Archive for Players vs. Coaches

PLAYERS vs. COACHES: When HS Coaches Pressure Their Players to Focus Only on the Coach’s Sport

This is an issue that has been growing in real concern in recent years. Basically, a HS varsity coach starts to apply subtle but direct pressure on his players to focus on just the coach’s sport all year round.

Let me give you an example to clarify. Let’s say it’s a HS varsity basketball coach, and he tells one of his players, “Look, I understand you want to play baseball this spring and summer. But I want to be upfront with you. There are other kids on the basketball team — kids you will be competing against for playing time next season – – kids who are going to spend their spring and summer playing on basketball teams that will help advance their basketball skills…and these are teams that I’ll be monitoring. So, I just want you to know that these other kids will be focusing on basketball while you’re out playing baseball. Again, I just wanted to be upfront with you about this….”

This kind of unwanted pressure places a HS athlete in a real dilemma. I mean, how would you feel if you were this kid who obviously wants to keep his basketball coach happy, but also wants to play baseball? And what if the baseball coach, or the soccer coach, is also applying the same kind of pressure on this same kid?

After all, the athlete can’t say anything back to the basketball coach as that will only anger the coach. Nor can the kid’s parents complain to the coach or the HS AD.  Yet as a number of callers pointed out today, this has become a real concern as ambitious and aggressive HS coaches who want to build their program are indeed putting this kind of pressure on their athletes. And it’s just not fair.

The bright spot in today’s conversation came from Jamie Lynch, the football and boys’ basketball coach at Islip HS on Long Island. Lynch, a former star football player at Colgate, said he was most familiar with this issue, and as an educator and coach, he worked hard to make sure that if any of his athletes want to play for different teams throughout the off-season, that was fine with him. He also communicated this to the parents as well as the other coaches. As far as Lynch was concerned, any coach who tries to impede or throw psychological pressures in the way of HS athletes should be relieved of their coaching duties.

OF course, we’re talking only about HS coaches here. The other part of the issue has to do with the pressures that travel team coaches place on kids to focus just on the travel team sport. As you know, travel team programs and coaches are not under the jurisdiction of public high school associations. What a mess!

PLAYERS VS. COACHES: The Top 10 Rules for Coaching Kids


Last week on my radio show, I had a chance to review the Top 10 Rules for Expected Parental Behavior…and this week, I wanted to go down the same road for the Top Rules that are Expected for Youth Coaches…


Here we go…


 1. Here’s the most important rule of all…all the kids want to play in the game. Always remember that. Every kid on that bench – and their parent – is wondering when their kid will get into the game Coach…YOUR top priority is to make sure that happens for EVERY kid on your team.


Why do Moms and Dads come to the games? Simple…to watch their kid get into the game…and while you may feel that your top obligation is to win, the truth is – your top job is to get every kid on your roster into every game AND to make sure they get quality playing time…


If you think that winning the U-12 boys’ soccer trophy in your town is the ultimate goal, well, you really ought to re-consider why you’re coaching.


2. Follow the Golden Rule…this rule is very simple but very important! Coach, treat the kids on your team in the same manner that you would want your own kids to be treated…for any coach who wants to do the right thing, use the Golden Rule as your basic guiding principle. There is no excuse NOT to do this.


3. Kids actually do like discipline…it lets them know that you, as the coach, are taking their season as seriously as they do. So, let them know that you expect them to be on time, to hustle onto the field, to listen attentively to what you are saying, and so on…no, you don’t have to be Vince Lombardi with them, but let them know that if they’re going to be on the team, there are certain rules that have to be followed.


4. Speaking of discipline…once you set a rule, have the maturity to follow up with the punishment…for example, giving them a “time out” to sit for a while out of practice or a game. Playing time is what every kid craves, and if you take it away from them, they’ll get the point in a hurry.


5. Praise by Walking Around…make it a point to chat with each kid and give them a bit of praise in every practice. Use their first name when talking with them, make eye contact, and come up with some specific part of their game to praise.


6. If frustrated with a poor performance, ONLY criticize the TEAM…never single out just one player. That will ruin the kid’s self-esteem. Never pick on a child…on the other hand, if a kid makes a crucial mistake during the game, always emphasize that it’s ALWAYS team first – individual mistakes are just part of every game.


7. Never use sarcasm with young athletes….they just don’t understand the hidden humor; instead, it makes them think you’re putting them down. In short, just don’t do it!


8. Don’t give team lectures…coaches, kids zone you OUT very quickly. Their attention span is about 8 seconds. I remember one of my daughters had a lax coach who, after every game, would drone on and on for close to an hour. It was painful…and the girls hated it.


