This is very likely to be my most unpopular post to date. I’ve tested the ideas contained within this post with families in therapy, and they have not typically been well-received. At least not by half of the parents. The male half, in fact. I realize that sounds terribly sexist, and I apologize for that. But, this is a blog that is based on actual experiences with real families in therapy. I am simply writing about what I have observed.
This family came to see me because 7th grader, Marcus, was exhibiting behaviors suggestive of anxiety. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have met this family before (The Homework Tree). They returned to see me after about a year’s hiatus from therapy. Typically a very laid back kid, Marcus had begun to express worry about his performance in school, on the soccer field, and as a saxophonist. This was quite a change for Marcus who had a history of being very lackadaisical about homework. Since the start of 7th grade, he had been spending excessive amounts of time studying for tests and had begun asking his parents to check his homework. He was declining opportunities to perform solos in his concert band and was making frequent attempts to avoid soccer practices and games. All of this concerned Mom and Dad (although they admitted to being pleased about the new focus on academic performance), but the issue that was most disruptive to the family was Marcus’ resistance to playing soccer. He complained of stomach aches and headaches to avoid going to games and practices, and when his father insisted that he go, he moped around the field with little energy or enthusiasm. This was not cool because, of course, Marcus’ father was also his soccer coach.
Alone in my office, Marcus explained that a couple of factors were contributing to his worries. First, having made the transition to middle school, he was encountering teachers with much higher expectations, many more demands, and a far less gentle way of expressing disapproval. Marcus was finding his band teacher especially critical.
The second factor was Marcus’ growing discomfort playing on a team that his father coaches. Dad is passionate about soccer; Marcus is passionate about music. Dad cares about winning; Marcus cares about having fun. Dad believes that sports are all about hard work and commitment; Marcus just wants to hang out with his teammates. These differences did not cause much conflict when Marcus was younger and a soccer game meant two groups of children wearing contrasting jerseys huddled together and chasing a ball around a field. But, as those little soccer players grew up, the game became more competitive, the skills necessary to be successful on the field increased, and the intensity of the coaches, parents, and teammates climbed.
Marcus talked at length about how soccer had gone from a fun way to spend a couple of hours on Saturdays to just another source of stress. In addition to disliking the changes that happen in organized sports as players get older, Marcus did not like having his father as a coach. He felt that his father was really hard on him and criticized him more harshly than than he did the other boys on the team. He felt a lot of pressure from his father to work on fundamentals between scheduled team practices. He also felt that he did not have time for two practices during the week and games on the weekends. Marcus told me that he never really wanted to play soccer in the first place, but that he did it to make his dad happy. He also mentioned that he and Dad frequently leave the field angry with one another. After telling me all this, he made the following wisecrack:
My dad should coach on somebody his own size. – Marcus, 12 years old
Here is where my popularity plummets. I believe that in a world that really respects the developmental needs of adolescents, parents would not coach their own children once the kids reach adolescence. Before you unsubscribe, hear me out.
The primary developmental task of adolescence is establishing an identity separate from one’s parents. This does not happen overnight, and it is not a passive process. When all goes smoothly, the process begins around puberty and ends in young adulthood. It involves some less-than-pleasant behavioral changes. Here are examples of some of the challenging behaviors adolescents exhibit as part of this process.
- Testing limits. A 12 year old girl comes downstairs on a school day wearing short shorts and a midriff shirt. A 15 year old boy begins dropping curse words in casual conversation with his parents.
- Violating rules. A 16 year old boy skips school and spends the day hanging out with a truant classmate. A 17 year old girl sneaks out of her bedroom window to go to a party her parents have forbidden her to attend.
- Shifting friendships. A 14 year old academically and athletically gifted student begins hanging out with a group of troublemakers who care nothing about grades or sports. A sweet 15 year old begins hanging out with a group of mean girls and ignores her best friends.
- Experimenting with identities. An 18 year old with a typically preppy appearance gets her nose pierced and dyes purple streaks in her hair. A 14 year old develops an obsession with hip hop culture and begins talking and walking like his favorite rap artist.
- Pushing back. A typically respectful and well-behaved 16 year old boy openly challenges his parents’ right to control his life. A 17 year old girl refuses to continue piano lessons after taking them without objection for 12 years.
These are examples of mildly challenging behaviors that fall into the “within normal adolescent limits” category. Some teenagers go to much greater extremes as they separate from their parents. Oftentimes, acting out behaviors such as mouthing off at teachers, drinking, and having sex represent adolescents’ more intense attempts to establish separateness and differentness from their parents.
So what does all this have to do with coaching? It’s simple, really. Well-adjusted adolescents need to push back against their parents, but well-behaved players know to treat coaches with deference and respect. It’s a no-win situation for the adolescent whose father is also his coach. The public nature of coaching compounds the problem. If a teenaged player does not like the way his father/coach talks to him, then he may feel social pressure to put his father in his place. As you can imagine, this is not likely to go over well with Coach Dad, so the cycle of negative interaction between father/coach and son/player is likely to escalate.
I have seen the same dynamic happen between mothers and daughters on the court or field, but this has been far less common in my experience. I have also seen parents who successfully coach their kids into the teenage years, but this is also not very common.
The problem described in this post is not limited to parents who are the official coaches. A parent coaching from the bleachers can create just as much tension in the parent-adolescent relationship as the one coaching from the bench.
There was a time when I never would have suggested that parents stop coaching their own kids. I thought it simply would not be feasible because how else would community sports organizations fill their coaching positions if not with parent volunteers. Then, my son joined a basketball league that expressly prohibits young people from playing for their own parents. It’s a somewhat more expensive league, so perhaps the coaches get paid a little, but the extra cost is worth the protection such a practice affords to the parent-adolescent relationship. To be honest, neither my husband nor I have coached our kids since they were very small, but we have suffered through many sporting events that were painful because we had to watch coaches berate their own children.
So, parents, unsubscribe if you must but before you do, please think about the potential risks to your relationship with your adolescent if you insist on coaching. If possible, become a parent who sits in the stands and cheers for the whole team, acknowledges great plays made by any player, and leaves coaching to the coaches. If you do this, you and your child are much more likely to find the sport a mutually enjoyable activity rather than a source of relationship strain. If you really want to coach, you can always coach on other people’s kids.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]