Mike Zumpano grew up playing baseball. He said he never understood as a child why his dad, who was a minor league baseball player, didn’t want to be his coach, although it makes sense to him now.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” he says. “You have to be able to treat your kid just like everybody else and kind of forget that you’re the dad.”

The former high school coach and PE teacher has seen for himself how challenging it can be for parents to coach their own children well. He now runs an Austin company that offers movement programs for kids with his wife, Kristi. Zumpano, a father of two, isn’t saying parents shouldn’t coach their kids. But he and others who work with children agree that one key to success for parents who do is their ability to effectively differentiate between their respective roles. Here’s why.

Equal Treatment

In sports as elsewhere, a parent’s attention is often fixed primarily on his or her own child, while coaches must think about their teams as a whole. Moreover, coaching—especially in youth sports—generally means trying to help all kids equally in their development, regardless of their skill level or talent. So, effective parent coaches must be willing and able to distance themselves to some extent from their own children’s needs while responding to the needs of the other children on their team. Put another way, a parent coach who is too focused on the advancement of his or her own child will be hard pressed to give other team members the guidance and playing opportunities they deserve. Local child psychologist Dr. Mike Brooks, who helped coach his son’s soccer team for two years, has a similar take on what good parent coaching requires. Being equitable as a coach was very important to him personally, he said, and he strove to give each player regular one-on-one attention and support.

“I didn’t want to show favoritism to any of the boys—period,” he says.

Adopting a broader attitude about the experience, that “We are out here to play a sport, learn some skills, have some fun, get a good work-out, hopefully get better and win some games” helped him keep perspective as a coach and avoid favoring his son, he says.

Positive Attitude

Keeping it positive with all the players also helps tremendously, Brooks says, citing the “magic ratio,” concept popularized by Dr. John Gottman. Gottman’s research found that people who have at least five positive interactions for every negative one form strong relationships. In the context of coaching, Brooks explains, such relationships mean coaches have more influence with their players and that players are, in turn, more receptive to the feedback.

Because there is a lot to contend with emotionally for both parent and child, coaching one’s child at the younger end of the age spectrum is something Austin Sports Psychologist Dr. Tim Zeddies recommends.

“The younger the kid is, the easier it is for the parent to be a coach,” Zeddies says. “As kids get older, sports become more competitive. And the more competitive sports become, the more difficult it is for the parent and for the child to navigate the dual roles that are involved in a parent being a parent and also being coach,” he adds. By high school, teens are also becoming more independent as they undergo a process of identity development. “Having time away from parents is very critical to that process,” he says.

Getting It Right

All this being said, parent coaches are a valuable and often essential element of many youth programs in Austin and beyond. So if you are thinking of taking the plunge, here are some things you can do to help ensure the experience works for you, your child and the team:

Talk to your child beforehand about what you anticipate coaching his or her team will be like. Find out if your child has anxieties or concerns you can address. And if your child is not happy about the idea, it makes sense to reconsider or at least defer coaching until he or she is on board with the idea.

Think about what you will do with your child off the field as well as on. In particular, make a point of doing non sport-related activities with your child to maintain emotional balance and help prevent the sport from defining your relationship. In addition, be sure to give your child one-on-one attention outside of games and practices and reinforce the message that your love and approval does not depend upon his or her performance on the field.

Avoid advising or analyzing your child’s performance too much, no matter how well intentioned. Set limits for yourself and take cues from your child about how much feedback is too much, and notice times when he or she needs to tune out. And while it’s understandable that you want your child to do well on the field, remember that to stay motivated, kids playing sports need to have fun, especially in the early years.

Consider splitting up coaching responsibilities with a partner or an assistant, or getting help from a volunteer or friend. Sharing the load takes some of the pressure off you, and can diffuse potential conflicts between you and your child, as well as between you and other players or their parents over perceptions of fairness or favoritism.

Coaching your child’s team is a unique opportunity to have fun, stretch your own capabilities and give back to others, while watching your child grow and mature. “It was a great experience,” Brooks says of his own coaching stint. Winning is wonderful, but it’s the other things that kids get out of the experience that really matter—like the friendships they form, what they learn about hard work and teamwork and how to take losses in stride, he says.

Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom who covers public affairs, public health and the well-being of children.

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