Coach…after the game…give the kids a very brief pep-talk, and then let them go onto their next activity. You can work on improving their skills at the next practice.


9. Be sure to smile…at a kids’ game, there’s no need to brood or be surly like a Bill Belichick…this is supposed to be about having fun. Let the kids know it’s okay to smile. Set the pace!


10. Remember – your own youth sports career is over….it’s in the books…this current season is about YOUR kid. Yeah, he or she may be your flesh-and-blood….but they are NOT you.


They are themselves, and are entitled to play sports in the way that THEY want to. They are not there to fulfill your own unattained dreams in sports.






SPORT SAFETY: Be Forewarned – Immature Coaches Produce Immature Players



When Youth Coaches Taunt Opposing Players

By Doug Abrams


On April 2, a bench clearing brawl broke out in a California junior varsity baseball game between Yuba City High School and Fair Oaks Del Campo High School.  With the score tied 3-3 in the sixth inning, Yuba City’s pitcher turned, hurled the ball at Del Campo’s first base coach, and left the mound to charge at the coach.  The throw missed, but players began throwing punches and wrestling one another near first base before order was restored.  As so often happens nowadays, a fan filmed the melee and posted it on YouTube, where it has received more than 175,000 views on several sites, including (Caution: some brief, off-color language by a parent in the background).

The California baseball brawl recalls an even uglier incident that occurred last October 14 at the end of an overheated Georgia varsity football game between two local archrivals, Warren County High School and the Hancock Central High School. When the victorious Warren County squad left the field and headed for the visiting team’s locker room, they found the door locked.  As the players waited outside for someone to arrive with the key, the two teams began fighting and players took off their helmets to swing them as weapons against their opponents.  Sheriff’s deputies used pepper spray to separate the teams, and two players reportedly suffered concussions. 

An opponent’s helmet struck Warren County’s head coach in the face, and he was rushed to the hospital with a severely shattered right eye socket that doctors held together with bolts.  “It was like if you crushed up cornflakes, that’s what all this bone looked like,” the coach said later.  “We are very lucky the hit did not move over just a little bit,” said Warren County’s school superintendent, “or we could have had a dead coach.”

When Coaches Lose Self-Control

These two confrontations happened coasts apart, but they share a common sinew unmentioned above — trash talking throughout the games.  At least in the Georgia football game, trash talking began days earlier in the social media, but blaming Facebook deflects much of the attention from where it rightfully belongs.  Press reports indicated that before both the California and Georgia brawls, coaches had also taunted opposing players. 

The Maryville Appeal-Democrat reported that Del Campo’s first base coach allegedly yelled insults at the Yuba City dugout and the pitcher (including insults about the pitcher’s mother, according to at least one parent on the scene). The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported allegations that a Hancock volunteer assistant coach (who was Warren County’s former head coach) had sent an insulting text message directed at the Warren County players before the game.

“The Most Important Individuals for Maintaining Safety”

Perhaps influenced by widely broadcast trash talkers in the professional ranks, trash talking increasingly infects high school sports and youth leagues in many places today.  For some pro stars and some impressionable youth leaguers, it no longer seems enough just to defeat your opponents; you must also try to rub their noses in the dirt before you leave the field.  Rick Wolff and I have talked on the air about how the social media and interactive blogs can add fuel to the fire.  

Youth league coaches need to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.  As team leaders, coaches are the last buffers between their players and game action.  Indeed, pediatric professionals call youth coaches (in the words of Toronto neurosurgeon Charles H. Tator) “the most important individuals for maintaining safety” during games.  Coaches compromise safety when they target opposing players with verbal cheap shots that most reasonable adults would find unacceptable coming from their own children.  The brief YouTube video linked above shows how quickly coaches can supply the spark that ignites an overheated game when they trade words with opposing players.

Follow the Leader


Aside from safety risks, however, trash talking by youth coaches simply sends the wrong citizenship messages to the youngsters they supervise and influence.  Coaching resembles a spirited game of “follow the leader” because the coach sets the team’s tone, for better or worse.  Mature coaches tend to turn out mature players, and unhinged coaches tend to turn out unhinged players.


Coaches represent themselves, their families, their schools, and their communities in every game. Coaches do nobody any favor when they succumb to trash talking that sullies the values they should be trying to teach.  Teams play just as well, and perhaps even better, when their coaches seek to win with the dignity and decorum that thoughtful adults expect from the players themselves. 


