Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Posts Tagged ‘father

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

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Robert Lipsyte has a great piece on 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.

My father, R.I.P.

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Pictured above is Ken Cook, my father. As I type this, I am getting ready to make another trip back to Carmel, Ind., because I am told the pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with last October is going to claim him very, very soon at the age of 66.

A long time ago, a friend and I talked about whether we eventually are doomed (our word) to become our fathers, a conversation that was a bit of debate about genetic vs. environment because I’m adopted. All I can say is, every time I take coffee to the bathroom, I am Ken Cook.

But this being a youth sports site, and your probably not wanting to know about my bathroom habits (or my father’s), I can certainly share how he influenced my own sporting life as a child, and how he still influences it as an adult.

Of course, he always was good about playing catch with my brother and I, or playing quarterback while he and I ran routes against each other. One big advantage in having my father as a dad was that as a child he was forced to stop being left-handed, that being the rage when he was a child. So when he played catch with me, he could put on my brother’s right-handed glove. When he played catch with my brother, he could wear my left-handed glove.

I can tell you that my dad certainly would agree with the idea about Your Kid Not Going Pro, because he never had such aspirations for us, even when as a 6-year-old I was leaving older kids in the dust in long-distance races up and down my block. School always was first, and steering us toward a steady career was what he had in mind.

If he was thinking sports first, he wouldn’t have pulled me out of kindergarten in my Owosso, Mich., school and put me in first grade in the local Catholic school as a result of my kindergarten teacher being royally pissed I knew how to read, mainly because I was reading the other kids the notes she was writing to their parents about what brats they were. Thus, I was always two calendar years younger than my peers — the opposite of what you do if you want your kid to go pro.

If he was thinking sports first, he (and my mom — she was no bystander) wouldn’t have yanked me off of my sixth-grade basketball team when I was in my brief, intense budding delinquent phase. So often you hear the argument kids should stay on a team when they’re troubled because it provides structure. My father, colorful with language as he was, would respond: Fuck that shit, dumbass.

If he was thinking sports first, he wouldn’t have yanked my brother and I off our Little League team in North Muskegon, Mich., (we moved around a lot — dad was transferred frequently in his job with the phone company) when I was 10 and my brother was 9. He thought the coach was a jackass, in no small part because — six years after Carolyn King on the other side of the state in Ypsilanti successfully sued to force Little League to drop their no-girls rule — that coach wouldn’t allow girls on his team. My dad was conservative politically, and was not exactly out there campaigning for ratification of the ERA. But he had a strong sense of fairness. His judgment was vindicated when the next year we played on a Little League team, which had a girl on the roster, won our town championship — while the other coach’s team finished last.

If he was thinking sports first, he would have pushed my brother and I to sign up and stay on teams, rather than letting us decide what we wanted to do. If we didn’t speak up, he didn’t sign us up. And when I quit running cross country and track after my sophomore year of high school, his words were something like, “OK.” But he was there for my meets, and those of my brother, who did stick it out all the way through. He wasn’t disinterested, but he wasn’t going to shell out money and time if we didn’t care ourselves.

And in all of that, I feel his influence. I probably push a little more, maybe a result of me coaching so many of my kids’ teams. But I don’t sign up my kids for anything they don’t want to do, and if they don’t want to do it anymore after the season is over, that’s fine by me. And I agree that school comes first, and sports comes way behind that. It’s fun, and it’s great, but… well, the blog title applies to my own kids as well.

My dad, though living three hours away, made it to some of my kids’ games, the last one being one of my 6-year-old son’s bowling league matches. That was after he was diagnosed. I know he was very proud, and he made sure to give my 6-year-old the 15-pound ball he used for years in his own playing days, understanding of course that my son is a bit far away from being able to lift it.

Soon my dad will be gone. But he’ll always be around, as you can see. Now, I’m going to get some coffee.

UPDATE: My father died early this morning in his home. He died peacefully, knowing he had a lot of love and support in his final days.

Putting on my Steve Stone, “for-all-you-young-coaches-out-there” voice

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2315101076_d7483780e8_mThat voice also says, “For all you young announcers out there, make sure you have a strong stomach before spending a season working with Hawk Harrelson.”

Brian Reid of Rebeldad, blogging at the Washington Post’s On Parenting site, is asking for answer to the following questions as he investigates following in his own father’s footsteps as a youth sports coach:

At what point do kids turn rabidly competitive? Does that happen before or after the parents make the transition? And what happens when you coach your own kid (or what happens when the mom or dad around the block coaches their kid)?

Here is how I answered his questions:

I’ve coached two of my kids in multiple sports and am working on my third (T-ball this spring), so I’ll take a crack at this:

At what point do kids turn rabidly competitive?

I would say age two, when someone tries to take their toy. Seriously, some care about winning, some don’t, some care about making sure they’re the best player out there, some don’t. You can’t make a kid who doesn’t care, care. However, you can make a kid who cares funnel that energy in the right direction so he or she doesn’t make his or her teammates miserable.

Does that happen before or after the parents make the transition?

We shouldn’t be shocked that parents are competitive because, at a minimum, they want to see their child succeed, or at least feel like they’re not wasting their and their child’s time. But it’s like the kids — some parents care, some don’t, and the challenge is funneling the energy of the parents who care in the right direction, i.e., staying positive.
And what happens when you coach your own kid (or what happens when the mom or dad around the block coaches their kid)?

I tell my kids before each season that once we hit the field/court, I’m speaking to them as their coach, and that I will treat them equally as other kids. I do that so they don’t expect special treatment (which I’m not sure they do), but moreso that if I critique their play they know I’m speaking as a coach trying to help them, not their father trying to be a jerk. My 11-year-old son is so well-trained on this, the moment we step out of the car for a practice or game, he stops calling me “Dad” and calls me “Coach.”

As far as other parents coaching their kids, you do have some who blatantly favor their own children — often to the child’s detriment. I’ve seen serious meltdowns when a coach kept putting his or her child in nominal position to be the star, but the child instead struggled mightily. It’s hard enough on a kid when he or she struggles, but the pressure is even greater when he or she feels he or she is letting down not just a coach, but a parent.