Dear Angry Sports Dad,

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Dear Angry Sports Dad,

As a rule, I try to stay in my lane as a father; to not tell other fathers how to do their jobs, because I know how difficult and draining a job it is.

But I also know that we all have our blind spots. We all have trouble seeing ourselves clearly at times. I’m looking at you tonight and I’m wondering if this is one of those times.

You were unhappy with your 9-year old son tonight at football practice, that much was clear.

It was clear to his teammates as you stepped onto the field several times to chastise him.
It was clear to his coaches, as you shouted over their instruction to give your own.
It was clear to the other parents, who squirmed a little each time you did.

And it was clear to your son, whose obvious embarrassment and dropped head you might have missed.

I know it’s been a while since you’ve been 9, and you may have forgotten how difficult that can be, especially when you’re the youngest or the smallest or a little overweight, as your son is. When you are those things, you don’t need any help feeling like an outcast—it’s as natural as breathing. I wonder if you can remember that.

I also wonder if you remember how big a shadow a 9-year old boy’s father can cast over him, how loudly his father’s voice can resonate in his tiny ears, how much 9-year old boys just want to make their daddies proud.

I don’t know you or your son very well, but I lived long enough and been a father long enough to know that this anger of yours—it’s not about your son.

It’s not about the fact that he’s slow or that he seems hesitant to take a hit or that he missed a few tackles tonight. None of those things really merit that kind of outrage or disgust. As with much of our anger, it’s not about what it’s about.

This is probably a you problem.

Maybe things are really crazy at work or your marriage is strained or money is tight or you’re not happy in the shoes you’re in or with the way things are going.

Or maybe you do remember what it’s like to be the youngest and the smallest and a little overweight. Maybe you remember all too well how easy it was to feel like an outcast. Maybe you remember that hurt distinctly, and the 38-year old version of you feels more comfortable letting it out on the field now than you ever did when you were 9.

But whatever this anger is about, you should know that even with his oversized pads on—your son’s shoulders aren’t made to carry it. They’re made to carry 9-year old things: dropped balls and missed tackles, failed tests and messy rooms, forgotten homework and lost socks. Those things are heavy enough.

9-year old boys should only have to carry 9-year old boy stuff, not 38-year old man stuff.

They shouldn’t have to shoulder the frustrations of their fathers.

You might feel your exasperated sighs and loud outbursts and sideline tirades are toughening him up, teaching him how to deal with adversity, pushing him to be the best player he can be—and maybe they are. But I’m not sure that’s what’s happening here, at least not if his body language means what it seems to mean. I might be completely missing it—but I don’t think I am.

When I was a 9-year old boy, my father was my hero. He was tall enough to touch God. He was a massive, towering presence in my life that could eclipse the sun, and all I wanted was for him to be proud of me.

Knowing that he was, steadied my legs when the earth would shake.
Knowing it, made me fearless in the darkest times.
Knowing it, gave me peace in the loudest storms.
Knowing it, made me unafraid to fall—and certain I could fly.

I bet that’s all the 9-year old you wanted from your father, and I imagine that’s all your son wants from you right now on this field. Remember, he won’t be 9 for very long. In the blink of an eye he’ll be 38—and he might be standing on the sidelines too.

Again, this is probably none of my business and I’m off-base and out of line here, but in those times when I can’t see clearly as a father, I hope someone helps me notice my blind spots so that I don’t miss the chance to be the daddy my kids need.

Be loudest with your love, Sports Dad.


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24 thoughts on “Dear Angry Sports Dad,

  1. Why is it that some men feel they have to live out their own inadequacies about their masculinity through their sons?

    • I agree. So many times in my life, I have seen dads doing this to their kids in various performance-based contexts. I made it a point to never do this with my kids—and wanted to kick the butts of the dads who did—but alas—I am not a good butt kicker.

  2. This makes me cry. I wish you’d hand him a print out of this post. That poor boy needs someone to stick up for him.

  3. I’ve been with my sister to some of my nephew’s sports practices. Sports *moms* can be just as bad…if not worse. It’s a game, and they’re kids, not NFL superstars.

  4. He should be banned from practice. The coach would only need to do this to one or two out of control parents and the others would get the message.

  5. This kind of abusive treatment needs to be named for what it is: abuse. It’s the kind of abuse that causes a child to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Verbal abuse can have worse effects upon a child than physical abuse.

    This is exactly why I despise sports so much. It’s no longer about just having fun. From an early age kids are taught the only objective is ti win. I think that’s a mistake. I think that’s one of the ways we cut childhood short. Adults’ agendas get foisted on the children and that cuts childhood short.

    It ought to be about having fun and only fun.

    • Gloriamarie, you are so right. I was verbally abused as well as physically. I started suffering from PTSD when I was 8. And that crap doesn’t go away permanently, no matter how much therapy you actively engage in.

      • {{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{Patricia}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}

        So very sorry. So very sorry. I, too, was verbally and mentally abused by both my parents. Although I will give my mom credit, when she discovered how mentally ill Id become, she did take steps to change herself.

        I agree a lot of talk therapy is kinda unhelpful when it requires one to relive the same events over and over. I have found it possible to learn the manage the moment through Dialectic Behavior Therapy. I wrote a long piece, which apparently no one read LOL, in the comments in the blog post where JP speaks about his experiences with depression, if you care to scroll the millions looking for it.

        I mention this because DBT helped me when nothing else has.

