But there are exceptions. Vern Seefeldt, Ph.D., Michigan State University professor emeritus and founder and former director of the College of Education's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, praises those coaches who direct equal attention to the less gifted players. These leaders understand that their job is to build confidence and self-esteem in all players, not just the stars, says Dr. Seefeldt: "Coaches have a tremendous responsibility to improve the skills of the least talented individuals. The better players generally take care of themselves in terms of skill development, but they, too, need guidance in social and moral development."
Practices are an especially good indicator of a coach's ability to relate to young athletes. The sessions should be set up so that players are constantly engaged, stopping only for drink breaks and to marvel at how much fun they're having. In a well-run practice, an hour flies by before kids realize they've improved a move or shot.
Unfortunately, there are a misguided few. David Norris, who lives in northeastern Pennsylvania, was taken aback when the coach of his 12-year-old son's "very competitive" soccer team had a meltdown after the team lost a game. On the sidelines, players were reaching for a post-game snack when the frustrated coach aggressively slapped at their hands. In the tangle of limbs, one child was thrown to the ground. The coach later offered what seemed a "lame and insincere" apology to the parents: "I broke my number-one rule. I lost my temper." But Norris said nothing to the coach because his son begged him not to. "He told me, 'If you bring this up, I'll get less playing time,'" explains Norris, whose name has been changed.
A coach who openly flouts the rules can be just as offensive. "If a league has a rule requiring players to rotate through various positions, but some children keep playing the same position over and over, that tells me the coach is more interested in winning than in helping kids," says Dr. Burton. "This kind of behavior can dramatically reduce the self-esteem of those athletes who get shortchanged."
In rare but unfortunate situations, things can spiral out of control between parents and coaches. Last September, a Middletown, NJ, man struck a coach in the middle of a youth soccer tournament. The fight had begun when a player was injured and the opposing coach yelled for him to be dragged off the field. Just as an official was penalizing the coach for the insensitive remarks, a parent of a player on the other team approached the coach and hit him in the face.