Now that the school year has gotten into the swing of things, the season has come for little league soccer games, football under the friday night lights, and every other sport you can imagine. While these days spent on the court or in the field bring joy, tough moments and conversations arise too. To shed some light on parenting athletes, we asked blogger and dad Aaron Conrad to share his approach in a four-part series over the next month.
On October 6, 2000, God brought me my first and only son into this world. He would later grace our family with two girls. From day one, my wife and I agreed we would allow our children to choose a sport they enjoyed but we would ask that they at least try out a few of them. It seemed only natural that “the boy” would choose two of the sports that are nearest and dearest to my heart. From the time he could get up on two feet, there was a basketball hoop in his play area (I might have tilted the “favorite sport” in my favor by getting him hooked on hoops early and often).
Now that he and the girls are older, I am starting to walk the fine line of parenting an athlete. To be honest, my wife Heather tackles this more for the girls. Heather was a swimmer, so our youngest daughter gets coaching and instruction from her. Our middle child is a gymnast so my wife and I are both in uncharted waters. Meanwhile, our son plays two sports I played and it’s been my joy to teach, instruct and guide him as he has grown. He currently plays at the highest-level league in both.
So, how do you parent an athlete with all the challenges that arise from participating in sports?
Let me unpack what I mean. I believe there is a fine line between coaching your child and being “that dad” that pushes too hard. I’ve seen it all on the teams I coach — from parents who are there just to cheer to parents that push their kids too hard the entire game.
Where’s the balance? How can we challenge our kids without pushing them to the point where they tune us out completely?
I struggle game-to-game with how to be an encouraging dad to my children as they’re “out on the field.” Below are some thoughts I try to remind myself of in the tough moments:
- Be honest in your evaluation of their talent – We all believe our kids are the best at whatever they do. We’re convinced they will be all-American athletes. We tend to make this assessment before they can even run, throw, dribble, shoot or catch. We just know our kids will be the ones with their names in lights. Could it be that they won’t? It’s a tough thing to answer, but doing so will allow you and your little athletes to enjoy the sports they are involved in. Your expectations won’t be so high and their dreams won’t be crushed.
- Know their strengths and weaknesses – Before our children even put on a uniform for the first time, we have a pretty good idea of how they’re “bent.” We know how our kids are wired – whether they are aggressive, passive, patient, or energetic. Choosing a sport and a position where each of them can grow and utilize those talents is a great place to start. Once they begin playing the sports they chose, you must remember how they are wired. If you have a passive child by nature, you can’t expect aggressive play. It may come one day or it just may not be in the cards.
- Choose wisely – If your town is like ours, there are most likely multiple leagues with wide ranges of talent levels. This reiterates my first point: be honest in your evaluation of their talent. If you believe your child might not be elite at a particular sport, put them in a league where they can enjoy the sport while not getting discouraged. If you see real talent and ability that needs refined, put them in a league where they will be challenged to get better. It might take some trial and error. If they are overmatched, be okay with moving to a different league. If they are dominating with little effort, it’s time to move them up.
- Encourage always – I have no idea if I’m getting this right. I honestly don’t. The reality is that no matter how good or bad our little athletes are, we need to always encourage them. Even though they are ours, they have their own minds, bodies and emotions. As in life, winning often involves repeated failure. As long as they are trying, we need to encourage each miss and celebrate each hit.
As this is a real struggle for me, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well I want the best for my kids. I want them to reach their full potential while enjoying each moment in every game. It’s a tough line to walk – I just hope I’m getting some of it right.
Aaron Conrad is a husband, father, follower of Christ, Tar Heel fan, random tweeter and believer that Love Does!