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Merrie Sue Holtan / SheSays Contributor, Published April 18 2013

Coaching your own kids: Local researchers lend insights

Cindy Larson- Casselton and Robert Littlefield live in a world of teaching, advising, mentoring and coaching.

As a communication professor at North Dakota State University, Littlefield expresses his calling in life as mentoring others. He advised Larson-Casselton, a professor in communication studies at Concordia College, in her masters and doctoral studies as they researched communication styles of parents who coached their own children in sports, music, speech, debate and theater.

The two have extensive competitive coaching experience in speech and debate.

While Larson-Casselton didn’t coach her two daughters at Moorhead High School, other than informally at home, Littlefield coached both his children at Shanley High School and led his most recent speech team to a international win last week in New York.

The researchers devised a study interviewing 20 parent-coaches and their children. Most of the parents had some training in education, and all the child participants were over 18 years old. Both parent-coach and child were interviewed together, and participants included mothers and sons, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and fathers and daughters.

“Most of them had never talked about the parent/coach issue before as a family,” Larson-Casselton says. “They were very honest, and it became very emotional at times. They were interested in each other’s stories.”

From the interviews, themes developed, and the title of the research became, “Navigating the Turbulent Dual Roles of Parent/Coach.” They piloted the interviews with Littlefield’s children.

“I was lucky that my two children wanted to do what I loved to do,” Littlefield says of coaching his two children in debate. “I learned as I went along with my daughter and gained more knowledge by the time I coached my younger son.”

Findings about parent-coaches

• Check the motivation for wanting to coach

Parents are naturally interested in their child’s activities. At a point, the child will negotiate privacy with their parents, such as being alone in their room. Some parents may want to coach to stay involved and exert more control of their child’s life through coaching. Parent-coaches may view the opportunity to teach values and skills that might not be available from another coach. Connection is fine; control can signal trouble.

A parent-coach also needs to be a good manager to make the team run smoothly as well as be a balanced person, who has control of his/or her temper when things don’t go the team’s way.

• Relationship with other parents

A parent-coach should avoid showcasing his or her own child. The parent-coach remains under the watchful eye of all the other parents.

One parent-coach noted that she couldn’t be the parent when she was the coach. Some children reported wanting more from their parent during the game but felt they had to protect the public relationship.

Another parent-coach saw her child finally make a shot she had been working on but had to withhold feelings in the public setting. One child said he quit the activity for this very reason.

There is a tension between what a parent-coach can and can’t do in the public setting. Children say they often feel like they are under a microscope and have to be the perfect team member. One player felt like she had given up daughter status to be just a player on a team.

As long as the child was willing to accept the direction of the parent-coach in public, the coaching relationship remained functional.

• The car and home

On the way home from an activity, the car functions as a confessional. It’s a place where the parent-coach can use “teachable moments” or honest feedback for the child as they debrief.

Some children talked about being scolded about their performance or about how the parent treated them too harshly at practice or during the game compared to other players.

However, the parent-coach can also work privately with the child to give motivation and extra technical instruction. Many agree that it is often hard to separate the public and private roles.

In private settings, parent-coaches and children found ways to talk openly and negotiate the public and private roles.

• Team politics

Sometimes other team members used the child to get to the parent-coach in some way. The child felt compelled to deal with the difficult situation without the parent-coach’s involvement.

On the other hand, parent-coaches often sought information about the team from the child – providing information and instruction or solving team problems.

Larson-Casselton says the research opened rich new veins for further study.

“We could look at gender variables, minority populations, non-verbal communication, the role of the spouse, focusing just on the arts or sports, and many other ideas,” she says.

Both researchers agree with the value of parent-coaches negotiating with the child in the private setting about how it will happen in the public setting. The parent-coach can become a positive role model.

One parent-coach felt it was great for her daughter to see her mother involved with other students, while a child said he was a better coach today after watching his dad coach.

It gave Littlefield, who still coaches debate at Shanley, a sense of pride to parent-coach his two children.

“It’s less pressure now without my kids on the team,” he says. “I enjoyed our private times to relive the experiences. I still love coaching; it brings me great joy.”

Merrie Sue Holtan is a regular contributor to SheSays. She lives near Perham, Minn., and can be reached at msholtan@gmail.com.