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    The joy of coaching kids’ sports, even if you can’t play

    Families bond in different ways when parents coach their children’s teams.
    Amy Myers/Shutterstock
    Families bond in different ways when parents coach their children’s teams.

    Q. My daughter is a kindergartner and she wants to join rec league soccer with her friends. She wants me to coach, but I’ve never even played the game. Help!

    JEFF: I’m not sure if this will make you feel better or worse, but I played on my high school soccer team, then spent a season on the BU team . . . and none of that experience helped me, not even a little, once I was standing on a field with my daughter and a dozen other fidgety children new to the game. (Kick the ball? Why can’t I just pick it up?) With the youngest players, your most important asset is not sports knowledge but your deep well of experience at running playdates — except in this case there are more kids, many you don’t know, and parents with various levels of interest and expectations.

    The sports part is the easiest, since most rec departments offer training programs where new coaches learn the basics of the game and a few practice drills. Whether it’s soccer or T-ball or whatever, the biggest skill you can develop in the young kids is focus. I’ll never forget that ill-fated practice we scheduled for the same morning the park was being used for a hot-air balloon festival. Up, up, and away . . .

    KATHY: Yes, hot air is never useful in coaching, right? I helmed my son’s basketball team from first to fourth grade, and learned quickly to keep it simple, fun, active; over-explaining was the enemy. Remember that the kids, at least until age 10 or so, are at the amoeba level of understanding the game. Luckily, I had a cool high school basketball coach, and I recycled his great image to explain how, when you shoot the ball, you extend your dominant arm up and flip your wrist down: “Try to reach inside the cookie jar on top of the fridge.”


    As a soccer coach, Jeff, you contended with “Why can’t I just pick up the ball?” My first challenge was getting the boys to remember to dribble the ball, and not just run with it like a football. It took until third grade until most figured out how to dribble and look up at the same time, an achievement akin to the Wright brothers successfully taking flight at Kitty Hawk.

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    JEFF: Ah, yes, old Orville and Wilbur sure could get off the ground to dunk the ball, but they weren’t such great ball handlers. You’re right, though, about how the challenges of coaching often have little to do with understanding how to play the game.

    KATHY: It’s true; my toughest trial was keeping track of substitutions. I always loved when 10 kids showed up, because I could just throw in five, then another five, alternating each quarter. But if 9 or 11 showed up, I felt my head would explode, trying to keep player time at parity, because during the game you’re not herding cats, you’re herding ferrets. I found it helped if co-coaches split that duty from week to week, one concentrating on managing substitutions, one concentrating on skills and focus.

    JEFF: You’re lucky if you even have a co-coach. Youth sports programs tend to have difficulty getting grown-ups involved. Some parents see the practice and game schedule as a burden. Others, I suspect, view the sports season as a quasi-baby-sitter. Then there are those like our questioner, who don’t feel qualified to coach. Consider this: If your child wants you to coach, it’s a good bet that having you on the sideline will boost her confidence. You’ll benefit, too, from seeing and interacting with your girl in ways you never have before.

    And the biggest winner of all is your rec league. Having many parents involved lightens the load for each coach and develops a sense of community among families. If you’re not a sports nut, all the better, because you can balance out those “adults” who take the competition aspect of child play way too seriously.


    KATHY: Honestly, being a coach has been one of my favorite parts of being a parent — and I think it’s precisely because it connects you and your child to something beyond the family. In our case, we’re Timberwolves, too! I smile, seeing my former players around town; they’re cool teenagers now, but I remember when we had to delay the game so one could tie a shoelace, or another shockingly pulled off our sole play (the give-and-go) and the bench erupted in cheers.

    It’s not all golden, of course. You’ll cope with bad weather, and mild injuries, and kids who wheedle for more playing time. (Note: Make sure the coach’s daughter understands she gets no special treatment from the coach.) But trust me, coaching is a prime way to build up good karma in your family and the wider world. Not long ago, I overheard my 15-year-old, out on the blacktop, teach a friend’s little brother how “to reach inside the cookie jar” and it made my day. So, I say to the reader: Go ahead and coach soccer because your daughter asked, and it’s the right thing to do. But the biggest kicks won’t come from the field — they’ll come from your experience.

    Jeff Wagenheim and
    Katharine Whittemore were founding editors at the innovative parenting magazine Wondertime. Whittemore now writes the “Seven Books About . . .” book review column for the Globe. Wagenheim writes for Sports Illustrated and the Globe, covering sports and the arts. Send parenting questions to Globe.parenting@gmail