"It's just a game."
How many times have I heard that phrase used to dismiss an athletic competition? How many times have I said that myself?
So, once and for all, let's set the record straight: A ball game is more than a "game."
Sports have so much to teach us about what it means to live well. Yes, good character can be taught in Sunday school, but it is "practiced" on the court, diamond, gridiron and track. Virtues such as tenacity, perseverance, fairness, integrity and responsibility can be developed and strengthened as surely as the muscles and skills needed for competition.
More than 30 million children in the United States participate in organized sports1. The rising popularity of youth athletics is good news for dads. It presents a matchless opportunity to connect with their children and teach valuable life skills.
For some dads, sports can make parenting seem easier, more natural. As a father tosses a baseball with his son in the backyard or plays tennis with his daughter in the park, the gap between them closes. Few words are needed; the activity itself draws them close.
"I have great memories of being with my dad, having him teach me how to throw a ball, how to catch, how to do athletic things," says former NFL coach Tony Dungy. "It was a great time for us."
Unfortunately, the pursuit of athletics isn't without its pitfalls. In his desire to see his kids excel, the overzealous sports dad can push too hard and drive a wedge between him and his children. And when a father fails to curb his competiveness, kids can learn the wrong lessons: Winning is everything; don't let other players hog the glory; the referee doesn't deserve my respect.
"We put unrealistic expectations on our kids many times, and we don't allow them just to have fun and enjoy it," Dungy says. "We've got to be careful and make [sports] positive and make it something that the young person enjoys."
In the articles that follow, you'll learn how to get the most mileage out of your kids' sports involvement. Whether they're in peewee soccer or high-school football, you'll discover practical strategies for helping them learn all that athletics can teach them. Suggestions from fathering experts will also guide you around the common dangers and show you how to keep the action on the field both fun and positive.
You are the most important coach your kids will ever have. Use your influence to help them achieve their full potential — in sports as well as in life.
Athletic competition provides opportunities for young people to learn and grow. If your children are involved in sports, make the most of the opportunity to teach them about these six important character qualities:
Teachability. No matter how much an athlete accomplishes, he always has room to grow. To excel, he must be eager to learn and willing to accept instruction.
The bigger issue here is humility and respect for authority. The coach might make decisions your child doesn't agree with; the referee or umpire might make a bad call. Still, your child needs to learn to deal with his frustration in a positive way. Learning this on the field or in the gym can translate into respect for other authority figures: teachers, bosses, police officers and church leaders.
When things don't go well for your child, be willing to speak the truth. That might mean saying, 'Your coach is testing your character and your loyalty.' Or you might say, 'You can't control what the coach decides, but you can control how hard you work to get better.'
Integrity. Martin Luther King Jr. used to talk about an "11th commandment" that prevails in America: "Thou shalt not get caught." Many people still live by that tenet. But we must call our children to honesty and integrity, and sports provide opportunities to do that.
I remember playing a game of touch football at a summer camp, where I was leading a group of boys for the week. When I threw a long pass to one of the boys and he caught it for a touchdown, our players celebrated wildly. But just as I was throwing the pass, I had felt one of the opposing players nick me on the back with his finger. The referee never knew, but that other player knew it, I knew it, and God knew it.
So I had to tell the ref and take a loss instead of a touchdown. The kids on my team couldn't understand why I did that, but I think it was an important lesson for them — and for the other team. Our kids need to know that if they have integrity, they will be winners — no matter the outcome of the game.
Modeling is the key to teaching your kids integrity. No matter what you say, your kids will remember your actions more than your words. Your integrity is reflected in the way you cheer at your child's game and the way you talk about the game afterward. Would you give back a victory in order to do the right thing? What is your attitude about stretching the rules in order to win?
Perseverance. In the heat of competition, your child will face defeat and failure. In football, he'll fumble the ball or miss a tackle; in softball, she'll strike out; in soccer, he'll let an opponent past him for the game-winning goal. Whenever there's a winner, there is also a loser — in track or swimming, there are many losers.
I can remember a game in high school where I ran the wrong direction and messed up a play for our team. My coach took me out of the game. That night, my dad explained to me, "He couldn't put you back in because you had lost your poise. Son, you've got to forget that play and move on. You've got to learn how to deal with disappointment."
It's important to teach your child how to deal with failure in a positive way. That lesson, learned under pressure, will help prepare him to succeed — in sports and many other areas of life.
Positive attitude. Gifted athletes don't necessarily make the best players. Often, a coach will keep them on the sideline because of their bad attitude. The coach knows this player can bring down the whole team. Likewise, the best teams are not always made up of the greatest athletes, but when they accept their role on the team and have a positive attitude about it, they can win. These players focus on the team and the greater good, not their own concerns.
Your child's attitude, whether good or bad, will determine how far she can go in life. Praise your child for her positive attitude above her good performance. Challenge her with the notion that one optimistic person can set the tone for the whole team.
Respect. As you know, there's a lot of posturing and "trash-talking" in sports today — even in kids' games. In the heat of competition, your child may be tempted to put another player down or pump himself up. He's trying to feel important. But it's vital that we teach our kids to show good sportsmanship even during on-the-field battles.
