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Leaving the Split-Second Decisions to the Kids (Can you handle it?)

Another way we can change the culture in youth sports

As a parent of a young basketball player, I know we all want to give our kids the best opportunity to succeed.  As a result, many of us end up trying to coach our sons and daughters from the stands during a game.  We have the best of intentions in most cases, we see something that we think our young player should be doing and so we want to get that message to them.  We call their name to attract their attention.  We point out what they are doing wrong, or what they need to do next time.  Maybe we express our disappointment with something that just happened in the game, a missed shot, a turnover, a teammate that didn’t pass the ball to our child.  These are all scenarios that may be familiar to you as a sport parent.  You may see yourself in the description above or maybe you recognize some other parents you know.  You may think you are helping your young player, but the reality is you are hurting their development.


“Too much interference will backfire. Constant interventions spoil the child. Parents who guide this way think they’re helping progress when they are actually obstructing their child’s path.”

                                                            –Ancient Chinese Wisdom from Jerry Lynch’s “Let Them Play”

As a coach for over 20 years I have witnessed players on my own team and teams I have coached against that were being “coached” from the stands.  These young players hear their parents’ voice from the bleachers and they lose focus on the game.  If their attention is on you in the stands it cannot be on the game itself.  Many times, things that parents are yelling to their kids may be in direct contrast with the instructions they have been given by their coach.  During a game, players are expected to perform their role to the best of their ability.  If a 9 or 10 year old kid is getting two different messages from a coach and a parent, imagine how difficult that could be on your child.  Chances are they want to please both you as their parent and also their coach.  This can create a very stressful situation for a young player.  Most of us do not perform as well under stress as we do when we are relaxed and confident.  I have found parental coaching from the bleachers to negatively impact young players’ performances in games.

I have seen players from youth leagues all the way up through high school that cannot do anything during a game without taking a glance up at their parent.  These are extreme cases where the young player seeks approval from the parent for every action they take out on the floor.  If you find that your young player is looking to you in the stands during a game, chances are they are more worried about pleasing you than competing and having fun.  As a player it is so important to be focused on the game itself, if a young player is always looking into the bleachers they are distracted from putting forth their best effort. 

One of the great things about sports in general and basketball (my sport) in particular is the amount of split second decisions that are made throughout the game.  Do I take this shot or pass to a teammate? Which way should I move to position myself for this rebound? Who do I guard on this fast break?  If your young player is always looking to you in the stands (or at the coach on the bench for that matter) for help in figuring out what to do in every game scenario, they are not building their decision making skills.  Don’t try to control every movement your young player makes out on the basketball court.  Remember, growth requires young players to stretch and make mistakes.  No player is going to play a perfect game.  Allowing your child to play their game and grow will help make them successful in the long run.  A player who is always waiting to be told what to do, either by a parent or a coach, will never develop the ability to make quick decisions out on the court.  That ability to make quick decisions is what will allow your young player to continue to have success as they progress to higher levels of basketball.

“We are all imperfect and will fail on occasion, but fear of failure is the greatest failure of all”

                                                                        –Legendary UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden

So here are some of the most counter-intuitive suggestions we can offer passionate sports parents and I dare you to give them a try:

  • In place of cheers for your player, give them a subtle thumbs up, fist bump or wink when they do something great.  You know they will look at you with a smile when they score….so why not simply offer a visual response in return (kids don’t judge their parents by who is the loudest in the stands).
  • When you feel that your player is in need of your instructions from the stands, consider that your sideline coaching robs them of a learning opportunity…..and just try to chill.
  • When your sideline cheering subtly drifts towards yelling at the referee, consider that even professional referees miss nearly 25% of calls.  So understand that your local referee may get the call wrong half of the time….but they are out there willing to do a job that you are not.  So give them a break….as long as they are keeping the kids safe, they are doing a good job.

Finally, remember to enjoy the journey.  Your child’s playing days will be over before you know it.  Ask them, “Did they have fun?  Did they play hard?  Did they listen to their coach?”  Tell them, “I love watching you play.”

Mike Klinzing is the Co-Host of the Hoop Heads Podcast. Mike is also the Founder and Executive Director of Head Start Basketball.  He is a Licensed USA Basketball Youth Development Coach and a Positive Coaching Alliance Certified Trainer. 

Learn more or request a demo of our youth sports software that is helping teams improve communication, organization and player development.

November 12, 2019

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