How to be a Great Parent Coach in Hawai‘i
Art, music, math or sports. No matter what your child loves how can you be the best inspiration on the sidelines?
Dave Shoji was hiding.
The legendary UH women’s volleyball coach wouldn’t miss one of his son Erik’s tennis matches, but he knew his face and body language would telegraph just how badly he wanted the boy to win and how much disappointment and frustration he’d feel if he lost. Shoji also knew his presence courtside would be too much pressure, so he took himself out of the picture, literally.
“I’d actually hide and watch from afar,” he recalls. “He knew I was watching, but he couldn’t see me. He, in particular, was very sensitive to how I was reacting to his play.”
Whether your kid was born with a passion and talent for music or is just beginning to explore a newfound interest in robotics, you want to do everything you can to encourage and support his or her enthusiasm and success. But how can you be the best possible coach to a child when you’re the parent, too? The secret isn’t some special camp or magical training program. Instead, our experts agree it’s about balance, flexibility, and paying attention to the needs of your individual child.
“I think that, as with much of parenting, the missing key ingredient is customizing your approach to the personality of your kid,” says Heather Wittenberg, a Maui-based child psychologist and nationally recognized parenting expert who’s also the mother of four school-age children.
What’s a parent coach? Some might make the title official by volunteering to coach a child’s paddling team or lead the Science Olympiad club. Others might take a more behind-the-scenes approach, such as helping a child practice his or her arguments for a debate competition, or giving a pep talk before youth orchestra try-outs.
But whatever your role, a common source of frustration for parent-coaches is finding the help and instruction that worked on someone else’s child falls flat when you try the same approach with your own, Wittenberg says.
It’s true that some youngsters respond well to “what you would think of as traditional coaching”–with instruction, motivation, encouragement, structured practice and a linear progression of skills. But that’s only effective for some, Wittenberg notes.
“There are many other kids who are not playing by that playbook,” she says. “They may actually feel insulted, manipulated, put off or pressured by that exact same approach, through no fault of yours. It’s just the way they’re wired.” Even within the same family, an older child may thrive under pressure, while a younger sibling pushes back. That’s why it’s important to look at each kid individually, and adjust your approach to what works for them, she says. That doesn’t mean you have to be a mind reader, notes Shoji. If you’re not sure what you’re doing is helpful, he suggests asking kids directly for feedback about what’s working and what’s not. Parents can check in with kids regularly and ask them, “Did you enjoy practice today?”
“They’ll tell you flat out,” he says. “My kids told me, ‘Dad, you’re being too hard on us. We can see your body language when we’re playing. We can tell you’re upset.’”
Shoji took the comments to heart. “My wife and I, we had to sometimes take a step back,” he says.
Shoji, whose sons Kawika, now 27, and Erik, 25, played sports including baseball, tennis, golf and volleyball, says it’s great for parents to get involved in their children’s activities. “I would say jump in, and then you’re around your kids all the time, you’re there,” he says. “You’re involved, and that’s what’s fun about it, too.”
Mike Victorino, a member of the Maui County Council and father of Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino, a two-time World Series winner and four-time winner of the Gold Glove, says he made it a point to be involved in both his sons’ sports teams, including baseball, soccer and track. In addition to coaching their sports’ teams, Victorino volunteered as assistant coach, business manager or whatever role needed to be filled.
You name it, I did it,” he says. “Part of my responsibility was to be around, to make sure not only my sons but the other players got the things they needed–equipment-wise and practice-wise–to prepare for each and every game.”
His older son, Michael, was also a talented athlete, but Victorino realized that, in taking such an active role as his coach, he may have been holding him back by being too hard on him and demanding more from him than he expected from the other players, making an example of him.
“I didn’t want to repeat that mistake,” Victorino says. “With Shane, I was part of it, I helped, but I didn’t serve as head coach anymore. I took a more subservient role.”
