A recent example is the Esquire Network's new reality series Friday Night Tykes, a testosterone-charged football version of Toddlers and Tiarasfocused on 8- and 9-year old football players in Texas. Some, including the NFL and the National Alliance for Youth Sports, have scrutinized the show because of the extreme behavior like helmet-to-helmet hits, rough punishments, and use of inappropriate language. Advocates say the coaches are developing the kids' athleticism and instilling dedication in a world where everyone gets a trophy.
As a parent, you have to draw the line somewhere. We asked experts how to know when a coach is the second coming of Bobby Knight and how to ensure a winning experience for your young athlete. (What is the Secret to Athletic Success? Stop comparing your kids to others.)
The Coach Isn't Lombardi
You can't take yelling out of sports, especially in packed arenas or from the sidelines. “It is not the shouting that is problematic, but the intention behind the shouting and the purpose of the shouting,” says Amy Baltzell, Ed.D., sport psychologist and professor at Boston University. The coach can yell to motivate as positive reinforcement -- "You know you can make that play! Get it next time!" -- instead of humiliating -- "Why are you killing us out there?”
When it comes to profanity, you wouldn't accept it from an elementary school teacher, so you shouldn’t hear it from a youth sports coach, says John McCarthy, Ed.D., director at the Boston University Institute for Athletic Coach Education. To drive a message home, coaches should stay calm and on point in order to focus young players, he says. Avoid overusing metaphors or your long-winded Rudy speech and just stick to focusing on specific skills the kids might need to improve on from the last game. (Make it a win-win-win situation for you, your child, and the team when coaching your kid in sports.)
Watch and Listen for Signals
If it’s tough getting your tyke off the couch or they celebrate every rain delay, it might be a good indicator life on the field isn't dreamy. "If the coach is harsh or difficult, often the child will make up different excuses for not wanting to attend practices or games,” Baltzell says.
If your child does open up to talk about hard practices or why they don’t want to play, don’t just assume your kid is making excuses to play XBOX One instead. “When a child gets up the courage to speak to you up about what is wrong or uncomfortable,” Baltzell says, “they will quickly shut down if they are challenged.” So listen to them to see if it’s a regular problem that should be addressed. (A child’s success starts at home. Find out the 5 Sneaky Ways to Raise Smart Kids.)
Interruption on the Field
Coaches often think they have to instill discipline with forms of punishment, but what crosses the line? Whatever the physical task, a young athlete should be able to recover after a few minutes, McCarthy says. A few laps could be enough to reinforce simple learning goals.
But you should also consider the age of the kids, who are still developing the athleticism, strength, and stamina to do drills properly. “I would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of kids in this age group who could do five pushups correctly--let alone the 10 to 20 many youth coaches often prescribe as punishment,” says Michael Mejia, C.S.C.S., who specialize in youth sports conditioning and injury prevention. Asking for a kid to do bear crawls in full pads--seen in the first episode of Friday Night Tykes--is too much.
If you're going to step in, address your problems with the coach one-on-one--not during a practice or game. Baltzell says you should try to understand the great demand it takes for a coach to lead a young team, but if the coach still won’t budge over a serious concern then you have every right to take your child off the team or relocate to another. "This is not being 'too-soft' on the child," says McCarthy. It’s trying to make sports a win for your kid.