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?