Michael Gervais wrote an excellent article list year titled 7 Guides for Parents to Help Their Children through Competitive Youth Football. As a parent of two former youth football players and a youth coach for the past 9 years the advice resonated with me.
Michael starts off with some age-specific guidance that I think is spot on. As a coach having awareness and empathy for the kids and parents can help you spot potential problems early on.
(for young athletes ages: 6–9) The key emphasis during this period is for the kids to have FUN
Make it fun, every practice, every game. Expect mistakes, crying, kids unable to put on their helmets, but find ways to make it fun for the kids. Make up your own competitive games to help teach football skills. Limit your playbook so that you can set the kids up for success.
During the ages of 10 to 12, the focus is to teach athletes how to actually train. … “How well can I teach the kids to love the challenge of finding out how good they can become, today?”
This is the in-between period where as a coach I think you still need to have fun as an emphasis, but you should also start treating your players like young men and expect more. The players want to have fun but they also want to improve and see success on the field.
As athletes move into a train-to-train phase (ages: 12–16), players often begin focusing on specific technical and tactical skill development … mistakes can turn into fear of failure and shame over a missed catch, bad throw, botched tackle, not enough speed, fear of taking a hit.
Kids can feel a lot of pressure during this age range. The middle school years are a tough development period for most young men, and finding ways to contribute and succeed on the football field can be a great support tool for potentially challenged kids. I’m not talking as much about your studs here – the non-skill position players that are trying to find a way to fit in and find success.
Let’s dive into Michael’s 7 guidelines for parents. If you are a parent coaching your own kid in football, some of these points are even more important.
1. Learn to ask the right questions. Instead of stating your opinion about his/her performance, ask your child more questions, and – this is important – listen!
The ride home from practice or a game can be difficult for both parent and child. Establish an understanding early in the season on how you will interact during this period. Your child may be the type that wants to talk everything out right away, or may want some time and space before discussing how things went.
2. Help them create a plan, with purpose. … Help them focus on working the plan, rather than becoming consumed with the achievement of the goal.
I love this statement and it resonates with my business experience as well (like I mentioned in the article on player grading). Goals are important, but if success is solely determined by achievement of a single lofty goal your likely to face a lot of disappointment.
3. Model optimism. Try to reframe negative experiences as more positive ones.
Do you talk negatively about other players, the officials, or coaches after an event? I promise you this behavior will be modeled by your child. I had a parent a few years ago that would come speak to me after practice with his son and openly talk about how poorly other players were performing and insist that his son deserved a starting position. The sad thing here is that his son was a talented player and stopped playing once he got to high school, and I believe this negativity contributed.
4. Show true support.
As a coach, consider leaving the coaching on the field and try to be an encouraging parent outside of practices and games.
5. Be here, right now with them. Represent your best self at practices and games.
For you coaches I doubt this is an issue, but perhaps it is for other sports. Are you attending and supporting your child for their other activities and sports?
6. Look out for warning signs. It is pretty simple, really. If, on more days than not, an athlete doesn’t want to practice, something isn’t right.
I haven’t researched this, but with the preponderance of year-round sports and single-sport focus I suspect this is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for kids. Playing multiple sports builds better athletes. I don’t think this is as big an issue for football players, but if you see burnout this is one area to look.
7. Know when to say “when.” At any sign of pain, pay attention and change the plan by getting expert advice.
I’ve struggled with this myself. My younger son had a season of recurring back pain that went on without a good diagnosis. He was one my better players (probably my best linebacker) and we hurt without him on the field. It was extremely difficult to manage this objectively as his father and coach.
There’s a common theme here: stay engaged, listen, be positive and supportive, and have some perspective regarding the stakes. Your relationship with your child, and their own relationship with their abilities and success, are much more important than on-field success.