Little League’s Big Headaches: Helicopter Coaches

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You’re asked a lot of questions when you’re an assistant coach for your son’s Little League team, as I was for two years, but with a new season underway I’m reminded that the two I heard most often last year were also the most important… and they came from the eight-year-old players.

“Why do the coaches have to yell at us?  Why don’t they just let us play?”

Parents taking meaningless games too seriously is an all-too-familiar Little League problem, but in games involving the youngest children—ages five to nine—it’s now the coaches who are creating an unsettling new offshoot.  The issue, psychologists say, is that “helicopter parents” who are obsessed with winning often join the coaching staff for their child’s team, becoming “helicopter coaches,” literally perching themselves next to the outfielders or near the batter’s box so they can continually shout instructions to the children. Says Lois Butcher-Poffley, a Temple University sports psychologist and a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s sports psychology registry, “This is a way for the helicopter parent to gain access where they were banned before.”

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The problem isn’t unique to Little League.  Helicopter coaches shadow players on other youth sports sidelines as well (skating moms are a well known presence at the ice rinks of potential Olympic stars), but baseball’s sporadic action and distant defensive positions make hovering much easier.  How crazy does it get?  During a Little League game in Los Angeles last June, a team had five coaches positioned around the nine kids on the field.  In the final inning, the infielders were so inundated by multiple coaches’ shouted “advice” that they were looking at each other in confusion, unable to understand the competing voices.

As anyone who has ever watched a young outfielder gawk at a passing bird knows, some kids have a genuine need for extra coaching. Baseball’s youngest participants tend to be unfocused—which puts them at risk for injury in a game where hard balls are smacked and thrown. And sports are an important way of teaching younger children about responsibility — to teammates and to the coach — as well as discipline. But constant coaching, especially from multiple coaches, turns a pastime into a chore.  “The greater the importance coaches and parents place on performance, the higher the stress young athletes perceive,” says Daniel Gould, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.

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Little League officials, hoping to discourage overeager coaching, have made a point of de-emphasizing results. If there are playoffs, then all teams qualify, and postseason teams are generally limited to three coaches. But walk onto a Little League diamond and too often you’ll see a very different, cacophonous scene, with lingering coaches bellowing instructions or critiques. “It’s harassment,” says Butcher-Poffley. “Over-instruction can cause a kid to hesitate or turn when they shouldn’t because they are trying to pay attention to the adult.” In the Los Angeles game, coaches berated an eight-year-old first baseman for dropping a fly ball… a catch he missed because he was minding his coaches instead of the baseball. It was one of five such outbursts in a three-inning game.

Solutions aren’t easy, but they’re doable. First, leagues need to emphasize a simple concept: big kids play to win, little kids play for fun. The young kids won’t care—they just like playing. And those rare games when they actually get caught up in the score are an opportunity to teach the big picture: how to learn from mistakes, and how to handle both winning and losing graciously. Waver even once in this approach, and the team’s mentality changes from playing for fun to being burdened by something onerous — something parents cheering from the stands need to embrace as well.

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Next, coaches should limit their instruction to practices and between innings, and allow the kids to make their own decisions during games. Both casual players and future-phenoms will benefit; major league teams would much rather have players who learned from mistakes at a young age rather than those who experienced nothing but coach-propped wins.

Realistically, however, many coaches (and parents) won’t embrace these notions. Even on my son’s team, which was loaded with easygoing coaches, the idea of allowing the kids to simply go out and play, heavily touted in spring, usually dissipated by summer. League officials sometimes mediate for concerned parents, but too often it’s the culture that needs changing, not a single coach. Still, a dose of nostalgia can help. Reminding coaches of the recent past, when kids enjoyed pickup ballgames in local parks without any need for hovering coaches, drives home the real reason everyone is on the ball field: to share a love of the game with children — not to win a pennant.

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Reggie Jackson once created a firestorm by telling reporters, “When we lose and I strike out, a billion people in China won’t care.”  Reggie understood: sports is entertainment, and for the players, it’s about enjoyment — something that the youngest children understand intuitively. Sports can be a powerful way of teaching children about discipline and responsibility, but it may be just as important for the lessons it teaches coaches as well. Why can’t they just let the kids play?

9 comments
toomanchu
toomanchu

Not sure you can compare todays kids with yesteryears.  I am 41.  When I was <10, i did understand some basic concepts of the game as did most kids in my area, because we went outside and played.  I coached an 8u team this season, where I had 2 kids told me out-right they did not want to be there.  Couple more didn't come to practice for instruction.  Alot of kids today show no ability to think in that environment.  You can wait between innings to give instruction if you want but for me that would be one long inning.  I don't put alot of stock in what psychologist think.  Alot of it is commons sense.  I'll take learning and improvement over winning, but todays kids are getting more and more difficult to work with.  Been coaching 18 years.  Coached young, old, teams that won championships and teams that didn't win a game.  Lttle Johnny's dad was just flabbergasted two other made all stars ahead of him.  There's another headache topic...

