Engaging with Coaches and Umpires: Tom House’s Tips for Parents of Youth Athletes

By Tom House, PhD, with Lindsay Berra

Today’s generation of parents plays a much bigger role in the careers of their youth athletes than ever before. This is great if the parents are supportive, non-judgmental, focused on process over outcome and respectful of the coach’s philosophy and the umpire’s decisions. Parents of youth athletes should only engage with coaches in a way that facilitates their child’s learning experience and enjoyment of the game, and they really shouldn’t engage with umpires at all. However, even though parents are always making decisions with the best of intentions, they often end up doing more harm than good. After nearly 50 years in baseball working with parents, coaches and athletes at all levels, and as a parent myself, here’s my two cents on how parents of youth athletes can best manage their relationships with coaches and umpires.

Parents and Coaches

The coach has priority and authority over all action on the field. In a perfect world, all parents and coaches would talk about the expectations for each individual athlete and discuss what his or her role will be at the beginning of the season so both the athlete and the parents have a road map for success in advance. All interactions between parents of youth athletes and coaches should take place outside of practice or game time and out of hearing or sight of the son or daughter. Pitch totals are a good example. If you talk to the coach before the season, and say, “OK, my kid can throw 15 pitches per inning, no more than 75 pitches total, and if you exceed that, I’ll find someplace else for my kid to play,” it’s done ahead of time and there will be no surprises.

What if your kid isn’t playing?

Simple. Go ask why. If the coach is worth anything, the coach will say, “Because you’re kid isn’t good enough, and needs to do this, this, and this.” Given that list, if a kid does it, the kid has to play. Of course, sometimes the other shortstop is just better, and that’s life, and it’s a learning experience for your kid. However, in Little League, everyone should play. Kids can only get so many innings per week, which keeps Stud Brava from using all the innings, and gives the other kids a chance. Not every kid is Nolan Ryan, but every kid should be given the opportunity to be the best he can be, and that’s all you can ask of the coach.

Allow Your Kids to Fail

Sometimes, a coach might put your son or daughter in a difficult situation, and the outcome may not be what you want it to be. And yes, when you watch your kid fail on the field – give up a run or strike out to lose the game – it hurts. But remember, kids learn more from their failures than they do from their successes. My mom always said if it doesn’t kill you, it builds character. Every great player I have ever coached is driven more by failure than success. It is 100% OK to fail as long as you learn and improve from it.

What if You – or Your Child – Disagree with a Certain Coaching Practice?

The vast majority of coaches are giving the best they have with good intentions, but remember, a lot of them are volunteers and may not actually be experts in their sport. Still, they deserve respect, and as a parent of a youth athlete, you have to be careful if you think you know a bit more than the coach. Because I know the most about pitchers, I’ll speak to them. If a coach asks your son or daughter to do something that doesn’t work for them, or doesn’t jive with what his or her individual coach is teaching, tell your child to smile and try to do what they ask, but to quietly take care of what he or she needs to take care of on the side. Teach your young athletes to try to not to be confrontational with their mouths or their body language. Or, suggest they be honest with the coach, and say, “Coach, when I do that, it hurts my shoulder.”  It can help a lot if you as a parent have the conversation way ahead of time with the coach, and let him or her know that your child has been doing an arm care program that works really well for him or her, or likes to do certain drills to warm up, and would like to continue doing those things as long as he or she performs well for the team.

Teach Kids to Follow the Rules

Lying, cheating and stealing have no place in youth sports, or any sports. You have to keep your ethics about you and play by the rules on and off the field at every level of competition. Rules are there for a reason, and most are designed around promoting player safety, so they have to be followed and enforced by the coach, the parents, the umpires and the athletes themselves. It is incredibly important for parents of youth athletes to encourage and ensure their children respect the game play by the rules.

15-year-old Peerlyss Minor umpiring his first 11U game in Omaha, Nebraska last fall. Minor says dealing with upset parents after close plays is always difficult.

Parents and Umpires

I’ve only been thrown out of two baseball games in my life and one was a high school game of my son’s. I thought he was getting squeezed, and I was tossing out the normal baseball snark, like, “Hey ump, that plate got any corners?” But by the third inning, the ump had had enough. He walked over and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I want you out of my ballpark.” My son was a bat boy in the big leagues. He knew that I knew that he knew, but he didn’t want more tension. He said, “Dad, please just go.” From then on, I watched all his games from left field. And I learned a lot about how parents should – or rather, shouldn’t – engage with umpires.

Remember, at the youth level, the umpires are often teenagers who unfortunately will be wrong half the time no matter what decision they make, because someone’s parents will always be upset. And if the parent gets upset, the kid will follow, because your kids are genetically predisposed to please you, even if they’re fighting with you in the car on the way to the ballpark. If you fight with the umpire, they’ll fight with the umpire. So don’t do it, and if you can’t resist the urge, retreat to left field.

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Lindsay Berra

Lindsay Berra

Sports journalist Lindsay Berra formerly worked with MLB.com, MLB Network and ESPN Magazine. She has been on #TeamMSTRD since 2020.

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