Your son tosses the game-winning touchdown pass, so of course you want to pump your fists and cheer like a maniac. Or your daughter hogs the ball on the soccer field and you’re inclined to shout your disapproval and ask if she could please pass the ball already.
When you’re the coach, though, it’s all eyes on you. And if you’re sticking your children in marquee positions, chances are someone in the stands is not happy.
It’s a tough line to walk for parents, who make up the majority of coaches working with the millions of youths playing sports every year. As these volunteers navigate the challenges of coaching their own children, they’re under more pressure than ever from other parents clamoring for playing time, improved performance and those hard-fought wins.
“It’s a lot of work and it can be exhausting, especially when you have a parent that’s not happy,” said Liz Hocker, who has coached her 10-year-old daughter’s softball team in Austin, Texas, for the past five years in a competitive league. “I do try not to play ‘Mommy ball’ or show favoritism.
“My philosophy is that my daughter needs to work hard and show that she should be out there playing the position I put her in,” she said. “I try very hard to treat her like every other player as much as I can.”
Parents who sign up to coach appreciate the experience because it’s usually fun and creates dedicated time with their children. Many times, they also are trying to ensure that their children learn proper techniques and good sportsmanship.
Ideally, they will do it all while treating their child like every other player. After all, favoritism can cut both ways: For all the grousing about the coach’s child getting this or that, coaches are more inclined to treat their own children more harshly or demand more from them on the field than the other way around, researchers say.
“It’s just natural they would be tougher on them,” said John Engh, chief operating officer of the nonprofit National Alliance for Youth Sports, because a father is used to talking to his own child more directly and is likely to use his son as an example for the rest of the team.
“When you talk about physical contact, screaming on the field, they’re doing it on their own kids,” said Mr. Engh, who has coached his two children in soccer and baseball. “They feel like they have that right. Rarely will you see a dad grab another kid by the shoulder or the arm in frustration or raise their voice on the field.”
Most parent-coaches do a good job being fair with positions and playing time, said Frank Smoll, a sport psychology professor at the University of Washington and co-author of “Sport Psychology for Youth Coaches,” a how-to guide due out in September. When favoritism is shown, it “can cause nothing but problems for the athletes, for the coach and with the other athletes as well,” he said.
To avoid even the appearance of unfairness, Mrs. Hocker has benched her daughter in the first inning of the first game. Rick Kay, who has coached his two sons and a daughter, ages 19, 17 and 10, in baseball, soccer and basketball, also sat out his children more.
“I went out of my way to play my kids less than I felt they deserved to play because I didn’t want that to be an issue,” said Mr. Kay, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. The other youths “see that he’s out and hopefully understand that everyone has to sit out at some point.”
Like other parents, Dan Armstrong, who has coached three of his four sons in baseball and football, is committed to helping them improve, and said he has pushed them a little more than the other team members.
“Instead of being biased for your own son, I think you’re kind of biased against him and expect him to work a little harder than maybe the rest of the team,” said Mr. Armstrong, of Frederick, Md.
Having a parent become a coach can be confusing for children, and parents should make sure the separation of those roles is clear, said Mr. Smoll, also a co-director of an education program for youth sport coaches and parents. Before the season begins, set ground rules with your child, he said, and meet with the other parents to explain your philosophy and expectations.