Opinion: 7 Signs Your Team Is Coached by an Overbearing Sports Dad

October 23, 2013

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If you haven't been affected by it directly, you've probably seen it. I call it "Daddyball," characterizing times when parents—usually fathers—get way too involved in sports like Little League with their kids. In the worst form of "Daddyball," parents want to coach—and not just as a volunteer assistant. They want to be the head coach and run the whole show for their kid's team, regardless of whether they're qualified to do so.

Don't get me wrong, parents: It's a good thing that you want to be involved. And sports are a great way to spend quality time with your children. Supportive parents are extremely important to a young athlete's development. They make youth sports work. The problem is that many parents don't know when they should hand the reins to other folks—folks who know a lot more about the sport their child wants to play.

Daddyball is a problem not only for athletes who aren't related to the coach, whose skills may not develop at the rates they should. It's also a problem for Junior, the coach's son (or daughter), who likely is not the best athlete on the team—but is treated like s/he is anyway. That hurts Junior's development, too.

So how do you know if your team is playing Daddyball? Here are seven telltale signs.

Junior plays the position Dad wishes he could've played, instead of the position s/he's best suited for.

One fact of life is always true: Everybody is different. Just because Dad was a successful quarterback (or aspired to be one), it doesn't mean that his offspring is capable of directing the offense under center. But in Daddyball, Junior plays QB anyway. Or coach's somewhat slow and inflexible daughter plays shortstop, while the girl on third base makes acrobatic grab after acrobatic grab. You know you're watching Daddyball.

The team loses, and everything changes—except Junior's position.

Let's say the team gets off to a losing start. Will Dad recognize that the problem is him, that he's an OK coach at best and better suited to be an assistant? Nope. Dad won't entertain that thought. So he switches everything around—players swap positions, or spots in the lineup, or lose their starting jobs. Everything changes—except Junior. Why? Because in the coach's eyes, Junior is "The Man." There couldn't possibly be a problem there.

The team starts playing in more tournaments.

When the team's losing fortunes don't reverse, Dad figures the team needs to improve by playing more—and against better competition. So Dad starts signing the team up to play in tournaments to showcase its talents against "the best."

The decision is insidious in two ways: First, it costs other players' parents more money (figuring they're going to foot the bill for these events one way or another). Second, it further demoralizes the team, as they go out and lose even more. All the while, Dad is thinking the players are the problem, when in reality his coaching is to blame.

Dad coaches year-round.

Thinking that great athletes play year-round, Dad has Junior playing in four leagues: AAU, CYO, etc. And figuring that no one can help Junior as well as he does, Dad coaches him in each league. This is not much help at all. In fact, it stunts Junior's development, because he's exposed to only one knowledge base and one style of coaching all the time.

No one's skill level is improving.

Dad's heart is in the right place. He wants to help Junior and Junior's teammates, too. He just doesn't have the skills to teach the players how to improve. It's always been funny to me that most parents wouldn't even think about teaching their children and their friends math or science, but so many think they can impart the fundamentals of sports after reading a book or two or maybe watching a couple of YouTube videos.

Coaching is a complex and difficult job, and good coaching is essential to a team's success and development. That's why you see pro head coaches on the hot seat when their team runs into trouble—ultimately, the buck stops there. There's less accountability in youth sports, which are often coached by volunteers. What happens is that athletes are coached by the most willing, instead of the most able. And the most willing are sometimes willing for the wrong reasons.

Players lose confidence in their abilities.

I have seen it firsthand: A bad coach can screw up young players in a big way. Setting skill development aside, a coach who berates, browbeats or abuses his players can crush his team's confidence. More than once I've had a good, young player become a total mess because Coach Dad did not handle him correctly. Instead of helping the athlete prepare for the next level, Dad sets him or her back. Athletes are built from the mind out. If you screw up their head, you have a big problem.

Junior—and his or her teammates—can't make it anywhere else.

It's time for Junior to play high school ball. Dad is the only coach he's ever had. So Junior arrives at tryouts, does what's worked for him so far, and guess what? He doesn't make the team. Dad is furious. The high school coach must be a moron. How could he not see that Junior is The Man? Dad calls the coach and, in an invective-laden conversation, gives the coach a piece of his mind. The high school coach, in response, calmly explains that Junior not only lags behind in his skills, but his size and speed are less than ideal for the position he plays, and he doesn't seem to understand the game like he should. Sorry, no more Daddyball here. For many athletes, this is the end of the line.

Part of the problem is Dad might not have been a really great player in his day, and even if he was, his knowledge of the sport since his playing days is more from a fan's perspective than a coach's perspective. This is how you come to see young athletes trying (and screwing up) the latest whiz-bang offensive or defensive scheme in the NFL—Dad just saw it on TV and thought he'd try it out. A real coach, meanwhile, has a system—a tried-and-true method for developing players. When a new scheme or method pops out of the college or professional level, instead of turning to YouTube, the coach attends seminars or clinics, critically examining the new idea and seeing how he could feasibly incorporate it into his system. If it doesn't fit (because it's too complex, or requires more mature athletes, or any other number of reasons), the coach lets it be.

I am not saying all parents are incapable of being coaches. But I am saying that athletes over 12 are more often hurt than helped by Coach Dad. If Dad wants to be involved, there are many ways to do it, but head coach is usually not the best option. Besides the risk of underdevelopment that it poses to athletes, it can also threaten Dad's relationships, since bad coaching can create disdain among parents who feel that Dad is hurting their children.

So, Coach Dad, if you're reading this, understand there is no shame in turning Junior over to a trained coach and allowing him or her to see a different perspective. All coaches have their own ways of coaching, and a younger player who's exposed to many different coaches will usually become a more well-rounded athlete as a result. Even if you're a very strong coach and your teams win league championships, there will inevitably be some weak point in your style. Exposing Junior to a new coach from time to time will help him or her address and avoid those weaknesses.

I know Dad only wants what's best for Junior, and would never intentionally do anything to hurt him or her. But unintentionally inflicted damage still hurts. If you really want what's best for your athlete, stop playing Daddyball, let a proven coach take over, and watch your youngster develop. It beats watching your kid ride the bench—or quit the sport.

Read more:

Rick Scarpulla
- Rick Scarpulla is a highly sought-after strength, speed and conditioning coach who helps develop top high school, college and professional athletes and programs throughout North...
Rick Scarpulla
- Rick Scarpulla is a highly sought-after strength, speed and conditioning coach who helps develop top high school, college and professional athletes and programs throughout North...
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