Coaching your kids

A coach putting her hand in with middle school kids playing basketball at a game.
Coach Mary Beth Ryfun rallies her team, the Orange Crush, before they go back out on to the court during their Mt. Lebanon recreational basketball game at Mellon Middle School. /Photo: John Schisler

Parents give back to youth sports


icture this: A dad gets home from perhaps a stressful day at the office. With little time to spare, he heads back out to coach one of his children’s sports teams—just as his dad did when he was growing up.

“You know what? I had absolutely no appreciation for it until now,” Nate Montgomery,  Hoodridge Drive, said of his father, Tom, who coached Nate and his brother Ben back in the day. “And now when I walk out the door at 5:30 and I’ve got a paper plate and a napkin and a water bottle and I’m eating dinner on my seven-minute drive to Bird Park and changing my clothes in the car, now I have an appreciation for it.”

Nate and Ben, of Halsey Court, grew up in Peters Township but are raising their families in Mt. Lebanon and continuing what for them is an important family tradition of parents coaching their kids’ sports teams—something many parents have been doing for generations.

Coaches and brothers Nathan and Ben Montgomery with their team.
Coaches and brothers Nathan and Ben Montgomery with their team.

Nate Montgomery, global head of sales for data and analytics business for BNY Mellon, coaches third-grader Leona in softball and soccer, kindergartener Sam in baseball and soccer, and preschooler Georgie in soccer and T-ball. He played high school sports for Peters and soccer for Pitt.

Ben Montgomery, a financial planner and director at Baird, has a toddler too young for sports and a son who has moved into gymnastics, which is outside of Ben’s purview, but he coaches sixth-grader Anna in travel soccer (and formerly basketball and softball) and first-grader Owen in soccer.

“This is something I know well, so it is a way I can be active in the community,” said Ben Montgomery, who like Nate played high school sports for Peters, as well as soccer for Allegheny College. “It’s been great to meet so many families. It’s been a way to give back. It’s a great way to be active in our kids’ lives, just as our dad was.”

Most youth sports coaches are volunteers, as opposed to, say, paid positions at the high school level.

Some parents head up their kids’ coaching crew; others simply lend a hand. For some parents, it’s about answering a need for coaches because their kids want to play. For others, coaching predates having children, so coaching their teams comes naturally.

The latter is the case for Howie Anderson, of Sunset Drive. He teaches fifth grade in South Park and has coached several sports at several levels in that district over about a couple decades.

A quote "all you do is teach them and that's the truth"

When his son, Mitchell, was in kindergarten, Anderson began coaching him in T-ball and flag football. Mitchell, now a senior, is not playing sports this year, but sixth-grade daughter Aubrey is partly under his tutelage in basketball and softball.

A man with his daughter wearing softball shirts at a game.
Coach Howie Anderson and his daughter, Aubrey, a Mellon sixth-grader. Howie coaches Aubrey in basketball and softball.

Anderson is something of a character—he says kids, parents and everyone else tend to listen to him because “I’m not a small guy. And it’s not yelling, but … I teach school, so my voice is echoing. You’ve got a dude about 6-3, coming in about 300 pounds, loud as hell.”

And yet also a dad who takes on whatever tasks needed to help the young athletes. “There were several times when I was head of the minivan mafia, I like to call it, when I would go pick up everybody in our Honda Pilot,” he said.

Anderson might be loud, but he doesn’t coach via fear factor. “All my teammates have usually loved my dad,” said Mitchell, who formerly played for Howie in football, basketball and baseball.

Anderson has a bottom line when it comes to his coaching philosophy. “All you do is teach them, and that’s the truth,” he said.

The image of a hard-nosed coach screaming at athletes to perform better and berating them for mistakes might be more than a cliché at the higher levels of sports, but with youth teams, recreational leagues, things tend to be a little more kid-friendly.

“It takes a lot to coach a bunch of kids day in and day out,” said Mary Beth Ryfun, of Jefferson Drive, who coaches ninth-grader Tyler and fifth-grader Keira, both in basketball. “Nobody gets paid. You’re not doing it for money or fame or anything. You’re just doing it to make sure the kids have fun. My style is laid back, but you’d better listen to me because I know what I’m talking about.”

Ryfun played lacrosse for Mt. Lebanon and has also coached that sport outside of coaching her two children.

Nate Montgomery has a well-developed approach.

“We tell the kids before every practice and before every game and before every season that the No. 1 goal is just to have fun,” he said. “Coaching is a delicate balance between always stepping in, and directing kids; it’s more about guiding kids and asking them questions about how they can do it differently next time. Instead of saying, ‘You probably should have passed that to your friend Joey,’ you could say something like, ‘What could you do next time in that situation?’ to help lead them to that conclusion themselves. It’s a very gentle way of delivering the message. I think the kids are generally more receptive to a gentler approach. If everyone’s having fun, then that’s really all that matters.”

