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Voices from the bench, part two

“As research has accumulated on coach-athlete interactions, it has become clear that coaches can have either a positive or a negative impact on the lives of athletes at all levels of competition. A positive coach-athlete relationship can enhance athletes’ psychological and social well-being, foster the development of self-efficacy, positive values and coping skills, and promote continued involvement in healthy physical activity. In contrast, negative coach-athlete relationships create distress, foster the development of dysfunctional attitudes towards achievement and competition, create needless interpersonal distress, and contribute to sport competition attrition.” Frank Smoll & Ronald Smith, University of Washington.

Part one of the interview began with the reflections of an athlete who made the high school soccer team yet hasn’t been called off the bench to play during league games even though he keeps trying to win over the coach and have a chance to prove himself. Part two is the opportunity for his parents to voice their concerns as they attempt to figure out how to participate in problem solving their child’s high school athletic experience when they see how much participating on the team and being part of a team means to their child.

This interview is not designed to solve any issues but to give the athlete and his parents a voice as they know they are not the only family that has experienced this type of situation. It’s a reminder for coaches to keep in mind their power and influences on the population of athletes they oversee. High school is a vulnerable developmental time for youth. It’s more than sports. It’s the bigger picture of personal development, inclusion in groups, and learning from adult role modeling.

Examiner: How do you make sense of what has been occurring regarding your son being on the high school soccer team and not having an opportunity to participate during games?

Parents: It’s really hard to make sense of it. When you see your child making sacrifices, not missing any practices, has a consistent strong work ethic, and you see that he’s not receiving a reward for all the time he’s put into the game it’s hard to watch him on the bench. As parents we become frustrated. At the same time we didn’t want to make things worse by talking to the coach because rumor was that if we talk to the coach, he would put our child even further on the back burner. So we felt caught. We attend all the games and we volunteer our time to the team.

We have gone to the coach and asked, “What does he need to do to earn more playing time?” The coach replies, “To keep doing what he’s doing.” That’s the response we received. I consulted with a friend of mine who coaches and asked, “What does that mean when a coach says that?” His reply was, “It’s a way to get you off his back.”

Examiner: As parents talking to the coach has not stimulated conversation that gives you and your son feedback to which he can create a proactive goal.

Parents: As parents what we saw was our son on the bench for a majority of his competitive time on the team this year. At the beginning of the season when he had some playing time he was sitting amongst his teammates. Towards the later part of the season when his playing time decreased he began to sit away from the team. He no longer looked a part of it. I (mom) played sports growing up and my take away is that sports is about team building. That’s my understanding of what high school sports programs are supposed to be about. Creating a team where players root for each other and support one another. I think the coaches ultimate job is to foster that cohesiveness in that environment.

Examiner: Do you think this experience affects your son in terms of developing confidence and learning interpersonal skills with his teammates?

Parents: I think because of the situation he definitely worked harder. But almost too hard saying, “Okay I wasn’t good enough so I’ve got to work even harder.” As parents we hear this and see that he can’t work much harder than he already is. He was practicing six days a week and bumping up his work-outs outside of practice. He was coming home and saying, “I need to do this and this to get faster because coach says I wasn’t fast enough.” As parents we thought he was becoming overly focused on this which we thought wasn’t healthy.

Examiner: Like he’s almost obsessed with the idea that he will finally get to a place in his performance to please the coach and have an opportunity to play. “I will deliver the “product” and give him what he wants to earn my chance.”

Parents: Yeah. What about him being able to be who he is? We were lost as to how this was fostered in all of this. Our son has an incredibly strong work ethic. We’re not saying it because he’s our child but because we see it through his actions. He’s the last player off the field at practice. He does the extra stuff regarding being on a team that should be what “product” is and rewarded. He is a team player. We hear from the coach what a great person our son is yet we’re like, “If you think so highly of him why don’t you give him a chance on the field?”

Examiner: The coach isn’t acknowledging him by giving him something that would give him satisfaction for his efforts.

Parents: Satisfaction or give him feedback that his extra effort is playing off. Give him recognition for his self-esteem. There was a point in the season his self-esteem was very, very low. He was so frustrated he asked, “Why am I doing this. Maybe I shouldn’t play next year.” We asked him, “Are you playing for the coach or for your teammates, your friends?” We told him he needed to think about it and we stepped back.

Examiner: Do you think the coach has any awareness of the impact of his behavior?

Parents: We don’t think he was truly aware until we went and spoke with him. We had seen our son go from Defensive League Player of the Year to no playing time. When we spoke with the coach we asked how could he have been moved up to Varsity and then demoted? In his Freshman year he made the Varsity team but the coaches told him he would not receive much playing time. They told him they would rather he start off with J.V. and get playing time. We felt this was sound coaching advice.

