Canadian Coach Mike Mackay discusses the importance of the way we coach youngsters


Good parenting is good coaching


One of my favourite things to do when travelling is to people watch. I especially enjoy seeing parents with children and how they are teaching and coaching the young ones. Recently, I made an international trip and was standing in line with two families, both with a number of young children. When passing through security I was intrigued by two different approaches to the whole process of being scanned by airport security.

In the first family the father was in control. All decisions and actions came from him. He held on to the passports and the boarding passes for everyone in the family. He never took the time to explain the process to the children. He was like a sheep dog herding sheep. He just kept barking and nipping at their heels to get them to stay in line. Obviously he was under a lot of stress to have his family perform. When the time came to get scanned he never explained the procedure, he just sternly told the children what to do. When the youngest child, who was at the front of the line, did not respond he became louder and firmer in his directions; “Just walk through, now!!!” You could tell the child was apprehensive and this only made the situation worse. She did not understand why she had to leave her family. Soon the child was crying. This only made the father more upset. The mother now entered the situation and was able to calm the child down. She went though first and then the child was able to follow. I am not sure how pleasant the rest of the trip was, but I suspect the family was on pins and needs the rest of the trip not wanting to upset the already stressed father.

Contrast this with family number two. Here the father gave each child their own passport and boarding pass. As the family was snaking through the long line he explained what each document was for and that they were important papers. This took a bit of time as there were questions that had to be answered. When he they got to security he calmly explained what was happening and what was the reason for each step. Of course the younger children had lots of questions: “Why do we have to take our boots off? Will the X-ray hurt my teddy?” He was patient in answering each question. The security people also joined in and added to the learning experience. The children all proceeded through the security in an orderly fashion. When the mother, the last to go through security, beeped, the youngest child wanted to know if her mother was going to jail. As the mother was being scanned with the wand the father explained the process. This only brought up more questions that were duly answered. In the end they all had a laugh and as the father collected the important papers from each child, he praised them for how well they had done. They acted like seasoned travellers and he was so proud of how well they handled the situation. They then proceeded on to the next learning opportunity.

Let’s relate this to coaching a team. Father/coach one was able to quickly get his children to appear orderly and ready by just telling them what to do. The entire lead up to the game was about following his instructions, with no time for questions. The problem arose when it was time to perform. The children/team had no idea of what the expected outcome was and what things had to be done. All they had to go on was the directions of their father/coach. When the pressure was on this was not enough. They had not been equipped with the ability to make decisions for themselves. To achieve the outcome it took a greater amount of time and lots of stress. In the end, even though they made it to the intended outcome the entire team was on edge. The coach/father was disappointed and frustrated with the team’s performance and carried this with him after the competition was over. The team’s impression of competition was a not a pleasant one and no one was looking forward to the next encounter with the opponent. The outcome could only be achieved by the intervention of the mother. I see this type of coaching happening all of the time in youth basketball. Well meaning coaches just tell the younger children what to do. Once the competition starts conflicting messages arrive. Also, the player does not often understand why they are doing what they are doing. This is compounded when the officials at the games do not explain the calls to the players. If the coach becomes louder and more demanding it frightens the children. Very often the coach does not understand that it takes the intervention of the parent away from the court to convince the child to continue in basketball. A old study done by Ken Charles, of England, showed at over 90 % of the children who started playing basketball at under age 10 were quitting before the age of 13. The main reason was the coach.

When you raise the tone of your voice to young child they often feel that you as a coach are angry with them. Combined this with assertive body language, raised arms and closing personal space, it is difficult to not think the coach is upset.

As a coach we need to let player know that in a competitive environment we will speak in a louder voice to be heard and we will often use short quick phrases. This is because of the acoustics in the gym, it is often loud and we do not have a lot of time for polite pleasantries. Do not assume players and parents know this, it has to be explained. I used to tell my players that I would yell, to get their attention, once this was achieved tried to talk calmly and with a lower tone. I remember over hearing one of my veteran players tell the grade 10’s; “Look, when he yells your name, just look at him and nod your head. That is all you have to do.! “She was right.

Father/coach number two took the time to explain. The children were able to understand and therefore execute under pressure. It takes time to teach, but by doing so the performance will be much smoother. The father/coach was always positive. He praised them for a job well done. He never once said,” Don’t lose the papers”. It is similar to watching a child pour a glass of mike for the first time. If you say, “don’t spill it” you put a whole different spin on the process. The outcome now becomes not to spill the milk rather than pouring a glass of milk. Telling players not to turn the ball over, don’t foul and don’t miss, creates the same problem. Father /coach number two also created a positive learning environment. The process of competing became an opportunity to learn. Everyone was looking forward to the next opportunity. Contrast this with the first family/team who dreaded the next competition, remembering the stress it caused.

I have often hear coaches of younger children tell me this stuff is ok for house league, but not my team or my son since they are elite. A coach needs to “get after” his players at the level if he is going to have any success. This myth is perpetuated by the media. Watching games on TV we often hear the announcer saying that the coach “gave it to his team at half time” or the coach is “getting after” his players right now. It may appear to be the case, but in reality it is often not true. This may work in the short term, but in the long term it does not produce the desired result. In fact it probably can get the coach fired.

I suggest you listen to this audio interview by Jim Thompson, of the Positive Coaching Alliance, with Doc Rivers, the coach of the Boston Celtics.

In it he talks about filling player’s emotional tank. One of the worst things you can do is tear down a player’s confidence by draining the emotional tank. This is a coach working with elite players. He is constantly striving to improve as a coach in how is language and body language help not hurt his players. He is just one of many high level coaches who admits that tearing players down does not work.

If now know it does not work with young children and the highest level of pro athletes, what makes us think it works with all the players in between?