Behind Every Athlete
A friend of mine once said that coaching is teaching children to be the best they can be.
Setting the Focus
In both the public and private school settings, I have found an enormous advantage to coach athletes in Lutheran schools where I have the ability to set the focus of every practice and game on God. This year I started asking a different athlete each practice to choose the next devotion. It is amazing how the chosen devotion seems to fit in with some situation at practice, at home, or in society. The most important part is that we as a team are able to center everything we do on Jesus. By beginning and ending every practice with a devotion or prayer, it reminds every athlete as well as the coaches where the focus of the day should remain. It is a reminder that this part of our lives is not separate from our spiritual lives; rather, it is a way to show others how we live our faith in all we do – including sports. When coaching in the public school, however, I am not able to have a devotion or prayer, and the focus is primarily on winning. While winning is fun and important when displayed in an appropriate fashion, help your child keep Jesus as the main focus. If your child does attend a public school, I would suggest encouraging your child to conduct a personal devotion before a practice or game. Better yet, as parents, lead your child in the devotion. This can be a rewarding experience for both you and your child and keeps that focus where it belongs.
All Athletes Are Not Created Equal
All people learn differently. They have different talents and abilities. They are motivated in different ways. The challenge as a coach or parent is to discover what those things are for each athlete so they learn to be the best athlete they can be. Athletic ability may differ among children, but effort should not. Regardless of ability, kids should be striving to do their best, whether in practice or a game. Teammates, coaches, and parents need to applaud good effort from every athlete.
Coaches spend much of their time teaching skills that young athletes need to be successful. As a parent, you can help reinforce those skills at home, but more importantly, reinforce the life skills they learn in competitive sports – respect, hard work, problem-solving, humility, and yes, winning or losing with grace.
We must always keep in mind the importance of thinking carefully about what we say and do as we talk to our athletes. To compliment rather than criticize. To encourage with measured tones rather than raised voices. To build up rather than tear down. Involvement in competitive sports should be an experience that builds character and above all, respect for others.
It is vital that parents participate in their children’s activities. This does not necessarily mean you have to be their coach. If you like to coach then participate that way; if you don’t like to coach or don’t feel qualified, then become involved in other ways. Parents can become involved by keeping the book, filming the game, being an assistant coach, or simply attending the games. Kids like to see their parents, grandparents, and older siblings at games cheering them on. How can you talk to them about games if you don’t see them? Kids love to talk about how they did in their games. I am sure you have seen it the movies – a child’s parent misses a game they promised they would attend and the child is depressed the whole game. As a coach, I’ve seen this happen at both the grade school and high school levels. Even if you can only make it for half of the game, it is better than not at all. Be your child’s biggest and best fan!
Reinforcement of Good Sportsmanship Is a Must
Often in high school sports, one sees verbal abuse of officials by coaches. There is no place for such behavior in youth sports. How many times have you witnessed a 5th or 6th grader complain about the call that was just made? I have witnessed it far too many times. The sad part of this is these same kids are still complaining to the officials in high school. How long are we going to allow this behavior? We as coaches are modeling the behaviors that these children will learn and display in the future. Sportsmanship is taught by example.
This does not mean that as a coach you cannot question a call. Question the call in a manner that is not going to embarrass anyone – the officials, players, parents, or yourself. Question the call with the proper respect for the officials. Question the call keeping in mind that even a bad call can be made by the best of officials. The kids need to see this type of behavior so they learn to refrain from a negative approach to a questionable or bad call. Early in my coaching experiences I once made the mistake of yelling at a referee for which I received a technical foul. The technical foul was well-deserved. I still have parents that remind me of that technical foul, and I still am embarrassed by my actions. I changed my approach to talking to officials after that. I try to compliment them on a job well done more than question them. If we as coaches respect the calls being made, then our athletes will also respect the calls. If your players do not respect the calls, a coach needs to address the issue immediately so the behavior being displayed by the player changes. Parents can support their child and the coach by also addressing the issue at home in a less emotional and volatile environment.
When parents cannot walk away from a youth basketball game feeling good about how the children played, when athletes drop out of sports because they are no longer fun, when poor sportsmanship is taken for granted, something needs to change.
Parents, we as coaches need your help. Coaches can discuss these sportsmanship topics with our players, but we need you to reinforce them at home. When talking to my own children, I have found it uplifting for all of us to discuss the game in a positive way on the way home. Often a question or concern will come to my attention regarding poor decisions made during the game by my child, teammates, officials, or myself. This is a great opportunity to teach God-pleasing behavior. Reflection is a great tool to use as a player, coach, parent, or fan. Remember, we as coaches and parents are the ones who are going to make a difference in whether participating in a sport is going to be positive or negative.
As I coach youth sports I am rewarded when I see a young person accomplishing a skill or fundamental that was difficult to learn. Become involved in your child’s activities. Demand excellence in all they do, but keep it fun and remember they are kids, not college recruits.
Dan Peterson is a teacher at Westosha Central High School in Salem, Wisconsin, where he has coached football, basketball, baseball, softball, and golf. He also coaches at Shoreland Lutheran High School in Somers, Wisconsin, and St. John’s Lutheran School in Burlington, Wisconsin. He and his wife, Rachel, have five children.