The F Words: Favoritism and Fairness, My Two Cents

 unfair pix

“I do play favorites,” confided a coach in an article I was reading, “And my favorites are the ones that work the hardest, that come ready to practice, who stay coachable. My favorites are the ones that listen the best, that know what they are supposed to do, who learn their lessons.”

I know that there are coaches and even parents who are reading this who might nod their head in agreement. 

Heck, I admit that when I first read the quote my reaction was along the lines of “I get that.” 

Let’s face it, most of us prefer to be around agreeable people who make our jobs easy, even pleasurable and who respond to our efforts.

Coaches are no different.  We are going to mesh better with certain personalities than others.  We are likely to prefer kids who exhibit certain behaviors, like eagerness to learn, arriving to practice on time and gratitude to the coach.  And, we might even enjoy coaching those who catch on faster or reinforce their competency as a coach by performing at a high level.

So the secret is out: most coaches will have favorites. 

But professional coaches of youth athletes should not play favorites. 

While there are many behaviors and attitudes that can be construed and evidence of a coach playing favorites, the two that stand out when talking to athletes, parents and coaches are playing time and attention during practice.  While in gymnastics we avoid the playing time problem, the problem of unequal attention within training groups is a huge one. 

Kids and parents will complain that the coaches pay more attention to the more gifted or successful athletes. And coaches will either deny it or defend their actions by pointing out that the more motivated kids deserve the additional attention and that it motivates the other kids to work harder.  It’s the reward for being a hard worker and the punishment for being less motivated.

So, is it okay for coaches to give more attention or time to the athletes who show a better attitude or aptitude for the sport?  Or is this favoritism? 

As I have experienced this dilemma as a parent, a coach, a club owner and now have been asked by several distraught readers about how to navigate perceived favoritism, here is my two cents:

It is not okay for a coach to give more attention or time to an athlete who shows a better attitude or aptitude for the sport if it comes at the expense of another child getting his or her attention or time from the coach. 

Coaches, here’s why:

It’s not fair. I know, I know: life isn’t fair.  I’ve said those words so many times myself.  And you are correct: life isn’t fair.  But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a professional obligation to strive for fairness to all of the kids who we have the responsibility of coaching.

Add to the “life isn’t fair” mantra this one: “Fairness is a process—not a result.”  So, when a parents pay for gymnastics instruction they have a right to expect that the tuition they pay provides their child with a similar level of attention as every other child has in the group.  That’s the process. 

The result: who progresses faster or wins the meet is where the “unfairness” of life weighs in and kids learn those lessons.  Not because you are giving more attention to the kids you like best or who you think have higher potential in the sport at the expense of another children getting their allotment of time.

Now, a caveat: as a coach you absolutely reserve the right to group kids into elite training tracks, give them more hours, lower ratios etcetera.  And yes, parents and other athletes might gripe that this is “unfair” and demonstrates favoritism, but this is where I go back to the “fairness is a process, not a result.”   Differentiated learning environments (think of reading and math groups, honors and AP classes) are not unfair so long as the coaching staff is not neglecting the other groups’ process. 

In other words, holding an additional practice time for kids in the elite training group is not favoritism.  Whereas giving the kids in the elite training group more turns and attention than the non-elite kids in the same training group is favoritism and not ok. 

It’s a poor way to motivate with unintended bad consequences.  Some coaches will argue that favoritism is a legitimate coaching or motivating technique.  That kids will make the kids want to work harder to gain the coaches approval. 

And they might be right.  For some kids.  In the short term. 

But mostly, favoritism-as-postive-reinforcement it will just alienate the kids from each other and cause the non-favorites to feel inferior, frustrated and they will end up quitting.  And, while the favorite kids might feel great that their coach likes them best, it may also lead to increased friction with their peers and they may develop into prima donnas—not an attractive quality in anyone but also not an efficacious one for a developing athlete.   

Instead, if you want to motivate kids to work harder, give them actual criteria that they can both understand and work toward.  And by all means, heap on plenty of positive feedback for those athletes whose behavior is in line with what you are looking for, but, again, not at the expense of another athlete. 

It’s not professional.  Your job as a gymnastics coach is to motivate and instruct a group of children, not give a one-to-one private lesson with the most talented or agreeable athlete.  The best coaches make all of their gymnasts feel like each one of them is a crucial part of the team.   

All this said, parents please tread carefully before you label the behavior of a coach as “favoritism.”   

My two cents to all of you is this: take a step back and make sure you are being fair before you throw the favoritism flag.   

Let’s face it, as parents we are not always objective about our kids.

Is the coach really playing favorites or is your child not putting in sufficient effort or treating the coach with respect?  Are you (or your child) feeling jealous or envious that other kids are progressing faster or competing more successfully?  Are you trying to shift the responsibility for your child’s effort to the coach instead of holding your child accountable for his or her efforts?  Are you disappointed with your child’s results and (unfairly) pinning it on unfair treatment)

Both coaches and parents need to give one another the benefit of the doubt and work together to create an environment that supports all of the kids.  Converse openly about your concerns and even your frustrations.  Work together for the benefit of the kids.