How do you know if your child’s coach is a good one?

with advice from Jim Liston, MA, CSCS
and Mark Salandra, CSCS

How do you know if your child's coach is a good one?

The mistreatment of athletes by coaches is nothing new (see Knight, Bobby), but it does seem to be getting more attention in the past few years. Stories of athlete abuse and harassment at such universities as Rutgers and the University of Tennessee — and even at the Olympic level — have made national headlines, while stories of coaches to younger athletes are chilling: The California teen paralyzed after tackling an opponent head first during a football game, a technique taught to him by his Pop Warner coaches, or the story of a coach berating a young player in front of his teammates, calling him a “f—ing retard.”

Studies back up these anecdotes. A 2011 paper published in the UK found that among 6,000 student athletes polled across the U.K., “75% said they suffered ’emotional harm’ at least once, and one-third of them said their coach was the culprit.” And a 2005 study in the U.S. found that “45% of the student athletes said their coaches called them names, insulted them or verbally abused them another way during play.”

How can we make sure our children's coaches encourage with positive reinforcement?So how do we protect our children and make sure their coaches encourage with positive reinforcement, rather than belittling them?

Mark Salandra, the founder of (one of Physiquality’s partner programs), is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, a coach — and a parent of three. He wants to remind both parents and coaches that the goal of sports, and competition in general, should be to make our children improve and to encourage them to achieve their full potential. “If a coach doesn’t first and foremost look out for each child’s welfare,” he says, “they can actually diminish the child’s confidence, causing that child to not meet their potential or, even worse, give up on that sport.”

Mark encourages parents to look for the following traits in athletic coaches:

  • Qualifications. Make sure the coach is qualified to teach or coach a specific sport. If your child is strength training, make sure that the coach is certified and has the experience and knowledge to teach children proper technique and form.

  • Safety. The coach needs to relate to you that he or she will keep your child safe while training and coaching.

  • Respect. Make sure each coach shows respect to your child. A coach should never use intimidation or try to “break” your child to prove a point.

  • Motivation. The best coaches know how to motivate your child to be the best he can be. Find a coach whose primary goal is not to win everything, but rather to motivate each child to do his best. This type of environment will build a winning attitude and success.

  • Compassion. Not every child is a superstar. Coaches need to show compassion to children who may not be the center of each team and work toward building each child’s confidence in the skills she has.

Before your child joins a specific team, you may want to watch the coach in action during a game, if you can. If you see the coach yell or become physical with a child, or act in a way you would never behave yourself, you may want to think twice before allowing your child to play on this team. You should be confident that your child’s coach always has your child’s well-being as a priority, Mark points out.

Create a climate that allows your athletes to feel safe and included.Jim Liston, of Physiquality partner CATZ Sports Performance, who offers sports performance training certification through its CATZCoach program, advises that any coach should be focused on the physical and emotional safety of every athlete. He says, “You cannot motivate athletes to love strength and conditioning, but you can create a climate that allows your athletes to feel safe and included. If they feel safe and included, motivation will follow.”

Keep in mind that when Jim mentions being “safe,” he is talking about emotional safety. “To feel safe on a team,” he points out, “the athlete needs to feel safe from being berated or humiliated in front of their peers. They need to feel comfortable making mistakes because mistakes are the best way to learn.”

Once athletes feels emotionally safe in their environment, Jim notes, they will develop a sense of belonging. The team will be a place to feel good about themselves in whatever activity you present. Your team will be “their” place, a place they can be themselves and like how they feel. To create such an environment, Jim suggests that coaches follow these guidelines when interacting with their team:

  • Coaches should be focused on the physical and emotional safety of every athlete.

    Greet each athlete by name.
    Why greet by name? So that the athlete feels it is important that he is there.

  • No nicknames.
    Why no nicknames? Because you never know how an athlete feels about her given nickname. Do not give an athlete a nickname and do not allow other athletes to give out nicknames.

  • Mistakes are good.
    Mistakes stimulate the brain to grow and the body to move better. Think about making mistakes as practice, and encourage your athletes to embrace the idea of trying new skills. They may be surprised by how much they improve.

  • Never punish with exercise.
    This seems pretty obvious in theory, but is rarely followed in practice. How many times have we seen athletes punished by being told to “give me 10 push-ups” or to run another lap? We want athletes to love training and embrace exercise. This is not going to happen if we use exercise as an instrument of punishment.

  • Don’t let players pick teams in front of the group.
    It leads to embarrassment and humiliation — someone always ends up being picked last.

  • End practice together.
    Bringing your team together for a “big finish” will establish a sense of community. When players leave your practice, you want them to say, “Wow, that was great. I really feel like part of that group!” Never miss an opportunity to create a community.

If you plan on becoming a coach, Mark advises making sure you are certified in that sport. You should also prepare for taking care of your athletes by taking classes on child safety and ethics and knowing CPR. He also suggests keeping a safety kit in your car or with the athletic equipment that includes basics like band-aids, tape, ice packs and scissors.

Jim Liston, MA, CSCS

Mark Salandra, CSCS

Jim Liston, MA, CSCS, is the co-founder of CATZ Sports, one of Physiquality’s partner programs. One of the country’s leading experts on training athletes and mentoring coaches, he has spent the last 20 years in the field of sports performance training honing his own abilities as a coach and a teacher. The CATZCoach program educates prospective youth coaches about positive reinforcement, on and off the field.

Mark Salandra, CSCS, is the founder of, one of Physiquality’s partner programs. Mark educates and trains athletes young and old in strength and conditioning, with the goals of better fitness and lower rates of injury.

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For further information, look through our selection of articles on team sports, in addition to the below links:

Hoffman, Jan. My coach, the bully. New York Times, January 29, 2014.

Kaplan, Karen. Coaches bully young athletes more often than you think, experts warn. Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2014.

Mihoces, Gary. Pop Warner sued for ‘head-first’ tackling technique. USA Today, November 7, 2013.

Clarke, Liz. 2013 college basketball preview: Coaches grapple with line between discipline and abuse. The Washington Post, November 1, 2013.

Coben, Harlan. That’s not coaching. It’s child abuse. Bloomberg, May 30, 2013.

Schapiro, Rich. New Rutgers University athletic director Julie Hermann allegedly harassed former volleyball players at University of Tennessee. New York Daily News, May 26, 2013.

Pearson, Michael and Brittany Brady. Rutgers coach fired after abusive video broadcast. CNN, April 4, 2013.

Brady, Erik. Allegations of coaching abuse not unique. USA Today, September 17, 2012.

Alexander, Kate, Ann Stafford and Ruth Lewis. The experiences of children participating in organised sport in the UK. The Child Protection Research Centre, October 2011.

Light Shields, David, Brenda Light Bredemeier, Nicole M. LaVoi and F. Clark Power. The sport behavior of youth, parents and coaches: The good, the bad and the ugly. Journal of Research in Character Education, January 2005.

Wolff, Alexander. Knight fall. Sports Illustrated, September 18, 2000.

The material and information contained on this Web site is for information only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or consultation.

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