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March 17, 2015
by Mary Horn, Psy.D.

How You Coach Your Teenager Can Have Negative Effects

March 17, 2015 05:55 by Mary Horn, Psy.D.

American youth are growing up in a society where competition and the pressure that comes with it, begin at the very beginning of their life experiences. It is not uncommon for parents to go to classes, read books, do research, and gather as much information as they can about parenting. Well-meaning parents want the best for their children. There are programs for babies to read, infants to swim, even sports that begin in toddlerhood. Often, parents will pick homes in good school districts so they can ensure a good education for their children. People in the private school sector will pick pre-schools that will help their children get into the best private elementary schools, and so on... Parents from all sectors of the socio-economic spectrum try to do what is best for their children. They look at activities and sports to help mold their children in the most positive ways possible.

Yet with all the research, and all the energy that goes with making sure our children get the best, all too often children are signed up for sports or activities, that are lead by well-meaning, but under-qualified coaches or leaders. Parents generally expect, hope, and trust that the activity will be good for their child. They believe in the many benefits that sports and competition can bring into their child’s life. In her article, “Is it Healthy?” Hillary Levey Friedman (2013) discusses the benefits of competitive sports for youth. She talks about the importance of winning so that children feel pride and accomplishment in something that they worked to achieve. She also believes it is important for children to understand the feeling of loss, and learning that they can bounce back from a loss to win in the future. Also, many sports help children learn how to perform within time limits. Team sports give children the feeling of being part of something that does not just benefit themselves, but they are working for a greater good. Sports can teach children to discipline themselves, to have responsibility and to believe that they can accomplish their goals. From a health standpoint, sports help to foster a healthy lifestyle through exercise, motor development and coordination.

For parents who want the best for their children, getting them involved in sports seems like the perfect venue for developing a variety of skills. What about through the eyes of the child? Children do not usually look at things and want to do them because they are good for them. On their own, they do not usually ask if participating in an activity will benefit their self-confidence and self-esteem, or enhance their motor development. By and large, children want to do things that are pleasurable and fun. They love to laugh, play, and eat things that taste and feel good to them. When they know they are good at something, they usually want to do it more. Children look to their parents, teachers, leaders, coaches and peers for validation, and when they genuinely get it, it builds their sense of self and confidence.  For some children, blooming in an atmosphere of competition and pressure makes them thrive. For many children, the expectation of performance at a certain level can affect them mentally. Various approaches to teaching and coaching children can impact children in positive and/or negative ways.

A Closer look at Detrimental Coaching Styles

As we progress as a society, so does our knowledge of what impacts children in good and bad ways. More and more sports activities that young children used to participate in because they were fun, healthy, social, and stimulating are being turned into such intense competitions that children want to quit playing.  Some sports psychologists state that competitive sports have created so much added pressure that young athletes must train with more and more intensity at very early ages. They question if young children are emotionally ready for that kind of pressure. According to Eric Eisendrath (2015), seventy percent of youth athletes quit sports by the age of thirteen siting that the reason is that the sport is not fun anymore.

With all the benefits that sports can bring to our youth, where have we gone so wrong and what can be done to remedy this growing problem? A closer look at coaching styles and parental approaches may reveal some answers.

There are various coaching styles. One of the oldest and most common remains the Authoritarian approach.  This style has its origins in the early twentieth century. It was a military style that was used to discipline the masses (Cliff Mallett, 2012).  Perhaps because young children have so much energy, coaches feel that this approach helps them to gain some structure and control over children that would otherwise run amuck.  According to Dr. Alan Goldberg (2015), there are too many coaches who begin to use fear, humiliation, emotional abuse and excessive anger to try to make their points.  In Dr. Goldberg’s opinion, a coach who demeans players and screams at them during games does far more harm than good. This type of coaching usually decreases the player’s self-confidence, and the child often has a difficult time concentrating on what they are doing because they are trying so hard not to make mistakes, so as not to upset their coach and get yelled at. Some athletes are so afraid of making mistakes that they freeze or become robot-like in their game.

Some people take the stance that a mean coach will “toughen up” the child. Or parents justify that by having this type of coach, it will help their children learn how to overcome hardship. In Dr. Goldberg’s opinion, young athletes should never have to “learn to handle or overcome” an adult who can’t manage their own emotions and thus becomes psychologically and verbally abusive to their players. Keep in mind that children who witness abuse have the same affects from it as children who are the target of abuse them self. When a coach cannot control his/her anger or emotions on the sideline (for example, kicking objects or throwing things because they are angry about the game or players performance) that can be very scary to a child, perhaps as scary and confusing as if it were directed at them. 

