Coaching your child: Expert advice from T-ball to high school and beyond

It's an unforgettable line from Field of Dreams: "Hey, Dad, you wanna have a catch?" Kevin Costner is already an adult when he tosses a baseball to his ghostly father. For most dads and kids, the moment comes much sooner; and for thousands of families across the country, a simple catch leads to dad signing up his son or daughter with the local youth league, and then signing up himself as coach.

Then the simple joy of tossing a ball back and forth transforms into something more complicated. The team, of course, includes other players. And they have parents, many of whom have opinions about you as a coach. Practices are difficult enough to run smoothly, and they lead to games, and games are competitive. Are you a good coach or a poor one? Is your child a good player or a lousy one? Are you playing favorites with your child? Or are you harder on your kid than on the others, creating friction in the family?

None of that mattered during the backyard catch. Coaching a son or daughter, it turns out, is one of the most challenging pursuits a parent can take on. It can be exceedingly rewarding. And it can be exceedingly frustrating – to the child as well as the parent.

Even if the child hits the sports equivalent of the lottery and becomes a professional athlete, memories of the years under dad's tutelage can be a mixed bag. Kevin Neary and Leigh A. Tobin co-authored a book, Major League Dads, which features 250 pages of big-league baseball players recounting being coached as youngsters by their fathers. Most of the memories are positive: the work ethic dad taught, the skills he honed, the fun he emphasized. Others are telling, and could help serve as a road map for any dad piling bats and helmets into his car and heading off to the field. Neary and Tobin even reference Field of Dreams (and its most unforgettable line: "If you build it, he will come.")

Another resource for parents coaching their children is Bruce E. Brown of Proactive Coaching, who has spoken to more than a million young athletes, parents and coaches over the last 12 years. His common-sense advice helps anyone involved in youth, high school and college sports maximize their enjoyment while avoiding pitfalls. He was the primary source for a story I wrote in February on how to avoid being a nightmare sports parent.

Most dad/coaches do a good job, Brown said, although they all face obstacles. He pointed out that because professional athletes often have freakish athletic ability, their success isn't necessarily the product of a dad who did everything right as a coach. But some do. The finest youth coach in tiny Pierson, Fla., 35 years ago was Larry Jones, whose son, also named Larry, was such a chip off the old block people started calling him Chipper. Of course, today Chipper Jones is a 19-year MLB veteran and seven-time All-Star with the Atlanta Braves.

"My dad and I still talk two or three times a week," Jones told Neary. "Whenever I get into a slump, my coaches ask me if I've called my dad. He knows my swing the best of anyone."

Greg Maddux, who ranks eighth all-time with 355 wins, is appreciative of something most children don't hear: "The greatest lesson I learned from my father was that you've got to think for yourself. You've got to learn how to do things for yourself. I know it was hard for a dad to do and say, but he did it."

It's inevitable that a coach will say something to his child he wouldn't say to another player. When a pre-teen Derek Jeter wouldn't shake hands with the other team after a loss, his father/coach told him it was "time to grab a tennis racket, since you obviously don't know how to play a team sport." And Tampa Bay Rays slugger Evan Longoria's dad told him to stop crying when the boy was pitching at age 8.

"I can just remember him walking out to the mound and him giving me that stern look – almost a yell, but not really – saying, 'What are you doing crying out here?' " Longoria said. "But he made sure not to go too far with his look because he didn't want me to cry even more."

Coaching a son or daughter is not a prerequisite for getting him or her a college scholarship or reaching the pros. The father of J.D., Stephen and Tim Drew – the only family to have three first-round draft picks – didn't coach. But regardless of a child's talent, a parent might choose to coach. It can be tremendously rewarding. And most youth sports organizations will gladly accept another volunteer.

