing the kids what they are doing wrong, encouraging improvement, and reinforcing the fundamentals. If your kid seems to be improving from previous years then I would keep him in.
posted by BobbyDigital at 7:27 PM on November 30, 2009

I think you should consider what the other kids will be saying about your son if he is transferred to another team. If he is ok with the practices as is, he should stick it out and ask not to be placed on that coaches team next year. I suspect that 10 year old boys will ridicule your son for quiting or not being tough enough to handle Coach Yellalot's practices. I think you should also consider if your son is learning backetball or getting better. There are many ways to coach and probably most are better than Coach Yellalot's method for 10yr olds, but if it is working it might be worth it in the long run. It is not a method I would use on that team in that situation.

I coach 3 teams currently (each of my three children) and I treat each team differently. My daughter's rec team is more of a social event. We do practice basketball, but team practice time is spent socializing as well as drilling. I think we lost all 10 games last year, but every player is coming back for more and there are requests to be on our team. We simply have fun and refuse to let basketball or winning get in the way. It took me a little while to adjust to it, as I am competitive, but a couple of "let it go Dad"s from my daughter and I realized that no one would enjoy themselves if I tried to drill them into winning. The league champs last year have only 5 out of 12 players returning.

One of my sons is very good and so is his team. It is a travel team. It plays about 30 games a season. We have 3 and sometimes 4 events (practice or games) a week. We play in two different leagues. We work the team hard. We expect and demand on time attendance, wearing of their practice jerseys and certain disciplined behavior at all times including waiting in the halls silently while awaiting the gym to empty. While I am sometimes loud, it is always when encouraging. For example, I will yell at one of the players to shoot because he is reluctant even though he is quite capable of shooting and making the shot. I would say something like, "Steven! Shoot. The. Ball. I KNOW you can make that shot and I KNOW you work hard enough getting open that you DESERVE to take the shot even if you miss it." Playing time is not guaranteed on that team, but I will play any player that works hard in practice and is making the most of his talents even if that talent is going to put a victory in jeopardy.

My other son plays in a rec league. There is guaranteed playing time and sort of an inclusive intent to the league. There are about 12 games per year on Saturday mornings. I run the same drills as I do for my other team, but I expect a lot of mistakes. I will exhort anyone to play harder or to play as hard as they can, but will never publicly chastise a mistake. In fact, I encourage mistakes if they are trying to do something that is an appropriate basketball play/move/decision even if they are not yet ready to do it skills wise. I would rather they try and fail than not try or back down. My number one goal is to have fun. Then learn basketball and then hope to score one more point than out opponent.

All three approaches work because of the team and the league's intent. It sounds like your son is in a rec league that is not as competitive as a travel league. I think the coach should recognize this and adapt.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:31 PM on November 30, 2009 [5 favorites]

I coached soccer for thirteen years, all the way from seven-year-olds to middle school aged. The short answer is that this is no way to coach nine-year-olds. You have three choices. 1)Leave your son in there and teach him to understand that the coach is doing it his way and sometimes his way is not fun. 2) Ask the Y whether the coach is coaching the way that the Y considers proper. 3) Ask that your son be transferred to another team. Each is fraught with danger.

Choice 1 risks making your son miserable and turned off for good. Choice 2 risks you being characterized as a "meddling mom." Choice 3 risks your son being teased by others for transferring out. My own choice would be No.2.

In all of the time I was coaching, teams I coached only had one losing season, yet I never used the word "win" in front of the kids. I always encouraged them to play their best and to act always as a team. We worked on fundamentals, yes. But striving for a personal best coupled with accepting your teammates failings really gets better results. I held a mandatory parents meeting before first practice and laid out my coaching philosophy for them and invited them to transfer their kid(s) if they disagreed. Only one father (who wanted his son to be in Pop Warner and Soccer at the same time) ever transferred his son.
posted by Old Geezer at 8:02 PM on November 30, 2009

he army style coaching could be good or bad. It depends on what he thinks about the army. You could have another talk with your son. State the facts. State what you observe without drama. Ask him how he feels about the practices.

