The One And Only Job Of An Athlete’s Parent

Posted on March 3rd, 2016 by

My daughter is almost 17 now. One more year and she’s out of the nest. I’m feeling nostalgic. Steve Wilkinson gave me one of the greatest gifts in advice on how to raise her, because I heard the same advice every summer.   At Tennis & Life Camps, Steve would tell all parents their only job in sports is to be a cheerleader. Period. Never coach your child. Why in the world would he say that?

(Before going further, I confess I have amended this in my own philosophy from “Never coach your child,” to “Never coach your child, except when they ask you. If they ask you, go for it.” But most of us are not in that category.  The other exception is if you are his or her team coach, but only do this after having a careful conversation with your child, because many of us are heading into relationship danger doing this, and that is not worth any price).

It is so HARD not to coach our children. Because we mean well. We only do it out of love, out of concern, out of a desire for them to be the best they can be. And out of our desire to show them off to the world. And out of our desire to have them fulfill our own unmet athletic dreams. (Wait a minute! How did those last two creep in there)?

And when we coach them in the context of sports, it usually does not end well, because no matter our good intentions, our child gets the sense that we are not there to “be” with them, we are there with an agenda to make them into something that may or may not be of their choosing or to their benefit. And they feel we are constantly judging them.

When my daughter Madeline was five, I was introducing her to tennis. We would go out and see how many times we could get the ball over the net together. We screamed, giggled and sprayed them all over creation. We did surprise hugs as the reward for just getting the ball over the net sometimes. (“Hey, Madeline! Do you see that eagle way over there?” She would turn to look. I would run around the net and yell, “Surprise hug!” Then, next ball, she would say, “Hey, Dad! Do you see that big bear over there?” I would turn around and say, “Where? Where?” It took her forever to get around the net post, but she would finally arrive and throw her arms around me yelling, “Surprise hug!” We had so much fun.

No, Madeline is not five years old here, but she always has been tall for her age...

Until I tried to sneak in a teaching tip. “Punkin, I want you to hold your racket like this and swing like this…” It went from Dad/Daughter fun to Coach trying to train a little tennis pro. In that instance, every single time, no matter how sneaky or subtle I tried to be, the light would go out of her eyes and the fun would stop. I finally quit pushing, and the relationship of Dad/Daughter returned. It was HARD sometimes. I had to bite my tongue a lot. But our relationship thrived when I was able to do it.

After a few years of fun like this, one day Madeline just didn’t really want to go play tennis. And that was that.

What she wanted to do was swim. We went to the beach 41 times together one summer. We dove for fish and touched their fins. We searched for treasure at the bottom and came up with little kids pacifiers, Cracker Jacks rings, sunken balls, forks (sounds more like a landfill than a beach, now that I write about it). One day there was a torrential downpour that cleared the beach of everyone but us. It was like the world was deserted and we were the only two left. So we ducked under water, held our breath and looked up at the millions of raindrop shards piercing the water above us.

Madeline became a swimmer. Not because I coached her, but because I exposed her to it and had fun with her at it. She found her passion. Since 5th grade she has swum competitively, not because I wanted her to, but because she wanted to. She has made life long friends, learned lessons about endurance and sportsmanship and positive attitude. And because I was able to back off and just cheer her on (thank you, Steve), I not only have a happy swimmer, I have a happy relationship with my almost 17 year old child. It’s been worth every time I’ve had to bite my tongue instead of giving a tip. Now, please learn from my mistakes. And pass the Bandaids. My tongue hurts.

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  1. Duke Paluch says:

    Great blog, Neal! My parents never played a sport in their life coming from small farms in North Dakota. There was never one word of coaching from either of them while growing up playing sports — just unconditional love and support. You’d think that having been raised in that environment that it would be easier to sit back and just cheer. Still working on it with a couple of teenage boys. Look forward to your next post. Hope to see you in Colorado some day and enjoyed our lunch in New Orleans in September.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      We’re all works in progress, aren’t we? I often think, “How can I be 56 years old and still not have learned this?” Thank goodness for the people in our lives who are forgiving. Great to see you in N.O., too, and look forward to the next time down the road…

  2. Pepper Meyer says:

    Great post Neal! Good to see you at the clinic last weekend.

  3. KO says:

    Today is my son’s 17th birthday–parallel lives. He is a “man-child”–the best of both of those things: man and child–though I admit the former is part is a complete enigma to this former athlete…

    I was teary all morning, and I couldn’t figure out why. (Not that I need an excuse to be teary). I so adore the adult he’s becoming, but I don’t want him to grow up: change is hard. My two cents: cheerleading is not about parenting a kid who identifies as an athlete. My son clearly identifies as–in his words: ‘A geek who knows he’s a geek. That’s one step up from [the high school hierarchy] a geek who doesn’t know [he’s] a geek.’ We should be their cheerleaders in life–in everything. As I wrote in my gentle man’s card this morning, “To be honest, I wish you weren’t growing up. Change is hard. Still: I am so proud and inspired by who you are—a kind, compassionate human–not what you do–or your achievements.”

    Neal–I know you know this, but the cheerleading lessons extend beyond the skill set that may be athletic–or not. Plus, Neal–you know how I love calling you out on stuff. 🙂

  4. gretchen koehler says:

    well said Neil Steve always so wise

  5. Deb Wimmer says:

    Another wonderful blog Neal! It makes so much sense. I will pass this blog to my grandson’s parents.
    Thanks for all you do for kids and adults alike.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Deb. I’m lucky to have this job where so many people are so supportive of the mission.

  6. Anne Arden says:

    You always say the GREATEST things! Thanks for blogging – don’t ever sop!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Ann, I try to learn from my mistakes (like dumping one year old Madeline out of her little red wagon on the sidewalk on her head in a thunderstorm) so I hopefully only repeat them infrequently, rather than frequently :). Thanks for your encouragement.

  7. Lynn Larson says:

    As always, a great blog! My kids are grown up but will apply to my future grand kids and the students that I work with! Great to see you at the tennis coaches clinic.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Lynn, great to see you, too! Funny you should comment, because I was just thinking of you today as a role model for how you and Pete parented Tim :).

      • Lynn Larson says:

        Too kind. Thanks Neal, we are grateful that Tim had many years of TLC to reinforce our values as parents and athletes.!