Updated: Apr 12, 2022
I was at a youth basketball game a while ago. I arrived a bit late, so I had to sit in the back corner next to a dad who was very... passionate about his son's performance on the court. He was yelling and screaming at his kid to do this and that. It didn't take long for me to spot out his son. All I had to do was look for the one glancing at his dad, then at his coach then at the hoop, then at the basketball, then back at his dad, then at his coach again.
I spotted him in about 30 seconds.
I remember the kid was pretty decent for a 4th grader. He was more coordinated than the other boys, and you could tell he had had some prior instruction. But at the end of the day, he finished about 1 of 40 from the field, and turned the ball over about 15 times (ignore the exaggeration). But you get my point. The kid's head must have been close to exploding trying to process all of the outside noise he was hearing. I was glad he had a father that was so into his success, but I also felt for him, having been in situations where I'm hearing multiple voices all at the same time.
Sadly, in the end, I don't think he learned anything from that game. My girlfriend, who was coaching, appeared unable to break through the barrier of distraction that his dad had set for him. Because he had voices pulling him in two different directions, the poor guy failed to focus on the task at hand - the game.
Speaking more from a young athlete's perspective than the parent of one, I can say that there is a time and a place for everything. Whether it's a coach or a parent, raising and developing an athlete takes knowing when to push and when to hold back. There is a time for coaching, there is a time for support, and there is a time for silence.
I remember when I was a kid and had my bad games, my mom and I used to get into arguments afterward about what I had done right and wrong. She was concerned and wanted to help, but I was angry and filled with uncontrolled emotion. Looking back on it, the conversations were constructive, but we could've picked a better place and time, as the conclusions we came to usually failed to sink in.
I was fortunate enough to not have a parent who would scream at me from the sidelines during a game, but I've seen coaches and parents who do, and I can tell in the kid's eyes that they are focused on anything but the game itself. Sometimes, when the game begins, the coaching is too little too late.
Coaching And Silence
In my college days, I experienced two head coaches who showed me what it meant to be a mentor in polar opposite ways. Coach Kittle, my junior college coach, represented coaching in every way - sometimes erring on the side of micromanaging. My coach at Oklahoma Baptist, Coach Bobby Cox, was the king of silence. Often times you had no earthly idea what was going on in that man's head. It was a guessing game.
Being an inexperienced ball player entering junior college, I learned A LOT from Coach Kittle. He coached equal amounts both during the game and during practice. However, I found myself soaking in a lot more information when I didn't have a pitcher trying to strike me out. Every time I was coached from the sidelines, I felt myself tense up while a swarm of thoughts raced through my head. For the rest of the game I would try to multitask, doing what I thought was right while doing what Coach Kittle thought was right, all while trying to hit a tiny white ball coming at me at pretty high speeds. You can guess how that worked out.
At Oklahoma Baptist, I found an opportunity to play in silence. Whether I struck out looking to end a game, or I made an error at third base, or I hit a go-ahead homerun, the reaction from Coach Cox was the same. He would sit in his chair in the dugout and look out at the field, as if nothing had happened. And I loved it. I could fail without consequence. Because I could play without immediate feedback, my failures CHANGED. While I still got out and made errors, they were... different. I no longer made errors because I was busy overthinking, I made them because I was being TOO aggressive. I no longer struck out because I was afraid to let the ball get by me. I struck out because I was waiting for my pitch I could do damage on and I didn't get it during that at bat. And that was okay, because when I got my pitch the next at bat, I was ready for it and made the pitcher pay, rather than missing it because I was busy obsessing over what happened in my last at bat. And what resulted from these errors was success. Fear was changed into aggression, and errors became minimized.
Sometimes, however, there was too much silence. After all, I was still only a kid. I didn't have all the answers because nobody has all the answers. Sometimes, when times got tough, I needed a coach, and instead of coaching I got silence.
While both of these mentors changed my life in amazing ways, I learned that there is a time and a place for everything. As mentors, coaches, and parents, our job is to know when young athletes need help and when they just need some time to reflect. If we let them, they can surprise us with the conclusions they come to on their own. In an environment where mass chaos is already upon them, it is our job to reduce that chaos, not add more. When the game starts the coaching ends, and the players just play. Coaches' and Parents' jobs are done when the game begins. Without noise, kids can play with ease and silence around them, when nothing else is holding them back. It's just them and the ball. Trust me, if they need help, they'll ask. And that's when they'll be most ready to listen.
Looking back on my career, some of my most vivid memories are of my parents and coaches just saying "I'm proud of you." To know that the ones close to you are in your cheering section rooting for your success is an unmatched feeling of satisfaction.
When silence isn't appropriate and coaching is of no use, it's the love and support that drives someone to continue doing what they love. After all, playing sports is a passion. If a player‘s support goes away, so does their drive and their spark. Sometimes what's more important than success is maintaining the love of the game. So while we often feel the urge to help our young athletes in any way possible, sometimes it's best just to let them know that you are behind them 100%. After the next game, try just saying "Good job. I'm proud of you." See what happens. The results may surprise you. It's hard playing sports alone, but knowing you have people behind you makes it that much easier.
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