I was in the middle of a U9 soccer tournament when I realized I was an asshole. Picture a sprawling complex of turf soccer fields reaching as far as the horizon, and thousands of little kids barely old enough to wipe their own butts battling like gladiators as suspiciously enthusiastic parents yelled “HUSTLE, TIMMY!” while anxiously pacing the sidelines.
There I watched a father make his 9-year-old son run laps in the heat (“If you’re not gonna run during the game, you’re gonna run after the game!”) and cringed. I tried not to judge the dad too harshly because A) it’s a U9 soccer tournament and U9 soccer tournaments bring out the worst in society and B) I had harbored similar thoughts about my own child throughout the day.
I find myself constantly on the edge of behaving like that asshole dad. I come from a long line of asshole-sports dads, the kind that yell at umpires and repeatedly get thrown out of games. My father, who is an absolutely lovely man when he’s not coaching Little League baseball, had an epic multi-season battle with a certain umpire named Herb. I’ll always remember a particular game when there was a question about whether a ground ball was foul or fair on the first base line. Fed up with the argument, Herb asked me, the first baseman, whether the ball was foul. I gave the wrong answer and my father lost it. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about! He’s only seven!”
Winning isn’t everything. I’ve seen The Mighty Ducks. But winning isn’t nothing, either.
For some reason, that moment stuck with me.
So yeah, I have strong asshole dad tendencies, which I fight on a daily basis. In fact, here are just a few things I’ve thought about saying to my kids.
- “I’ll buy you a pony if you knock another girl down while going for the ball.”
- “If you’re going to half ass it, we might as well stay at home and watch another episode of Full House on Hulu.”
- “My love is performance based. Run faster.”
But I don’t say these things. I continue to fight the good fight, every single day, because I don’t want to be that father who yells at their kid from the sidelines. I don’t want to put too much pressure on my kids and I don’t want to be the overbearing parent who expects perfection and success all the time. Winning isn’t everything. I’ve seen The Mighty Ducks.
But winning isn’t nothing, either. Winning is easily in the top five reasons to play sports in the first place, landing somewhere in between “learn good sportsmanship” and “become more attractive to the opposite sex.” And when I say “winning,” I’m not necessarily talking about the score of the game. I’m talking about being the fastest to the ball. Or passing to the open space at the right time. Or hustling back to help a teammate on defense. There are countless ways a kid can win in sports without actually winning the game.
And I want my kids to win. Actually, scratch that; I want my kids to want to win. I want my kids to want to be the fastest on the field. I want my kids to be ambitious in U9 soccer and U99 life. I want them to know that a healthy competitive spirit is important and will help them achieve success for years to come, whether they’re trying to score a goal or land a job. I honestly don’t care about the outcome of a soccer tournament, but I truly believe that how they carry themselves on the field today will inform how they carry themselves when they’re 17 and trying to get into college, or 27 and trying to convince someone who’s out of their league to marry them. But how do I stoke the competitive fire without being that asshole dad who makes their kid run laps after a mediocre game?
How do I stoke the competitive fire without being that asshole dad who makes their kid run laps after a mediocre game?
I’m not sure if it helps or hinders my internal struggle, but both my kids are involved in what might be the single most nurturing soccer development program of all time. It’s the kind of “all kids are winners” program that frustrates the hell out Republicans. They don’t keep score, the kids are encouraged to play every position on the field, and the parents have to keep their mouths shut. Seriously, we’re not allowed to cheer or coach from the sidelines. We can say encouraging statements in the past tense, but nothing else. So, “great pass Timmy,” is okay, but never “get your damn head up and look for the open space, Timmy.”
So, when they play soccer, I’m not allowed to yell at my kids. It’s “verboten.” But the coaches don’t yell at my kids either. So, like, nobody is going to yell at my kids? I don’t understand. How can a child learn important life lessons if no adults are yelling at them?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those dads who laments the current age of “participation trophies” and thinks sports were better back in the day. I like the nurturing program my kids are in, because it puts the focus on fundamentals and teamwork. If coaches aren’t encouraged to win, they won’t put the fat kid in the goal for the entire game and tell the rest of the team to just “pass the ball to Jonny and get out of his way.” That’s how I was raised to approach team sports: get out of the superstar’s way and pray to god he can carry the whole team to victory. I seem to remember little league baseball and soccer incorporated a lot of crying during the ‘80s. (See story about my father and Herb, above).
In the midst of all that nurturing, I’m worried that the importance of competition is being subdued.
But in the midst of all that nurturing, I’m worried that the importance of competition is being subdued. My kids are developing the skills they need to succeed at soccer, but are they developing the drive to succeed? I mean, nobody is yelling at them!
Obviously, I’m completely wrong about all of this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my nine-year tenure as a father, it’s that most of the time, my approach to parenting is wrong if not outright damaging. I can’t yell a sense of ambition into my kids. There’s no number of forced laps or drills that will imbue them with a competitive spirit. I can give positive reinforcement when I see my kids hustling, or when I see them practicing on their own, but that ambition to succeed has to come from within them, not from a parent pushing them. Winning to please their father isn’t healthy. That’s how people end up in the porn industry. Scoring a goal because your dad promised to buy you an ice cream if you scored a goal is a shitty reason to score a goal. Like I said, I’ve seen The Mighty Ducks, so I know this. I want to be Emilio Estevez after his enlightened moment, not the douche-bag that makes his team chant “win, win, win, win.” But much like an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in years is still an alcoholic, I will always be an asshole dad, even if I’m not currently acting like an asshole dad. It’s a day-to-day battle. Sometimes I win. Sometimes I lose.