It's Just a Game - Addressing Dads & Athletes

I have the privilege of speaking this weekend at the monthly gathering of Dads and Athletes in Newnan, GA.

Here's what I plan to share:

I grew up with exposure to the best and worst of a dad who wanted me to succeed sports.

My dad's parents divorced when he was 10. His mom took he and his younger sister from a middle-class life in Miami, FL to a life of barely-getting-by in a tiny town called Shallotte in southeastern NC.

The years that followed required my dad to work multiple jobs while he was in school to make sure the bills were paid. Because of that responsibility, he wasn't able to play sports.

But he wasn't about to let that happen to my older brothers and me. He signed us up and coached our teams in soccer, basketball, and baseball. Eventually my oldest brother played lacrosse and the middle brother directed his efforts toward computers, so that left me to play the game my dad liked most - baseball.

I was okay with that: I liked baseball and watched the Baltimore Orioles play on TV - Cal Ripken, Jr. was my favorite player.

So my dad would take me to the ball field every Sunday morning. He would pitch and pitch and pitch; I would hit and hit and hit. Then I would pitch and he would catch. Then he would hit me ground balls and pop flies.

That was my dad: active and involved, trying to give me the experiences and opportunities he never had.

But he was also demanding - sometimes too demanding.

If I made an error, he would berate me in front of my teammates.
If I struckout looking, he would yell at me the whole way home.
And the worst was being taken behind the dugout mid-game where he'd stick his pointer finger into my sternum and tell me there'd be hell to pay if I didn't step up my play.

So my dad caused me to love the game of baseball, and also to hate the game of baseball. But it didn't have to be that way. And it wouldn't have been that way if he'd only remembered that it's just a game.

Of course, I've seen many such dads along the way:

Tony _______ screamed so many expletives at the umpire during a 13-year old recreation game that he was ejected (as a fan!). He walked to the parking lot, got in his truck, and drove onto the field until the police came.

It's just a game.

Ronnie _______ required his 12-year old son to take 100 swings right-handed and 100 swings left-handed before he did anything else. One morning, his boy decided to play video games instead. This dad burst into the room, picked up the PlayStation, and smashed it on the floor.

It's just a game.

I saw a more mild example just recently while I was coaching in the Sharpsburg league at the Andrew Bailey Fields. This dad's son was a decent pitcher - he threw strikes - but the players in the field made error after error behind him. The boy would sulk and look to his dad. And what was his dad doing? He was yelling at everyone, throwing his hands up in disgust, and storming around the bleachers. It wasn't long before the boy parroted his dad and, eventually, he saw his teammates not as friends, but as enemies.

Say it with me: It's just a game.

Now please don't misunderstand me. When I say it's just a game, I don't mean there's not a place for striving, working hard, or going all out. Those things, as I'll mention in a moment, are good and necessary. But we must always remember, and remind our kids: if there's no satisfaction at the end of the effort, then it's time to find something else to do.

You can't force it, you can only find it.

And that's a big difference - between forcing and finding - that many dads don't discern. They try to make their kids enjoy something that the kids fundamentally do not enjoy. Instead, dads should listen and help their kids discover what the kids enjoy and encourage them to excel in it - whatever it is.

It's the basic difference between motivating with a carrot and motivating with a stick.
Prison guards have to use the stick because societal order and wellbeing are at stake.
But when it comes to sports, parents should use the carrot: because it's just a game.

My brother recently asked me if I was going to make Tyson (my son) play baseball. I told him no. I'll expose Tyson to many different things - music, computers, and sports - and he'll figure out what's satisfying to him. Of course, he'll know that I like baseball and that I can be most helpful to him in that sport, but if he wants to go in a different direction then I support him 100% and will help to him the best I can.

Whenever I mention to parents that it's just a game, I usually get one naysayer who points out the kids in high school who are being looked at by college coaches. At that point it's about scholarship money, so it's not just a game anymore. Those parents, according to the naysayer, have an obligation to take it more seriously.

Point taken. I agree. But a friend of mine is an assistant baseball coach at a Division I university. He told me the quickest strike against a player isn't what happens on the field; it's an overbearing parent. He knows that he brings that kid to campus, a headache will surely follow. So even when you're dealing with scholarship money and you're taking things more seriously, you should still remember that it's just a game.

As with any game, though, you've got to work at it if want you to be good at it. This is the most underappreciated part of sports because it happens on the practice field with limited fanfare. There aren't any lights or cheerleaders, it's just effort and sweat.

But here's the secret:
You're good at what you work at, and you enjoy what you're good at.

And those, you should notice, are the seeds of respect - both self-respect and respect from others:
1) Effort - you work at it
2) Skill - you're good at it
3) Enjoyment - you're pleased with it

Life is too short and the options are too great to push your kids into activities that bring them no joy.

Just this week I heard the General Manager of the St. Louis Rams talking about their quarterback, Sam Bradford. He said that Bradford earned his teammates respect because of his work ethic. Everyone knew that he could play, but he won their support by the way he worked. Sam Bradford puts in the effort to develop the skill, and ultimately, he enjoys the game.

So I insist that our role as dads in the lives of athletes is to expose them to as many options as we can, see what they enjoy, teach them that they'll enjoy it even more when they work hard to get better, and, all the while, help them to keep it sports in proper perspective - because, when it's all said and done, it's just a game.

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