Father’s Day is no day off for many dads who coach youth sports. Instead of casting a line or swinging a club with their peers, they spend this and other golden summer days huddling with pint-sized players.
These fathers volunteer for the love of the kids and the game. But the coaching job takes on special meaning for dads who count their own kids among their players. Among them are Dale Leibforth, who coaches the American Youth Soccer Organization teams of both his sons, Joe, 9, and John, 7; and Kent Geibel, who coaches his 11-year-old son Adam’s travel baseball team.
They are aware that father-son relationships that mingle familial (dad-child) with formal (coach-player) roles and play them out in a competitive environment have the potential to create stress for both parties. But these two dads and their boys affirm that when fathers coach their sons, both generations can be winners.
Mr. Geibel and Mr. Leibforth bring sports expertise to their coaching along with an understanding of the influence of coaches on young lives. Mr. Geibel pitched for Illinois State University. Mr. Leibforth, a 1993 Evanston Township High School graduate, played soccer at ETHS and returned to his alma mater to teach math and, for 14 years, to coach soccer.
Mr. Leibforth was also head coach of the ETHS girls lacrosse team. But after 11 years he says he decided to “trade weekends at ETHS for weekends with my family.” Now for eight weeks each fall and spring, he coaches one AYSO practice and one game a week for each son.
His boys say they joined AYSO soccer “because my dad signed us up.” Their mom, Julie, says she thinks their father’s being there gave the shy brothers courage to try something they might not otherwise have done.
Everyone seems pleased with the result. Joe and John tell why they like having their dad as a coach. Their dad elaborates on the pleasures of a new life where “every weekend is a sports weekend” and the family car functions as both locker room and picnic site.
Joe, a third-grader, says he appreciates that his dad “used to play, and he teaches us all that stuff.” John, a practical first-grader, says he likes having a father who coaches, because “you get a ride home at the end.”
Their father’s assessment is more nuanced. It can be hard to coach your own children, he says; it means explaining, “I’m his dad at home, but he’s one of my players [on the field].” Every once in a while, he says, he has to ask one of the assistant coaches to “tell Joe to do this.”
He says he has to remind himself that at games he “can’t be their dad, a fan
who overly cheers for [his boys]. I have to coach all the players.” Still, he says, working with his own sons is special: “As a coach, you say, ‘my kids, my players.’ But it’s awesome to see your own boys out there.”
He has the satisfaction of watching his sons evolve as players. “John was hesitant to play at first. Now he’s one of the tough guys,” says Mr. Leibforth. He sees some of himself in each boy. He says John, small and scrappy, “looks up at the big guys and then takes the ball from them. John likes to think defense,” says Mr. Leibforth, a self-described defensive coach. He says he sees Joe, who was always interested in sports, as a midfield attacker – the position he played.
Mr. Geibel and Mr. Leibforth have each coached the other’s child. Mr. Geibel has coached John Leibforth’s baseball team for three years and, with Mr. Leibforth, helped coach the AYSO soccer team of Claire Geibel and John Leibforth.
But with summer in full swing, baseball is the name of the game for Kent and Adam Geibel. For the second year, Kent Geibel is coaching his son on the top-tier blue team in the Lake Shore Feeder Baseball League. Watching Adam play, he says, “is a reminder of how much fun baseball is.”
For four years Mr. Geibel was an assistant coach for Adam’s team in the Evanston Baseball and Softball Association house league, where all the teams are coached by parents. Now he volunteers at the next level, where coaches are typically paid and therefore considered professionals.
Adam, a pitcher and shortstop, just finished his seventh season with ESBA. His travel team season, which starts just before ESBA ball ends and lasts from Memorial Day till the end of July, has just begun.
Father and son both say they appreciate the extra time together. Mr. Geibel sees himself as “lucky enough to be able to pass along my love of the game” and to teach his son as he was taught by a father who took an interest.
He regards coaching as a serious responsibility and the team members as sons. “Thirteen sets of parents have trust in me to guide their sons,” he says. He requires that the boys participate in the Race Against Hate and help make sandwiches for the homeless. But behind it all there is the fun they have as each boy earns a nickname and – a favorite tradition of Adam “Yoda” – they practice to a mix tape for which each chooses two songs.
Both dad and son know the rule: no favoritism. “[Adam] knows I treat everyone equally and fairly,” says Mr. Geibel. Adam, who calls his dad Coach Kent on the field, says, “Sometimes people ask me, ‘What’s the lineup today?’ but my dad never tells me. I’m just like them.”
Mr. Geibel admits to being harder on Adam, though; Adam agrees his dad is “getting tougher” because “baseball gets more serious” at the feeder league level. But he says he really likes having his dad as his “personal coach” away from practice.
Mr. Geibel sees his own competitiveness in Adam. But he also sees, he says, a boy who always wants to do his best, who respects others and who “is more mature than I was at that age.”
Dads who coach get to know their children’s friends and see their kids as teammates, “playing with [their] buddies, making new friends and experiencing the ups and downs that team sports can provide,” says Mr. Geibel.
Both generations learn when fathers coach their sons. Joe Leibforth says his dad has taught him to “keep trying.” His boys, says Mr. Leibforth, have “reminded me to coach the ‘whole player’ as I coach individuals on my teams. Their immediate and honest feedback has fed my growth as a coach and a dad.”