Restraint and Example

With cooperation from parents at home and in the stands, coaches should restrain their players from trash talking by providing instructions that begin during the preseason meeting and continue in the locker room throughout the year.   But before they can restrain players, coaches must restrain themselves.  Coaches teach values best by the personal example they set on and off the field, and the formula is simple:


Children cannot learn much about maturity from coaches who conduct themselves like immature children.



[Sources: Bryan DeMain, Yuba City High JV Baseball Involved in Brawl, Marysville (Cal.) Appeal-Democrat, Apr. 3, 2012; Bill Lindelof, At Least One Player Disciplined for Yuba City High Baseball Brawl, Sacramento Bee, Apr. 6, 2012; Online Trash Talk Blamed for Turning Football Rivalry Violent, CNN Wire, Nov. 4, 2011; George Mathis, School Attorney: Football Coach Sent Threatening Texts Before Fight, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Oct. 28, 2011]

Should New HS Varsity Coaches Be Allowed to “Build” with Younger Players?

This happens more and more, and it’s worrisome.

Let’s say your kid plays basketball. He’s paid his dues right up the ladder: sat on the bench pretty much all of his sophomore year, played more in his junior year but didn’t start, and now as a senior he’s expecting to finally get a real shot to be a bona fide starter.

Problem is, over the last few years, the team’s record has been around .500, and the long-time coach decides to step down. The new hired coach is in his early 30s, and he decides that the best way to reinvigorate the program is to focus on the freshmen and sophomores, let them become the starters, and while they take their lumps the first year, all that extra playing time will pay off down the road.

Problem is, such an approach doesn’t do much for the seniors and the juniors on the team. The coach tells them they can linger on the bench, or if they want, they can quit.

Imagine if this happened to your son or daughter? What would you do? What would you tell your kid?

But as noted, this pattern  has become very commonplace, and amazingly, seems to getting the blessing of HS athletic directors.

Look, I understand how college coaches  — who are strictly judged by their won or loss record – might use this kind of appraoch. But I find it very disturbing when it’s put into place by a HS coach. Because that signifies to me that the new coach is all about putting his or her career at the top priority – that if I can build a winnning program in a few years, maybe I can advance to a better job, no matter what happens to the feelings or dreams of some of my kids.

In short, the coach is trampling on the dreams of the veteran players. That doesn’t sit well with me, and quite frankly, this is one of those rare times in which I do think that a parent and their kid have a right to ask for an appointment with the school’s AD to determine if this new approach is going to be the way the school’s sports program is going to be run. Communication, as always, is the key in such situations, and it’s essential that the new coach truly understand what the school’s true priorities are.


What do you if you think your kid is playing for a “bad” coach?

Let’s be honest. You have devoted some serious time…energy…money..and love to make sure your youngster is getting the most out of their God-given potential as an athlete. And the good news is that your kid is putting together a pretty good track record of accomplishments.

But then your youngster tries out for a team – let’s say it’s the HS basketball team — and much to your dismay, the coach really doesn’t seem to be impressed with what your kid can do on the court. In a stunning development, your kid doesn’t make the starting five, and when he does get into the game, it’s only for a few moments, and even worse, the coach has him playing a position he’s never played before.

So what do you do? Do you complain directly to the coach? Tell your son that the coach is an idiot? Commisserate with the other sports parents? Or just grimace through it, and hope for better things to evolve?

These kinds of situations have become increasingly commonplace in recent years, and it pits the coach against the parent – with the kid in the middle.

Problem is – there are SO many layers to this question. That is, how does one define what makes for a good coach? For many, all that matters is the coach’s overall won-loss record. If the coach wins, and wins a lot, then he must be good. Right?

But what about the coach who simply benefits from a town’s travel program that fosters terrific athletes from elementary and middle school, and then in HS, they end up playing for that coach? The varsity coach is simply the beneficiary of talented athletes who grew up playing for travel team coaches. As a result, the varsity team wins, but it has little to do with the HS coach and his abilities. 

You get the idea.

As discussed on the show this AM, I feel that – just as with teachers – – you’re going to have some great teachers, some lousy teachers, and everybody else falls in-between. As such, you need to tell your athlete the same thing about coaches. In addition, if your son or daughter is really irked by what’s happening with their role on the team, your athlete needs to stand up on their own two feet, figure out what they want to ask of the coach, and then plan a time to directly talk with the coach about the issue in question.

In other words, part of the maturation process in sports is dealing with adversity, and learning how to fight one’s own battles is a key part of that. As a parent, you have to understand that the sooner your youngster can face the coach on their own terms, the stronger and better your athlete is going to do in sports, and in life.


A question of propriety? Should HS coaches be allowed to run travel programs for their players?

