Who do you believe?

We frequently receive letters from parents and coaches asking for advice. Below are representations of two such letters, written about the same child: One from the child’s parent and one from his coach. You will notice, the two authors see the same situation from completely opposite perspectives.

“Dear Sir: My son’s coach is so unfair! Let me give you some background. My boy began playing competitive basketball when he was eight years old. He is now eleven. He has always been one of the best players on the team and has been used to getting lots of playing time. This year we moved him to a new team that is supposed to be in a more competitive league. Even though he is one of the youngest players on the team, he is still clearly as good or better then anyone else, including the coach’s son. But guess who suddenly is sitting the bench while the coach’s son plays nearly every minute? When he does get in the game he is so nervous because he knows that if he makes one mistake he’ll be yanked and put on the bench. Some games he hardly plays at all. This is devastating to my son and I’m concerned that he’ll lose the love of the game and not want to play anymore at all. Other parents have even come to me and said they think he’s a great player and they can’t understand why he doesn’t play more. It is everything I can do not to confront this man but my son doesn’t want me to. The team wins most of its games so that is probably why no other parents seem angry. Do you have any suggestions for how I should handle this? Should I speak to the coach even though my son begs me not to?”

Signed,

Parent of a great player.

“Dear Sir: I coach an 11-12 year-old basketball team in a competitive league. I am not a paid coach and my son, who is twelve, is on the team. Lately, I’ve been having difficulty with one of the players, or maybe more specifically, his parent. The boy in question is eleven and he is a nice kid, like all of them are at this age. The problem is that, in my opinion, he isn’t ready for this level of competition. I think his parents pushed him to be on this highly-competitive team more than it was a case if him really wanting it himself. As I said, he is younger, and one of the smaller players as well. He is a pretty good defender and shooter, but needs to work on his dribbling, and he struggles grasping our offensive scheme. I try to give him extra time at practice, but I find that takes away from the other kids. I can see him getting more and more discouraged and his attitude is suffering. He pouts at practice and  especially at the games if he’s on the bench. In our last game, when I put him in, he got the ball three times and all three times he turned it over. First, he dribbled off his foot out of bounds. Next, his pass was stolen and taken the other way for an easy lay-up. Then, he was trapped in corner by two defenders and held the ball until he got a five-second call. Finally I called time out so that I could get someone to take his place before we gave up our lead, plus I didn’t want him to be totally embarrassed. I could tell that his mother in the stands was furious but I don’t know what else I can do. Any advice would be appreciated.”

Signed,

Coach of a not-so-great player.

Isn’t it interesting how two people can view the same circumstance so differently? So where does the truth lie? As usual, probably somewhere in the middle. And since they asked for our advice, here it is – for both sides. To the upset parent: Is is possible that your child might not be ready for this level of play, and that you are seeing his talents from a strong bias? If this coach is unfair, why aren’t other parents complaining? And since this is a competitive team that cares about winning, if your son was good enough to help the team, don’t you believe the coach would play him more? How much time does he spend on his own trying to improve? Putting aside our thoughts about the wisdom of ultra-competitive teams for eleven and twelve year-olds, this is what you signed up for. Rec leagues are designed so that everyone plays and the emphasis is not on winning. But you can’t have it both ways. If you want him to play with elite competition, he has to work hard to earn playing time and not just expect it to be granted.

And to the coach: I understand you believe this child may have been pushed into a situation he wasn’t ready for. But your job as a coach is to try to find a way to get the most out of each player. You say he is good at certain aspects of the game. Why not put him in situations where those talents will be utilized and his deficiencies will be minimized? At practice, it doesn’t take any extra time to praise a player when he does something good. That will usually get them to stop “pouting” and maybe make them more likely to want to play harder. And, I understand that this is a competitive team, but calling time-out to take a fragile eleven year-old player out of the game might be taking the desire to win too far. In our opinion, your greatest accomplishment as a coach would not be to run the table and win the championship, but to bring this player out of his shell and turn him into a positive contributor who wants to come back and play again next year. If you can do that and win the championship, more power to you.

There are always two sides to every story – two perspectives. The letters we get rarely recognize this, probably because we tend to get so emotional about our kids and youth sports in general. When we’re feeling angry or mistreated, both coaches and parents would be well-served to put themselves in the other’s place. Walking a mile – in someone else’s shoes – might be the very best way to calm down and gain perspective.

Brian Gotta is President of CoachDeck LLC (www.coachdeck.com). He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.

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