Behavior Checklist for Youth Coaches (Part 2 of 3)

By Dr. Darrell Burnett

I have reasonable and realistic expectations.

A major frustration for kids, in sports or in life, is trying to live up to expectations of adults in their lives. At times, youngsters have a strong need for adult approval. If they don’t get it, due to unrealistic expectations from adults, it can be a major source of low self-worth. Since a coach often plays a major role in the life of a youngster, it is important to keep expectations reasonable. A good coach’s skill expectations are based on the knowledge that all youngsters in youth sports 1) vary in their development of physical coordination skills, 2) go through plateaus in their skill development and 3) have growth spurts which can affect their coordination.

A good coach’s motivation expectations are based on the awareness that there are three levels of motivation for kids in youth sports: 1) some kids, especially the entry-level youngsters, are playing because their parents enrolled them, 2) many youngster are playing because it’s a social event allowing them to be with their friends, 3) a smaller group of youngsters, beginning at about age 11 or 12, are playing because they enjoy sports for sports’ sake.

A good coach’s dedication expectations are based on the knowledge that the level of dedication to practice and mastery of skills depends upon the level of motivation in a youngster. A good coach also knows that dedication wanes when playing the sport is no longer fun.

I treat kids with respect, avoiding put-downs, sarcasm or ridicule.

When a youngster signs up to play sports, he/she deserves to be treated with respect. This means no put-downs, no sarcasm and no ridiculing by the coach. Dr. Thomas Tutko, renowned author, lecturer and sports psychologist, notes that any youth sports coach who volunteers to take on the job of guiding kids in any given sport needs to be careful of how he/she comes across to the youngsters. He uses the words “potential child abuse” when describing the verbal and emotional harassment that sometimes takes place in the name of “coaching” in youth sports.

I remind kids not to get down on themselves.

I once observed a brilliant piece of youth sports coaching at a basketball game. A youngster missed a lay-up on a fast break. The coach substituted for the youngster. He then said to him, “Son, I didn’t take you out because of the missed lay-up. I took you out because after you missed the lay-up you hung your head, delayed in getting back on defense and allowed your opponent to score an easy basket. If you get down on yourself after you make a mistake all it does is give your opponent an advantage. Now, get back in there, learn from your mistakes and quit beating yourself up!”

Youth is a time of mixed feelings. Kids can go from “cocky” to “unsure” in seconds. A steady reminder from the coach can help them to keep from falling apart when thing aren’t going well.

I remember not to take myself too seriously during the game.

Cartoons have a way of reminding us about some of our weaknesses. In an obvious parody of the singing fat lady, a cartoon depicts a youngster coming off the playing field after a defeat. The parents are beckoning him to the car. He responds, “Not yet mom and dad, the game’s not over ’til the coach cries!” In yet another cartoon, as the scoreboard indicates a loss for the home team, a youngster has his hand on the coach’s drooping shoulder, saying, “It’s OK coach, it’s just a Little League game!”

Although it’s a volunteer position, some youth sports coaches seem to have made it their “life.” The same person who appears so relaxed and easy going away from practice and the game takes on a whole new persona as “coach.” At times, there seems to be entirely too much ownership and identity tied in with the position. In youth sports involving a “draft” there seems to be the danger of a little too much ego involvement. In other words, it’s as though the coach was thinking; “I drafted you kids. If you don’t produce it makes me look bad.”

(Next issue, Part 3: Fun, Teamwork and Good Sportsmanship)

Dr. Darrell Burnett is a clinical psychologist and a certified sports psychologist specializing in youth sports. He has been in private practice for 25+ years in Laguna Niguel, California. His book, IT’S JUST A GAME! (Youth, Sports, & Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents), is described at his website,, along with his other books, booklets and CDs on youth sports and family life.

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