Dad, What Have You Learned?

It was only his first year coaching his son’s tee-ball team, and this dad was already at the end of his rope. He was frustrated and losing patience with the kids on the team. He’d played baseball at a very high level himself – he knew the game. He knew the skills and attitude required to become a very good player, but he did not know that coaching 5 and 6-year-olds was going to be this hard.

I told him about my first year coaching tee-ball to 5-year-olds and, although I didn’t know anything about baseball, I thought my good nature with children would make me a champion coach. I was very wrong. I thought I would teach the kids something; however, what really happened was they taught me something about myself.

My biggest piece of advice to him was, “We will learn more about ourselves from coaching these kids than they will learn from us.”

This coach internalized this concept. So much so, that months later during the club presentation, he talked about it, saying how much it had helped him throughout the rest of the season, and encouraged other coaches to ponder this themselves.

Dad, what have you learned about yourself?

You may have heard the phrase, ‘Go into the room of mirrors and take a good long look at yourself.’ The good news is there are a lot of mirrors right in front of us in situations like coaching a youth sports team. We don’t need to pay a lot of money or search for someone holding that one special mirror to give us these insights.

While writing this ‘Dad’ series, I’ve made some straightforward, sobering comments about us dads (and moms) and how basically we need to get out of the way and let our children play ball. I’ve written about what my interactions with my son have taught me, and what I have observed from watching ‘good’ parents and ‘bad’ parents at games.

In all my years growing up as a young soccer player (football to the purists), there is a memory that stands out in my mind, and it’s something I’m not proud of.

Every time I played, all I heard were the frustrated shouts of my dad on the sideline telling me what to do. The coach also yelled out, but I was fine with that since that was his job. I still remember my favorite soccer coach, a Scotsman by the name of George, rebuking me at halftime when I pulled out from making a strike on goal. He said, “Ya chickened out, didn’t ya? Never chicken out, Marky.” I smile, reflecting back on that dressing-down as if it was just last week. But I digress…

This was about my dad, and how I responded to him on one particular day. I have no recollection of what it was that he said to me from the sideline, but most of the time it upset me. One time, when I was 12, I’d had enough and responded back, “Dad, just shut up will you?” It hurts even as I write this. I am ashamed to say I didn’t even want my dad to watch me play because I felt so much pressure from him being there. There were other children who had to combat their own dads back then as well. And today, in every sport, there are children who have the same emotional battles with their parents on the sideline.

From that day on, my dad never said much from the sideline. He is now old and loves coming to watch his grandson play baseball. Having lived in Australia since the 1950s and learning the game of cricket, he still calls a pitch, a ‘bowl’ and a catcher, ‘the wickie’. He’s learning terms slowly, but he has learned to cheer and not criticize.

We can all be guilty of it sometimes—I’ve certainly had my time of being a critical coach or parent on the sideline. When I first started coaching, I had no idea how to talk to 5-year-olds. I spoke to them as if I was barking orders from center back position in the over 35’s soccer team I played for. Not surprisingly, this only made them cry.

It upset me as well when some of the parents told me off for speaking to their children in such a manner.

My son often told me how bad it was when I showed my frustrations on the sideline when someone made an error in a baseball game. Whether I was coaching or simply watching, I would let out a loud groan. My wife pointed out how obvious it was every time I gasped, turned around and almost keeled over, but it was my son who said, “Dad, you’ve got to stop. Everyone hears you, even in the outfield.” And I thought I was being subtle and holding back my emotions by not yelling out any criticism.

Since then, what have I learned? That it doesn’t matter; it’s not me playing, it’s my son. He plays for his enjoyment and not to make my insecure, competitive ego feel good. I’m learning my son needs me more when times have been tough out on the field than when he has had great success.

An Australian baseball player who has played at the highest level told me about the hard times and successes he had while playing in the U.S. He told me his dad would call him to congratulate him when he had his successes. Yet, the son needed his dad to call and encourage him most when he was going through a rough patch, when things were not working out on the baseball diamond. He needed more than ever that refreshing, securing voice during those challenges.

It’s nice riding on the coattails of our children. I like it. You like it. Whatever it is, baseball, football, academics or chess—it feels good. We feel proud. We daydream about it. We reflect on that special hit or play. We indulge in the possibilities of the future. We hear of the odds of making it to the top of the baseball pyramid—and don’t we like to think our child is going to defy the odds? We know we become a target if we proclaim our child is the next big short stop—but still we hope. Like a grandparent religiously buying a lotto ticket and promising to spread the winnings among the children and grandchildren, we invest time and money on extra training, promising ourselves this has got to have a pay-off one day and besides, we’re only doing it for our children, right? 

Dads, what have we learned?

Hopefully you’ve learned the difference between your dreams and your child’s dreams, and that you can’t instill your dreams upon them. Most junior baseball players figure out themselves where they are in the pecking order with fellow players and either settle for mere enjoyment of the game or strive to work harder to become better. It takes a bit longer for us dads to catch up with this reality.

Dad, there is no panacea to restrain our singular vision and highly-competitive nature. You are who you are. Be comfortable with that. What you need to do is take a different perspective. If you can see yourself, your child and the game from another seat at the table, your eyes will be opened.

Dad, what have we learned about ourselves? And more importantly, how are we applying what we’ve learned?

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