Picture this scenario: It’s a beautiful Saturday spring afternoon and you are at the local youth baseball fields. Your son has a baseball game against a rival team and his coach has the best infielders playing except for one, the shortstop. This is a kid who needs a cutoff to make it to first base and fields grounders so badly the left fielder gets more forced outs than he does. In addition, he bats cleanup and plays the entire game while everyone else has to platoon or sit the bench, including your son. If you have not guessed it by now, the shortstop is the coach’s child.

Daddy ball! It’s a practice that has existed from the beginning of youth sports; a parent volunteers to coach their kid’s team and shows favoritism to his/her child by placing them in the most desired positions for the entire game. It exists at every level of every youth sport for both genders and it has been a topic of frustration for parents ever since a parent picked up a whistle to coach a team. Anyone who has ever played organized sports as a kid has played on one team or another where the coach’s kid plays quarterback or carries the ball every play and starts both ways.

Let me say this, nonprofit youth sports leagues depend solely on volunteers to help run their leagues from concession stand helpers to board members and team coaches. Anyone with a desire to help and donate their time is usually welcomed as leagues are always in short supply of these people. Coaching experience is rarely necessary and in most cases all that is required is a clean background check and a whistle. Some leagues require a coach to have a child on the team, as in the case for my local youth baseball league, and some leagues do not which is the case for my local youth football league. My sons play in both and the level of coaching experience and quality varies from team to team and league to league. Regardless of the sport or league these people should be applauded and thanked for their effort and selflessness. These are men and women who give of their time to help enrich the lives of children and that is a very noble and altruistic endeavor.

Let me also say, in reference to my first scenario, that playing children in positions where they are unfamiliar or do not excel is a great way to enhance their experience and fun. As long as it is coupled with proper coaching technique and is safe for the child and the rest of the team, it is a vital practice in cultivating their desire to play sports throughout their childhood. I applaud the coach who is not afraid to play the shortstop who has to two bounce the throw to first or handing the lineman the ball to make a touchdown. It is a mark of a good coach who is more concerned with development than winning every game. Rarely do children play the same positions in high school they play in youth sports so good youth coaches will teach their players multiple skills. I am not talking about that coach here.

Ok let’s lay it all on the table and be honest with ourselves. We all have our daddy goggles on at one time or another and our view of our children’s skillset is always going to be greater than they truly are and that is ok. We are parents and we love and hope our children will succeed and excel. Look at the refrigerator door, the painting done by little Johnny is no Monet and will not be hung in the Louvre any time soon but that does not stop us from believing he is an artistic prodigy. It also does not stop us from believing our child can pitch or start at point guard every game. It becomes a problem when we are in a position of power or influence and we let those emotions intercede with our higher responsibility, the welfare and development of the entire team.

Although Daddy Ball does exist it might not be as clear as we think it is. Is it wrong for a coach’s kid to play shortstop even if he is not the best? What if another child played the position he/she was equally as unskilled? Would that coach be applauded for developing a player yet criticized for playing his own? And what of the coach’s child who is made an example so as to avoid accusations of daddy ball? Should that child suffer the bench more than any other?

Let me give you another scenario: A very good player gets to start and play the whole game, deservingly, but mistakes made by her are far less tolerated by the coach than mistakes made by other players. Teaching moments are replaced by criticism and she rarely gets praise for outstanding play. She is a good player but the love of the game is not always present with her. Yes she too is a coach’s child.

I would say, in my experience, I have seen this scenario much more often than the former one. The majority of coaches’ children put in much more time practicing than anyone else. The bar is raised higher for them and the pressure to succeed and prove to everyone they deserve to be in that position is great. These coaches also go to great lengths not to favor their children yet with that said the very nature of their child starting at a position draws criticism and accusations of Daddy Ball.

Here are some “Dos” and “Don’ts” if you suspect your coach of playing favoritism and negatively affecting the team:

  • Do step away from the highlight reel of your child and take an honest look at the makeup of the team, the players and your child. Ask yourself some hard questions. “Yes I want my son to play quarterback but should he?” “Does she want to pitch or do I want her to pitch?”
  • Do consider becoming a coach yourself. Many times the Daddy Baller is the only guy willing to do it. It looks bad to criticize others when you will not step up yourself. Grab your whistle and get out there; its worth it. It will also give you a new insight to how the game is managed and you might just see that dolling out play time is much harder than you think.
  • Do be excited about the position your child is playing and encourage them to do their best even if it is not the position they or you desire. You hold the key to your child’s happiness in sports. If you have a negative attitude about your child’s position then your child will too and thus have a horrible experience. Nothing positive can come from this behavior and it will carry over to other endeavors including school and work. No coach will ever award a child with a bad attitude especially a promotion to starter.
  • Do support the team. Get involved, help, and cheer for all the players not just your child regardless of your feelings about the coach.
  • Do talk to your coach. If your kid wants to pitch ask him what needs to be done to get a shot at pitching. Be prepared to work with your child outside of practice. Its fun and your kid will improve dramatically. Also be prepared to hear honest evaluations of your child’s skills and be open to it, not defensive.
  • Don’t quit. I have seen parents literally walk on the field and drag their children away never to come back. This will accomplish nothing but teach your child that it is ok to be a quitter. Nobody likes a quitter.
  • Don’t talk  among the other parents how much you dislike the coach and his decisions. This is a cancer to the team. This accomplishes nothing and will benefit no one including your child. Never speak badly of the coaches or any other child.

Daddy Ball happens, we all have been witnesses to it, but there are ways to address it without affecting the team or our children’s experience. Also as parents we must be honest with ourselves; is the coach playing favorites or do we have an exaggerated perception of our kid’s talents? If we put the team first, address the issue as adults and realize this is about the kids having fun then everyone can enjoy the season and youth sports.