That backing off can be part of the natural progression as a child improves, Shoji says. Most parents with a passing knowledge of a sport or other activity can probably step in as a coach for little ones, he says. But, by age 12, many kids are starting to specialize, he notes. “I think it’s probably time to turn it over to someone who’s more skilled.”
That doesn’t mean it’s time for a parent to bow out completely, he notes. Even if you’re no longer coaching your child in tennis, you can still feed them balls and help them work on repetition. “If you’re somewhat versed in the sport, you can still help.”
Back Off on Pressure
Susan Schull still remembers the girl in her daughter’s ballet class whose parents were pushing her hard to develop her natural talent. When she was around 14, they sent her to the Mainland to live with another family and study dance in the children’s program of a prestigious ballet company. She was miserable. “This child was so homesick,” Schull recalls. “She would call home crying every day.” The girl eventually dropped out and never pursued a career as a dancer.
Wittenberg says one of the biggest mistakes she sees parents make is putting too much pressure on kids to reach distant, lofty goals–goals that often have more to do with Mom’s or Dad’s ambition than the child’s own hopes and dreams.
“Pushing for a prodigy is rarely a good idea,” Wittenberg says. “If parents are saying, ‘I’m doing this because the end result is Harvard,’ then that is inappropriate and potentially harmful.”
Schull, whose daughter Amanda went on to dance professionally in San Francisco, starred in the 2000 film Center Stage and has appeared in numerous other films and TV shows, says she took a supportive but mostly hands-off approach as a parent, made easier by Amanda’s natural passion. “I just made sure I got her where she needed to be on time, and I listened if there was any complaining.” She describes her strategy as “leading but not letting her know.”
From a very early age, it was clear that Amanda lived for performing, so Schull suggested she try out for a production of The Music Man. Amanda was interested, and spent weeks preparing, but when she showed up for the audition and saw the long line of kids waiting outside the door, she asked if she could go to a friend’s birthday party instead.
“That’s when I definitely said, ‘No. We’re staying,’” Schull recalls. “I wasn’t about to have gone through all that just to leave.” Amanda ended up getting the part.
While she never forced Amanda to dance, Schull, who now serves as president of Ballet Hawai‘i, says she told all her children (including an older daughter and son, who competed in tennis, soccer and swimming) that they had to find an activity they loved, and they would be expected to work hard and excel. “If you’re going to do something you should do it well and give it your all. But if you hate it, you shouldn’t be there,” she says.
‘Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro agrees that parents should let their child’s passion guide their practice.
“I know a few people who started playing an instrument at a very early age, and they were always forced to practice,” he says. “When they moved out, they never touched the instrument again, because they hated it so much. To me, that’s really sad, because music should always be something that comes from a very positive place.”
Now that he’s a father himself, Shimabukuro says he would often place an ‘ukulele next to his first son, Chase, as an infant, and enjoys watching the boy play with it now that h’s a toddler, but he’s never pushed for more.
“I never showed him how to hold it, or told him, ‘put your finger here,’ or ‘do this,’” he says. “To this day, I’ve never given him any instruction. I just let him do it however he wants to do it.” He says he’d consider teaching him or giving him lessons if he asks for help when he’s older.
While parents may be eager to give kids an early start on sports or other activities by enrolling them in camps and classes at a young age, Wittenberg advises they proceed with caution. If your child loves ballet class at age 4, then let her dance. But if she wanders off to play, or clings and cries at drop-off, it may be too soon. “Age-wise, you’re much less likely to have that structured training be a success at an early age, but that doesn’t mean it’s never a good idea,” she says.
And what if your toddler is gung ho about soccer camp? It’s easy to catch that enthusiasm and pile on the classes and activities, but Wittenberg cautions parents to be the voice of moderation. “You can really risk burning that kid out by middle school if you run whole hog with it starting at that early of an age.”