His brother, not surprisingly, feels similarly.

“There’s never been more options for kids and sports, but the community level is as important as it’s ever been because that’s where kids develop a love for playing a game and making a lot of friends,” Ben Montgomery said. “With that, we try to develop the age-appropriate skills that they should be learning. Building skills, having fun, making friends. You typically know if a kid has a good experience when they sign up the next year. At the community level, sports should be for everyone.”

Coaching your children might be for you, too. While some parents have a schedule that just won’t work, it often can be done. Nate and Ben Montgomery said when there are occasional conflicts, others involved with their kids’ sports teams are gracious about filling in.

“I know there’s a lot of other dads and moms that would like to have the opportunity that I have and spend time with my own son and daughter, but, unfortunately, their job doesn’t allow them,” Anderson said.

Anderson, as a teacher, has a schedule similar to that of school-age kids. Ryfun owns Koda Bridal, a plus-size bridal store in Mt. Lebanon, and so has a somewhat flexible schedule.

The Montgomery brothers said it’s sometimes a struggle but workable, and worth it.

A quote "Nobody gets paid... you're just doing it to make sure the kids have fun."

As far as knowing Xs and Os, Ben Montgomery said with the youngest kids, preschool and kindergarten, “It really is about getting kids as active as possible and finding ways to make it fun.” In ensuing years, the kids might develop more of an interest in learning the rules and strategies – and parents can learn along with them.

As Ben Montgomery noted, being a youth coach is a great way to develop ties to the community—it makes him smile when he’s out and hears calls of “Coach Ben!”—and other parents. Occasionally, though, overzealous parents can make things a little sticky.

Anderson said treating every player the same is key.

“I would like to say there’s been more positive than negative,” he said of dealing with parents, adding that he won’t play favorites, and his own children “have been replaced or substituted or did not start at times. Just because there’s a bloodline doesn’t mean it’s the best for everybody else. My first responsibility is making sure the team is successful.”

Ryfun has very little pushback, although she said if someone begins, say, lobbying for an enhanced role for their child, “That doesn’t fly. Most of the parents are really great. They want their kids to have fun and improve. There are parents that are over the top and … it’s just rec basketball. No one is getting a scholarship to college over rec basketball.

“You just explain to the parent that, look, this is middle school lacrosse or this is rec basketball, and as long as they’re having fun and they’re learning something, that’s the goal here.”

Ryfun’s son Tyler also played football, putting her in the role of parent but not coach. “While I love football, I don’t know enough about football to coach it, nor was I asked to,” she said. “The coaches were great.”

A coach watching her kids play basketball.
Ryfun, a business owner, builds enough flexiblilty into her schedule to allow her to coach. /Photo: John Schisler

Sometimes, it’s the young athletes who have to be reminded of the rules and appropriate behavior. That could be a boy or girl who gets distracted or is overly rambunctious.

Ben Montgomery said it becomes a matter of “just having patience and giving that child a chance to calm down and get back involved. The more that they’re moving and the more they’re active and the better things are, the better results you get, but you really want it to be for all the kids. It’s important to find a way to get everyone involved in practices and games—and that’s a challenge especially at the really young ages.”

One thing Ben Montgomery does is structure practices in a way that he hopes will keep the kids engaged, and relaying that beforehand, such as, “The first 15 minutes we’re going to get 300 touches on the ball and then the next 20 minutes focus on some important drills. But if we work hard, we’re then going to focus on something fun that they really want to do.”

Ryfun said having Tyler on her team can be an asset. “I think they look to Tyler to see how my mood is,” she said.

Sometimes, it takes a little more action.

Last year, after Ryfun directed a practice with Tyler’s team in a school gym, she heard from annoyed school personnel that someone on her team had thrown a basketball at a paint bubble in the wall, breaking it apart and leaving a mess of paint and dust on the floor.

“I let Tyler know that his entire team was in trouble unless the kid who did it came forward,” said Ryfun, who threatened to order “suicides,” grueling running drills. At the next practice, “The kid who did it came forward and said, ‘I did it, and I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘OK, thank you. The rest of you are going to practice, and you are going to write an apology note to the principal, the janitor and the rec center.’ And he did. I was, like, we’re good.”

A minor blip on a radar of good feelings and rewarding endeavors.

The parent coaches interviewed for this article spoke of talks with their children on the way home from practices and games that serve as bonding moments, teaching opportunities and time that might otherwise be wasted with their kids playing video games.

Nate Montgomery called that “priceless.”

He might have to balance his dinner on his lap on the way to practice, but he also sets a fun scene. So picture another setting:

It’s a chilly, rainy Saturday at Bird Park in the fall, with several games lined up in succession.

“Once you get out there, the kids love it,” Nate said. “They finish the game and everyone’s soaking wet and completely doused with mud, and they’ve all got huge smiles on their faces. That’s something that I miss as a kid, and I know that they will remember growing up.”


Photos by John Schisler