Coaching a Difficult Child



by Melissa Lambert
Child and Adolescent Therapist

Child Coaching

As a coach, you have taken the time necessary to prepare and structure practice ahead of time. You know everything from the theme of practice, whether it’s set plays in football or defense in soccer. You feel you know the sport inside and out, but are you ready to take on the child who rebels because there are no boundaries set at home or the child who is constantly talking over you due to poor impulse control?

Current research estimates that 3 to 7 percent of all school-age children have attention deficit disorders and one in every six children has a form of anxiety. In addition, children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may also have comorbid Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and approximately 50 percent of youth diagnosed with ADHD are also abusing substances (Wilson & Levine, 2001). Given these statistics there is a guarantee you will be faced with children struggling with emotional disturbance and behavioral problems.

All children will test, explore their environment and act impulsively at times, however it is important to recognize when the problem is more significant than normal development. Some of the most common warning signs include excessive worry, seeking negative attention, impulsivity and lack of self-control, low- frustration tolerance, hyperactivity that impairs the child’s ability to concentrate, withdrawal, difficulty in school, lack of healthy peer relationships, vindictive behaviors including bullying, defiance and in older kids substance abuse.

Many children experiencing emotional disturbance are encouraged to participate in sports because physical activity and play help the body turn off excess adrenaline and release endorphins that help calm children. With a well-rounded coach who is tune with the needs of a child, the benefits can be life changing as evidenced by an increase in self-awareness, self-esteem and self-discipline, improvement in communication skills, increased trust and responsibility.

Coaches can help their young athletes overcome the strain that emotional disturbance can place on the child and their teammates physically, mentally and socially by following these guidelines:

  1. Set firm and consistent limits. Practices should be structured and prepped ahead of time so there are no surprises. Children need repetition and consistency. Follow the IYCA principles with a five minute half circle at the beginning of practice to have the kids address the rules and expectations. Coaches who lack structure will see an increase in behavioral problems as children will continuously test to see what they can get away with. It is also important to pay attention in the tone in which children are addressed. For those who spend a lot of energy yelling, you may be doing your athletes a disfavor and potentially could have harmful effects including low self-esteem and increased anxiety.
    The way you communicate with your young athletes should match their stage of development.

  3. Be aware and pay attention to the needs of your young athletes. You can learn a lot about a child by observation alone. If a child seems withdrawn or unmotivated it could be depression, difficulty in school or home. Another child could present with narcissism such as glorifying abilities, bullying other kids and talking highly of them self. In this case the child is often insecure, feeling the pressure to succeed or facing constant criticism from parents and coaches. In any case where the child seems to be having difficulty, don’t hesitate to address the young athlete as well as the parents if necessary with your concern. Children also want and need to be heard. If you aren’t taking the time to listen and understand, don’t expect the child to reciprocate.

  5. Reinforce positive behavior. Children want attention whether it’s negative or positive. If a child has learned to get attention through negative behaviors expect them to continue on the athletic field. Observe what the child does well and reinforce with praise. It’s not always possible to ignore behaviors when they impact the rest of the team. Address the child and use it as a coaching moment such as “I notice you are easily distracted today, what do you think might help you right now?” However, there will be times when the child needs to go have a seat and watch practice if the behavior is harmful to the players. Coaches must protect their young athletes both emotionally and physically. By setting the tone it sends a message to the rest of the team that you will protect them. Make sure to debrief with athlete and have them work through the problem. Remember you are not only coaching a sport, but teaching everyday life skills. It is important to have an understanding of what the child is experiencing and the problem often originated from school or home and was carried out in a practice or game.

  7. Focus on the child’s strengths. Take the time to identify the strengths of each child and play on those. Most feel the pressure from other environments as well as the pressure they put on themselves, therefore spending all your time focusing on weaknesses can be counterproductive. Children diagnosed with ADHD tend to make great leaders when given the opportunity to use their energy appropriately. Not only will child be focused on the task, but it’s great opportunity to build self-confidence.

  9. Avoid line drills. Don’t expect children and adolescents to stand in line for any length of time. The young ones will pick dandelions while the adolescents are talking about the new boyfriend or girlfriend they have and the latest drama. It’s a set-up at any age and inhibits overall progression in athletic performance. 


Melissa Lambert, LPC, M.Ed, YFS1, YNS, HSSCS
Child and Adolescent Therapist

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