Rarely has a topic generated more comments on my show than this one – and understandably so. In short, as travel teams inexorably begin to dominate the HS landscape, more and more HS varsity coaches are beginning to see a potential payday by running their own travel programs for their players in the off-season. The question is – is this fair?

Let’s say you’re a HS varsity baseball in a good program. Typically, most coaches earn between $3,000 to $4,000 for a 10-week season. But during the off-season (meaning summers), more and more baseball coaches are now setting up travel teams in which their players (or younger players in the school) are heartily encouraged to play on the coach’s travel team. Does playing on the team cost money? Yes. Does the money go to the coach? Yes, although the amount can vary, and the travel team cost covers insurance, umps, fields, etc. But make no mistake – the coach does make money from their travel teams.

But more than that, there’s lingering perception that if you’re a kid who wants to have a chance to start, or even to make the team next spring, it’s very much in your best interests to play on that baseball coach’s travel team. Why? Because other kids who you are competing against will be doing that…the coach will have a chance to see those kids all summer…and of course, the coach is financially benefitting from those kids who opt to play for him on the coach’s travel team.

The whole system is fraught with all sorts of potential conflicts of interests. Lots of kids these days either have to work all summer to make some money for school, or they’re playing on another travel team in another sport. No matter what the reasons may be, the HS baseball/travel coach is not going to be happy with that youngster not playing ball for him all summer.

Some states have woken up to this situation, and have tried to come up with ways to minimize these kinds of potential conflicts. But the truth is, nobody really seems to have a good handle on how to prevent this. Even worse, more and more talented HS varsity coaches are simply walking away from their HS programs, and becoming full-time travel coaches, so there’s no possible conflict of interest.

Again, this is a real hot-button topic that needs to be addressed now. I’m curious as to your suggestions.

Achieving Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports (Part I) – The “Power of the Permit”

By Doug Abrams

About 35 million boys and girls — nearly half the nation’s children — play each year in at least one organized sports program conducted by a private association, or by a public agency such as the parks and recreation department. Some of these youngsters play on travel or select teams, and others play in house leagues. With these hefty numbers year after year, youth sports holds greater potential for influencing the next generation than any other activity outside the home and the schools.

Many communities, however, squander much of this potential by perpetuating youth sports systems that deny children equal opportunity to play. The term “youth sports system” refers to the totality of organized private and public sports programs available to boys and girls in a community and its environs.

Inequitable youth sports systems begin weeding out children as young as seven, and they lead most children to quit playing altogether by their early teen years. Too many communities over-emphasize travel and select teams that cut elementary schoolers before they can develop their talents; the system then lavishes practice and game time on travel and select teams while pleading a shortage of available facilities to justify constricted house leagues or avoidable waiting lists that close the door to many children who seek to play.

Americans regularly tell pollsters that playing sports enhances children’s physical fitness while teaching life skills, but many communities also tolerate inequitable youth sports systems that produce bumper crops of young athletic dropouts year after year. These systems fail young people because sports can do nothing for a child who has quit playing.

This three-part column presents a blueprint for achieving equal opportunity in community youth sports systems. This Part I discusses the “power of the permit,” the recognized authority of government agencies to manage public property. Next week, Part II (“The Child Impact Statement”) will discuss how two agencies — the school district and the parks and recreation department — may use this power to allocate fields, gymnasiums and other public property to private youth sports programs in a way that serves all children who wish to play.  In two weeks, Part III will discuss the stiff resistance that proposals for equitable allocation of public youth sports facilities may arouse.

Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports

Equity begins with acknowledgment that travel teams, select teams and house leagues each enrich children’s lives. I played ice hockey at all three levels when I was growing up on Long Island in the late 1960s, and each of my teams made me a better person and athlete. As a coach of travel, select and house-league hockey teams for more than 40 years, I saw play at each level promote positive youth development.

I would not want any of the three levels to eclipse the others because equal opportunity in youth sports means enabling each player, to the extent possible, to compete against players of similar ability. Players with five years’ experience, for example, would be better off not competing against beginners, and beginners would be better off not competing against seasoned veterans. Experienced players may become bored, beginners may become intimidated or embarrassed before quitting, and wide disparities of talent invite injury, particularly in contact or collision sports.

But equal opportunity also means viewing the community youth sports system as a pyramid. The strongest part of a pyramid is at the middle and base, not the top. Select teams enable the relatively few players at the top, particularly older pre-teens and teenagers, to compete at their own general ability level once they have shown commitment to the game. For most of these players, select teams and high school varsity teams provide the last chances to pursue excellence in organized sports.

