It happens two or three times a week. You load your children into the car, drive them to practice and turn them over to a person you may not even know. This volunteer coach can have a lifelong influence, positive or negative, on the attitudes your children will have toward sports.
Who are these people? What kind of training have they had? What do they know about children? What if they are screamers? Abusive, or worse?
If it makes you feel any better, most of them are much like you. Sixty to 80 percent of all youth sports coaches are parents who are coaching one or more of their own children. They are giving up a large chunk of their free time because, qualified or not, they enjoy coaching and being with kids--or because no one else would do it.
So how do you tell the difference between a good coach and a jerk? "Look for emotional moderation, not a person who gets too high after a win or too low after a loss," advises J. Morrow, a Westchester, N.Y., sports psychologist and president of Sportsense Inc. "Young athletes will copy what they see. If a coach is always on an emotional roller coaster, it will have a negative effect on their players' attitudes and performance."
A coach needs to be good at managing time and personalities. Don't expect volunteer coaches working with very young children to have a big-league knowledge of the game, but they should be able to organize practices that keep everybody busy.
Keith Zembower, a youth sports consultant in Dallas who has coached young athletes for more than 20 years, urges parents to consider the four Cs of coaching:
* Communication. "A coach should call a conference with parents before the season begins to discuss what is expected from them and their children," advises Zembower. "The content of the conference can change with the situation, but coaches should at least talk about how long practices will last, what will happen during practices." They should also make clear what's appropriate behavior on the field and in the stands, and the role of the coach vs. the role of parents.
Coaches should explain that they will not embarrass players on either team with their comments, and parents should follow that example: No riding the umpire. No coaching from the stands or from behind a fence. Getting instruction from several sources at the same time just confuses young athletes. Let the coach do the coaching and the arguing with umpires. You do the parenting.
* Consistency. Good coaches are consistent in the way they deal with players, parents and problems. Bad coaches make so many rules that they can't help but bend or break some of them before the season is over.
"When coaches make rules or set policies, they should stick with them throughout the season," says Zembower. "For example, coaches shouldn't tell parents and their children that playing time will be based strictly on performance, then play a favorite [their own child, for instance] ahead of someone whose numbers are better."
* Challenge. Effective coaches challenge their players to practice hard and with a purpose. They don't use winning as the only measuring stick. They spend time teaching fundamentals and they don't focus on the talented athletes at the expense of less-gifted ones. Drills should be directly related to game situations and exercises should be consistent with the physical capabilities of the growing athletes.
* Compassion. Good coaches recognize that children react differently to coaching styles. The "Vince Lombardi, one-size-fits-all" coaching method has passed. Some athletes need more praise than others do. Some can take constructive criticism.
Compassionate coaches don't say anything about players' strengths or weaknesses to parents that can't be repeated. They speak directly with a player's parents if there is a problem. They meet with players after games and they help them take something positive away from the experience, win or lose.
Zembower and Morrow advise parents to introduce themselves to the coach, offer support, then back off. "The less involvement of the parents, at least in matters of coaching and teaching, the better the situation," says Morrow. "Offer your help in areas like transportation, maintaining facilities and helping with fund-raising events."
What if you are not satisfied with a coach? Be careful. You have three acceptable options. The first is to speak with the coach privately to resolve the problem. An expression of concern or an explanation of why something is happening may be all that is needed.
The second choice is to pull your child out of the program. Don't do this unless the situation is extreme. Otherwise, you may be teaching a lesson--that quitting is acceptable--that is not good for your child.
Finally, let your child finish the season, bumps and all, then look for a better coach the next time around. That coach may be you.
Although it is seldom mandatory, some youth sports leagues provide training for volunteer coaches. One of the best national organizations is the not-for-profit American Sport Education Program (ASEP). Through three curricula--SportCoach, SportDirector and SportParent--ASEP encourages coaches, administrators and parents to change their approach to one that is healthier and athlete-centered. ASEP offers courses, workshops, books, videos and other resources. The organization can be reached by calling 1-800-747-5698 or on the Web at www.asep.com.
Jim Brown is executive editor of the Georgia Tech Sports Medicine and Performance Newsletter.