"It's a lot of work and it can be exhausting, especially when you have a parent that's not happy," says Liz Hocker, 41, who has coached her 10-year-old daughter's softball team in Austin, Texas, for the last five years in a competitive league. "I do try not to play ‘Mommy' ball,'??" or show favoritism.
"My philosophy is that my daughter needs to work hard and show that she should be out there playing the position I put her in," she said. "I try very hard to treat her like every other player, as much as I can."
Parents who sign up to coach appreciate the experience because it's (usually) fun and creates dedicated time with their kids. Often, they're also trying to ensure that their kids learn proper techniques and good sportsmanship.
Ideally, they'll do it all while treating their child like every other player. After all, favoritism can cut both ways: For all the grousing about the coach's kid getting this or that, coaches are more inclined to treat their own kids more harshly or demand more from them on the field than the other way around, experts say.
"It's just natural they would be tougher on them," said John Engh, chief operating officer of the nonprofit National Alliance for Youth Sports, because a father is used to talking to his own child more directly and is likely to use his son as an example for the rest of the team.
"When you talk about physical contact, screaming on the field, they're doing it on their own kids," said Engh, who has coached his two children in soccer and baseball. "They feel like they have that right. Rarely will you see a dad grab another kid by the shoulder or the arm in frustration or raise their voice on the field."
Most parent-coaches do a good job being fair with positions and playing time, says Frank Smoll, a sport psychology professor at the University of Washington and coauthor of Sport Psychology for Youth Coaches, a how-to guide due out in September. When favoritism is shown, it "can cause nothing but problems for the athletes, for the coach and with the other athletes as well," he said.
To avoid even the appearance of unfairness, Hocker has benched her daughter in the first inning of the first game. Rick Kay, who has coached his two sons and a daughter, ages 19, 17, and 10, in baseball, soccer, and basketball, also sat his kids out more.
"I went out of my way to play my kids less than I felt they deserved to play because I didn't want that to be an issue," said Kay, 47, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. The other kids "see that he's out and hopefully understand that everyone has to sit out at some point."
Like other parents, Dan Armstrong, who has coached three of his four sons in baseball and football, is committed to helping them improve, and says he's pushed them a little more than the other kids.
"Instead of being biased for your own son, I think you're kind of biased against him and expect him to work a little harder than maybe the rest of the team," says Armstrong, 42, of Frederick, Md.
Having a parent become a coach can be confusing for kids, and parents should make sure the separation of those roles is clear, says Smoll, also the codirector of an education program for youth sport coaches and parents. Before the season begins, set ground rules with your child, he says, and meet with the other parents to explain your philosophy and expectations.
"Parent at home. Coach at practices and games," is Smoll's motto.
Ask your son or daughter to call you "Coach" on the field. "That helps, in the child's mind, to solidify the role separation," Smoll says.
Armstrong followed that advice, and thinks it helped the other players to see his kid as one of the guys. "Before practice or before a game, it's always ‘Dad,' but on the field it's always ‘Coach Armstrong,'?“ Armstrong said, “so that everybody is the same."
Engh suggests a rule against talking to your kid about practice or a game on the way home. "No one else has to hear it from the coach," he said.
When it comes to positions and playing time, Smoll says they need to be earned. Relying on statistics can help with the tough decisions, but there may be injuries or absences to contend with.
For children, criticism is always difficult to hear, especially when it's mom or dad talking. Experts recommend enlisting good assistant coaches and relying on them to talk to your child if there's a problem.
"Everybody struggles coaching their own child from time to time," Hocker said, adding that she and her assistant coaches "always agreed to help each other."
When Armstrong's son makes a good play, he doesn't cheer any louder than he did for the other boys, or he simply stays quiet.
"I let my assistant coaches be excited for them," Armstrong says. "That's how I take pride in it — that everybody else is proud of them."
And at the end of the game, your kids need to know you love them, regardless of how they played.
"It's ‘I love you because you are you, not because you're an all-star,'?" Smoll said.