Youth coaches have to be ready for anything. Charlie Cooper, who coached his daughter's softball team for about 10 years, recalls that in his first year of coaching girls, he was standing on the pitcher's mound during practice gently throwing a ball over the plate to a 6-year-old. Thrilled when the girl made contact with the ball, Cooper enthusiastically yelled "run," expecting her to head toward first base. Instead she ran in a straight line from home plate to the outfield, oblivious of the game's most basic rules.
On other days in that first season, Cooper would have to walk the girls to their positions at first, second or third base or at shortstop because they had no clue where each position was. Teaching them to catch was no easier -- they would put the glove on "then act like, 'What do I do now?' " recalls Cooper, who is from Bethesda.
There are other challenges. Bethesda mom Sarah Klontz never played soccer other than on the blacktop after school in fifth grade. But that didn't stop her from coaching her son Erik's Montgomery Soccer Inc. team for four years. Back in 1997, Klontz's husband, Karl, who had played collegiate soccer at Georgetown, was coaching their older son's team, and Klontz wanted Erik, then 6, to have the same opportunity of being coached by a parent, she recalls. Even though she had to carry her preschooler on her hip during many games and cope with players occasionally crying or fighting on the field, the experience was worthwhile.
"I'm glad I did it. I would definitely do it again," she says.
Many others feel the same way. Across the Washington region, thousands of parents -- and a few people who either do not have children or whose children are grown -- serve as volunteer coaches for youth recreational sports teams. County recreation departments or other community organizations, such as YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, churches or sports associations, typically sponsor the teams, which are open to children with little or no experience in the sport and which aim to teach children the fundamentals of the game.
Rec teams typically play games locally one or two seasons per year, compared with travel teams that play year-round in the area and beyond. Rec-level youth baseball and soccer games, for example, are played in fall and spring; football is played in the fall, and basketball in the winter. Lacrosse, a rapidly growing sport among youth in the area, is primarily a spring sport.
GET IN THE GAME
Signing up to be a volunteer coach for a youth team usually involves contacting a sports organization or checking a box on your child's registration form indicating your willingness to do it. Experience playing the game isn't required. Some organizations, such as the Pop Warner football league, require that all coaches go through a criminal background check. Others expect coaches to receive CPR and first-aid certification. Many require new coaches to attend one or more clinics that teach the rules of the game and how to run practices and secure practice fields and times.
Enlisting parents as volunteer coaches -- typically dads, but increasingly moms, too -- is a necessity at the entry levels of youth sports because sports organizations cannot afford to pay coaches, says Bruce Adams, a former youth coach and founder of Bethesda Community Base Ball Club Inc. Fred Engh, president and founder of the Florida-based National Alliance for Youth Sports, estimates that of the approximately 1.5 million volunteer youth sports coaches in the United States, about 85 percent are motivated to coach because their child is in the program. "Billy Jones's mother or father signs up because somebody twisted their arm, or because they didn't want their child to sit on the bench, or because they thought they'd do the best job," he says.
But they are motivated by other factors, too. Consider basketball coach Jonathan Scribner, who is not a parent but has coached children ranging from second to eighth grade for 10 years and is the varsity basketball coach at the National Cathedral School in the District. Besides having a passion for the game and a love of being around children, Scribner says he coaches because "I know what role sports played for me growing up -- they were everything, all I ever thought about," he says. He also says he wants to bring the opportunities and life lessons -- including the value of teamwork and the chance to meet kids from a wide range of cultural backgrounds -- that he got from playing youth sports to the children he coaches. "A lot of my work ethic today was formulated by the tough, structured football coach I had when I was 8, 9 and 10," he says.
Arlington youth football coach Kirk Peterson coaches because he wants to be a role model for children and teach them to positively influence their communities. "The same way they act with 11 kids on the field will hopefully be the way they act with 22 kids in the classroom," he says, adding, "I want to have a long-term impact on them, even if they decide football is not for them." Thus he emphasizes respect and good sportsmanship on and off the field and enforces his league's rule that they maintain a 70 percent, or a 2.0, grade point average, he says.
Peterson has turned coaching into a family affair. His two older brothers help him coach, and his best friend and neighbor, Jason Valentine, helps run the Arlington Youth Athletic Association, a football and cheerleading organization Peterson founded earlier this year. Peterson's wife, Charley, coaches cheerleading, and his daughter participates in the cheerleading program.
Many youth coaches find the role tremendously satisfying. George Omeir, a youth coach for 8- to 12-year-olds in Southeast Washington for the Fields of Dreams after-school baseball and reading enrichment program, loves "seeing a kid who didn't know how to put on a glove on day one make a good play in week three, and seeing two or three of them emerge as captains with a lot of leadership skills."
Cooper, the softball coach whose daughter is now 15, agrees. Since that first year when the girls knew next to nothing about the game, his team won three championships. Moreover, every girl he coached who tried out last year for her high school varsity or junior varsity squad made the team.
For football coach Andre Ford, the head coach and president of the Marshall Heights Bison in Southeast Washington, the greatest reward is seeing kids he has coached become "decent, productive citizens and come back and tell us we've helped them," he says.
FIELDING THE CHALLENGES
Still, regardless of how committed, motivated and patient some people are when coaching youth sports, it's not an easy task, experienced coaches and other observers say. Challenge number one: successfully coaching one's own child. Jonathan Buzby, author of "Coaching Kids: It's More Than X's and O's" (Kids-n-Sports, 1998) has coached his 12-year-old son for several seasons in a variety of sports. He explains that children about ages 4 to 6 may not be able to separate the parent's role from that of coach and have a hard time obeying the parent in the coach role. Also, young children sometimes resent the attention given by their parent to other children, Buzby says.
