The Fine Line Between Demeaning and Demanding

by Travis Thomas


It was sad. Actually, it was infuriating.

After all, this was a paid travel coach. With that comes the assumption of some level of professional training. Yet, this was the exchange with his Under 12 soccer player.

A young boy was getting ready to check into the game for the first time. He stood next to the coach while the coach screamed in frustration across the field to one his players. The player on the field was confused, so the coach screamed louder. What was the helpful advice he was yelling to his player? “Hey! Do that again and you’re coming off the field!”

Super helpful.

But here is the kicker. The coach then leaned down to the boy getting ready to go in, looked him firmly in the eyes and said, “Don’t make me scream at you like that!”

Relax and have fun out there Timmy!

I have heard a lot of comments in recent years on how coaching is different.

“Kids are too soft these days!”

“The parents are overprotective!”

“Players can’t take criticism without their feelings being hurt.”

“Back in my day our coach would tie us to the back of his pick-up truck and drag us home if we dropped the ball!”

Okay, I made the last one up. But, if you are an athlete over the age of 35 years old you probably have a crazy coach story that would get most coaches fired these days.

Have we gotten too protective as a society? Maybe.

But the trend of demanding a healthier and more positive style of coaching is a good thing. It represents progress. Not just because being positive creates a more enjoyable experience for the player (God forbid), but we have more and more science each week that reinforces the benefits of more evolved coaching.

In a recent blog post, John O’Sullivan, the Founder of the Changing the Game Project shared these startling statistics:


1. Research has shown that only 5% of children who play for a properly trained coach quit the next season, while 26% drop out after playing for inadequately trained coaches.

2. According to 2012 research, of the 6.5 million youth coaches in the US, only 19% had been trained in proper communication and motivation for the children they were coaching, and only 1 out of 3 was trained in the skills and techniques they were supposed to teach.

John then went on to make this conclusion:

“I believe that one of the main reasons we lose 70% of children to organized sports by the age of 13 is because many of those kids have a poor experience and drop out before they ever get to play under a properly trained coach. The number of kids who are coached by well-intentioned yet poorly prepared volunteer coaches – coaches whom are basically set up to fail by the organizations they coach for – has got to number in the millions.”


19% of coaches properly trained. That is crazy. So crazy that most of you parents reading this article have never had your child play for an adequately prepared coach. And look at that drop-out number. Over one quarter of our children quit playing because of a poor experience with a coach.

Sadly, I see it all of the time.

Recently I gave a talk at a basketball camp and encouraged the parents to listen as well. After the talk two women pulled me aside to ask my advice on how to approach the high school basketball coach. Their daughters are miserable and really contemplating whether they want to play another year. She berates the players publicly. She openly embarrasses them at games and insults their abilities. As I spoke to one of the players, she simply said…

“It’s just not fun anymore.”


So what are we really looking for in a coach?

A few years back I was talking to a mental coach friend of mine as we discussed the firing of a soccer coach we knew. I hadn’t worked with the coach that much, but my friend worked with him all of the time. This is what he said, and it has stuck with me ever since…

“He didn’t know the difference between demeaning and demanding!”

Yes. That’s it. That is such a hugely important distinction.

Think back to the coaches who had an impactful influence on your life. I can almost guarantee that they were demanding. In fact, they were probably downright tough and difficult. They pushed you well outside of your comfort zone in order for you to grow and improve in bigger and better ways.

Does that sound right?

But were they demeaning?

Did they insult your intelligence, self-worth, ability, toughness, “man-hood,” family members, friends, spirituality, social class, or anything else that felt inappropriately personal?

Again, if you’re over 35 there is a good chance some of your coaches got real personal. I had a few of those.

That is the line that needs to become more clear today, and I think it is. The misconception is that coaches cannot be demanding in today’s day and age. All of the knocks against coaching kids today is really a belief that you can’t set high demands on them without upsetting the child or the parent.

It’s not true. The problem is, we don’t have enough trained coaches who understand the difference between demeaning and demanding, as well as possessing the mindset skills for inspiring peak performance.

The coach I referenced at the beginning of this post is probably just coaching like the way he was coached. And, if you are never taught a better way of doing things, why would we expect a change?

I get to work with some of the finest soccer coaches in the country on a day to day basis. In addition to having played the game at high levels, these coaches continue to go through continued certification training, and they all understand the importance of attitude and mindset in working with their players. Can you see why I love being a part of this club?

I had a long conversation with Fraser Foster (the head of the club) as we discussed this topic. He shared how he has been coaching the same group of boys for over four years now and how that has enabled him to demand much more from them individually and as a team. And we discussed what the key is to being able to demand more, and the answer is simple…


Trust is the secret sauce. It is the foundation and bedrock of every great coach and every great team. When you hear coaches talking about culture what they are really talking about is creating and nurturing an environment of trust, respect, and safety.

Trust: Do my players know that I “get” them? I understand what makes them tick. I understand their strengths and weaknesses. I understand their fears. And most importantly, win or lose, I still care about them.

Respect: Beyond just being a member of this team, do my players feel that I respect them as a person? Do they feel that their ideas and contributions are valuable, on and off the field? Am I willing to give my personal time to show them I care?

Safety: Do my players know that this team is a safe environment for them to be their authentic selves, to fail, be vulnerable, and always be supported?

I call this the special sauce because it is special. To create this type of environment takes time, a lot of time! It also requires that you genuinely care about your players as people. You can’t cut corners on building trust, and your players will know if you truly care or if you are full of it!

Your players will NOT bring their full game without this foundation. I call it the “turtle effect.” A turtle will only stick its head out of his shell to the degree that he feels safe. As soon as he feels threatened he will quickly take cover in his shell, and be more hesitant to come back out. In fact, it will take a lot of work and trust building to get them to stick their necks out again.

What the great coaches understand is that they are in the relationship business. It’s not rocket science, but it is people science. It is understanding the basic needs of the player to feel seen and understood, and to feel safe enough to be vulnerable enough to express their full authenticity.

Does this mean coaches can’t be hard on their players? NO!

In fact, the more trust and safety you have established, the harder you can push your players outside of their comfort zone and into the scary places they won’t go willingly on their own.

If you don’t feel like you can do that right now, it just means there is more trust building to be done.

Just to be clear, I never think it is okay to demean a player. Ever! But when a player understands that you value them…even love them…you have the trust in place to hold them to a higher standard. You can demand big things from them because they know you have their best interest in mind. You can be tough. In fact, whether they say it or not, they will want you to be tough, because they will know it means you care.

Yes. Coaching kids is different today than it was years ago. The demand is to evolve, and we owe it to the players, parents, and the future of sports to deliver a better product.



Travis Thomas social 1

Travis Thomas is the Founder of Live Yes, And and is currently the Performance Specialist for Massive Soccer in Florida. For over two years he was a Leadership Coach at IMG Academy working with thousands of youth, collegiate, and professional athletes. His new book “3 Words for Getting Unstuck: Live Yes, And is now available on Amazon.

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