Examiner: Critical ages for development of sport confidence are 11-15 years old and 16-24 years old. Inner confidence of athletic skill abilities is a key component of mental toughness. Your son is missing this window through the situation at school. Do the school administrators have knowledge of the situation?

Parents: We visited the schools admin and asked, “What is the school’s philosophy on playing time for student athletes?” The response from the school admin was, “It’s entirely up to the coaches.” We were then directed to the athletic director who hires the coaches. We try to approach things with a positive spin and when we attend game after game and our son spends all the time on the bench it doesn’t feel right. This isn’t a professional league. Our belief is that a coaches job is to teach because they have a passion for the sport. Teach these players to be a team and be leaders. We felt this coach was a poor role model for this philosophy.

Examiner: Does your school have funding for a coaches education program such as the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), or other coaching programs that could help the coach develop proactive coaching tools and philosophies that would benefit the development of players?

Parents: Supposedly our coaches at the school were trained through the Positive Coaching Alliance. I am not knowledgeable if this coach attended the training but I would be interested in knowing if he did.

Examiner: You took the PCA training as a parent?

Parents: As parents we were presented with the materials. I really liked the information because it took playing away from winning and losing. The J.V. coach last year was a good example of that training. His team may not of had a winning season but the team was extremely positive after their games. All the players played and had a chance to learn and came away from their season saying, “Our coach taught us so much. We were taught to be graceful in defeat and to pick ourselves up from losses as a team and move onto the next game ready to play harder.” They really improved as a team as the season progressed.

At one game this year the team was four goals behind and there was no way to turn the game around. The coach still didn’t pull any of the kids off the bench. As parents we were sitting there thinking, “Why wouldn’t the coach give the players time on the field in this situation.” Whether the team is so far ahead or so far behind seems a likely time to pull players off the bench that haven’t played.

Examiner: You wonder how the coach would react if the subs came into the game and scored a couple of goals. What do you say to your son regarding this situation? What is his motivation to continue to participate on the team and does he have any other sport options?

Parents: He does play another sport and is doing well in it. But he plays soccer because he’s played on teams since the 5th grade. He plays to be with his friends and he loves the game. But he had no idea he would be demoted as far as he was this year. For a time we thought he would quit. As I mentioned earlier we talked with him and said, “Let’s think about why you are doing this sport. Is it for the playing time or to be with this group of friends?” He said, “To participate with my friends and celebrate our wins or console each other when the team loses.” We also emphasize to him that he made a commitment to the team and to these other players. We encouraged him during the season to talk with the coach which he did and ask for the coaching that he needs to have a chance to play. When the coach responded, “Keeping doing what you’re doing.” We encouraged him to go back and ask the coach to be more specific. What does, “Keep doing what you’re doing” mean since he was doing what he was doing but not receiving any results or rewards.

Examiner: The feedback didn’t have specific attainable goals attached that he could learn or develop into a specific task or skill.

Parents: The coach was missing concrete examples and goals to target.

Examiner: What would you and other parents who have young players spending their time on the bench like to see happen differently?

Parents: We would like the coaches to have an organizational list with them so they know which kids have had playing time and how much. An assistant coach could keep track. If we could see a logical path it would be more acceptable. But game after game seeing the same kids on the bench is disheartening. As much as we hoped our son would get into the game we also hoped the other boys on the bench would also have a chance to play. As parents watching we also felt like we were on the bench. We have to keep a happy face when the team wins even though your child didn’t get to contribute.

Examiner: Anything you would like to add?

Parents: Just to say that going forward it would be useful for a coach to be clear at the beginning of the season. Sports night orientation is a good time to announce, “Your child may make the team but they may not necessarily receive any playing time.” That would be clear cut.

Examiner: It feels like a betrayal in that the coach announced he was taking a smaller team so all the players would receive playing time. Your son isn’t the team clown or been a problem. He’s been a consistent hard worker and team player.

Parents: Yes, a really hard worker. Parents who know him and know about his skills ask, “Why isn’t the coach putting him in?” We feel this season has been a poor example of problem solving and role modeling. At one game the coach was carded by the referee for his behavior in reaction to a call made on the field. To us this isn’t role modeling leadership. It causes us concern.

Examiner: In the heat of the moment coaches need to maintain their composure.

Parents: A coach should maintain his leadership by demonstrating to the boys the ability to stay calm and manage his emotions versus reacting. Through the majority of my sons playing years he has had the good fortune of coaches that model leadership behavior. Our son has always been so eager to play and as a parent our hope is for that energy within him to remain alive. We don’t want it pushed away.

Examiner: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about your sons experience this year playing high school soccer. (Since this interview the parents have returned to the A.D.’s office to discuss the potential for changes to the program going into next year).