Summer is almost here, and with it come the ill-fitting baseball uniforms, iodine swabbed skinned soccer knees, and a load of sports uniform laundry that will keep the washer going continuously until September. Legions of children sign up for summer sports across the country and enjoy the benefits of exercise, fresh air, and personal goal-setting and challenge. Setting up a child in a habit of exercise is a huge benefit in itself. But for some children, summer sports may wind up being a miserable time that builds frustration rather than character. Who sets the tone for the summer and manages the balance between a self-fulfilling or self-defeating experience? The youth sports coach, of course.
While the media portrays only the most extreme examples of coaches crossing the line, the Pennsylvania coach that paid a kid to hit an autistic boy with a ball to keep him from playing, or the coaches from Utah that orchestrated a win by setting up a child who was a brain cancer survivor to strike out, the line between good coaching and coaching needing parent involvement is usually not as clear. “Was it okay for the coach to use that tone?” “The coach is manipulating the line up so that kids hardly play at all.” “The coach has the whole team staying after the lost game to do extra push-ups and sit-ups.” These are the more common scenarios that force parents to question, “do I step in and confront or help my child work it out him or herself?”
To make the picture even muddier, researchers say that there is an interweaving of coach behavior coupled with a child’s own feelings about sports that play into the relationship. From about ages 8 to 12, peer comparison, how a child feels he or she measures up, is perhaps the strongest factor in determining how a child feels on a team or while involved in sports. Feeling unattached to the team, low moral decision making among the team, and witnessing sports violence are also factors that lead to low sports self-concept. So, it may not just be the coach using harsh tones and criticism that affects a child long-term, but whether or not the criticism is directed toward distancing the child from other players in a negative way. If this behavior happens repeatedly toward particular children on the team, it signals limitations in the coach’s ability to manage stress, to balance pressures to win with the job of team-building, or to deal with personal issues that might find their way onto the soccer field or basketball court.
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