What Makes a Great Coach?

A Parent’s Primer on Finding a Sports Mentor with the Right Stuff

By Tom Moroney

Great CoachThe quality of coaching can make or break a child’s early experience with organized sports. By being proactive in choosing a coach who will put the kids’ needs first, parents can ensure that fun and learning are kept front-and-center for kids under 12. This starts with parents understanding how to evaluate coaches and spot the ones who will help kids truly enjoy the game.

It’s All About Fun

For children from ages 5 to 12, the operative word is fun. Few have embodied that notion better than soccer coach Tucker Reynolds, a self-described country lawyer. Reynolds, whose soccer-playing sons have now grown, brought a refreshing mix of coaching and joking around to his days as coach of 5- and 6-year-old soccer players in his community, highlighted by something he called “library soccer.’’

The major rule in library soccer was that every parent had to behave on the sidelines as if they were in the library – no talking, no cheering, no jeering, no nothing. The players on the field could yell and scream. But to make sure the adults were obeying the silence rule, Reynolds prowled the sidelines with a roll of duct tape, threatening to tape any adult motormouths who felt compelled to backseat coach at high decibels.

Reynolds never used the duct tape on anyone but himself, making the whole stunt seem even funnier. The liberal use of humor is always a good sign that your child has a good coach.

Reynolds’ other claim to small-town fame was “Hawaii Day,” a game for which he showed up with a boom box, Don Ho CDs and a pile of colorful leis for the children to wear around their necks as they played.

But beyond his great capacity for entertaining the troops, Reynolds also had something else going for him. He recognized that to get better as a coach, he needed to know the game of soccer and to understand the age-appropriate needs and abilities of the children under his tutelage. He knew he had something to learn from the experts.

Keys to Good Coaching

In his groundbreaking book Beyond X’s and O’s: What Generic Parents, Volunteer Coaches and Teachers Can Learn About Generic Kids and All of the Sports They Play, Jack Hutslar was one of the first youth sports reformers to point out that young children are just not ready for some of the knowledge their coaches throw at them.

Playing a team sport can be a difficult and complicated task. For instance, simply dribbling a ball down the basketball court with any success means a child must know how to dribble, how to run and dribble, and how to look up and run and dribble – all at once. These, says Hutslar, are serial skills that take time and, in many cases, require a certain age or stage of development in order to master. Coaches should also be willing to adapt the sizes of playing fields and the rules of the game to suit the age-specific needs of their players.

The good news for parents is that many organized youth sports have developed training courses and clinics for coaches in order to make them age-appropriate instructors. Make sure your child’s coach has taken advantage of some of these.

But a good coach is not simply one who does not scream or who has taken a few courses. There are a host of other traits most good coaches possess. Some of them are instinctive, some are not.

Whose Game Is It Anyway?

Ask yourself if your child’s coach – or potential coach – has a sense that the real work of youth sports is to be done by the children themselves. Does she let the children keep the score book or help with “coaching” duties? Does the coach keep the children involved and active, or does he let too many sit for too long watching the coach do the coaching or watching the “better” kids play?

Look for a sense of selflessness in the way the coach details his goals for the season. Is the season about winning the trophy (often, this is the coach’s desire) or is it about all the players getting a little better at the game and having some laughs along the way (often, these are cited by the players as their wants and needs).

Dean Conway, a youth soccer association coaching director, recalls a game he coached for girls under 14 years old. The opposing coach appeared to have his head on straight, but as Conway’s team began to rack up goals, the opposing coach panicked. It was all he could do to yell in desperation: “Somebody do something!” It’s not the kind of moment that inspires confidence, but it does show just how much some adult coaches care about winning, or about satisfying their wants and needs.

Winning Isn’t Everything … Or Is It?

Winning is an important goal. It’s a major part of the game, but it’s not the only part, and it should not come at the expense of the other parts. Make sure that your child's coach pays equal attention to:

Equal or meaningful playing time - One of the most important things you want to hear from the coach is whether he or she will give all the children equal playing time. This should be the golden rule for any team that enrolls children in sixth grade or younger. After sixth grade, coaches can begin using players for different lengths of time, but every player should have "minimum meaningful minutes" in each game. If your coach does not cleave to the doctrine of equal time or minimum meaningful minutes, get your child a new coach. And make sure to tell the league officials. Often, the coaches are only following the lead of the administrators.

Clear boundaries - Also ask your coach if he or she puts limits on the length of the season, the amount of practice time, the number of post-season playoffs and tournaments. Ask if it’s important that children have other things in their lives besides sports. These answers will speak volumes about the coach’s perspective.

Individualized goals - Look for signs that the coach will embrace the mistakes of the youngsters. Does he or she set up goals for individual players, benchmarks that have nothing to do with whether the team wins and everything to do with personal success?

The best coaches will bring humor, perspective, some knowledge and a lot of fun to the games your children play.

Parent-Coach Interaction

Here are some tips for appropriate and effective ways for parents to interact with their children’s coaches:

Try to meet with the coach one-on-one before the season. If you can’t set up a one-on-one meeting, make sure you attend the parents’ orientation session. If one is not scheduled, insist that one be held. You want to hear the coach’s priorities.

Volunteer some of your time. Bring the water or fruit slices, agree to make phone calls for rain-outs, offer to get those afternoon practices started if the coach can’t get away from work on time.

Go to the coach after the game or practice - never during - if either your child or you are unhappy. Find a private, quiet time and place to share your concerns.

Go to the league officials if you’re still not happy. That’s why they are there. But be prepared to help solve the problems. This is often how good coaches get their start. You may be surprised to find out that you have the right stuff to be a great coach.


Tom Moroney, author of this Parent's Primer, is co-author, along with Bob Bigelow and Linda Hall, of Just Let The Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child's Fun and Success in Youth Sports.