As a kid and teenager, I loved basketball. Every year, when the season would roll around (remember when we didn’t have year-round sports?), my dad and I would kick off the year by watching some of our favourite basketball movies like Hoosiers. And throughout the year, we spent weekends marvelling at Michael Jordan as he dominated the NBA. My dad shared his love of the game with me, which was important because it instilled in me a passion for the game.
My dad would show me drills that I could do in my backyard and encourage me to work on the fundamentals: use the backboard, work on your left hand, and keep your head up. My parents let me know about opportunities like basketball camps to improve my skills, and when I showed interest, they supported me by driving me hundreds of miles to attend these camps.
My dad was at nearly every game I played, cheering me on, and he was legendary for encouraging the referees to call three seconds on the other team!
My father was, without a doubt, important in my basketball career.
However, from my earliest memories he didn’t make himself essential. He never told me I had to love basketball; he just told me how much he loved the game.
My dad taught me the fundamentals, and the drills to work on those fundamentals, but he never told me I had to go spend hours dribbling around trashcans in the backyard.
As a 10-year-old boy, when I wanted to attend the best basketball camp in the country, which required an eight-hour drive from home and a $400 price tag, my parents said they would drive and help pay for it. But, I had to work all summer, doing chores around the house to earn it. And every summer after that for the next five years, I would work and sweat in the humid, hot, South Carolina sun, painting our house, chopping wood, and mowing our lawn to earn my place in the camp.
Whether I played well or poorly, my dad was there at nearly every game, cheering me on and letting me know how much he loved to watch me play. But, he never offered any coaching advice unless I asked him for it.
When I experienced challenges as a high school basketball player, such as issues with my coach, a dip in my motivation and work ethic, or a serious drop in performance, my dad gave me the space necessary to figure these things out on my own, while offering an ear if I needed help.
When I suffered with anxiety and depression, it was never because of any pressure he put on me. Did I want to make him proud? Absolutely. But, I never felt I had to perform to be worthy of his love. He continued to listen and encourage me through those times and paid for the sessions I needed with a therapist.
My dad could have continued to make himself important and needed by paying for my camps, coaching me, stepping in to solve my problems, and trying to motivate me when I struggled to keep working hard. But, he didn’t. He allowed me to struggle. He was more focused on being valuable than being important, and because of his approach, sports became an experience that taught me many lessons and helped build my character.
As I have reflected back on my experience and studied the research I have identified 10 things I need to DO and 10 things I need to NOT do as a sports parent. You can read about those here.
Every parent has a small part (or possibly, a big part) of themselves that wants to remain important. As our children grow up, even during the transition from infant to toddler, we welcome their independence. We no longer have to get them dressed, drive them to every event, and eventually, they earn the greatest of them all—financial independence! While we crave their independence in many areas, we still have a desire to be needed, to be important.
Research and experience show us that there is dramatic shift in today’s parenting styles. Author and child psychologist, Dr. Tim Elmore, says, “One of the biggest mistakes parents make is preparing the path for the child, instead of preparing the child for the path.” We can fall into the trap of operating in a manner of importance. I like to use the example of a young child learning to ride a bike. We, as parents, can typically operate more like the training wheels. When you take off the training wheels, people aren’t fully ready to ride. Thus, we are important.
Yet, another approach to parenting can be equated to that that of the parent in the backyard, teaching their kid to ride a bike, walking alongside their son or daughter, and giving them a push. We are there to encourage them and help them believe in themselves. We are ready to pick them up and dust them off when they fall. Now, we are valuable.
There will be a time when we need to operate as the training wheels in their life, but at some stage, we have to take the training wheels off. We have to move from being important to providing value.
I have come to realise great parents provide value in ways that don’t always appear or feel important. It’s easy for parents to fall into the comparison trap in sports. They see all the other things parents are doing for their kids and feel they are failing their own children. Good parenting will often look and feel irresponsible in today’s society.
As a parent, we may just need to be the break from the sport our children need during conversations in the home. We may need to allow them to suffer the natural consequences that we are far too often saving them from. We definitely need to be the voice of love and support for who they are as a person, and not just their athletic accomplishments.
3 Ways to Be Valuable
Give Them Space: When they encounter a struggle or challenge, our first instinct is to step in and help them. Let them know you are there for them if they need you, but let them figure it out on their own. It’s painful to watch and can feel irresponsible! But, it’s an valuable part of growing up.
Ask Them Great Questions: As parents, we sometimes want to give them the answers. When they aren’t playing as much as they want, or they aren’t getting along with their coach, instead of telling them what you think they should do, start by asking, “Why do you think this is happening? What can you do to improve the situation?
Be the Springboard, Not the Safety Net: We have to give up control over various aspects of their lives and let them take ownership, even when we know they will fail. When they screw up, we aren’t there to point out their mistakes; rather, we are there to encourage them and help them bounce back through those mistakes.
When it comes to sports parenting, stop being the training wheels and start walking alongside them in their struggle. When we do this, we will start to develop character and mental toughness in our kids. Great parents prepare their children for the road in life, to step up and take responsibility and ownership. We will feel less important, but that is okay, because great parenting isn’t about becoming more important; it’s about providing more value.