They need to learn to redefine what "winning" means. If they win a game but disrespect or humiliate other players, that is not winning. Ask them to look for what God might want them to accomplish during that game. Talk about specific ways they can live out their faith even while they're trying to beat their opponent.
Self-esteem. Sports will bring out the unique characteristics of your children. It will help them discover the ways in which God made them special. Maybe your son can't jump high enough to touch the net — but he might be a good shooter from the outside. Maybe it's clear your daughter will never be the star of the team — but perhaps her teammates all look to her for encouragement. Whatever the case, your children will learn a lot about their strengths and weaknesses.
The performance-oriented nature of sports will give you many chances to cheer your children on and affirm them. But no matter how they perform, let them know you love them simply for who they are.
Q: My daughter is 8 years old and very athletic. She does very well in gymnastics. Yet, she lacks discipline and struggles in soccer, where her dad is the coach. The soccer season is starting up again, and I'm dreading the inevitable fights and meltdowns between them. My daughter doesn't want to disappoint Dad — but she's getting nothing out of soccer. What do you recommend we do?
A: From your description, I believe the best solution is for your daughter to move to a different soccer team, one that is not coached by her dad. Some sports leagues do not allow parents to coach their own kids, and for good reason.
They've made this rule because one of two scenarios often occurs: either the parent engages in favoritism, giving his own child special breaks that the other kids don't get, or the parent is extra hard on his child, pushing her extra hard and criticizing her much more harshly than the other kids on the team. It sounds as though your husband falls into the "no special breaks for my kid" camp, and your daughter is miserable because of it.
If your husband is a supercompetitive type, he may make the mistake of basing worth on achievement and affirming your daughter only when she succeeds. That's a bad move and may negatively impact her self-esteem for the rest of her life. It will also put a strain on their relationship, and major explosions will occur when she reaches the teen years.
While we should encourage our kids to develop self-discipline and pursue excellence, it's critical that our relationship with them is based on unconditional love and acceptance. We need to be their biggest cheerleaders, affirming them when they succeed and encouraging them when they fail.
I was tempted to throw a John McEnroe-sized tantrum. Is the referee blind?!
The star of the basketball team had just made a play worthy of epic poetry — only to have his moment of glory stolen by a lousy referee call. A foul? No way was that a foul! I could feel my blood pounding in my ears.
Under the circumstances, however, I decided against a courtside tantrum. You see, the players weren't NBA, NCAA or even high-school athletes. They were 3- and 4-year-olds. And the "star" player was my son, Ian.
As my emotions cooled, I wondered, How could I let myself get so wrapped up in a game played by preschoolers?
You have to understand — I am the most unlikely of sports dads.
Most of my life I have suffered from SIS (sports inept syndrome), a rare disorder that makes men utter embarrassing lines about "touchdowns" while trying to join a conversation about basketball. As you might imagine, it can be socially devastating.
I did try to overcome my disability. As a kid, I collected baseball cards, although I couldn't care less who the players were and had no idea what those cryptic numbers meant. I even owned football pads and a batter's helmet. I never once wore them to a football field or baseball diamond, but they made an awesome gladiator's costume.
In elementary school, my parents signed me up for soccer. I spent most of my game time watching clouds or spinning in circles. After five years, I had a lifetime scoring record of zero. But I did kick the ball once . . . I think.
My inglorious soccer career finally came to an end in fifth grade, and I hung up my cleats and put sports behind me forever.
Or so I thought.
When my son uttered his first word, I knew I was in trouble. He didn't say "Mama" or "Dada"; he said "ball." I kid you not. By the time he could sit up, he had a ball in his hands. Before he was 2, he was dribbling a full-size basketball.
While other dads might have been scheming a full ride to Notre Dame, I was dreading the day when my sports-loving son would realize, to his utter devastation, that dear ol' Dad suffers from SIS. How could I tell him that I don't know a TD from an RBI?
When Ian turned 3, my wife and I signed him up for peewee basketball. Naturally, he took to it like a Brazilian to soccer. In the first game, he scored all his team's points.
OK, it was two baskets. But I couldn't have been more proud if he had scored a 50-point game. I was immediately hooked on peewee basketball.
Not content with the team's weekend practices, I took him to the Y on weekdays to perfect his shot. At home, we practiced passing the ball and dribbling around an opponent.
Each time Ian made another basket during a game, I glowed. No, I gloated. I felt vindicated for all the times I had been chosen last for a pickup game. The fact that this athletic phenomenon came from my gene pool somehow made me less inferior.
Then, halfway through the basketball season, Ian lost interest. Instead of shooting baskets, he preferred to goof around with his friends on the sidelines. His scoring average plummeted. He was no longer the star player.
"Why doesn't he try harder?" I grumbled to my wife. Doesn't he know what's at stake? I mean, what if a recruiter from Notre Dame happened to be in the crowd?
With my pride deflated, I finally came to my senses. I saw peewee basketball for what it was — a game played by 3- and 4-year-olds at a YMCA gym. These kids weren't vying for a national championship, but they were learning valuable lessons about teamwork and fair play.
This was basketball in its purest form. Ian and his teammates played simply for the fun of it. There were no egos, no social jockeying. Ian had nothing to prove.
Fortunately, neither did I.