It sounds like he likes basketball a lot since this his fourth year but he shouldn't have to participate in an extracurricular activity he isn't enjoying. View him as an adult in this situation. Give him the freedom to do what he wants with his free time. Maybe he wants to stay with this team. If so, allow him. If he is not enjoying it, allow him to quit (or think about it, or wait it out, or whatever he wants to do) without question. You might feel uncomfortable with these guys but he could feel fine. If he has been treated fairly and kindly throughout his life he will know, and hopefully communicate, if this coaching feels disrespectful. If he wanted to quit, would he say so? Is he dragging his feet? Is he saying that he doesn't want to go, or looking forward to practices? Does he seem unhappy before or after practices? Does he feel obligated to stick with it because of parental pressure? If not, I would leave him be and keep an eye on things.

It sounds like the team is still practicing and hasn't had an official game yet. Once the games start you'll be able to see if winning is the only thing to these coaches. (Does your league have participation rules? The Y usually does.) The characteristics you've mentioned lead me to wonder, if your kid isn't any "good", will he be stuck on the bench? You could ask the other parents what they know about this. My kid has seen his fair share of the bench. Most of the time he wasn't lonely on the bench and had fun chatting with the other kid or kids on the pine. It's all about how the kid is enjoying his sport. It's not about our anxieties, worries, or fears.
posted by Fairchild at 8:03 PM on November 30, 2009

Does your kid care a lot about winning? And does the coach have a winning record? There's a continuum, see, between being a "for fun" team and a "play to win" team. Play-to-win teams focus less on everyone-plays theory and more on putting the best players in until the team has a comfortable lead. Extreme play-to-win means doing whatever it takes, like yelling at officials and other stuff not usually considered appropriate for U10.

On the other hand, if this is a pretty big honor for him to be on that coach's team, and if he's good enough to not get frustrated about less teaching-type coaching and probably some sitting on the bench (if he's not the superstar), then he may want to stay in it. It's really up to him and his views on win vs. fun and whether or not he thinks that particular coach can deliver the one he's interested in.
posted by ctmf at 8:26 PM on November 30, 2009

There's a difference between being a tough, demanding coach and being a belligerent, jerk-off of a coach. As a player, I learned a lot from tough coaches - both game skills and leadership/teammate skills. I learned nothing from jerk coaches.

You've got to decide what you're dealing with here. If he's yelling and negative, then I'd lean toward his being a bad coach. There are certainly times when a coach needs to give negative feedback and correct mistakes. Sometimes that needs to be done very firmly and sternly. However, the player should come away knowing that the coach is trying to build them into a better player and teammate. If the kids just feel ripped down, then he's a bad coach.

My real gripe with the guy would be the 90 minute practice. These are kids, presumably with school and other activities. The Y recommends a 60 minute practice. The occasional long practice is to be expected. That the coaches can't field a team in the standard practice time allocation seems to be a indicator of poor coaching.
posted by 26.2 at 8:49 PM on November 30, 2009

I suspect that 10 year old boys will ridicule your son for quiting or not being tough enough to handle Coach Yellalot's practices

The stitch-in-time approach to harrassment ("put up with one bucket of shit now, to save TEN buckets later!!!") is terrible, terrible attitude focussed on blaming the victim and enforcing horrible group norms at the expense of a minority. It is predicated on a bizarre what-if and in my opinion is simply a variation of ye olde 'asking for it' meme. If the other kids tease him, that's a different problem with a different solution. Problem being teasing, not your child's team movements.

Whatever your decision is, please don't base it on the idea of what other people 'might' do.
posted by smoke at 8:52 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

A coach I had was a jerk. One of the epithets he leveled at me was that I was a "motor moron", meaning I just didn't have the coordination to do what he wanted.

This stuck with me for years. Ultimately I found out he was wrong. I missed a lot because I internalized that.

Coaches have more power than they know. If his behavior or style badly affect your son's self-image, that is not OK. Kids have a right to be nine years old, much more than they need to win.
posted by jet_silver at 9:50 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

The way I see it, my son's got the rest of his life to be yelled at by some jerk. For now, he's nine and it's the Y, for goodness' sake,

He's nine - if he's not having fun then there's not much point. I watched my son's soccer team two weeks ago play another team with a shouty coach (my son is six) and the other team (though they 'won') were not smiling at all and fouled (hard, unnecessary roughness) our team four times - to the point that one of our coaches had a few words with the other coach.