According to the website: Outside the Lines (2012), the characteristics of a bad youth coach include, but are not limited to: A coach who feels the need to win at all costs; clearly has favorites; treats players with disrespect by yelling and embarrassing them in front of their peers and whomever else might be around; and allows the players to disrespect each other. 

Parents Also Make Mistakes

According to Eric Eisendrath (2015), a parent’s role in a youth athlete’s life is simply to give unconditional love and support. That’s all. It is really quite simple. Youth athletes need to know that no matter how they played (to their potential or not), they are loved and supported.  Being yelled at from the sidelines and told what to do by parents only confuses players and distracts them.  Mr. Eisendrath opines that it is the parent’s job to fill the child’s emotional tank.

Most parents would agree that watching their child NOT play up to their potential is frustrating, and disheartening. A parent knows what their child is capable of. If they are under-performing, we must look to understand why. Parents who berate their children and make them feel bad about how they performed, are hurting the young athlete as much as the damaging coaches we discussed earlier.

According to J. Stenson (2004), parents and coaches who push too hard, particularly when the emphasis is on winning above everything else, can easily wipe out a child’s motivation to play the sports that they love.

Great coaches and parents are able to read the youth athlete and really know who they are and what makes them thrive as an athlete.

Top Five Mistakes Coaches and Parents Make in Motivating Youth Athletes

According to Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter (2011), there are some important things for well-meaning coaches and parents to be aware of. First, when there is an over-reaction to the athlete making an error or not performing to expectation, the athlete will often feel worse and therefore play worse. Also, in preparing for important sport events, balance should be maintained. Demanding too much time or commitment so that the youth athletes are over-trained, burned out or continually injured can be counterproductive. Another mistake often made is to give too much attention to the “star” of team and not enough attention or value to the other players. Every player has their value and youth athletes are still developing. One player may be able to do things that the others can’t yet, but often, the others catch up. Coaches having favorites creates resentment within the team and also puts more pressure on the “star” and when they don’t perform to expectation, everyone is then upset. 

When preparing for important games or sport events, the pressure is inherently high. Another mistake parents and coaches make is to have every practice and every game be a high pressure situation. Developing the ability to play well under pressure will happen naturally for youth athletes as their confidence grows and they learn to trust their skills. When added pressure by coaches and parents is put on them, most athletes will play worse and get frustrated. 

The fifth mistake that Dr. Dahlkoetter identifies is the loss of balance. There needs to be time for school, homework, family, non-sports related fun, and especially relaxation. Parents and coaches need to always keep in mind that too much of anything can be a bad thing.

In Conclusion

There are many wonderful parents and coaches that have positive influences over a child’s life. In general, it is important to remember that youth athletes are fragile and they are developing in body, mind and spirit. Parents want what is best for their children and want to see them succeed. Well-meaning coaches want to win and they want to reach children’s highest potential, but sometimes it can be done in ways that actually have the opposite effect on the child. Parents can do their best by monitoring how their child is responding to the coaching style that is being implemented and take appropriate steps to ensure their child’s success. Coaches should research the most effective ways to motivate and engage young athletes. Providing a fun, creative atmosphere where athletic development can take place does not have to exclude structure, consistency, and good training. Coaches and parents have the common goal of developing successful youth athletes, as a society we need to keep our eye on the prize, which in the end, should be happy, healthy children.


Dahlkoetter, J. (2011). Top 5 Mistakes Coaches and Parents Make in Motivating Athletes

Eisendrath, E.(2015). Playing Positive

Friedman, H. J. (2013). Is It healthy?

Goldberg, A. (2015). Sports Psychology, Peak Performance, and Overcoming Fears and Blocks

Mallett, C. (2012). Outside the Lines. Human Movement, vol. 28:2.

Stenson, J. (2004). Pushing Too Hard Too Young.

About the Author

Dr. Mary Horn Dr. Mary Horn, Psy.D.

Choosing to enter therapy can be difficult, so I will walk beside you on this journey. Together we find new endings for old beginnings. No one should have to walk the road of transformation alone. I try to provide a safe, neutral environment, so change can happen..

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