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Dad As Emotion Coach

By Lowell Johnson

Fort Ripley

While watching my son play basketball with my grandsons the other day, I started thinking about the important role fathers play as coaches, and especially as emotion coaches.

Fathers have a long and intricate relationship with sports, families, and communities. Many boys grow up playing sports - at first for fun, and later for the thrill of the game and the many positive benefits that go with athletic competition. Along the way, boys and men make decisions about how much time and energy to put into sports, as the reality of never becoming a professional athlete sinks in. However, this realization doesn’t keep us from playing sports, because after all, sports can be valuable for fitness and fun at all skill levels. Plus, sports can teach us many valuable lessons. These lessons are about us as individuals, and our relationships with others.

Here is where the concept of emotion coaching emerges. If you look around the neighborhood and community at who is doing the coaching of children, it is still mostly men. At the youngest ages of organized sports, the coaches are primarily men and volunteers. The unwritten rule is that if you want your children involved in sports, someone has to step up and volunteer to be the coach. That someone is usually a father.

To be an effective coach a guy needs to be able to do two important jobs. One job is to teach the various skills that go along with the particular sport. The other job is to help children manage the variety and intensity of the emotions that go along with competition. As the level of competition rises, the importance of emotional management rises.

Not every child enters or remains in our organized sports system. But every child needs adults who can coach them about how to manage the variety and intensity of the emotions that go along with every day life. Men and fathers can do this emotion coaching. Men and fathers are doing emotion coaching.

Research on effective emotion coaching gives us some guidelines on how to do it. According to John Gottman, family therapist and researcher, three styles of dealing with children’s emotions are counter productive. The dismissive style, where “bad” emotions are ignored, produces children who don’t know how to deal with being upset. The disapproving style, where “bad” emotions are punished, produces children who don’t know how to handle strong feelings and who struggle with making friends. The laissez-faire style, where children are encouraged to express themselves without restraint, produces children who never learn to handle their emotions in appropriate ways.

What does work for children is a coaching style based on empathy and guidance. The effective emotion coach listens to and values children’s emotional experiences. He authentically communicates, “I know how you feel” and offers guidance on thought patterns and behaviors that might help a particular child in a particular situation. He recognizes growing success in emotional management skills.

On this Fathers Day, I salute all those dads engaged in the emotional coaching of our children. Their efforts promote improved health for children, and make our community a better place to live.

Lowell Johnson, Fort Ripley, is a member and on the board of the Minnesota Fathers and Families Network.