jtbulldog
jtbulldog

We have moved into the second week of the season.  I coach an 10u AA team. All I want to do is create a positive, renforcing environment and let the talent the kids have take them as far as possible. I hold 3 optional practices a week and I encourage the lesser skilled kids to show up.  Most do and have made night dawn improvements. I have talented kids, kids that are learning and kids are starting come together and having fun. Q1. 2 kids don't seem to show any exciment anymore. Basically goto the plate take 3 lazy swings 4 times a game.  In the field I work very hard to make sure that I put talented kids with lesser and we can still make plays and outs. I balance each kid half out field and half in field. Nobody stands in right like I used to all game. Both kids are 8 and to be honest, I don't want them to play if the don't want to be there. Having 2 games a week and 3 optional practices some kids have put in a ton of work. The more they work the more confident they get and are having a blast. But when these 2 show up it does in a way take away from what they want.  I will teach and help any kid at any skill level but if there not into it wants the point.  Yes I have 10,9,8 year

gerryg_rc
gerryg_rc

"otherwise this is nothing that has not existed for 50 years or more." That something has been going on for 50 years does not mean it's right, it means it is 50 years old. I watched my daughter's tee ball team complete for a whole season. She did not want to play after that. When my son approached tee-ball age, I helped to organize a tee ball program in 4H. At age 5, the purpose of tee ball is to give the kids and opportunity to play an "organized" sport, to be part of a team, to socialize, but most importantly to have fun. We started out with 3 rules, by the end of the first season we were down to 1 rule, "there are no rules". The program evolved into a game of three innings, every player played the field each inning (9 - 12 positions) and every player batted each inning. There were no "outs", when a player hit the ball, he or she got a "hit" and went to first base. When the last batter batted, all runners advanced to home. Every game ended in a tie. Everyone enjoyed themselves, the players, the coaches, the parents, and the fans. There is time enough to worry about rules and skills later. The first years of playing should be focused on having fun. If the player is not having fun, they will not learn and they will not continue in the sport. It doesn't matter if the player is fielding a grounder or picking dandelions. By the end of their tee ball career, they have picked up the fundamentals, even without the fundamentals being emphasized. Some never go on to play Little League, but they had the opportunity to play ball and have fun. I have had young people approach me over 10 years after they played tee ball and tell me of the fun they had in our program.

GlennWoodson
GlennWoodson

This story creates a new group of parents and a problem when none exists.  While some parents are hyper competitive and overly engaged, the vast majority are not. Having now gone through three children and tee-ball and Little League I can attest that at the tee ball and coach pitch levels most parents I have been around (as coach and parent myself) want all the kids to have fun and to learn the fundamentals.  Atheltic development is very pronounced at these ages and you cannot apply a one size fits all solution to coaching.  Every parent (in baseball) knows the child who likes playing in the dirt more then the game.

Most parents just want the players to run to first base when a ball is hit (versus standing at home plate or more comically chasing the ball and picking it up and handing it to the fielder), actually throwing the ball to first base (versus picking it up and wondering what to do next), or just staying in position and not group style chasing the hit ball.  It is not being a "helicopter coach.".  With that said, it can be confusing to a player when parents and coaches yell (not in anger) directions/instructions.  When that occurs the coaches should engage the parents and let them know it is distracting but otherwise this is nothing that has not existed for 50 years or more.

WilsonJones
WilsonJones

I do think this article misrepresents what many coaches, especially at the youngest levels are trying to do, and really what the purpose of games are at that level.  The game is not about winning at this age but it is about learning - learning how to contribute to a team, learning how to best play the game, learning the mechanics that will help even marginal athletes perform better and, hence, have more fun.  I am told that Official Little League rules even allow a coach on the field in the 10u classification. By saying "coaches should limit their instruction to practices and between innings", I think you are making it more of a competition and less of a learning experience.  Of course, as the level of play and the age group rises, the transition begins towards less in game instruction.  I tend to talk a lot during games with my 10u team - constantly repositioning players who move grossly out of their position (and sometimes grossly picking their noses at the same time....), encouraging focus for the sake of safety, and reminding about the basics that we have worked on in practice.  Do I occasionally, in frustration, yell at a player who is not paying attention?  Yes.  Do I sometimes lose patience with a talented player who doesn't give his or her all?  You bet.  But I also make it a point to approach that child after the inning to restate my instructions in calmer tones.  Is "helicopter coaching" a problem?  In some cases yes.  But the answer is not always "Just let em play."

RoyHobbs
RoyHobbs

"Parents taking meaningless games too seriously"?  These games, as with all things in life, are meaningful.  They are meaningful in many ways.  To make a statement that a child's Little League game is not meaningful is a bit focused on some other agenda.  There is plenty of meaning in the game, fun, learning to work with others, dedication, hotdogs afterward, the splendor of a base hit, the disappointment of striking out, the smile on the fan's faces, etc.

HunterCares
HunterCares

@WilsonJones  I don't think it does. I think you're seeing something of yourself in the article. Let kids go back to doing backyard pick up games that were fun and taught them just as much. When you parents get involved in what should be child play time, you screw things up.

suddendepth
suddendepth

@WilsonJonesSpot on. At a certain age you play as a team to win the game, but you play it in a clean way and you don't show up your opponents. These are lessons that should be stressed to kids probably 8-9 or older. Like you say, prior to that they should really just be working on fundamentals and basic rules. If kids older than that are not playing to challenge themselves and their cohesiveness as a team against others then it's just social exercise. They might as well get on a treadmill or go to the pool. I don't have an issue with maybe one outfield and one infield coach being on the field below ago 9 or so. It's not a bad idea to have coaches talking to players about situations and what bag to throw to prior to a ball in play. Around 11-12 those kids who actually like baseball and want to play should have developed that inner knowledge of situations on their own.