I liked our coach before, but liked him even more after seeing the effect the two different coaching styles had - smiling kids versus not-smiling kids. I had never thought about it until then.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:28 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I played competitive basketball from age six through to college and a few years of semi-pro beyond that.

At age ten I competed in a league with NO coaches and NO parent involvement allowed. The league was operated by each the local high school basketball coaches who were assisted by those schools basketball players.

Divided by grade the first 45 minutes were devoted to fundamentals.
The second 45 minutes teams, made up by the coaches, played. We were supervised, referred and helped by the high school players. Score was kept, standings listed each week and playoffs at the end determined the best team. No stress no yelling the competitive drive came from within.

There is no need for a self-important bellowing adult with a whistle to be present for 10yo's to learn and play. The emphasis on practice, travel and year round concentration on a single sport is ruining sports. It discourages less developed children from competing, creates a "jock" mentality in children who have not even hit puberty and can create the stigma of a quitter in a child who has barely started playing.

Take him to the park shoot some hoops together. Other kids will show up.

Keep a football, Frisbee and some tennis rackets in the car or on the porch.

posted by pianomover at 3:27 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

If it were me I'd ask the kid. Despite the fact that the coach may or may not be an asshole, there might be things you're not seeing -- the camaraderie of the team and the closeness that and friendships that might be developing, possibly even because said coach is an asshole.

I don't think we have to protect our kids from exposure to every asshole in the world, I think we have to protect our kids from being victimized by them, and it sounds like your son is shrugging it off.

Not a bad skill to have.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:05 AM on December 1, 2009

Thanks to everybody who's responded so far. You've given me some great factors to consider. Mr. Darling and I will have a chat with the boy tonight, and I'll try hard not to project my dislike for Coach Yellalot (love that, JohnnyGunn). We have our first game this Saturday and Mr. D and I will both go; he has a better perspective than me on boy/sports stuff. I'm also considering a low-key, off-the-record chat the sports director at the Y. Yellalot has coached there before, so they're either unaware of his approach or it falls within their spectrum of normal/ok. Perhaps it's the latter, and if so I probably would trust their judgment as they tend to be very parent-customer savvy.

If anyone else wants to weigh in, please do! I'll post an update when/if there is one.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:47 AM on December 1, 2009

I'm also considering a low-key, off-the-record chat the sports director at the Y. Yellalot has coached there before, so they're either unaware of his approach or it falls within their spectrum of normal/ok.

There is a third option here: remember that the Y is nonprofit, and, as such, doesn't pay as well as some other coaching opportunities. It may very well be that this guy is the coach because he's the one they could get.
posted by anastasiav at 6:09 AM on December 1, 2009

I agree with anastasiav, but the OP is right about the Y: they really do go to bat (sports metaphor!) for the parents and the kids more than anything. I think talking with the sports director is a great idea. You will be one of the nicest parents they speak to that week by far.
posted by Think_Long at 7:29 AM on December 1, 2009

Personal anecdote here, individual results may vary. Sorry for the length.

Back when I played in Little League baseball (grades K-6), I was on teams with strict coaches. Our practices and games had a lot of shouting and yelling, typically when us players made mistakes. When I say mistakes, I mean things like bad throws, throwing to the wrong base or cutoff, not knowing how many outs, not running the bases correctly, or simply not paying attention.

If we lost a game due to poor performance, we ran laps the next practice. Ground-ball drills were hit harder, fly-ball drills hit farther. Situational awareness was enforced again and again. Bad throw by one player during practice, all the fielders had to go through the drills again. I remember having to stay past dusk during particularly piss-poor practices, when the only light to be had was the ambient glow from the sun below the horizon.

At that time, I never considered whether or not practices were fun. Practices, to me, were work. We had to work hard so that come game time, we could perform to the best of our ability, and that was what made baseball fun. I think the emphasis throughout my experience in Little League was, pardon the cliché, that how you play the game was the most important thing. But it wasn't limited to just good sportsmanship; it meant that we needed to do things correctly if we wanted the right result. Losing the game because the other team was better than us was acceptable; losing because we lacked effort or discipline was not.

