How to be a good assistant coach for kids' sports
September 12, 2016 7:50 AM   Subscribe

I am the assistant coach of my daughter's (8-yo) softball team. The head coach is knowledgeable about the sport, but in my opinion can be a bit too tough on the kids, several of whom have never played before. I can see the spirit being sapped in a number of the kids and I'd like to help turn that around without undermining the head coach's authority. Is it possible to help some of these girls actually enjoy their season, or am SOL if I'm just the assistant?

This is my 8-year-old daughter's third season playing softball. The coach was an NCAA player and knows her stuff -- she is definitely qualified to impart softball know-how. However, her delivery is much better suited to older players; she doesn't seem to understand that many of the kids on the team aren't even sure if they want to be there -- and most don't even have a basic grasp of things like what it means to get an out or how you even score a run (or what a run even is!). We're definitely in a "teach the basics" league, and the head coach treats it like we're reviewing fundamentals with high-schoolers who should already know all this stuff. She is especially hard on her own daughter. Bottom line is that nobody seems to be having any fun, and I don't blame them.

The head coach is not abusive, nor is she a screamer. But I've yet to hear her offer a "good job" to one of the players without immediately following it up with "but next time, you should xyz." She doesn't understand that some of the most basic fundamentals of the sport need to be explained and explained again -- she assumes far too much prior knowledge. And the power of a compliment is diluted when it's always followed by a caveat.

My main difficulty is that we only practice once per week and I barely get any alone time with the kids due to the way the head coach schedules the practice drills. I've politely suggested potential activities to the coach that might help the kids gain knowledge (not just physical skill), but have been brushed off with a "I'm the one with the softball pedigree" attitude. I've heard at least one of the girls complain to her mom that she doesn't want to play anymore because she just doesn't understand what she's supposed to be doing on the field, which makes me sad. Also, critical issues like sportsmanship and teamwork are not even addressed by the coach.

I'm looking for suggestions on how I might be able to reach out to some of these girls who are a little beaten down and perhaps give them some coaching that is more back-to-basics and fun, but without alienating the head coach and making her feel like I'm trying to usurp her duties. Perhaps I am naive, but I never would have guessed the weird ego issues that go into coaching youth sports, but they definitely exist.

TL;DR: How do I help these girls actually have some fun but also not telegraphing to the coach, "hey, you suck."

Note -- Reason I am not a head coach myself is that the league demands (with good reason) 100% game and practice attendance, and I consistently have bouts of international travel that require me to reliably miss 1-2 weeks each season.
posted by GorgeousPorridge to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total)
I've never been a youth athletics coach or assistant coach, but here's my take from my military experience:

Most units in the (American) military have a setup where there is a commander (officer, college-educated, is supposed to take a big-picture attitude towards things) and a senior NCO (sergeant, probably less formal education, is supposed to take care of the troops). They are collectively the "command team". The best units have one of the following command team setups:

1) The Old Man -- The NCO is a yelling asshole, so the Commander gets to be the benevolent one.
NCO: "Goddamit, why aren't you guys wearing your body armor?!?"
Commander: "It's okay, sergeant, it's hot out."
And then the NCO growls as he stalks away, and the troops know that someone has their back, but they better lock it up anyway.

2) The Good Ol' Boy -- The opposite setup.
Commander: "Why aren't you soldiers wearing your body armor?!?"
NCO: "Sir, I got this. This is NCO business."
And then the Commander growls as he stalks away and the NCO says "You know how it is, guys. You two put your shit on and stand guard while everybody else digs the hole," and the troops know that someone has their back, but they better lock it up anyway.

When both the Commander and the NCO are nice guys, then it defangs all the people under them who have to make sure that shit is locked down. Conversely, when they're both assholes, then it makes everyone under them work out of fear instead of respect, and that doesn't work out well.

tl;dr: Good cop, bad cop. The key is that each of you knows ahead of time who plays which, and you check up with each other now and then, in private, to recalibrate and discuss individual kids who might be responding better to one approach or the other.
posted by Etrigan at 8:14 AM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Maybe have trivia contests during water breaks, with some of that very fundamental info in it. "What do you call it when you hit the ball and someone catches before it lands?" "What do you call it when the pitcher..." "What's the name of the position behind second base?" Girls will hear the answers and learn, and if you do it right (call on people as well as taking volunteer answers from the stars) you'll have evidence for the coach that half the team didn't know this stuff, and maybe we should spend some time talking about softball in general.
posted by aimedwander at 8:14 AM on September 12, 2016

Have you talked to the head coach about this at all? That seems like the most obvious thing to do, to me.
posted by mskyle at 8:19 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

....we only practice once per week...

Unless I'm missing something, there are the official meetings that everyone must attend, but are you allowed to offer an optional, no attendance is required meeting occasionally? One that you can independently run by yourself?

Along these lines, perhaps you can make the observation to the coach that some of the kids do not appear to know what is an out, what is a run, etc., and suggest the idea of offering a supplemental, optional meeting, especially for the kids who might need this info and you are volunteering to run it. Then at these meetings, you can explain the basics, have fun activities, and possibly a practice game or inning if there is time. But at these meetings, you would never contradict anything that the coach has previously stated, but offer supplementary material. Everyone is still required to attend the practices during the week. But it might at least provide basic information for the kids who do not have it, and it might also provide a positive experience for a handful of kids.
posted by Wolfster at 8:35 AM on September 12, 2016

Can you host a midseason sleepover for the girls where you guys all talk baseball skills, eat pizza, and watch A League of Their Own?

These are children. At 8, team sports with first year players are not about the sport. They're about learning athletic skills, teamwork, and how to be graceful in competition. They need to see the sport as FUN and being on a team as FUN or they're not going to want to come back.
posted by phunniemee at 8:39 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

If she's the head coach and you have explained your concerns to her and she is resistant to your ideas, you're fundamentally SOL unless you want to make a scene/mutiny. I've had two kids in organized sports over the last 6 years, and with volunteer coaches, some years are great, some years are meh, and some years make the kids want to quit. Those are usually the years where the coach is focused on results and the coach isn't interested in hearing about how the kids are miserable.

About the only thing I can see you doing to mitigate the damage done by an overly-ambitious coach of house league 8-year-olds (!) is, after a chew-out by the coach during a game, take the afflicted player aside and talk to them the way you think is right. It is possible to lead by example without showing up the coach.
posted by cardboard at 8:42 AM on September 12, 2016

The most recent Phase 7 minicomic includes a story (Stars - excerpt here) about the author's experience in soccer growing up and his excellent soccer coach. It might give you some good ideas on being a good assistant coach.
posted by jillithd at 8:53 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think you need to sit down and have a season planning meeting. I think you can pitch this by saying something like "Hi Jane, I wanted to know if you would have time to sit down and discuss our goals for the girls on the team for the season. I'm around X, Y and Z."

And then you turn up with a list and your list includes things like: teach and practice game fundamentals; build confidence and self-esteem; build teamwork; gain experience playing competitively against other teams; make friends and have fun.

Notice the word "win" doesn't appear on that list. It should be immediately clear to Jane that you are very, very far apart and you should be able to develop a new list of goals that is better balanced between her competitive drive and your nurturing one.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:33 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you need concrete positive tips, the Positive Coaching Alliance might have some.
posted by stevis23 at 5:50 PM on September 12, 2016

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