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Coaching Your Own Kid

By Coach Wade

I have no hard data to confirm this, but after three years of interacting with youth coaches online, my best estimate is that somewhere between 75 and 80% of youth coaches in all sports become involved with coaching kids because of their own children. Most of these coaches decide to "help out" on their son or daughter's teams. A few are selected to be head coaches despite inexperience and relative lack of knowledge.

Please note that I have the utmost respect for these 'Dad-coaches'. I attribute a great deal of my success with the 1999 Kodiak Lions to a pair of assistants that were phenomenal in their support for me and for our program. Both of these coaches had sons on our team, but both were also fair-minded men that treated all of the players equally and gave no preferential treatment to their sons. I am deeply in their debt.

Despite my success with them, in my opinion, parent-coaches are not a very good idea. There are a variety of reasons why I feel that way, but here are the most important ones.

To start with, your relationship with your son or daughter must be different on the field than it is at home. On the practice field, criticism is important. Frank Leahy, national champion coach of the Notre Dame "Fighting Irish" in the 1940's was quoted once as saying, "Criticism is like money. A player should not worry about receiving it. They should worry about a lack of it." A player can't improve if he or she doesn't know what he's doing incorrectly. Many parents have enormous difficulty criticizing their own children.

There is also the issue of perception. Being a member of the United States Armed Forces gives me a rather unique perspective on that point. Putting it succinctly, anything you are perceived to have done, you have done!

That might not make sense to anyone that lives their life without reference to the U.C.M.J., or Uniform Code of Military Justice, but to those of us in the military it's a very real thing. It's just as real to those of us who coach.

As an example, imagine a head football coach who is coaching his own son. After the first week of practice, his son's name appears on the depth chart as a first string quarterback.

Other parents of players on the team will notice this. Their sons will come home and tell them about practice and the new quarterback. They may notice the changes when the team is announced at the first game of the season. They will likely begin to chat amongst themselves about the team.

Sooner or later, human nature being what it is, some parent is going to complain. Some parent, probably one that has never even been to a practice, is going to get the idea that the coach's son is only the quarterback because he's the coach's son. Eventually that irate parent is going to bleat to the league administration about the unfairness. This head coach will soon be accused of nepotism.

Now, based on the information we have before us, is the coach guilty as charged?

I say yes.

No, you didn't read that wrong. The coach is guilty of nepotism, of giving favored treatment to his son because of their relationship. Why is he guilty? Because he allowed himself to be perceived as guilty. Unfortunately his actual intentions are completely irrelevant once that perception takes root in the minds of the parents and administration of his league.

Anyone in a position of leadership and authority must hold themselves to a higher standard. The great Woody Hayes, coach of Ohio State, wore only shorts and a tee shirt to practice, regardless of the weather. Even in snow and sleet he wore only the lightest of clothing.

Coach Hayes did this because he knew how people think. He knew that in order to convince his players that it wasn't too cold to practice, he had to demonstrate it, to act the part.

At all times a football coach must be perceived as honorable, fair, and devoted to his team. His players must know that he can be trusted, because he is trustworthy.

What does it tell the players when their coach tells them to work hard, to give it 100%, and then places his son in the most coveted position on the team? I believe that it tells them to stop trying, because they cannot trust their coach.

Now let's look, like Paul Harvey, at the rest of the story.

Perhaps that coach's son truly is the best quarterback on the team. Perhaps he is destined for an NFL contract in a few years. Perhaps he's a natural leader, with poise and confidence beyond his years, who inspires his teammates to play at a new level.

Perhaps that head coach wasn't even the one to make that decision. What if it was the offensive coordinator who selected his son to play quarterback?

Here is the catch-22 for parent-coaches, and the single largest reason I am against the idea of parents coaching their own kids. There is no way to be completely fair to all parties in this situation. If a coach makes his son the quarterback he'll be accused of playing favorites. If the coach gives another boy the position, then not only is he shafting his son, but his entire team suffers because a lesser-talented player is now running the offense.

Is the coach's son, by virtue of his lineage, not allowed to compete on an equal basis with his teammates for all the positions?

In 1999, one of my opposing coaches in the Kodiak Football League placed his son in the starting quarterback position. Unfortunately, his team had a losing season, and, as always when a coach has a bad year, nay-sayers and bad-mouthers came out from the woodwork. Apparently, the sole reason they had a losing season was that the coach's son was the quarterback.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Those of us on the inside of the league knew that his son was one of the most gifted natural athletes in the league. In fact, his son was on my own draft list in third place until I discovered he was the son of another coach, and our league automatically sent him to his father's team. The position I intended to place him in was quarterback.

I have my suspicions about why their team had a losing season, and they have nothing to do with nepotism. Unfortunately, that was the perception, therefore that was the fact. It's not right, but it's common.

There is really only one way to be completely fair, and be perceived as completely fair, and that is to refrain from coaching your own child. This is a radical viewpoint, but I think it's an honest one.

Understand, I mean no disrespect to parent-coaches. This article sort of assumes a "perfect world" scenario. In a perfect world, there would always be enough competent, fair coaches for every team. I know this is not usually the case, and most parent-coaches started coaching their sons because there just wasn't anyone else. I applaud the sense of responsibility that made these coaches step forward when they were needed. There are very, very few coaches, especially at the youth level, that do not have children.

My recommendation is that parents make every effort to avoid coaching their own sons. It can be done if you use some creativity. For example, if your son is a linebacker, then I recommend that you coach the offensive unit, and hand the defense off to your assistant coach.

Obviously this isn't a perfect solution. What do you do if your son plays both ways? The answer that I have is 'I don't know.'

At all times the most important thing to remember is the perception your players have of you. They must always know that you will do the right thing. They must know that their hard work will be rewarded with their placement on the depth chart, and their playing time. Your best defense against a charge of nepotism is your players, who will always be able to tell if you are fair and honorable.

My opinion on this matter is biased. I do not have kids. My "children" are a 125-pound rottweiler and an 86-pound pit bull. Very few football leagues allow four-footed players, so I am not likely to confront this issue face-to-face myself.

True also is the knowledge that two of the best youth football coaches I know of started out as 'parent-coaches'. Jack Reed, the author of several great books on football, got his start in coaching when his son began playing for the San Ramon Bears junior peewee team in 1990. His son is now a second string tailback at Columbia University.

Clark Wilkins, the inaccurately nicknamed "Dum Coach" also began his coaching career as a parent. After 13 years of coaching, Coach Wilkins has consistently posted winning seasons even with handicapped players in a league of well-trained and highly experienced coaches. His patience and dedication to his players has made the sport of football a wonderful experience for hundreds of kids.

Coaching your own son or daughter is a huge responsibility, but along with that responsibility comes the equally great responsibility to the players that are not related to you. They too deserve competent, fair coaching from you.

Good luck!

~D.

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Copyright 2007 Derek A. "Coach" Wade. All rights reserved.