I’m convinced my dad would be ranked number one in the world if there was a category for Masterful Parental Manipulation With a Sports Emphasis.
I think about him every time I walk past a parent going off on some little kid because he isn’t performing. Then I fight the urge to stop and scream “Amateur!” at the top of my lungs. [At the parent, not the kid. Kids are supposed to be amateur, for anyone who’s forgotten.]
There are certainly lots of complexities and nuances to parenting in general and parenting a potential sports superstar in particular today and no one knows everything. Even so, the notion that the only way to get results is by verbally whipping them after each and every failure from the minute they are born onward is completely erroneous. That is just one motivational approach out of hundreds that have historically been used to motivate professionals across industry. There’s never only one way to execute a goal. CEOs know that.
I feel it’s my responsibility as a former player, sometimes coach and current fan (of most sports) to debunk this philosophy, considering I was raised and mentored by someone who “got it right.”
Let’s say that, hypothetically, this is us:
Twenty-five years ago my dad used to arrive home in his old pickup truck after an epic commute in rush hour to Fort Worth and begin the excruciating process of taping up both of his knees (I swear the man has kept Mueller in business), throwing on his Russell sweatpants, lacing up his Reebok high tops, wrangling his three kids and walking (yes, walking) over to the local high school for a game of pickup.
There weren’t any recreation centers on that side of town until we started leaving for college so we were stuck with the poor man’s version and that suited us just fine. The walk was followed by games during which he fought tirelessly to get at least one or two of his fun-size athletes into the mix for a chance to run with the high schoolers and adults who always seemed to arrive with something to prove.
He’s old school so just imagine the kinds of calls he made throughout the game. Foul. Travel. Carry. Three seconds. That’s just during the game; he had another set of rules to get to tipoff. My kids play on my team. (He wasn’t into trades, not that the other team was looking.) If that one got rejected due to the minimum height requirement, he’d invoke his “substitution rule” which enabled him to swap kids on a made bucket. Substitution during pickup? Who is this guy? Sometimes he’d make us go over and call next, just to build character. And let’s not get into swearing regulations and penalties. The man’s rules had rules.
So far it’s sounding pretty on par with lots of kids’ experiences growing up with a sports-centric dad in the U.S. during the 90s, right? Here’s the difference. [WARNING: This is a secret of the universe.]
Everything he did in relation to sports, every action, reaction and interaction, flowed from the same anchor point: Enthusiasm. He had unmatched personal enthusiasm for the game. He still does. He just loves basketball. He’d love basketball in a vacuum. He’d sit in that vacuum talking about it for hours, baffling the world’s greatest scientists. Because of this enthusiasm, I wanted to be a part of it. We all did. It was unintentionally artful. He made it look like so much fun.
In this way, he incubated our love of the game for years until we were ready to address the hard questions. Am I good enough to play in college? Even if I’m good enough, will I be given the opportunity? If not, how am I going to pay for school? Around this same age he also made us aware of the financial commitments of summer leagues and tournaments. Driving to Louisiana or Oklahoma was a big decision for our family of five. He told us to take it seriously. The takeaway here is that in his mind “taking it seriously” always translated to “maximum effort” and not performance specifics.
Don’t get me wrong; I had my fair share of car rides home with him from terrible games where we re-hashed every play, every shot and every decision I made on the floor. Those were excruciating but they happened at 16, 17, 18. I played for aggressive, militant coaches in high school and college. There’s nothing wrong with a high bar and relentless standards and being pushed. That’s to be expected, most times, when you compete at a high level. That’s a different conversation, though.
Looking back, my dad had two things going for him. He had the right approach (win them over with my enthusiasm) and he had the right goal (time spent together doing something we all love). He always cared more about whether we were good people than good athletes. That formula can be pretty powerful in life. It can produce results. It can produce kids who end up being both.
Turns out Peter Berg (click here) and John McEnroe agree with me.
In Part II of this article we’ll discuss their thoughts on the current sports parenting climate and why it’s something that’s worth getting worked up about.
written by – A.M. Boidock