The ‘Uncoachable’ Kid

Let children learn the value of constructive criticism

I first heard the word when I was in elementary school. While playing catch with my dad, a lifelong athlete, he’d try to impart his wisdom to shape whatever raw talent he saw in me. Apparently, however, I had a very low threshold for being coached.

She’s uncoachable.  

“I know what to do,” I would say when he told me to pull my elbow back or keep my eye on the ball.

And I did know — I had been told these things scores of times before. I just wasn’t able to translate this advice into actions right away.

Eventually, one or both of us would walk away in a huff. I would hear him vent to my mom, “She’s uncoachable! You can’t teach her anything.” And he would throw up his hands.

My 10-year-old son possesses both athletic prowess and passion, but, like his mother, he does not enjoy being told what to do. After a game, he often feels dejected because he missed a shot, or someone didn’t pass to him when he was wide open, or his coach called him out for a bad play when really he was just trying to do the right thing but (insert excuse here).

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My husband and I feel for the guy. It’s not like he’s not trying. But at the same time, we feel it’s important to cultivate both self-awareness and accountability, to see one’s mistakes plainly and take action to correct them. In talking to our son after a game, my husband might offer insightful feedback that would only fall on frustrated ears. To our boy, who was already kicking himself, he didn’t need any more help in that department, thank you very much.

Not Just Athletes
This goes beyond sports. After he took up playing violin, our son became increasingly dejected after each lesson. Before he ultimately quit — or “took a break,” as he prefers to say, since he never quits anything — his patient but rigorous teacher empathized: “It’s a bummer that my job as your teacher is to point out the things you’re doing wrong so that you can change them and get them right.”

But this happens with our son even when things go well.

This summer, after a basketball game in which he played well despite being pulled by the coach in the fourth quarter, we spent the entire car ride home listening to him vent about the unfairness of it all.

“But when the coach pulled you, he sat down and talked to you. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t care about you as a player,” my husband countered.

“And I know it’s not only about scoring, but you scored half the points,” I added.

He deflected these compliments like a ninja, dwelling on what went wrong — the coach’s criticism, the perception of being looked down on by his teammates. He refused to see the positive, and I was exhausted from trying to pull the thread on the silver lining.

Plan B (or C, or D)
So I gave up, and I lobbied my husband to join me. From now on, I urged, let’s leave the game on the field. We can give him some quick appreciation for his skill, effort and teamwork after the game, but no more validation or feedback once we get in the car. If he needs to verbally process it we’ll listen, but no feedback, no coaching, no trying to find the bright side.

“Let the coach be the coach,” writes Lahey. “Let the referee be the referee, and when it comes time for your child to play, sit on the sidelines and be the parent.”

As it turns out, my instincts were right.

In her book, “The Gift of Failure,” Jessica Lahey points to a study done among collegiate athletes that shows that their least pleasant memory of youth sports was the car ride home with their parents.

While the assumption was that these negative memories stemmed from parents who “criticize kids, second-guess coaches, and deride referees” — behavior that neither my husband nor I would ever intentionally engage in — I took to heart the lesson that extending what might be an agonizing experience for your kid does no one any favors. After all, my own father never intended to criticize or second-guess me when he told me to keep my elbow back, but after a while those pointers turned a bonding opportunity into a vehicle of frustration for both of us.

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“Let the coach be the coach,” writes Lahey. “Let the referee be the referee, and when it comes time for your child to play, sit on the sidelines and be the parent.”

Plus, the NCAA points out that less than 6 percent of high school athletes will go on to play in college — and of those, only a tiny fraction will ever go pro. So maybe our parenting efforts would be better spent elsewhere.

‘A Different Approach’
Perhaps the most brilliant piece of advice for coaching the uncoachable came from my son’s new basketball coach. “I really like Coach H,” my boy told me after practice last week. “Instead of him telling us what we’re doing wrong, he said we should come to him if we mess up a play and tell him what we think we did wrong and how we can do better.”

I took to heart the lesson that extending what might already be an agonizing experience for your kid does no one any favors.

“And did you?” my husband asked.

Yep — a few times, as a matter of fact.

When I wrote the coach to tell him how much I appreciated this, he replied, “They’re smart kids. It clearly isn’t lack of effort or passion for the game that’s causing a poor decision. They need a different approach.”

I’m not saying my husband and I will never offer advice, or talk to our kids about how to be better players and teammates, or guide them to find the silver lining. But we try not to belabor the points. Because sometimes it takes a while — days, months, even years — before we see our kids start to use and act on the advice we’ve been giving them.

These days, when I play catch with my son in the backyard, he likes to marvel at how well his mom throws.

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