Shoji agrees. “You can overload kids,” he says. “I know a lot of golf kids and tennis kids. Their parents take them to the golf course every day, to the tennis court every day, and, by the time they’re 14, they just don’t enjoy it. I think that’s a real danger.”
Like Schull, Shimabukuro says the bigger goal for his own children is simply to find something they love. “It doesn’t matter to me if they follow in my footsteps,” he says. “I just want them to appreciate the arts and figure out what their passion is. As passionate as I am about music, I want them to have that for something.”
A Strong Foundation
When a child shows potential to be great at something, it’s tempting to do everything in your power to give them more time to practice, even if that means relieving them of chores or lowering your expectations for schoolwork. But, Wittenberg says, one of the most important roles of a parent coach is to maintain balance at home. That way, whether your child goes on to become a star or not, he or she will have the life skills and emotional intelligence to thrive.
While it’s OK to let children set the course with their interests and enthusiasms, it’s your job to set the boundaries—even if that means cutting back on practices.
“The parent needs to be in charge,” she says. “The kid might say, ‘I can handle it,’ but the parent steps back and says, ‘Wait a minute, you’re 8 years old and you’re only sleeping seven hours a night.’”
Victorino wholeheartedly agrees. As excited as he was by Shane’s success in sports, he says he and his wife always taught both their boys that education came first. “Even at a young age, if he didn’t do well in school, we wouldn’t let him play,” he says. “We wanted him to know that sports was temporary, it would only take you so far.”
Setting that limit early on made it easier for their sons to manage GPA requirements in high school, he adds.
Teaching values was just as important, Victorino adds. “We’d always ask him, ‘Do you want to be remembered as Barry Bonds, or as Cal Ripkin?’” he recalls. “That’s what I always tell Shane—treat people good, because on the ladder of success, you go up, and you always come back down again. And on the way back down, the same people are there.”
Shimabukuro says he’s grateful to his mother for keeping him grounded. “If my parents were to not give me any responsibilities, and just tell me to practice my ‘ukulele and not worry about anything else, when I move out on my own and get married and have my own family, I’m not going to be able to deal with all those other things,” he says.
Far from being a distraction, Shimabukuro says the challenge of balancing his passion with schoolwork and family added depth to his creative life. “Especially in art and music, it’s your life experience that gives meaning and purpose to your art form,” he says. “If you don’t have that, it’s all just technique.”
The most important thing you can do to help your child succeed is build a strong foundation, Wittenberg says. “Your kid needs love, your kid needs safety, your kid needs limits and your kid needs encouragement. Those are the fundamentals.”
And even when you think you’ve figured it out, stay flexible and be ready to change course, she adds.
“Parents have to just really stay open to the flow,” she says. “Kids are always full of surprises. You may think that they’re on a certain path, but, for better or for worse, they may zig or zag over time.”
What’s Your Type?
Three typical children’s personality types and tips for helping each find success.
The High Achiever
These kids are talented and self-motivated, so it may be tempting to clear a path for their success by reducing their responsibilities at home. But, Wittenberg says, you may need to redouble your efforts to keep them grounded and enforce balance. “It’s saying, ‘OK, you’re a prodigy, but you also have to do your chores and your homework and be nice to people and get some sleep,’” she says.
Psychologists call these cautious kids “slow to warm”—think of the toddler clinging to mom while others twirl in ballet class. The key, says Wittenberg, is baby steps. These children need gradual exposure to new challenges within a bubble of safety. Start by letting them watch the class from your lap, and gradually step back as they get more comfortable. Reinforce confidence by talking about how far they have come.
It’s frustrating to see talented children who can’t seem to focus and don’t respond to structured coaching. Instead of criticizing, look for opportunities to build skills in “small, digestible chunks,” says Wittenberg. Keep sessions fun, short and entertaining, and reinforce success with praise. “They’re going to continue to have this amazing physical ability. That’s not going away,” Wittenberg says. “What they have to build first is that focus and attention.”