On any given Thursday night, you could find us—the mighty, mighty buffaloes of Trinity Junior High—defending the home court against our foe du jour. The smells of popcorn and sweat socks hung in the air, and the squeak of our high-topped Nike’s against the refinished floor echoed from the cinder walls. We were a small Catholic school with a healthy inferiority complex, and we took our basketball seriously.
Some might say too seriously.
The parents’ cheers filled the rafters. Some cheered only encouragement, “Nice pass, Keith!” or “Great shot, Wes!” Others hollered direction, “Pass it, Keith!” or “Shoot it, Wes!” And although the exhortations remained generally positive (if not occasionally annoying), there was one parent whose words ricocheted like bullets off the gym walls.
Vann’s daughter was long and lean, and had the skill of a bona fide college prospect. In only the ninth grade, she ran with the grace of a Serengeti gazelle while simultaneously stalking the low post like a savage lioness. The mastery of her position was a curious thing, however. In the opening quarter of the game, she was a force, a sight to behold. But if she made a mistake, Vann would stand and pace the sidelines. A second mistake, and he pointed and yelled at the referees. After her third mistake, Vann turned on his daughter, sighting her in with both barrels.
“Get your head out of your rear, girl!”
“You’ve got to help defend the backside! Are you blind?”
“Don’t be such a sissy on the low block! Box someone out for the love of Mary!”
As the game wore on, Vann’s daughter sunk into the mental death spiral. Shoulders slumping, she’d drag down the court wounded… uninspired… less-than dominant.
In Chapter 12 of The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler writes, “Shut up and cheer!” Noting the American affinity for athletic prowess (up to two-thirds of couples using artificial insemination prioritize athletic genes!), and our bent toward intense competitiveness, Feiler asks us to reexamine our role in children’s athletic endeavors. Are you pushing your child too hard, are you demanding more of them than they are willing to give? He cautions with this statistical reality check—“f [parents] are driving their preadolescent kid to excel in a particular sport, odds are that kid will drop out before they even have the chance to get good.” Instead, of demanding perfection, he says, encourage your child to have fun, meet new people, and learn self-discipline.
Feiler next turns to the parents’ sideline demeanor, offering practical advice: No verbs. You can say, “nice shot,” but not, “shoot!” You can say, “great block,” but not “block out for heaven’s sake!” Keep it positive, he says, and allow your children to forget their mistakes.
Finally, Feiler offers postgame advice: No PGA, or postgame analysis. Instead of rehashing the mistakes of your child, ask them three things they remember about the game. If your child responds with something negative, prop them up with a “you’re the kind of person who…” statement. For example, Feiler says, if your child recalls his three strikeouts, you might respond with, “Sure, you didn’t get a hit, but… you’re the kind of person who doesn’t give up easily….” This kind of positive reinforcement allows your child to learn to deal with failure gracefully, while simultaneously teaching perseverance in adversity.
Toward the end of my eighth grade year, Vann stopped pacing the sidelines quite so much. His tone softened, and he began to give his daughter more space to make a bad pass, dribble the ball off her foot, or foul out of the ball game. (As an aside, he still rode the refs pretty hard.) In my later years, I’d learn that a group of men confronted Vann about his behavior and gave him an ultimatum. “You can stop yelling at your daughter from the sidelines,” they said, “or we’ll make sure you can’t yell at her any longer.” The confrontation worked, but after reading The Secrets of Happy Families, I wish those fathers could simply slipped Vann a copy of the book and said, “Read Chapter 12; it’ll be good for both you, and your daughter.”
*Do you struggle with pushing your children too hard in athletics? Do you notice sideline-parents who have a hard time keeping it positive? As believers, as subscribers to a higher calling, how can we best represent our faith on the sidelines of our children’s athletic events? Let’s hash it out in the comments.
Other posts in this series:
On Mondays in August we've been discussing The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More by Bruce Feiler. Thanks for joining us.If you are reading along this month, join the discussion in the comments or drop you link there if you blog your thoughts. Next week we begin a new discussion for the month of September on Matt Appling's Life After Art. Hope you will join us for that one!