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Youth Sports Coaches: Building Character, Winners, Or Ego?

In evaluating coaches, parents should take a "check-out/check-in" approach, expert says

The question on the minds of many sports parents these days is, "How can we ensure the safety of our children as they encounter a variety of coaches in youth sports?"

To be a credible coach - a most noble goal - a coach must earn the respect of parents as well as young athletes. Most coaches are honorable and we can trust that their overall intentions are positive. But parents need to be aware of three possibilities when it comes to the true motives and goals of any coach.

David Benzel

The Great Coach: Focused on Building Character 

A coach who is dedicated to making a positive impact on the athletic AND life journey of a young athlete is what I call the "John Wooden model."   The late, great UCLA basketball coach, Wooden exemplified this approach when he answered a Booster club member's question about how good his team was that year. "I don't (know) yet - ask me in 30 years." His commitment was to change the lives of young men by building champions, not championships. The latter became a by-product of the former. His utmost commitment was to teach character lessons in the context of the game he loved, and had high standards of conduct for both himself and for his players. Everyone knew what was expected on and off the court.

The Good Coach: Focused on Building Winners

A coach who is dedicated to making a positive impact on the athletic journey of a young athlete. This more limited aspiration is the norm. Most coaches give lip service to being a Great Coach, but in reality focus their time and energy solely on physical skills, game strategies and cardio conditioning. The goal is to win championships and provide athletes with the skills and experience necessary to play at the next level. In this context, the sport itself is the center of the universe, not the life journey.

The Ego Coach: Focused on Building Self

This kind of coach is hiding his motive to satisfy whatever selfish needs must be fulfilled - intellectually, emotionally or physically. This coach will often project high and lofty goals for those in his charge, but witnesses will notice the lack of real effort or commitment to achieving those goals because they are not the actual goals. This coach will deceive himself and others in an effort to satisfy the ego - self is the center of the universe and the evidence can be seen in:
  • The pursuit of improving the win/loss record solely for the sake of job security
  • Tantrums over poor performances which are seen as embarrassing
  • Bragging about strategies and victories over others
  • Berating or ridiculing athletes
  • Pursuing inappropriate relationships with athletes

Game Plan for Parents: Check-Out/Check-In

In dealing with youth sports coaches, parents need to have a game plan of their own. The best is what I call a "Check-Out and Check-In" approach:


To  check-out means to do your due diligence about a coach.

  • Ask others you trust about a coach's character, caring, and competencies. 
  • Go to practices occasionally, as well as competitions, to observe the behavior and reactions of a coach. 
  • Get to know a coach through appropriate opportunities for parent interactions, like formal and informal meetings. 
  • If a coach does not welcome parent interactions, consider this a red flag.


To check-in means to directly measure the pulse of your child's experience.

  • Establish a routine of having regular conversations with your child about the coaching he or she is receiving and climate created by the coach. 
  • Verify that your child is being treated with respect, being held accountable for team standards and is comfortable with the relationship developing with the coach. 
  • Checking-in with your child does not mean interfering with the coaching, but it is important that you ask your child what is being learned. 
  • Ask your child to share information about how the coach talks to the athletes and how they are treated during the informal moments around practice and competitions.

It is completely appropriate to make your children aware that coaches come in a variety of styles, shapes, colors and competencies, and those differences do not make them good or bad. Teach your children that every coach can teach them something of value for their development. However, also make your child aware that every coach has a responsibility to treat each athlete with respect - intellectually, emotionally and physically - and that you'd like to know about any incident in which that is not the case.

As parents you can choose to discriminate between the various environments available for your children. This is only possible if you take the time to Check-Out and Check-In so your children can enjoy the best possible youth sport experience.

From Chump to Champ book cover

David Benzel is the Founder and President of Growing Champions for Lifea non-profit organization dedicated to improving the youth sport experience in America by providing parents and coaches with positive strategies and practical tools for building cohesive families and principle-centered athletes. Through workshops, articles, books and online membership programs, it helps both parents and coaches discover the most effective way to play their role, allowing young athletes to reach their full potential both on and off the field.

He is also the author of two books, From Chump to Champ - How Individuals Go From Good to Great and 5 Powerful Strategies for Sport Parent Success, which build on his fifteen years as a corporate leadership coach for companies like Nextel, Sprint, Allstate, Balfour Beatty and The Villages and as an expert in the principles of influence and coaching.  An eight-time National Water Ski Champion, former coach of the U.S. Water Ski Team, and recipient of the Award of Distinction from the Water Ski Hall of Fame, David has served as a commentator on ESPN for the X Games and the Professional Water Ski Tour.  You can like David on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @DavidBenzel.   For David's blog from 2012 June Is Sports Dads' Month, click here. You can email David at david@growingchampionsforlife.com



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