Encouragement, not criticism, wins in ‘tween’ years

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

I revved my power wheelchair into high gear, crossed the soggy grass and pulled close to the metal bleachers. The morning chill arrived escorted by clear skies, crisp air and a trickle of 11-year-old soccer players. As the Carroll Manor team began its pregame warm-up, parents sized up the other team.

“I remember these guys,” one father remarked. “They are the perfect team. They have the perfect bags and perfect uniforms. Even their parents are perfect.”

Gleaming uniforms matched the pristine duffle bags lined up in formation. Coordinating coolers and lawn chairs completed the well-managed look. Some parents even wore the team colors.

“Check out the perfect coach,” another parent continued, “with the perfect clipboard.”

I spied the mini-soccer field and matching pen tucked under the coach’s arm.

“I hope our boys can’t hear this,” I whispered. “Sounds like we’re doomed.”

At the whistle, it appeared our boys were oblivious to the perfection. They scored within five minutes. Disbelief rocked the parent bench.

The perfect coach pointed to one chagrined player and yelled, “That was your problem!”

It was the first of many personal attacks launched at his players. Disbelief again rocked our parent bench as the coach’s intensity and fury mounted.

We scored again and the Phoenix Stars of Carroll Manor raced off the field while their competition trotted to their solemn sideline. An uncomfortable silence descended as we watched the angry coach from a distance.

Finally, the perfect team scored. With seconds remaining, they scored again.

“Stop celebrating, it’s not over!” the coach screamed at the exuberant kids.

And when it was over, their muted celebration vanished into a perfect post-game huddle with their stone-faced coach.

Although disappointed with the tied score, our kids emerged from their huddle encouraged by how well they had competed. They headed home weary, but impressed with their improved play.

Now it’s another day. Another team. Another coach.

Carroll Manor again scored early. The dejected opponents looked to their sideline.

“Why are you moping?” the coach roared. “It’s only five minutes in the game, and I’m already yelling at you!”

The Carroll Manor parents winced again.

“What is it with these coaches?” one mother asked. “This isn’t the Olympics.”

Grateful for our coaches’ supportive style, I wondered about the impact of such negative coaching on kids this age. A recent book club discussion confirmed my concerns.

Donna G. Corwin’s book, “The Tween Years,” focuses on the delicate years from ages 10 to 13 as kids move from childhood to adolescence. During this stage, the importance of nonparental adults increases dramatically, I learned. Words from a teacher or coach can have more value than what a parent says.

At the same time, these kids are building inner confidence.

“Should the coaches at the middle-school level coach differently than at the high school level?” I asked George Baker, St. Paul’s Middle School former principal and book club moderator.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “Middle school kids are 25 times more fragile. Coaching has to be age-appropriate.”

Youngsters at this age haven’t developed a strong enough sense of self to equip them to discount or put into perspective overly critical comments, I learned.

“Encouragement, “Corwin advises, “rather than criticism will support your child and help him to trust your judgment and his own.”

As parents, we need to help our children build this inner confidence. That task includes an ongoing awareness of the messages our kids receive from teachers, coaches and others who touch our youngsters’ lives.

According to Corwin, “To build self-esteem, you need to let your child know he doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Perhaps we, too, could benefit from being oblivious to perfection – or at least mindful of the growth that imperfection can bring.