Jim Harbaugh (University of Michigan Photography)

How do the country’s top college coaches react when their child wants to quit a sport midseason or has a problem with a coach or teammate? We interviewed some of the best in the business, including University of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, about the fine line between providing encouragement and support, and being there for disappointments and setbacks, but not turning into that sports parent.

Each coach focused on the hard work of improving at any sport. They also spoke about how today’s emphasis on individual performance over teamwork damages youth sports and undermines some of the most important lessons that sports can teach.

Here is their expert — and honest — advice, from one parent to another: [interviews have been edited and condensed]

Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan football coach

With my older kids, I listened to other people who told me ‘don’t push your kids, let them find their own path.’ I took that advice to heart. Now I have younger children and my perspective has changed.

Whether it’s a friend, a coach or a dad, we all need somebody to push us a little bit, to give us a little nudge. There’s one thing I really know: It’s easy to quit. And I think it’s even getting easier because there’s a progressive mind-set that says you shouldn’t push somebody and expect them to show up every day. I think that is the wrong mentality.

There’s a point where it’s not always fun to practice. You have to understand that pushing through that will get you to improvement. If you want to be better today than yesterday, and better tomorrow than you were today, you’re going to have to push yourself. At some point the lesson has to be learned that if you want to be good, it’s going to be hard.

Whether it’s my own kids or my own players, they can get nervous that they are not going to be good or as good as somebody else. I think the big part of encouraging somebody is believing in them. As a dad I try to do what my dad did for me. He took me to ballgames, played catch with me and believed in me. And I am trying to copy that example with my own kids.

The Auriemma family. (Photo by Brian Ambrose Photography, brianambrosephoto.com)

Geno Auriemma, University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach

As a parent, when I watched my daughter play basketball, I tried to avoid sitting where other parents would ask me questions, like why the coach was playing this person and not that one. I kept to myself and didn’t say anything. My priority as a spectator was to respect what the coach was doing.

The reality is, someone is going to play more and someone is going to play less. I would say to my kids, “You’re not always going to be treated equally because not everyone’s talent is equal.” They’re going to encounter this when they go to work, too. They have to learn how to deal with it. That’s life.

Sports today is too centered around showcasing individual performance rather than focusing on helping the team. Parents need to teach children that it can’t always be about them. With my own kids, I use to compliment their teammates like, “Hey, you guys would have been in deep trouble without Dave today. He’s really good.”

What is more important than learning how to be a great teammate? At what point in your life won’t you be on a team — in high school and college, with your family or when you get a job, these are all teams. Kids have to learn how to work together and be their best within the context of a team.

Natasha Adair (Georgetown Athletics)

Natasha Adair, Georgetown University women’s basketball coach

When my son, who is a college athlete, calls me and he’s a little down, I remind him that life without adversity is not real life. I tell him that there is a learning curve with any experience.  I remind him how he got to where he is.

I also give him my story as a coach. When I first got to Georgetown we didn’t win a lot of games. That was hard for me. In the second year we had the best turnaround in Division I. So what if I had walked away and given up? Sometimes children don’t see the daily struggles so I try to remind them.

As parents, we want our children to succeed, but we also need to be open and honest with our kids about where their talents lie. Right now, everyone wants a trophy just for participating and I don’t agree with that. I think there is a champion. If parents are always chasing the perfect team for their kid, instead of really letting them work through something, I don’t think that’s teaching kids how to stick it out.  It’s really important to help kids understand that there is a process to achieving success and getting your reward.

Janine Tucker and sons (family photo)

Janine Tucker, Johns Hopkins University women’s lacrosse coach

When my kids were little, I was big on multisport play for them. If you’re the superstar in soccer but fourth guy off the bench in lacrosse, you learn how to handle high pressure situations in soccer, and then during lacrosse season, you learn what it means to be more humble and to have more work to do.  It taught my kids how to be leaders but also to be good followers.

In high school, one of my boys wanted to give up soccer. He just wasn’t seeing playing time, despite working hard. I explained that you may be doing everything right, but the guys in front of you might be doing what you’re doing, just a little bit better. I told him: You made a commitment to stay on the team this season, so quitting is never an option.

So, instead of going down the road of ‘yeah, your coach is doing you wrong, you should be playing more,’ I asked him about the other benefits he got from being on that team.  And we literally wrote them down together: I like being with my friends, doing the drills, the time in the locker room, wearing the team sweatshirt.  Making that list allowed him to see that he got much more out of the game than just the playing time.


David Shaw (StanfordPhoto.com)

David Shaw, Stanford University, Football

When parents compliment kids other than their own and also the other team, that’s good for everybody. It’s sends a great message. We go to youth games hoping positive things for all of these kids, not just trying to make superstars out of our own kids. It should be fun so let’s keep perspective: no one’s getting fired and nobody’s signing million dollar contracts in youth sports.

A win or loss does not define us. The best competitors learn as much from losses as victories. As parents, we can help with that process. If they won we can say, ‘you played well and here are some things you can work on.’ And when they lose, we can say, ‘I know it’s difficult but here’s what you did well and can build on.’ It is keeping both winning and losing in perspective and approaching them both the same.

My mom said something to me that wasn’t related to sports, but I applied it to sports: never let anybody else steal your joy. Your team’s not winning as much as you hope? Having a difficult relationship with a teammate or coach? If you enjoy playing the sport, enjoy playing it. The game can still be fun. You can get your own personal joy out of it and sometimes you can inspire others to enjoy it as well.

Lisa Heffernan writes about parenting during the teen and college years at Grown & Flown and is the author of three business books. You can find her on Facebook or the sidelines of a soccer game.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace is a freelance writer and the mother of three sporty children. You can follow her on Twitter @wallacejennieb

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