“How can parents help younger kids to become team players—the kind that appreciates the efforts of their teammates, that don’t hog the ball or blame others for losses?”
Let's take a look at this issue, examine some of the underlying causes of selfish behavior, and discuss the steps that parents and coaches can take to promote a child’s behavior that balances both individual and team interests.
The “Me-First” mind-set
Negative behaviors such as “hogging the ball” and forcing bad shots can result from a beginner’s misperception of how to play a sport. Young kids generally want to be around the ball. That’s where the action is. And some players, regardless of ability, want to be part of what they perceive to be the “fun” part of the game.
Other factors in “not being a team player” can include sibling rivalry (brothers/sisters fighting for attention) and those occasional instances where “The Coach’s Kid Always Plays.”
Over the years I’ve had a few kids ask me, “Why can’t I bring the ball up the basketball court?” These are often beginners who can barely dribble or make the first pass necessary to involve their teammates. For me, this is a warning sign that a young child may not yet understand the importance of roles in a team sport.
Most kids get it
Over my many years of coaching, I really haven’t had that much of a problem with the kids I’ve coached. Most young players appreciate when another player has more skills. Most realize when they’re not yet ready to take on a crucial team role. With a little coaching and talk about the importance of roles to our team’s success, they usually adopt a team-first attitude. And they typically get a big smile on their face when their teammates and coaches complement them on playing good defense, grabbing a rebound, or setting a screen that leads to a basket for our “scorer”.
But coaches should provide opportunities
Through the course of a basketball season, I try to provide opportunities for every child to have fun and explore different roles. Where possible, I provide most of the kids on a team with at least a brief exposure to playing the point guard position (in practice or possibly a game). But this has to be done in the context of limited practice time and the needs of the other children. It’s no fun for the other kids (especially the more skilled players) when a teammate continually turns the ball over. My goal is to provide an experience that all of the kids on my team enjoy. As a beginner’s skills develop, and they become more proficient, I try to expand their team roles.
Sometimes the parent is the problem
On rare occasions, I encounter the parent who insists that his or her child play a certain position—regardless of the child’s ability relative to others on the team. I’ve had a couple of parents complain about his or her child not getting exactly equal playing time in a given game. And a few parents bark out instructions to their kids, instructing them to play a certain way that is not necessarily in the team’s best interest. In the more extreme instances, this strikes me as the adult version of the “me-first” child.
For the most part, these types of adult behaviors rarely occur in the equal-participation oriented leagues in which I usually coach. It’s especially rare at the youngest levels. At the more competitive levels, however, this parental behavior may be more evident.
Outgrowing problem behaviors
Do kids outgrow this attitude? I expect that any change comes with the proper leadership from parents and the child’s coaches. If you have a parent constantly telling his child to shoot more, regardless of the child’s actual ability, that child will likely continue to take bad shots. A child’s peers also help constrain individual behavior that is problematic. That’s one of the reasons why I’m a strong advocate for self-directed play and pickup games.
Steps to promote a team-first attitude
Here are some specific steps a parent can take to help promote a team-first player attitude:
- Search for coaches who not only teach individual sports skills, but also emphasize team oriented skills such as passing (and related principles such as “keeping your head up” and looking for his or her teammates). These coaches will employ drills that require teamwork. In basketball, for instance, a coach can modify a practice scrimmage’s rules to prohibit a player from dribbling. This forces the player with the ball to keep his or her head up, pass, and move without the ball.
- A positive coaching or parenting style is contagious. Players will begin mimicking this behavior in how they relate to and treat their teammates. They will begin to understand that success in team sports is not just about winning, but also about community and learning how to become a better player and person.
- Early on, place your child in an “equal playing time” league where team success depends on the beginners and less athletic players improving. A coach can convey to the team’s older, more skilled players that the team’s chances of winning are improved when the strong players support the weaker ones.
- A parent and coach should communicate the importance of roles in a team sport. Although every team needs a scorer, a team will usually not win without the other players performing their particular roles well. Also, a child’s roles will likely change as the child matures or is placed in a different situation. Each child (including the team’s “star” player) should understand this principle and appreciate his or her teammate’s contributions.
- Parents should provide their child with the opportunity to engage in self-directed play (i.e., neighborhood pick-up games). In this setting, children are required to manage their own games and behavior. Self-indulgent behavior (hogging the ball, criticizing others) will negatively affect “the game” and will quickly result in the group shunning the offender.
- If parents are aware of any problems in this area, they should discuss their child’s behavior with the coach to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to possible disciplinary action.
And for the parent coach, here are some additional approaches that might be helpful in counteracting selfish behavior:
- Praise others on the team who demonstrate team play (in front of the problem child). Also, praise the problem child when he or she makes a play that benefits the team. You may, on occasion, also want to consider reducing the child’s playing time when his or her selfish attitude hurts the team.
- If the player is talented, but selfish, try to emphasize to the child that great players make other players on the team better. Acknowledge their talent, but also try to get them to take an ownership/leadership stake in the other player’s success.
- Another common technique is for a coach is to pull a player when he or she makes a poor (selfish) decision, instruct the player on what they did wrong, and then immediately reinsert the player back into the game.