Sporting Fathers

(This article was originally published in April 2013.  I’m hoping a whole new crop of fathers will find it helpful.)

I have a thirteen-year-old son who plays competitive tennis.  That makes me a “tennis dad”. Lately, I don’t think I’m doing so well in that role.

I recall hearing a statistic that more than 90% of problems associated with youth sports are the result of parental behaviour.

One of my son’s most dynamic coaches shared some wisdom with me three years ago:  “Robert, your job is simple:  Support Andrew financially, logistically, and emotionally.  That’s it.”

Sounded simple.  I can do that.

Here’s what really happens:  When Andrew’s play slips during competition, I start to fidget, and my stomach muscles tighten.  If points and games slip by, fidgeting leads to pacing.  If Melissa is nearby, I externalise my discomfort by providing colour commentary about what he’s doing wrong, or what he should be doing.  (She knows enough not to listen to me.)  Often, unable to put up with my incessant chatter, she’ll gently move away to cheer Andrew on from a more peaceful vantage point.  I love my wife.

I recently found comfort in a friend who is a lacrosse dad, and who suffers from some of the same sports-related challenges I do.  He does the same things on the sidelines that I do.  He mutters the same sort of things that I mutter.  His wife even does the same thing Melissa does!

My friend believes there are many, many more of us out there.

I really don’t want to damage my good relationship with my son.  I am well aware that fathers who don’t manage this sports thing very well can do a lot of harm.

As a counselor, I’ve heard stories first hand from men and women who’ve grown up excelling in their sports, but “made it” at the cost of a damaged or broken relationship with a parent.  Most often it was with dad.

Fathers do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

Colossians 3:21

Other folks have told me they grew up with fathers who doled out love on the basis of good behaviour or performance.  In sporting terms, when they won, dad praised and embraced, but, when they lost or didn’t perform up to father’s expectations, emotional distance set in.  For some, working through the pain of having to earn a father’s affection takes years of counseling later in adulthood.

So, what do kids want?  

Ask 100 junior athletes and I’d guess fifty want to meet some new friends, and seventy-five want to have fun.  Ninety might want to win, but every single one of them wants to be loved unconditionally by his parents.

I have a great relationship with my son, on every level, except one:  When he plays poorly and loses a winnable match, something changes inside of me.  I’m ashamed to say that I feel emotionally unsettled for a number of hours.  My entire family knows it the second I walk in the door.  It feels biochemical.  It feels weird.

While my friend and I were talking, he shared a quote from a university basketball coach …

Don’t treat every game as life or death.  Otherwise, you’ll find yourself dead a lot.

Dean Smith

When I drive Andrew home after a disappointing match, he knows he didn’t play well.  Melissa says he notices it when I get up and pace at his matches, or walk away for a time.  It only makes matters worse that he’s waiting for the “shoe to drop” in the car.

My friend who shares my struggles does a better job at dissipating his frustration.   After a loss, he and his lacrosse-playing son go for ice cream.  Dad thinks about what he wants to say for a couple of days, and then expresses his thoughts in a positive or encouraging way.  I can learn a lot from friends like this.

What does it take for me to be a more sporting father?

I obviously need to learn how to be gentler with and more supportive of my son when he needs it the most.  He’s a talented athlete, but he’s also a sensitive young man and a precious gift from God.

I need to learn how to provide fatherly inspiration without providing unsolicited advice.  He has a coach.  I have the higher privilege of being his father.

I need to deliver genuine love that looks the same to him, win or lose.  Regaining his trust in those few key moments is going to take some time.

Far more profound than all of this, however, is the fact that a child’s early concept of God is shaped by a his relationship with his “earthly” father.  For Andrew and his sisters, that’s me.  God’s unconditional, sacrificial love isn’t going to make a lot of sense to any of them, if they interpret my love as somehow tied to their performance.

So, as both a father and a ministry leader, I have a high responsibility to point my kids to God by how I live, during the fun and easy times — yes, but even more importantly during difficult and challenging moments.

Please pray for me.  It’s not easy being a sporting father, but with the Lord’s help, I’m gonna get there.

Blessings on your home,


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