Most young athletes, however, are not select-level players. In communities with an abundance of players, the select ranks cannot realistically include more than about 20% of the boys and girls who compete in a particular sport. A community fails its children unless its youth sports system offers meaningful participation to the remaining 80% of interested youngsters lower on the pyramid, including the least experienced youngsters at or near the base.

The “Power of the Permit”

Equitable youth sports systems depend on two public agencies — the school district and the parks and recreation department, which together manage nearly all local youth sports venues. Most private youth sports programs do not own their own fields, gymnasiums, or other facilities; the district or the department grants these programs permits to use public facilities. Permits often come at favorable rates or even free, on the rationale that the private program performs a public service by conducting a wholesome youth activity.

Many school districts and parks departments act as little more than real estate agents, assigning scarce field and gymnasium time to private programs that under-serve children at the middle and base of the community’s youth sports pyramid. The real-estate-agent approach may seem like the path of least resistance because school districts do not conduct sports programs unrelated to interscholastic athletics, and understaffed parks departments may not feel equipped to conduct their own sports programs.

When these two agencies ignore what happens after they grant permits for public facilities, however, the meaningful access of most children to organized sports depends on the goodwill of private programs that remain essentially unaccountable to public scrutiny. Most private sports programs are conducted by adults who know that they will participate for only a few years while their own children play, and these short-termers might not care whether the community youth sports system serves all children, from the base of the pyramid to the top.

To help ensure equitable community youth sports systems, school districts and parks departments need to craft equity when they exercise the “power of the permit.” This is the power, firmly established in the law, to determine whether and under what regulations a private individual or entity may use a public facility. Government agencies have long held discretionary authority to grant or deny permits regulating private use of public property that charters, statutes, or ordinances commit to agency management.

Next week’s column will describe how, exercising the power of the permit before each sports season begins, the school district and the parks department can collaborate to assign public fields, gymnasiums and other sports facilities in a way that helps assure access to all children who wish to play.


[Source: Douglas E. Abrams, Achieving Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports: Roles for the “Power of the Permit” and the “Child Impact Statement,” in Learning Culture Through Sports: Perspectives on Society and Organized Sports (Sandra Spickard Prettyman & Brian Lampman eds., 2d ed. 2011). Published by Rowman & Littlefield. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. (This book consists of 21 informative essays on important issues in American sports and culture.)]

How Pressure to Win Can Tempt Youth Coaches to Create Benchwarmers – and How Coaches Can Resist the Temptation

By Doug Abrams

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo says that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. His point is that inspiring words may come easy on the stump because words alone carry no immediate consequences. But realism controls once newly elected officeholders must make decisions that actually affect people’s lives.

When youth-league coaches discuss how much playing time each team member will receive, they may talk poetry in the pre-season parents meeting but turn to prose once the games start. Advocating a child-centered philosophy at the meeting is easy because the scoreboard is still weeks away; temptation to stray from that philosophy can build with pressure to win once games start. I have been there, and the temptation and pressure are both real. Very real.

Like so many other issues that predictably arise on youth sports teams these days, the coaches’ policy about playing time is a matter best addressed early — and directly — by the association’s board of directors or by individual coaches themselves. The sooner, the better.

If the team is billed as a travel or elite squad that will play the most talented kids noticeably more than the others, families deserve to know that up front, before they invest their time, energy, emotion and money. Personally I have always felt most comfortable coaching hockey teams that were grounded in equal playing time. The rest of this column will discuss how I tell the parents that as long as a player attends practices regularly, follows directions and gives an honest effort, the player will see game action that is as equal as I can make it.

Benchwarming often begins with lack of early, forthright communication between coaches and parents. Playing time should be an early agenda item at the pre-season parents meeting because putting parents on notice can strengthen the coach’s resolve to provide equal playing time throughout the season.  Without this notice, the coach’s default position in overheated games – the perceived path of least resistance – may be to overplay the “stars.” Coaches may feel tempted to cut corners because without early frank discussion, they may sense that most parents will criticize them more for losing than for winning.

The Pre-Season Parents Meeting

I open the pre-season parents meeting by acknowledging what every parent already knows – that winning is preferable to losing. I tell the parents that I like to win and do not like to lose, and that I am as “competitive” as anyone in the room. I explain that at any age and at any level of amateur or professional play, sports depends on competitors who do care about the scoreboard, and care passionately. Parents, coaches and athletes who are unconcerned about the score should not participate at all because they deny opponents the spice that comes from spirited games.

