Parent like a coach. It’s a piece of advice that you may have heard more than once. And with good reason – when one end of the parenting spectrum holds the shouty and punitive Sergeant Major, and the other end the soft and rescuing Jellyfish, most of us will wisely aim for the middle ground – Parent Coach territory. And even though we try our hardest to do that, we don’t always have a clear idea of exactly how it should look. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about what not to do. The image is so clear when we picture a ‘helicopter parent’ hovering too close and smothering independence, or a ‘curling parent’ sweeping away every potential obstacle. I don’t know about you, but when I picture a coach I see someone in a tracksuit blowing a whistle, and I’m pretty sure there’s more to parenting like a coach than that!
It’s worth digging a bit deeper into this idea. Why did we pick coach as the ideal, anyway? Why aren’t the experts exhorting us to parent like a CEO, for example, or a teacher, or a shift supervisor? I think that ‘coach’ works better than anything else because of the connotations of a sport or game. CEOs manage a staff team, teachers instruct, and supervisors keep a process ticking over. There are aspects of all of these that are good things to weave into your parenting day. A coach though, is a bit more prepared than these others to get dirty, sweaty and messy as they do their job. They’re teaching something physical, and learning how to live life can be a messy task. You might have to try and try again. You might have to make lots of mistakes along the way. It’s hard, emotional work. And a coach is just that little bit more prepared for that. So what else is a coach prepared for?
A coach is comfortable with repetition
Why do coaches make us do drills? The actual skills of passing the ball or dodging your opponent are relatively simple ones to teach, so surely they could just demonstrate it once or twice, and then tell the team they’re expected to do it that way from now on? A good coach knows that just like our brain, our muscles have a memory. The more often a movement is repeated, the easier and quicker it will be to use when it’s needed. A big chunk of every good sports training session is going to involve performing the same physical motions, over and over again. Does the coach get frustrated by the repetition? Do they get grumpy that you haven’t ‘got it’ yet? No, they don’t, because it’s built into their long-term plan. They knew it’s what you’d need, so they expected it.
Parents, especially of small children, really benefit from a ‘time and time again’ mindset. The frustration that seeps in when we think that our kids “should know this by now” is toxic to learning. Kids know when we’ve thrown our hands up in despair – even if we don’t say a word, it will come across in a hundred different ways. The fact is that a developing brain is literally being built upon the repetitions that you expose it to daily. When you continually respond to their cries or distress with concern and nurturing, they learn that the world is a safe place. When you repeatedly require them to add a ‘please’ to their requests, they learn that you get nowhere without good manners. And when you repeatedly need toys put away before we can eat dinner, they learn that some tasks are an expected part of daily life.
‘Practice time’ is also a good way to address behaviours you’re less than impressed with. Wait until the emotion has died down, because you don’t want to attempt this while you’re still angry! At a suitable moment, perhaps when another adult has arrived home who might be able to support you, let your child know that it’s practice time. “You had some trouble earlier running to get your shoes when Dad asked, so I think we might need a bit of practice. I want you to run and get your shoes from the cupboard five times – ready, set, go!” If you can keep the atmosphere around this playful but firm at the same time, you’re already parenting like a coach.
A coach looks to the future
Every great coach knows that to develop the team to the best of their potential, they’ll have to look to the future. What are each individual’s strengths and weaknesses? What motivates them? How far is it wise to push them? What issues are likely to arise even if all is well at the moment? A coach knows how to live in the moment but will also put serious effort into devising strategies and plays for the team’s future needs. Plenty of parents are spending all of their energy putting out fires – dealing with the most pressing or potentially disastrous issue as it arises. The problem with this approach is that the noisiest, naughtiest, and most in-your-face member of the family tends to get most of the attention. This leaves the ones who are more or less doing as they should to fend for themselves.
It also means that the children who internalise bad feelings, rather than ‘acting out’, are unlikely to concern anyone enough to intervene. Perhaps that quiet and compliant child needs some serious encouragement to break their habit of deferring to other people’s wishes all the time. They might even need to be given permission to break the rules or challenge authority sometimes. Parenting from minute to minute means we’re happy and relieved when things are peaceful and we aren’t being challenged by our children. For some children though, a coach knows that a bit of a challenge is just what’s needed.
A coach encourages interdependence
Coaches know that life is a team sport. We’re just not built to function to our full potential unless we know how to operate well in the social world. A team with one or two strong players won’t score any goals unless the other players can be relied upon to support them. We need to know that despite our differences we are valued and a useful part of the team – that everyone has a role to play, more than that, a responsibility, in creating the kind of societies we want to live in.
A parent coach will model for a child how to treat others with respect and dignity, how to be assertive, and how to make and keep friends. All of these skills have their beginnings at home with the other members of your family, and if they don’t happen there first, it isn’t going to get any easier elsewhere. Getting the kids to stop insulting each other when they disagree isn’t just something you do to make life more pleasant at home. You’re actually training them to get on with others, knowing that they’ll be better equipped for successful future relationships if they can control what comes out of their mouths. Showing them how to say thank you after being served in a shop is laying the foundation for gratitude. In so many different ways, a coach is teaching how valuable we can be to each other, and how to preserve, rather than destroy, the bonds that hold us close to others.
Just as a coach wants to instil in their players a love, understanding, and respect for the rules of the game, a parent coach is able to keep in mind the bigger picture despite the tedious and repetitive parts of what they do. As parent coaches we understand the responsibility of showing our children how to be contributing members of the team.
A coach knows they’re operating on borrowed power
A coach is often not the child’s actual parent. Perhaps that’s why they sometimes find it easier to be respectful and thoughtful about how they communicate with the child. As a parent it’s easy to fall into bad habits. If there’s a difference between how you speak to your kids around visitors and when you’re alone, then you’re probably editing how you behave because you know it’s not ideal.
A coach or a parent can only have as much traction with a child as the relationship between them allows. If that relationship is built upon shouting, coercion and power struggles, then the child can withdraw at any time the power they’ve loaned to the adult to lead them. The sad part is that this can happen, emotionally, years before they actually leave home, and a parent might not even realise that it’s happened. If you think of the coaches, employers, or teachers that you happily gave your respect to, the odds are that they spoke to you in a way that made you feel listened to and valued. A parent coach is trying to do the very same thing.
A coach knows the value of together time
I don’t know many coaches who would expect their team to win a game if practice consisted of meeting with everyone individually and going over only what each person needed to focus on. Teams get together because they need practice at interacting with each other on the field or court. Families are no different.
Michael Ungar, in his book Turning the Me Generation into the We Generation, argues that the way we do modern life is pushing family members further and further apart. We rush from one structured activity to the next, only to return home to separate bedrooms, separate living areas, and essentially separate lives. We’ve invested so much in the idea that having ‘our own space’ will make life better that we’ve forgotten that families that spend time in each other’s space learn how to negotiate, how to share limited resources, and how to respect each other. Even if it’s only at mealtimes, get together and share each other’s space. Yes, there will be arguments, yes, it will get chaotic at times, but there’s no better way to learn how to tolerate others and work as a team.
So there you have it. Parenting like a coach – the noisy, messy, sweaty, repetitive way to building the family of your dreams! Getting a handle on how a coach thinks and behaves is the first step – actually making it happen is obviously another matter altogether. And if you start your day with the best of intentions but slip into Sergeant Major and/or Jellyfish status before morning tea time, take heart, we all go there! Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start again. Sounds like something a coach would do, doesn’t it?