There is an ongoing argument in high school sports and beyond that parents should never coach their own kids. On one side, you’ll hear of parents who succeeded coaching their kids. Now the term ‘succeeded’ is very subjective, depending on the source. I’d argue that it’s impossible to both be a good parent and a coach/trainer at the same time. Because successful athletes need both good coaches, trainers and a good support network (especially parents) and the roles of both a parent and a coach/trainer may seem similar, but they’re actually very different.
I stopped coaching my youngest son after his sophomore year in high school tennis. I was finishing up my professional coaching education through the USPTA and originally thought it made perfect sense to train my own son and save some money. Win-win, cut out the expensive training and have full control over making sure my son was taught properly.
That plan lasted about 3 months.
On top of the basic teenage-rebellion-vs.-parent stage of our relationship, the conflict of coaching him really led to all-out war on court. I trained, he rebelled, we argued. Repeat daily. In reality we got along fine off-court, except for any time within the household that I even mentioned doing something tennis-related, including watching tennis on TV.
So what failed?
Being a driven coach, I push my players to succeed. As a father, my job was to be one of my son’s biggest supporters and fans. Coaches should, at times, be critical. Parents: not so much. Training time is never limited to on-court when you have a parent coaching a player. No matter how hard we strive to keep that separation, there’s always one of these little moments: “Pass the peas, son…oh and by the way, your footwork sucks!” Ok, maybe not always that harsh, but you get my point, right?
The line between parent and coach continues to blur in and out of competition, training and off-season. At one point, I sat watching one of my son’s matches, making mental notes of sloppy footwork, poor decision-making and issues with his overall technique. Feeling overwhelmed with the work I had ahead, I forgot to compliment him on a quick 6-2, 6-2 win. Yeah, it was that bad. If I was disconnected from the sport (not a trainer) I’d have been ecstatic about the win and just happy to see him in action. Which is how it should be.
So I guess the rule of thumb might be clarified when parenting and coaching collide. Parents can coach their kids successfully if you suck as a coach. If you’re not really all that driven to win and are coaching just to have a good time with your team, you might get by just fine. But then by definition: you’re not really a coach, are you? More so: you’re actually a glorified chaperone in that scenario.
Of course, my story is just one example, and other coaches will surely say that they pulled it off. As a coach, we’d really be the last to know if we did, in fact, accomplish that tricky balancing act in the end. We’re really too close to the situation, which is the real conflict of being both coach and parent. There is always an exception to every rule, and I’m sure there are success stories out there. But I do know from my experience and talking to other parent-coaches that those success stories seem to be few and far between.
After his sophomore year, we continued to play tennis against each other. We’d been doing this for years and I never once let up. I’d beat him at love most matches in the beginning. Then his sole drive was to beat me. Eventually, by his junior year in high school, I was the one on the losing end of the scorecards.
So there was still progress without training influence on my part.
He finished his high school career this past week, #1 on his team for the second-straight year. He made honorable mention all-conference his junior year in an extremely tough conference. We planned to train his senior year to build on that accomplishment, but, once again, that only lasted a few weeks till reality set in again.
We’ll never know for sure what his career might have become if we could have balanced our relationship as father-son/coach-athlete. I really became a more complete coach after my time with the USPTA, and that was long after I’d have any real chance to impact his high school career by becoming his trainer.
It was a weird journey though. I was on-court most every day of the year, training someone else’s kid. While mine came home each night to report on his day at practice, without me. I’ve trained more than 70 juniors in my time as a coach and never really once had any real conflict on court with any of them. Only with my son.
As time goes on, I’m sure I’ll feel saddened and regretful about what might have been. But I realized something important along the way: that I taught him more as a father than I’d have ever taught him as his trainer. He learned in the beginning by what I did and my love for the sport, not how I trained him directly. He learned second-hand from watching me train and coach others when he managed the girls teams I coached.
As a father, I got to be a better father during his last few years during matches. It wasn’t easy as a trainer, trying to leave it all behind, but I finally did enjoy watching his matches and was extremely proud of the tennis player he became and what he accomplished in his high school years, especially considering he decided to play tennis only weeks before his freshmen year began.
Yes, his footwork still needs an overhaul and his technique could be tweaked and there are countless things I could teach him about making better use of the court, but more importantly for us: when I had to choose a role between being a father and trainer, I chose the most important of the two. Which is something I will never regret.
Shane Staley is the founder of Staley Tennis and a USPTA-certified trainer, Accredited Professional Coach and instructor.