But I also look the parents in the eye and tell them that the integrity of sports depends too on maintaining personal values. The ultimate issue for parents and coaches is not whether we want the team to win (because we do and we should), but rather what prices we adults are willing to pay to try to win, and what prices we are unwilling to pay. I believe that below the high school varsity level, maintaining chronic benchwarmers is an unacceptable price because benchwarming is a badge of inferiority that humiliates children and deprives many of a fair chance to explore their love for the game and to develop their skills.

In survey after survey, nearly all children say that they would rather play and lose than warm the bench and win.  This unremarkable finding means that boys and girls join the team for the same reason that their coaches join – because they want to participate actively in each game, and not simply watch as a spectator.  Former NBA player Bob Bigelow hits the target: “Few things violate a child’s basic wants and needs – and his or her basic rights – more than sitting on a bench.”

I tell the parents that “basic rights” means that every child should receive regular playing time each game, consistent with the sport’s substitution rules. Coaches must strike a child-centered balance between the understandable desire to win and the equally understandable desire to participate. In the last four minutes or so of a tight hockey game, for example, I may play only the top two lines but I compensate for that while I am changing lines in the next game. From week to week, disparities in playing time are minimal.

Coaches know the difference between modest disparities in playing time and chronic benchwarming, and no coach assigns chronic benchwarmers by accident. My sport, hockey, permits free substitution, enabling coaches to rotate players in and out all game. In youth sports without free substitution, rules assuring only minimum participation (such as ones guaranteeing each player only two innings and one at-bat in a seven-inning baseball game) are shams when coaches can get away with giving the same players the short end of the stick every game. These sham rules often do not overcome inequity, but permit and indeed encourage it.

I conclude the meeting’s playing-time discussion by candidly telling the parents that I equate adult-enforced chronic benchwarming with emotional child abuse. Supervising, influencing and evaluating other people’s children is serious business, and youth league coaches need to take the responsibility seriously.

What If the Parents Disagree?

In my experience, most parent-coach disputes on any team concern the youngsters’ playing time. By candidly explaining their equal-playing-time policy, coaches try to reassure each parent that they do not belittle the desire to win, but also that they adhere to the credo articulated years ago by the British Association of Coaches:  “Sport without fair play is not sport, and honors won without fair play can have no real value.”

I believe that unless the team is advertised as a travel or elite team, most parents do embrace equal playing time in community youth leagues once coaches and league officials embrace it forthrightly. Unanimity among a team’s parents is elusive, of course, but I have found that few if any parents typically argue openly for obvious inequality when the board of directors, the coaches, and most other parents stand up for fairness.

But what if many parents on the team do reject equal playing time as the core principle? The association’s board of directors holds ultimate policymaking authority, and the parents may be entitled to what they want because their registration fees and fundraising efforts pay the bills.

Even if only a sizeable minority of parents reject equal playing time, a persistent minority can create dissension that distracts and divides the team. Because resisting season-long pressure to compromise one’s values seems a high price to pay for devoting time to coach other people’s children, the coaches may respond to determined parental resistance by deciding to volunteer their time elsewhere

What Youth League Coaches Don’t Know – And What Coaches and Parents Can Do About It

By Doug Abrams

When I was president of mid-Missouri’s youth hockey program about ten years ago, a visibly upset parent called me aside one night to say that her son was being bullied by a couple of teammates, both at the home rink and on road trips. Nothing physical, but teasing had continued for a few weeks, and it was beginning to affect the boy’s play and his love for the game.

The mother also told me that she had not talked with the coach because he “was not doing anything about it.”

In the schools and on athletic teams alike, bullying is serious business that calls for a firm response by authorities. Because teamwork requires unity on and off the field, youth leaguers should learn early that verbal abuse of teammates has no place in any sport. On the other hand, the upset mother’s perception of the coach’s indifference did not ring true because I knew that the coach was a decent person who, like most coaches, would not tolerate verbal abuse if he knew about it.

If he knew about it. . . . 

The Limits of the Coaches’ Knowledge

Parents are sometimes surprised at how much even alert youth-league coaches do not know about what is happening on the team. Lack of knowledge stems from the fact that the coach’s perspective is fundamentally different from each individual parent’s perspective.

Each parent pays special attention to his or her player, but a devoted coach must pay attention to a dozen or more players at a time.  Parents live with their children around the clock and can monitor their moods and outlook, but the coach sees the team for only a few hours a week. Players looking for trouble usually do not talk or act in front of the coach, and teammates who see a problem may not want to tattle. Not only that, but misconduct among teammates may fester in the school or neighborhood, beyond the coach’s attention altogether.