  6. When I read things like this I stop and give thanks for the parents I had.

    Oh, they weren’t perfect and they made their mistakes. But they never put me down or made me feel that I was less than anyone else. When I did something wrong, they made it clear that it was the action that was wrong, not me intrinsically.

    I do not understand parents who try to relive their own flawed childhoods through their children; the result is usually cruelty and it is the children who suffer.

  7. I wish every coach would print this post and hand it to the parents (both mom and dad) at the time they show up for the first practice!

  8. I worked as an athletic trainer for 30 years. My husband worked for a Big Ten university athletic program for over 30 years. Our 3 daughters competed in sports at the D1 level. I’ve seen it all, and some of it is just mean and ugly. I’ve always believed that sports can bring out the best in people, but know it also can bring out the worst. We all need to remember that the definition of a fan is someone who supports and encourages. Whether it’s your child or not we need to practice being true fans. When a QB throws an interception, you had better believe he knows he’s messed up and he’s embarrassed enough, without anybody placing any scorn on him, especially his dad or mom.

    • Big 10, huh? You and your Big 10 guys are cordially invited to watch my orange and white team play on TV in this game on September 10, 2016. We are expecting 160,000 fans, the largest live attendance college football game in world history:

  9. I coach my son’s baseball team every year, and also my daughter’s soccer and Tball teams. It’s a volunteer position that, this year, took about 20 hours a week. This year I had a mom threaten to pull her kid out of the league after I told her she couldn’t come into the dugout after every inning to give coaching tips. I had to break up a very loud, very nasty fight between a couple who were disagreeing about whether or not it was appropriate to yell across the field for their son to be called lazy (dad did that). I had to witness and report a dad who told his son he would beat his ass if he did x, y or z again. My team was 9-10 year old boys. And soccer and Tball for my daughter was for 4-5 year old, and one mom in particular screamed at her 4 year old son so much that he was in tears by the end of every game.

    Unless these parents change their attitude toward sports and learn to see their children as just that-children-they wil damage these sweet little people in myriad ways. I am a tough coach, but after three years of coaching I still have kids who come up and hug me. They are respectful, they treat other players with dignity, they pick up their garbage before leaving the field. And they love the game-until mom or dad ruin it for them. It makes me so sad, and I wish every league in the country would copy and display this post.

    • My heart breaks to read the horrible things you have seen parents do to their children. If they are this abusive out in public, how much more abusive are they at home, in private?

    • Although I have not mentioned it before, David Wellens, I really love your poems in response to John’s posts.

  10. Thanks, John. I know exactly how that kid felt. How well I remember my own father “coaching” me, trying to teach me how to block, etc. One of the things that hurt the most was “You’re not a quarterback. You’re not a half-back. You’re not a full-back. You’re a drawback!” And that from a second stringer who “red-shirted” an extra year, just to play football. His senior annual said it all:
    “More interested in developing brawn than brains”. He tried every kind of abuse (except sexual) to make me “a man”. I’m a man, all right, but a gay one (now 73) and a happy one. Only on his last day on his deathbed did he ever utter the words, “I love you, son”. He thought praise would make me a sissy, It never occurred to him that I would one day be a stable citizen, even one that some people looked up to. Honestly, I’ve tried hard to accept his words, but neither then nor now do they ring entirely true. But I’m working on it as I have been for the last 40 years of my life.
    Thank you for your good article.

  11. Children need the approval of their parents. Not for every little thing they do, of course all children make mistakes that need correcting, but they need to know that their parents are their biggest advocate and biggest fan. I know this because I didn’t have that. I can still hear the sound of my father’s laughter as he called me a “fruitist” when I walked into the living room after practicing my flute for an hour– in front of a friend of his. Forty-five years later it still hurts to remember. My sons are grown now with girls of their own, and I admit I made some serious blunders as a parent, but they know that I love them like mad and that I’m “on their side”, either to cheer their achievements or help them minimize the damage from their mistakes. Love your kids louder than you can yell at them.

  12. I have told both of my kids, who are now teens, that it doesn’t matter how well you do in school, but it’s more important on how you treat others. I have told them often, that I’m not just proud of them for their accomplishments, but more importantly, who they are as people. Even though, I graduated from high school , the top of my class , got a partial scholarship to college, and was on the Dean’s list every semester, I hope to be remembered as a person who not only knew the Golden Rule, but followed it on a daily basis.

  13. I hope you emailed this link to him.

    I remember years ago when my daughter was taking part in pony games at her horse riding school. These weren’t serious competitions – they were GAMES, meant to be fun while building the kids’ horsemanship skills and confidence. There was a dad there who had bought his kid a nice little horse, clearly not cheap, and the kid was a good little rider … but nothing she did was good enough for him. Every single game, he had some sort of criticism, and he kept threatening to take her horse away, sell it, send it to be made into dog food even. He was HORRIBLE. I wanted to say something but heck, we were just peons – my daughter rode one of the riding school horses. I felt so sorry for that little girl.

  14. One of my most profound insights when my kids were playing soccer was hearing a coach tell parents: “Never yell at the refereees. They are just a few years older than your kids. They are learning just as your kids are learning. They make mistakes just like your kids do.” Really changed my perspective and I don’t think I every yelled negative things at the refs again-okay very rarely at least. A couple of times I even suggested to parents to lay off because “she’s just a kid learning the game, same as your daughter.”

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