Coaching your child: Expert advice from T-ball to high school and beyond

By Steve Henson

It’s an unforgettable line from Field of Dreams: “Hey, Dad, you wanna have a catch?” Kevin Costner is already an adult when he tosses a baseball to his ghostly father. For most dads and kids, the moment comes much sooner; and for thousands of families across the country, a simple catch leads to dad signing up his son or daughter with the local youth league, and then signing up himself as coach.

Then the simple joy of tossing a ball back and forth transforms into something more complicated. The team, of course, includes other players. And they have parents, many of whom have opinions about you as a coach. Practices are difficult enough to run smoothly, and they lead to games, and games are competitive. Are you a good coach or a poor one? Is your child a good player or a lousy one? Are you playing favorites with your child? Or are you harder on your kid than on the others, creating friction in the family?

None of that mattered during the backyard catch. Coaching a son or daughter, it turns out, is one of the most challenging pursuits a parent can take on. It can be exceedingly rewarding. And it can be exceedingly frustrating – to the child as well as the parent.

Even if the child hits the sports equivalent of the lottery and becomes a professional athlete, memories of the years under dad’s tutelage can be a mixed bag. Kevin Neary and Leigh A. Tobin co-authored a book, Major League Dads, which features 250 pages of big-league baseball players recounting being coached as youngsters by their fathers. Most of the memories are positive: the work ethic dad taught, the skills he honed, the fun he emphasized. Others are telling, and could help serve as a road map for any dad piling bats and helmets into his car and heading off to the field. Neary and Tobin even reference Field of Dreams (and its most unforgettable line: “If you build it, he will come.”)

Another resource for parents coaching their children is Bruce E. Brown of Proactive Coaching, who has spoken to more than a million young athletes, parents and coaches over the last 12 years. His common-sense advice helps anyone involved in youth, high school and college sports maximize their enjoyment while avoiding pitfalls. He was the primary source for a story I wrote in February on how to avoid being a nightmare sports parent.

Most dad/coaches do a good job, Brown said, although they all face obstacles. He pointed out that because professional athletes often have freakish athletic ability, their success isn’t necessarily the product of a dad who did everything right as a coach. But some do. The finest youth coach in tiny Pierson, Fla., 35 years ago was Larry Jones, whose son, also named Larry, was such a chip off the old block people started calling him Chipper. Of course, today Chipper Jones is a 19-year MLB veteran and seven-time All-Star with the Atlanta Braves.

“My dad and I still talk two or three times a week,” Jones told Neary. “Whenever I get into a slump, my coaches ask me if I’ve called my dad. He knows my swing the best of anyone.”

Greg Maddux, who ranks eighth all-time with 355 wins, is appreciative of something most children don’t hear: “The greatest lesson I learned from my father was that you’ve got to think for yourself. You’ve got to learn how to do things for yourself. I know it was hard for a dad to do and say, but he did it.”

It’s inevitable that a coach will say something to his child he wouldn’t say to another player. When a pre-teen Derek Jeter wouldn’t shake hands with the other team after a loss, his father/coach told him it was “time to grab a tennis racket, since you obviously don’t know how to play a team sport.” And Tampa Bay Rays slugger Evan Longoria’s dad told him to stop crying when the boy was pitching at age 8.

“I can just remember him walking out to the mound and him giving me that stern look – almost a yell, but not really – saying, ‘What are you doing crying out here?’ ” Longoria said. “But he made sure not to go too far with his look because he didn’t want me to cry even more.”

Coaching a son or daughter is not a prerequisite for getting him or her a college scholarship or reaching the pros. The father of J.D., Stephen and Tim Drew – the only family to have three first-round draft picks – didn’t coach. But regardless of a child’s talent, a parent might choose to coach. It can be tremendously rewarding. And most youth sports organizations will gladly accept another volunteer.

Steve Henson is Senior Editor, Major League Baseball at USA Today Sports Media Group. You can follow him on Twitter at @HensonUSAToday