When I talked with the coach about the mother’s report of teasing, I knew immediately that he indeed knew nothing about it. His understandable lack of knowledge bore no reflection on his proven record of concern for all his players. For coaches and parents alike, lack of omniscience comes with the territory.     

Open Lines of Communication


What can coaches and parents do to help assure that the coach will know as much as possible about what is happening on the team? Maintaining open lines of communication between coaches and parents is the place to start, but an association’s coaches should not be left to develop their own individual protocols about that communication. The board of directors should set uniform ground rules for parents who wish to talk with the coach about the child’s perceived problems.

The association may encourage parents to approach the coach directly; otherwise the association may have a written resolution requiring parents to talk first with the parent who is the team manager, who then reports to the coach before any direct discussion takes place. If the manager does serve as the liaison, the resolution should state explicitly that the manager reporting to the coach will not reveal the parent’s name without permission. Coaches can address some team-wide problems without learning the particular parent’s identity, and the association discourages free and open communication when parents sense that they or their children may pay a price for coming forward.

Directly or after first talking with the team manager, parents should not feel reluctant to talk responsibly with the coach about an issue relating to their player. And despite the unhappiness and perhaps anger of the moment, parents should not assume that the coach “was not doing anything about” the matter that troubles them. A matter disturbing a parent may also disturb the coach – once the coach learns about it.

The Coach’s Extra Eyes and Ears

Youth-league coaches cannot be every place at once, so they can help themselves by enlisting extra pairs of eyes and ears to help monitor happenings in and around the team. Players should be supervised at all times in sports programs that adults organize and administer, and extra monitors can be helpful.


At the younger age levels, parents typically come into the locker room or onto the field before and after games to help their players prepare for the game or get ready to go home. At the pre-season meeting with parents, the coach should ask all parents to remain alert and help supervise the team throughout the season, particularly when the coach is preoccupied elsewhere. When a parent reports activity that does not seem right, the coach should take the report seriously, but should also recognize that the parent might have reason for a slanted report. The parent’s report may provide important information, but the report is perception and not proof, and does not relieve the coach of obligation to exercise sound judgment.


At the older age levels, the captains can be the coach’s extra eyes and ears. Here is what I said in an April column about the role of captains on older teams:

As players move toward the high school level, . . . parents no longer frequent the locker room, players may seek a measure of independence in hotels and restaurants, and players do not necessarily report their peer discussions to their parents. Captains can now play supervisory and reporting roles. . . .

Coaches should respect the captains’ delicate position as liaisons between the staff and the other players. Teammates respond best when they perceive the captains as extensions of the coaching staff, but not as snitches. The staff should reassure the captains that except in an emergency, they are expected only to alert the staff that “some players” are talking about hazing, alcohol use or something similar. Or that “the team” seems down about a tough loss or cavalier about a winning streak. Even without knowing identities, experienced coaches know how to overcome barriers to team success when they sense a general concern.

These observations still seem sound today.

* * * *

And what happened about ten years ago when our hockey coach finally learned about the teasing of the player? The coach had a pretty good idea of who the perpetrators were but, rather than invite a “he said-she said” with dueling accusations that would set players and parents against one another, he talked to the entire team about how players weaken the squad by belittling their mates. He named no names. Every player learned a lesson, the perpetrators got the message, the teasing stopped, and the player’s mother seemed pleased from then on.

Why Youth Leagues Should Encourage Older Players to Help Coach Younger Teams – and How to Do It

By Doug Abrams

When I tell friends that I began coaching in 1967, they usually guess that I am a bit older than I really am. That year, I coached a Little League baseball team in the Central Nassau Athletic Association in East Meadow, Long Island. The following year, I also coached a youth hockey team in the Nassau County Recreation and Parks Department program at Cantiague Park in Hicksville. But I did not graduate from W. Tresper Clarke High School until 1969.

When I began coaching, I was still playing in the baseball and hockey programs. Each team I coached was what we would today call a house league or rec team because travel baseball and hockey were only in their infancy then, at least on Long Island. I coached Little League for only two years until I graduated, but I have coached youth hockey ever since.

When I created mid-Missouri’s first youth hockey teams shortly after moving to Columbia in 1989, I remembered what coaching meant to me (and to the players I coached) while I was still in high school. I felt that encouraging teen players to help coach in the younger age divisions was a win-win, and I still do.

Youth leagues and associations should permit teen players to help coach, and I understand that many organizations do. Here is how our mid-Missouri hockey association maintained a successful Leadership Program that fully involved older players as assistant coaches with the younger teams. The model can work well in any youth sport.

