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Helping Children Learn To Talk to Coaches

A simple request with a not so simple answer

Our 7th grade daughter had a dream this past spring - to play on one of her school's sports teams. With an after school life already filed with multiple musical activities, some quite intense, we wondered not only if she was taking on more than her schedule could sanely accommodate but if the teachers involved at all venues would allow for be flexible so she could do all the activities she loves.

We knew from past experience that the music teachers would be flexible. While we didn't know the coach that well, we assumed being a 7th grade teacher he'd understand the age and support our daughter's attempt to try new things while pursuing her old passions. To say we were wrong would be the understatement of the year.

Before deciding to go out for this team, we encouraged our daughter to ask the coach about tryouts and feel him out about his flexibility about conflicts with the musical groups. One of the tryouts actually fell during a mandatory school orchestra rehearsal. His response to my daughter was this: "Well, you can come late but you'll be docked a bit. After all, the other kids will be there missing none of the tryouts." While initially very upset, by the next day our daughter realized this wasn't a coach she wanted to play for. Exploring other options, she discovered the track team with a coach whose flier said "Cut from another team? Join us! No one every turned away!" More than that, this guy was unfazed by conflicts!

Coaching your kids to talk to their coach

Coaches are the rock and foundation of our kids' sports lives and can honestly make or break the experience. Developmentally and emotionally, it is very important that coaches be aware and understand the kids they coach and realistic about the age group they are working with. For middle school kids, this means understanding their need for flexibility and the need to participate in many types of activities.

Kids don't just need coaches in their sport, they need their parents to help coach them through the many obstacles that develop while negotiating their social worlds. Our kids are not naturals at some of these social situations and need us to guide them. My daughter, for example, needing a bit of a nudge to talk to that initial coach and we were right there helping her work through that. As parents, that is our job - to help kids learn to conduct themselves as they learn to stand up for themselves and talk to these other coaches on their own.

The tough part is figuring out when to pass your kids the "stand up for yourself" baton. Through most of elementary school, our kids are used to us doing their bidding. We tend to be the ones to talk to the teachers and help them figure out the tough issues in school. That all changes in middle school - in fact, rather abruptly. And, it should. Developmentally, middle school is exactly the right time for our kids to learn to be more independent and we need to help them do that. This is practice for the real world, although in a very small and controlled setting. Our kids need to learn how to talk to adults and how to get that sense when something isn't right - when it is not a good match.

Why worry about the type of coach?

Is all this really necessary? What's the worst that can happen if a child ends up with a coach that isn't child focused? A great deal, actually!

Coaches who are not child-focused are not going to nurture your child in a positive way and a variety of not-so-great issues could occur on that team as a result, not the least of which are:

  • Bullying

  • Demoralization

  • Low self-esteem

  • Favoritism

All of these issues are avoided by ensuring your child has a child-focused coach and a coach your child is comfortable with.

When in doubt, move to Plan B

Sports are important! But, as a middle schooler, being well rounded is important, too, perhaps even more so! You want to surround your child with coaches and teachers who get that, who understand the need for kids this age to spread their wings and try out new activities. There should be no labels such as "jock", "dramie", "geek" at this age. They are way too young to be pigeon-holed like that.

Sometimes something new and wonderful can come from exploring a path our kids think they want to take but we have to be on the sidelines to help them negotiate the plays. They don't need us to tell them what to do all the time but may need a bit of help finding the direction to take when things don't pan out as they hope.

Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD is a pediatrician living in the Boston area and the founder and Editor-In-Chief of www.Pediatricsnow.com.


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