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Being a sports dad, or how to screw up your children

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Robert Lipsyte has a great piece on CBSNews.com about the mixed legacy of the sports dad. He describes his own father, who was “bookish” and not “ballish,” with whom he never “had a catch.” (Is it just me, or I am the only one outside of “Field of Dreams” who says “play catch?”) He describes his own parenting, informed by his sportswriting career, in which he pulled his son Sam (who grew up to be a writer himself) off of a baseball team with an “ubermacho” coach, and refused to let him play high school football because of all the effects of playing hurt.

Not that his kids didn’t play sports (Sam was a shot-putter, daughter Susannah was an all-state hockey forward), but Lipsyte contrasts this with the famous father of big-time sports heroes, who pushed a lot harder than Lipsyte’s father, and Lipsyte, ever did.

As fathers (assuming we’re involved with our children), there is always a struggle to know how much to push our kids, particularly when it comes to sports. A lot of us have sports we love (mine being basketball), and it seems to validate us as people and parents when our kids choose that sport, and do it well. Of course, we’re the heroes of youth sports league for having provided half the DNA to the star athlete. And if we can coach that star athlete and make great players out of others, all the better.

Even when we know otherwise, we fathers are very tempted to push harder to make our children into the athletes we presume they dream of being. We don’t want our children to look back and wish they pushed us more. We don’t want our children to ask us why we didn’t pay for this travel league, or sign them up for lessons, or “have a catch” often enough.

On the other hand, as Lipsyte points out, when fathers are involved with developing their kids into big-time athletes, they tend to be raging assholes.

Five years ago, for Flak Magazine, I did a “tribute” to some of the worst sports fathers. Amazingly I was able to do it without confining it just to women’s tennis players and Marv Marinovich. Click through to read the anti-inspiring stories of how fathers created great athletes and future therapist patients in sports such as hockey and golf, and are-parents-really-getting-worked-up-over-this activities as table tennis and chess.

There are plenty of athlete bios — Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, Ichiro Suzuki and Dwyane Wade immediately come to mind — where dad made The Great Santini look like a hands-off, live-and-let-live father.

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“Gotta win by two baskets!”

And those are the ones who “succeeded.” As you can see at youth sports every day, any case of benign neglect (like with the Lipsytes) is balanced by the malignant involvement of fathers. From Lipsyte’s article:

The literature of the sports dad has trended ever darker over recent years.  Poet Donald Hall’s elegiac view of baseball as “fathers playing catch with sons” has given way to the current rash of cautionary tales of Pee Wee pops beating their kids to make them “winners” or beating on their kids’ coaches for not giving them more playing time. (One dirty little secret in the performance-enhancing drug story of recent years is how often dads ignore, enable, or sometimes even directly finance chemical help for their kids.)

Over the last several years, talking to high school students about Raiders Night, a young adult novel of mine that deals with a football player and his driven dad, I’ve been struck by how regularly boys tense up when the subject of just why they play arises.

Remarkably often, once you get past the easy answers — the prestige of the varsity, the thrill of contact, the friendships, and the girls — it comes down to seeking the love and attention of dad. When dad manages to use his son as an avatar in his obsessive sports dreams, that love and attention become a whip and a cage. Ask Tiger. …

I know there are concert pianists, rocket scientists, and brain surgeons who had the equivalent of sports dads. Who knows what I’ve done (what my kids have done, what my grandkids are starting to do) to get love and attention. But after so many decades in the Game, I think the father-son dynamic is more vivid and charged in sports because the relationship blooms in all its loving and violent forms at such a vulnerable time in a kid’s development. That’s why so many grown-ups adore or despise sports.

On some level, as a father it seems you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Don’t push enough, and your child wonder why you denied him or her an opportunity. Push too hard, and your best shot is a money-making athlete who is a shell of a person. (Lipsyte says he’s happy to lean toward benign neglect.)

I wish I had some easy advice for how to strike a balance. The best thing I can come up with is, pay attention to your child and the interests he or she shows, and the intensity he or she shows about them. Then you go from there. That’s the best I can do.

Your humble blogger and his 4-year-old daughter, having a bat.

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