A Model for Teen Assistant Coaches

At our hockey association’s pre-season registration, teenage players could volunteer to be assistant coaches in the younger age groups. We usually required volunteers to be at least 16, and either still active in the association or playing in high school competition. Occasionally we also included younger teens who seemed particular mature for their age, and they too performed well. 

We were a relatively small association, and about a half dozen teen players would sign up to coach each year. To maintain a comfortable age differential, we would assign teen assistants to teams in the youngest age divisions, the mites (U 9) and the squirts (U 11). Some of the teams played house-level competition against other associations, and some of the teams played statewide B-level competition.

In both age groups, a capable extra coach was always welcome because players that young need so much personal attention. The adult head coaches did not seem to mind that the teens were usually inexperienced at coaching, perhaps because many adult assistant coaches were in the same boat. At the pre-season meeting with the parents, the head coach would introduce the teen assistants and explain that they too are learning while they generously donate their time.

State and national youth hockey governing bodies now have guidelines for teen coaches. In addition to following these guidelines, our association’s coaching director and board members would hold a mandatory pre-season meeting with the teen coaches to discuss what the association expected from them. This mandatory session was in addition to the mandatory pre-season meeting for adult coaches, which the teens would also be expected to attend. 

We told the teen volunteers that coaching brings responsibilities, including these:

1)            Role modeling. Keep your language and behavior clean because the younger players are listening and watching. Mites and squirts do not distinguish between adult volunteer coaches and teen volunteer coaches. You are their coach, period. In other words, you are a teen who has volunteered to act like an adult.

2)            Attendance. Regular attendance is a must because at any age, players expect their coaches to attend most practices and games. Before volunteering, be honest with yourselves and your parents about how much time you can devote, given your academic and playing commitments. (Teen coaches often missed mite or squirt weekend games because they were playing on their own teams, but that was understood and accepted.)

3)            Selflessness. Playing and coaching are two different roles. You have volunteered to coach; you have not volunteered to get yourself extra ice time for personal conditioning or for showing off. In mite or squirt practice sessions, do not join in drills except to instruct and demonstrate. When the team scrimmages during practices, your role is to instruct and blow the whistle, and not to play.   

4)            Professional distance. Like the adult coaches, teen coaches are not the players’ friends. They are coaches who show friendship. There’s a difference.

5)            Attentiveness. Even adult beginner coaches sometimes tend to pay more attention to the most outgoing, personable players. The other players need just as much of the coaches’ attention, and sometimes even a bit more.

6)            Liability. Coaches must minimize risks of injury to players. Be careful about what you ask the players to do, and be sure to help provide mature supervision on and off the ice.

7)            Discipline. Mites and squirts rarely step out of line, but player discipline should be left to the adult head coach, who is best able to talk with parents. Even adult assistant coaches usually have reduced disciplinary authority.

8)            Controversies.  Disputes with parents and other contentious issues are often a part of youth-league coaching these days. If you sense that such an issue is brewing, or if you have actually become involved in one, talk to the head coach or a board member immediately so that they can handle it. Teen assistants should not be drawn into controversies with parents because the playing field is not level.

We urged the adult head coaches to use their teen assistants in a meaningful way, to treat them like any other assistant coach, and to mentor them so that their experience would soon begin to measure up to their youthful enthusiasm. At my own squirt team’s practices, I would frequently ask the teen assistants to conduct a drill or give instruction at the other end of the rink, outside my earshot. The teen assistants never let me down.  

Why Use Teen Assistant Coaches?

Enlisting teen assistant coaches was plus each year. Before long, the Leadership Program became major part of the association’s format.

The teen assistant coaches got a taste of leadership and a chance to see hockey from a different perspective. Because teaching a great way to learn, they also learned from coaching; a player can learn plenty about how to shoot the puck, for example, when he has to stop and think about how to teach shooting to someone else step-by-step. Teen assistants also earned a credential that would strengthen their later college and employment applications. Invariably the coach or a parent on the team could later write a nice letter of recommendation for the teen coach. Some of the teens wrote their college application essays about coaching.

The mite and squirt players looked up to the teen assistants, who were somewhat close in age and playing on teams that the mites and squirts hoped to join someday. Players and coaches felt a bond because they had something in common.

The association benefitted from enabling older players to “give back,” and from creating a sense of unity and spirit that joined the younger and older age divisions. Teen coaches would often bring teammates and friends to the mite and squirt home games, and the mites and squirts would turn out to watch the teen coaches play their home games.

How successful was the Leadership Program? Many of the teen coaches still coach in their local youth sports programs years later. The flame is still there. That says what needs to be said.