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Teaching parents to be better sports

Parents must learn to tread a fine line between caring too much about whether their children excel and taking too little interest.

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As a rookie soccer coach 20 years ago, Mak struggled to find a balance in how she gave feedback to her team. First, she says, she was too loud on the sidelines and often too negative with the kids. Even though her team won, victory seemed to carry a high price.

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After experimenting with a number of styles, she discovered that children benefit most if they receive mainly positive feedback. Her job, she decided, was to be a master cheerleader.

Not all coaches strive for a balance that is appropriate for young team members. For that reason, parents should seek out coaches who are most likely to suit their child's needs.

Do your homework

Parents should inquire about the coach's philosophy, and attend enough practices and games to feel comfortable that the coach's style is compatible with their child's personality.

Parents should also find out if the league has checked the coach's background to ensure that he or she has no police record, says Dan Reidy, a parent and director of recreation services for Lantana Recreation, in Lantana, Fla.

"You don't just take your kid to a doctor's office, or drop them off at school without knowing the doctors or teachers are competent," says Mr. Reidy.

The National Alliance for Youth Sports offers communities nationwide a program, "Time Out," that establishes guidelines and standards for coaches, referees, and parents participating in sports. It also provides a mechanism for reporting bad coaches.

Once parents feel comfortable with a child's coach, they should brush up on the fundamentals of the game. They're more likely to enjoy watching the game and be better equipped to cheer the child on.

They will also be better prepared to discuss with their children the emotional, social, and political lessons that are critical to playing on a team.

"It's really great if you can talk to your kid about ... what's happening out there, if you can understand it when he says, 'I saw Calvin cut for the ball, but I didn't give him the ball and should have,' " says Marshall Pile, a coach in Portland, Ore.

Ultimately, these discussions are about the important rules of life, says Engh. "Lose with grace. Focus on discipline. Abide by the rules," he says.

Parents need to follow one more rule, too, says Stahl: "I think the perfect sports parent is someone who can always remember and never forget: This is the child's experience, not the parent's."

Interviewing a coach

Coaches can either motivate a child to excel or crush a child with negative feedback and too-high expectations, experts say.

That's why it's critical that parents choose a coach who best suits their child's goals and personality.

Before a child begins a season with a new coach, parents should seek out answers to these questions:

• What's the coach's philosophy? According to Rick Wolff, chairman of the Center For Sports Parenting and author of "Coaching Kids for Dummies": "If the coach says, 'I'm here to win at all costs,' you have the right to say, 'This isn't the best team for my child to play on.' "

• How does the coach divide up kids' playing time? Many recreational leagues require coaches to give each child a minimum amount of playing time during games. In more competitive environments, though, coaches give the most talented players the most playing time.

• Is one of the coach's children a team member? Ask the coach how he treats his child. "When I coach my own kid, I make a point to have my kid sit out the first half of a game," says Mr. Wolff. If the coach favors his own child, be sure you are comfortable with this before allowing your child to play on his team.

• Ask the coach if and how he gives children constructive feedback. Or watch the coach during a practice. If you discover he yells at or berates the children, consider finding another coach or starting your own team, suggests Wolff.

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