Want a Better Performance from your Athlete...Step Back!

As sports parents and coaches we undoubtedly want the best for our athletes/daughters and sons. However, for many their best intentions turn into game day actions and behavior that end up hurting athletic performance rather than helping it.

Let's look at the types of things a parent can do to diminish or even kill their athlete's game day performance, and worse...their love for the game:

1. Yelling instructions to their son/daughter during a game. This is probably #2 in my list of worst things a parent can do to kill athletic performance (we'll get to athletic enemy #1 later). Now I know that many of you are former coaches, but whether your athlete is playing at the rec, All Star, high school or travel level yelling out instructions (no matter how well meaning) only serves to confuse your athlete, take their focus away from the task at hand and, in many cases, undermines the instruction given to them by their coach(es).

In my experience as a coach last minute instructions during a game don't work. The time to instruct is during the week, before a game, or carefully critiqued after a game (see my "60 Minute Rule" post).

Additionally younger athletes end up being highly embarrassed by a parent who is constantly yelling at them through the fence (if you think I'm wrong ask your child).

2. Stalking. If you are the kind of parent who can't stand to be more than 10 feet from the dugout/field/court every game STOP. I once had a parent of one of my players who even went to the extent of pretending to take photos right next to our dugout at Nationals just so he could just stand there all game and "spy" on us. Now if you think that is acceptable or mentally stable behavior it's time for a long look in the mirror!

If you were a former athlete...get over it. If you were a former coach...get over it. Let go of your need to control or be involved during your athlete's games. If your athlete is at the travel/competitive level of their sport you are likely making a significant financial investment in their game via team dues and private lessons. It's time to DETACH yourself from her/his performance during ALL practices and games and trust his/her coaches to do their jobs.

3. Bad Mouthing. Yes, the #1 enemy of all athletes and coaches. This is the parent who can't keep his or her mouth shut during a game; always second guessing the coach's lineup and strategies; never happy. Usually only focused on winning. Even worse they will talk poorly about players on their own team. These parents are POISON and a VIRUS on a team as they infect other parents, players and even their own child to question their coaches and teammates. They are dividers that should be cut from any team their kid plays on. These parents live in a fantasy land of myopia where their child is the best player in the Universe. They utilize verbal abuse and sports "bullying" to attempt to coerce coaches and parents (and sadly their own kid) to see things their way.

This type of parental behavior absolutely kills athletic performance because it creates a constant negative mindset in their athlete. In one national tournament one of my parents barked at me during a game because I pinch hit for his daughter during a pivotal part of a game. For the rest of the week I could see his daughter shut down to any joy of playing or hanging with her teammates. It was sad to watch, but predictable.

Let's look at a couple of coaching behaviors and actions that can also greatly damage athletic performance:

1. Yelling at Players. This type of coach is almost always obsessed with winning, and is "results only" driven. At our recent national tournament I watched a game (yes...always scouting) and witnessed a coach acting like a caged lion in the 3rd base coaching box; pacing back and forth relentlessly, approaching the umpire aggressively on every questionable strike; verbally instructing and criticizing his batters before and after on EVERY pitch (with a booming voice). His body language mirrored his verbal tirades and his players cringed after a failed at bat as he approached them on their way back to the dugout, in their face.

Does this coach actually believe his actions and gross behavior are helping his girls to play better? And yet in this guy's heart he surely wants the best for them. If you have a coach in your world like this guy (or even close), you need to pull him or her aside to discuss their actions or get the heck out of there!

Step into the 21st century coach!
Female athletes, in my experience of twelve years of coaching, do not respond well to verbal abuse (or call it aggressive criticism), nor I'm sure to boys. In fact they usually shut down, lose all respect for that coach, and will NEVER play remotely close to their potential on that team. Verbally criticizing any player in front of their teammates is a major no-no, as kids hate to be embarrassed in front of their friends! 

2. Over-Coaching. As a coach it is hard not to over-coach during a game. We want the best for each of our players but sometimes (or always for some coaches) we verbally instruct too much during the game. Again, the time for mechanics instruction is during practice not the game. At best I will give my hitters one or two verbal cues if I see them doing something with their swing or I need them to focus on keeping their hands back for a slower pitcher. But far too often I see coaches barking endless batting or pitching instructions to their players.

As an example, for baseball or softball, a hitter has about 1/3 of one second to determine pitch velocity, movement and location and whether to swing or not. It requires the ultimate level of concentration and mental focus (think the Olympic platform divers who take sometimes 30 seconds or more to focus themselves prior to their dive). If she/he is being verbally barraged by both coach and parent what possible chance does he/she have to focus their thoughts on the task at hand?

The same goes for pitchers. If putting a round bat on a round ball (given the incredibly challenging parameters I described earlier) is the hardest thing to do in sports (as broadcaster Bob Costas often says) then pinpointing a softball or baseball within a target the size of a shoe box from 43/60.5 feet away may be the second most difficult! Any lapses in concentration caused by over-coaching will cause a clearly diminished return on performance by any pitcher.

In the final analysis it is often best for us adults to just let our kids play. When I was playing as a kid parents rarely said a word during a game other than positive cheering. I never remember my dad even being involved with my baseball as a kid. It was clearly about the kids and the kids ONLY. Today the parents are involved big time and they carry, in my opinion, excessive and unhealthy expectations for their athlete's performance.

Yes, I understand the investment and stakes are higher these days in youth sports, but if your intention is for your athlete to perform their best my suggestion is to take a step, or several, back and let their coaches coach. And for gosh sake let them enjoy playing the game by respecting their effort and the process of mastery they must go through. Let go of your need to critique every game, every play, every pitch. If she/he is 11, 12, 13 ,14 she is still in the developmental phase of a very difficult game, so let him/her develop at their, not your, pace...and just enjoy the ride!

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