What follows is a short guide to coaching a son or daughter found in the Proactive Coaching booklet, "Youth Coaching, Four Keys to a Successful Season." The examples are from baseball players, but the lessons can be universal to any sport:

Understand when to be a coach and when to be a parent: As soon as a game or practice ends, make a quick transition back to the unconditional love of a parent. Do not be the coach to your child at home; do not parent your child on the field. Develop a clear separation of roles. Keep in mind that you will be a parent for life; you will only be a coach for a while.

New York Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes admits his dad was tougher on him than on his youth teammates. Even today, Hughes' father will call him after games.

"He'll leave these hour-long voicemails about everything I need to remember," Hughes said. "He especially leaves a message on my phone if he watches the game and knows I struggled a little bit. He'll leave questions like, 'Was your sinker working?' Then I'll call him back and say, 'I don't throw a sinker.' And he'll say, 'Then why don't you throw one next time, or learn one?' "

Suggestion: Talk to your child about the difference between your role as a coach and as a parent. Have him or her call you "coach" during practice and games, and have them transition back to "dad or "mom" immediately afterward.

[Related: What makes a nightmare sports parent vs. a great one]

Avoid playing favorites or being too tough on your child: Showing favoritism to your child will strain his or her relationship with teammates. It will be obvious to everybody but you. On the other hand, being too tough on your child can make the child feel as if he or she is being unfairly punished just because dad is the coach. Treat your child as a member of the team – nothing more, nothing less.

"My dad didn't ever want other kids or parents to think he was showing favoritism toward me, so I always had to prove myself on my own," Chipper Jones said. "My dad taught me the fundamentals of the game, but he had the other coaches take care of the discipline end of the game. It worked out great."

Suggestion: Ask a trusted an assistant coach or parent to be brutally honest with you and inform you if you are showing favoritism or are being too hard on your child. And don't get defensive when the person says what you might not want to hear.

Don't discuss coaching issues with your child: Do not discuss teammates. Do not compare players or siblings. Let post-game analysis wait until you are again in the role of the coach. Make the transition to parent and if your child wants to bring up the game to you, answer from the parent perspective.

The father of Sean Rodriguez, an infielder with the Tampa Bay Rays, was a professional scout and coach who also coached Sean since he could swing a bat.

"He was never hard on me, never screamed at me, never got mad at me, and never called me out on the field," Rodriguez told Tobin. "My dad was great. Whenever I did something wrong he was more quiet than anything else and then I knew something was wrong. He wouldn't even say anything when I got back to the car. He always wanted me to figure out what I did wrong.

"That was his biggest thing – for me to figure it out on my own. It was his way of teaching me a lesson – a lesson for me to self-teach myself, self-correct myself, and self-discipline myself."

Suggestion: Never rehash the game in the car with your child on the drive home. As soon as you turn on the ignition and pull out of the parking lot, you are a parent, not a coach. In your mind, every traffic sign you see as you approach your house should read, "Dad's Home."

Know when to stop coaching: Recognize when the time comes to step aside and let someone else coach your child. This may happen either because of ability (yours or the child's) or because your child makes it clear he or she doesn't want you on the field anymore. Brown said this often occurs when youngsters turn 13 or 14.

"Make a smooth transition from coach to parent-spectator-encourager," Brown said. "Don't hesitate to do some scouting to make sure the coach who succeeds you is a good one for your child. Remember the kind of parent support that you appreciated when you were coaching and give it to your child's new coach."

Maddux recalled when his father came to this realization, saying, "At that point he stayed completely out of it. He let the other coaches coach. Yet, he was still there every game I played."

Youngsters absolutely appreciate parents being involved in their sports careers, from T-ball all the way to the big leagues. And the dad's voice lingers in a child's memory long after they cease taking the field together as coach and player.

Former All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling's father, Cliff, coached him throughout youth league and predicted early on that his son would make the major leagues. He was thrilled when Curt was a second-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1986. But Cliff died of a heart attack in 1988, a few months before his son made his major-league debut.

Curt went on to start 436 major-league games, and he left a ticket for his father at will call at every one.

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