Coaching Kids in an Age of Coddling and Overcompetitiveness

The art of coaching kids, as I'm learning, is to make each failure a teachable as well as positive moment.

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I was riveted by two blog posts over the weekend, by Rod Dreher and David Kuo. Both involve the trials and tribulations of parenting and youth sports.

Dreher had just endured watching his eight-year-old son's baseball team suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of a team that apparently cherry-picks its players and felt no shame in running up the score:

These are little children who are trying to learn how to play the game of baseball, and to love it. As much as it hurts my heart that my kid is so busted up — not about losing, but about the humiliating margin of their loss — I am more proud that my son was on the losing team today than on the winning team, given how ugly they won. It was shameful. Things have changed since I was a kid in the summer leagues here.

Kuo, meanwhile, was filled with remorse over coming down too hard, however briefly and half-heartedly, on his four-year-old son, who'd taken to the soccer field for his first game:

My boy stands looking at the clouds as his coach yells out his name. He turns and instinctively kicks at the air. The other team runs by him. Other parents are yelling advice to the kids. The coach is out there on the field — this, apparently, is how midget soccer works, with an omnipresent coach guiding each side around the field.

The other team, the Leprechauns, appear to have been coached by Pele. They are thrashing my son's team. But this league doesn't keep score. Huh?

I'm still fuming at my son. I'm not mad at the goal, per se. I don't expect a little Landon Donavan. But I'm furious that he didn't listen.

Moments later, he runs over and asks if he did great. Kim says yes. The coach says yes. Me? I'm half way between, "Awesome!" and "You suck!" I want to go for the former, I cannot say the latter. After the tiniest of pauses, I say no.

Nanoseconds feel like hours. He looks blankly at me.

I suddenly feel bile in the back of my throat. What did I just do?

[Slide Show: When Sports and Politics Collide.]

I can relate to ever single one of these emotions: to Dreher's revulsion at "status-obsessed, over-competitive parents" who "ruin sports for little kids" as well as Kuo's revulsion at America's cult of self-esteem, with its carefully supervised games where no one keeps score and no one's feelings get hurt.

There's a paradox to these twin revulsions: Do we coddle our kids? Or are we ruthlessly competitive? Fever or frostbite? Too much of either, it seems to me, are bad things.

Almost by accident, I ended up coaching my seven-year-old son's Babe Ruth League baseball team last spring. I had visions of dealing with overzealous parents and coaches. Miraculously, I encountered only one or two such people over the course of the season. And I had such a great experience, I decided to coach again this year.

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Our league strikes what seems to me an ideal balance. We don't keep score. We let kids take two at most bases after a hit. We don't let them take leads and we don't let them steal. But: We have strikeouts (after five pitches) and force outs. The kids are learning the basics of the game and, just as important, they're learning how to manage failure. I had kids (including my own) return to the bench in tears after striking out. This year, no tears.

The art of coaching kids, as I'm learning, is to make each failure a teachable as well as positive moment: No, you didn't get a hit—but you made solid contact on those two foul balls; the hits will come. No, you didn't get the runner out—but you kept the ball in front of you and forced him to stop at first. No, you didn't catch it in the air—but you got yourself in the right place and put your glove on it.

Coaching one's own child presents unique challenges. Mine is particularly hungry for praise. I encourage him in a general sense, always, but reserve specific praise for moments when it's merited. He's pretty big for his age, and he's one of the better hitters on the team. But his throwing arm has yet to catch up with the rest of his body. He asked if he could throw as well as so-and-so, whom he heard me praise for a strong throw during practice. I didn't lie, but I also wanted to motivate. I said he wasn't as strong a thrower—but he might be if he practiced. Later, he asked to throw at a target drawn on the side of our detached garage. Success!

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Just as in the classroom, each kid is different. Some arrive to the field of play as gift-wrapped packages: Their talent is obvious and abundant. Most have at least some raw skill that needs refining. Others are, well ... let's just say it's obvious that sports aren't going to be their thing.

But the experience of youth sports can be worthwhile, for every kid, if coaches and parents employ some wisdom. You're there to teach them life skills, not to encourage them to seek glory—their own or yours.

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