Another challenge: emphasizing the importance of having fun and learning, as well as winning. "People coach kids as they were taught on the high school or college levels, telling them to suck it up or to run another lap," says Ron Yopp, a youth sports program specialist in Loudoun County's Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services. Former youth lacrosse coach Jennifer Allen, director of programs at Baltimore-based US Lacrosse, the national governing body for men's, women's and youth lacrosse, agrees. "You get an All-American lacrosse player who doesn't know how to bring his or her knowledge to kids," she says.
Tal Alter, Washington area coordinator for the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit based at Stanford University that strives to transform the culture of youth sports, says: "It's easy to take a ball, roll it out on the field and say, 'Go win.' It's not as easy to be a coach who gets the most out of players so they look back on the experience and say, 'I wouldn't trade that for anything.' "
Aggressive parents who demand more playing time for their child or seek to impose their own strategies pose difficulties for coaches. "Parental behavior is the number one problem in youth sports today," says Jon Butler, executive director of Philadelphia-based Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc., the nation's largest youth football and cheerleading organization.
Additionally, off-the-field issues may come into play, forcing coaches to get involved in their players' personal lives. In Ford's 21 years of coaching youth football, he has had to help steer his players away from drugs, he says. Many of his players come from single-parent homes and talk to him about girl or school problems. Though he works as a mail carrier and real estate agent, being a volunteer coach is "a 24-hour-a-day job," he says.
Logistical or family matters can add to the difficulty of coaching. Klontz, the soccer coach, recalls that securing a field at a location and time of day that was convenient for the coach and players was a hassle. You submit your choices and "pray that you get your field," she says. During her coaching years, she felt that she could not plan any family trips or stay home to care for her then-sick mother-in-law on fall or spring weekends.
Teaching the fundamentals of the game to kids who have little experience can be frustrating. Basketball, for example, requires a great deal of hand-eye coordination, Scribner says, and kids make mistakes as they learn to dribble, shoot, pass and pivot. "If you let that get to you, and lose sight of what you're doing, it can be a negative experience" for the coach and the kids, he says.
Some issues tend be more gender specific. Philip Brooks, commissioner for the Herndon Optimist Youth Softball League and coach of his daughter's team of 8- to 10-year-olds, says some girls on his team socialize during games, so he needs to remind them to concentrate. Boys tend to roughhouse more, so coaches have to work hard to get them to pay attention, he says.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Sports experts and veteran youth coaches say each of these challenges can be overcome. Here are some of their suggestions for making the youth sports experience positive for coaches and players:
Evaluate the time commitment involved before agreeing to coach. Besides showing up early and staying late for practices and games, you need to plan ahead for both. You should also send a letter home or meet with parents early on to set expectations. Engh, of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, estimates that most youth recreation team coaches spend 80 hours per season on coaching duties.
Be careful how you treat your own child. Don't talk about what happens at the game or practice when you are away from the field, author Buzby suggests, adding that you should treat your own child like every other player. Also, explain to your child that you must be fair to all children and must devote some attention to them.
Keep practices fun without overemphasizing structured drills. For example, in soccer, an "organized sandlot" works best, says Pete Mehlert, director of the Chevy Chase-based American Soccer Academy, a coaching service specializing in youth clinics, camps and training. During practices for inexperienced players, Mehlert has no out-of-bounds areas except behind goal lines so kids get a lot of freedom to practice dribbling and passing the ball. Football coach Ford initiates low-key games of flag football, dodgeball or tug of war at the end of practices, and he joins in with the kids.
Incorporate teaching of values in a fun way. During a five-minute snack break, have children discuss a word of the week, such as sportsmanship, commitment or hustle, suggests baseball expert Adams.
Keep kids busy at practice. In baseball, that can mean having parent helpers on the field so kids get adequate time practicing catching and hitting and don't just stand around. In soccer, that can mean organizing several one-on-one or two-on-two stations so kids don't have to line up to kick the ball toward the goal.
Accept that kids make mistakes and provide encouragement. The less naturally talented kids need the most encouragement to stay interested in the sport, says basketball coach Scribner.
Be a calming influence and peacemaker. Expect young kids to have minor injuries that lead them to cry or to get into fights and accuse each other of hitting or cheating. On such occasions, former soccer coach Klontz found that giving kids hugs, and helping them wipe away tears and make peace with their teammates, worked well. "The motherly instinct was useful," she says.
Remember that it's not about winning or adults reliving their youth. Give kids the chance to play in a variety of positions; let all kids play; don't teach children to cheat or allow them to play when injured.
Require good parental behavior on the sidelines. Alert parents to the conduct you expect and warn them that yelling at referees or umpires won't be tolerated. Ray Scott, president of Pop Warner of Northern Virginia, suggests telling parents that their children will be dismissed from the program if parents are out of control.
Do team bonding experiences. Have a team party or go to a high school game together. Organize a team carwash and donate the earnings to a charity or use them for a team event.
Keep updated on coaching skills and participate in sportsmanship workshops. Several sports leagues offer online or in-person sessions to bone up on the latest drills and strategies as well as on how to keep the right perspective when coaching.
Consider starting as an assistant coach. Assistant coaching involves less responsibility for the team and a lighter time commitment than serving as head coach. You can request certain duties and avoid others while getting a taste of the coaching experience.
Call in a professional if the team has too much politics or if you have too little understanding of the nuances of the game. Several organizations will send trained coaches or individuals to run practices and teach game skills. Costs are typically shared among players' families.
Enlist the help of parents. For a team to be successful, the coach "needs a lot of help," says softball coach Brooks. That help can come from parents, who are often willing to set up a snack schedule, assist in securing a practice location or getting uniforms, or to show up and do whatever the coach needs help with at practice.
Rebecca R. Kahlenberg is a freelance writer who last wrote for Weekend about benefit walks.