Youth sports offer kids a great way to learn about teamwork, resilience, respect and other important skills ― all while having some fun along the way. And their coaches can be great role models and mentors through various stages of development.
Not every team opportunity is going to be the right fit for each child, however. For parents who want their kids to get the most out of an athletic experience, it can be helpful to talk to the coach at the start of the season.
“By asking important questions, parents can build and maintain a strong relationship with their child’s coaches,” said Haley Perlus, a sports and performance psychologist. “This helps ensure a positive experience for the player, the coach and the parents. Asking questions will help parents get a better understanding of the coach’s approach, their methods and their expectations. It also helps to hold the coach responsible.”
To help parents feel informed about their kids’ athletic experience and empower them to thrive on and off the field or court, we asked experts to share the questions they recommend asking a youth sports coach. Keep scrolling for their suggestions.
What is your emergency action plan?
“When dropping off a child to their first practice or conditioning session this summer, that will be a fantastic opportunity to talk with coaches about health and safety,” said Dr. Drew Duerson, sports medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
He recommended ensuring that your child’s school or recreation sports league has an emergency action plan, or EAP, backed by medical experts.
“An EAP is a document that will provide guidance for everyone on the sidelines to make sure they are prepared in the event of a catastrophic injury or medical emergency, such as heat illness or a sudden cardiac event,” Duerson explained. “As a part of this plan, there should be an easily accessible automated external defibrillator (AED) that can be located by the medical staff at all sporting events. There should also be a readily available cold immersion system ― tub, pod or body bag ― on days where the heat stress from direct sunlight puts athletes at risk of heat exhaustion.”
Ask which staff members are familiar with these devices and the protocols for responding to an emergency, whether it’s cardiac arrest, heat stroke, concussion or drowning.
“You may want to ask about rules to ensure safety,” said Dr. Hansa Bhargava, a pediatrician and chief medical officer at Medscape. “For swimming this is especially important ― what is the lifeguard-to-kids ratio? Are all coaches versed on quiet drowning? And for medical issues such as injuries or allergic reaction, what are the procedures and policy? Do they have Benadryl on site?”
How do you implement breaks?
“In the summer in particular, it’s important that all athletes are encouraged to drink plenty of water and that they should have access to shade,” said Dr. Jaime Friedman, a pediatrician and director of marketing at Children’s Primary Care Medical Group. “Parents should be sure coaches are building in breaks as well.”
Ask your child’s coach if they allow athletes to rest when they have a complaint about pain and if they check in on their players’ physical issues. Find out how many hours they practice in a week and how that practice is divided between active and rest time.
“Families should consider asking about methods in place to avoid overuse injuries,” Duerson said. “Summertime can be busy with camps and practices, so it will be important to keep up with how many hours a young athlete is going to be in organized sports. While there may be some exceptions to the rule, we typically recommend spending no more than a child’s age in hours a week in sports.”
That means he advises 12-year-old athletes should spend less than 12 hours in organized games and practices per week.
“Hopefully, coaches will be focusing on limiting the quantity of practice and putting more emphasis on the quality of time spent together on the field or court,” he said. “This will not only help children avoid injury but should leave extra time for them to enjoy their summer playing outside with friends or going to the swimming pool. Whether they are playing sports or just enjoying the nice weather, we must never lose focus on one key factor this summer — fun!”
How do you coach kids of all levels of athletic ability?
“I would recommend asking the coaches about participation in sports regardless of ability,” Bhargava said. “Often those who are stronger at a sport get more field time — this can result in less practice and less physical activity for the kids who aren’t as good. Kids’ levels of ability vary, and some just get better at a later age.”
She emphasized that every child deserves the opportunity to spend time on a sport so that they can get better, become more engaged and boost their self-esteem. Find out what the coach’s goals are for the team as a whole and each individual player, as well as how they measure progress and provide feedback.
“We know that being part of diverse social groups helps psychological health as our personalities get a good mental workout,” added psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “So, ask your coach about inclusion, do they welcome kids from all backgrounds and abilities?”
He also encouraged parents to ask their kids’ coaches about their values with regard to team players versus star players.
“It’s important to know if the coach is good at including everyone. Even if your kid is a star player, having great group and team skills are essential for kids in their life,” McDermott noted.
How do you encourage a friendly environment?
“I would ask, ‘Do you make sure all the kids include each other? How do you resolve conflicts between the kids?’” advised Caroline Leaf, author of “How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess.”
Find out the policy around bullying and what coaches do if the kids engage in taunting or other negative behavior.
“It’s important to make sure that the experience is a positive one,” Bhargava said. “Being bullied can result in sadness and frustration. I’d ask the coaches how they encourage a positive and friendly environment. Do they meet at the beginning of the day or end of the day to talk about ‘wins’? Do they encourage socialization and friendships? Sports are a great way to learn team collaboration and make friendships.”
These kinds of questions are especially useful for the parents of children with disabilities.
“If your child has any physical or mental health challenges, it is important to ask if the coach has experience with or knows how to handle these specific challenges,” said Daniel Bagner, a psychology professor at Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families. “For example, children with autism may interact with their peers differently than other children during practices and games, so you want to find out how the coaches would respond in this type of situation. Make sure you have an open dialogue with your child’s coaches and that they are responsive to feedback you have about your child’s needs.”
What’s your coaching philosophy?
“Parents should ask their children’s coaches to describe their coaching philosophy to understand their values and goals,” Bagner said. “With positive support from their coach, participating in youth sports can help children develop important skills that can enhance their mental health.”
He noted that coaches can teach children strategies to help manage anxiety, with advice like “take a deep breath before taking the foul shot,” and can also help them cope with adversity ― for example, by reframing their thinking to “I can make better contact with the ball next time.”
Find out if the coach takes a warm, mental health-optimizing approach or has more of a “suck it up” attitude (or worse) when players are struggling.
“Any time a coach is demeaning or using shame or guilt with a child, that is not OK at all,” said clinical psychologist and author Jenny Yip. “If that’s not OK in the parenting world, that’s not OK in the coaching world. That doesn’t inspire and motivate. That just makes kids feel worse. That kind of talk is unnecessary whether you are 6, 16 or 26 years old. If we want our kids to do well, we have to inspire and motivate, not demoralize.”
You might consider talking to parents whose kids have participated in the same sports program in the past for more information to help determine if it’s a good fit for your child.
“For example, you might be signing up your child for a sport to be introduced to the sport, to have fun and establish new friendships,” said pediatric psychologist and parent coach Ann-Louise Lockhart. “But the coach’s philosophy is to play hard, win at all costs and show up no matter what. This might not be a good fit for you or your child. Your child may not enjoy the experience and be turned off from athletic activities altogether.
What are the expectations for parents?
“You should also ask what expectations the coach has for you,” Bagner said. “For example, some coaches expect parents to stay during practices to be able to reinforce newly learned skills at home. Some coaches may even ask parents to help during practices, which can be a positive experience for both you and your child.”
Inquire about any rules or policies you should be aware of as a parent in order to foster the team goals at home or even during games and practices. On-field parental involvement is not necessarily the ideal move, so try to figure out the best role for you.
“Many student athletes feel pressured to ‘perform’ for their parents when they’re observed in practice,” Lockhart said. “They comment that hearing their coach’s feedback and their parents’ voices is frustrating and anxiety-provoking. Then the drive home is even worse because now they get an earful from their parents about what they did in practice, what they could have done better, why they did what they did. It’s important to let coaches coach and parents parent.”