I do remember my coaches yelling things like, "What are you doing?!" or "Wake up!" Usually that was followed by having to run laps or getting a really burning line drive in my direction. I never felt that I was being picked on, though; everybody that made a stupid mistake got scoldings, even the "star players." I'm sure my facial expression wasn't one of happy times, but again I usually considered practice as work and resolved to do better. Field that ball, make that throw, get it right the first time.

And when we did get things right, practices were good. Ran less laps, got more batting practice, maybe a scrimmage instead of drills. My coaches weren't drowning us in praise, of course, but they seemed relaxed. Practices were relaxed. I don't know, you could just sense that the coaches were pleased.

That's what I took from my experience as a young kid playing competitive league sports. And I'd like to think I've carried that over to my adult years. Practice hard until you can do your job right, otherwise your mistakes will not only penalize you, but may also impact those around you. And maintain consistent performance; just because you do it right once doesn't mean you get a free ride the rest of the way.

I think you need to find out what this particular coach's philosophy is, and determine if he's trying to instill an ethic of hard work, or if he just wants to win. If he believes he's doing the former, your discussion with him can then regard his approach during practice. I'm sure you're all for your child to learn what it means to work hard, and if both you and the coach have this common ground, he might see your meeting as constructive rather than confrontational.

I will play Devil's Advocate and suggest that the "frenzied pace" is the coach trying to get the players used to "game speed." I figure the coach wants everyone to be able to think and react not only quickly, but also correctly. Basketball is a faster sport than baseball, of course, and I have limited experience witnessing an actual youth b-ball practice. But that might be what your Little Darling's coach is thinking, especially if he has to shout instructions/formations/plays over the din of the crowd during intense moments.
posted by CancerMan at 1:13 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'll cut to the chase and tell you we're staying.

Here's what swayed me:

- I talked to the sports director, who said that Yellalot has been coaching at the Y for about three years (he coaches both his son and daughter) and director knows him well. The core group of YAL's team has been with him for a couple of seasons (maybe through church league too) and director said, "I can see how somebody coming in new might be caught off guard, because he probably just dove right into it." Director has been to YAL's practices, been to his games and is comfortable with his behavior.

- Mr. D went with me to the first game and other than a quick "Yikes" in the first quarter when YAL (who sounds just like Super Dave Osborne, hee) raised his voice for the first time, we both felt that YAL did temper his yelling with a decent amount of positive reinforcement (rubbing heads when kids came off court, that kind of thing).

- I had a chat over lunch with a coworker who was involved in team sports through college and continues to play in a rec league. She said that by age 9, she was starting to take sports more seriously and wanting not just to play, but to win. That made me realize that I am probably projecting my unease with competition in general onto Little D.

- A wee bit of guilt. While several teams in the league have 10 or 11 players, ours only has eight - so our moving would make it more difficult for those remaining on the team to be successful. (Not that Little D is any great shakes, but sometimes you just need a rest.)

On the drive home from practice tonight Little D asked me, "So am I staying on this team?" and seemed relieved when I said yes. I'm obviously going to keep paying attention, though, and somehow no longer feel hesitant about talking directly to the coach if there's something I don't like or understand.

I really appreciate everyone weighing in, on both sides of the argument. Love the hive mind.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:32 PM on December 7, 2009

Just discovered ask.metafilter and am looking at archives. This response is probably too old to have any impact, but I'll post it anyway. My son was in a Y league for years. He had great coaches-- all nice guys, gentle, patient even with the kids who were kind of difficult. Don't think this was an exceptional experience-- seems like "nice" is the Y (junior Lakers) culture. If your kid feels demoralized, I'd pull him out.

Club team basketball was a different story-- coaches can be rude, even degrading. Much more competitive players and parents too. My son's good, but we don't really dig the club culture. Just got involved in a new club team with a phenomenal coach (former pac10 player) who's specializes in being cool and constructive. Nothing harsh. Really top notch coaching. Kind of think this is a rarity at the club team level. It's called Real Hoops University. What you're describing sounds more like the club level of play. Definitely not for everyone.
posted by drjmac at 10:04 PM on October 31, 2010

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