Decades have passed. But Rich Cooper still vividly remembers standing on a baseball field as a kid, silently praying the ball wouldn’t come anywhere near him.
He was glad to finally age out of Little League. Thrilled to leave the torture of gym class behind on high school graduation day. No more worries about dropping a ball or being the last one picked for a team. He was done with sports.
Then came fatherhood.
Cooper found himself raising three children, including an athletic little boy who wanted his dad to teach and coach him. How was he supposed to accomplish that when his own history with sports was an unpleasant stew of small failures peppered by flashes of real panic?
On the baseball fields and basketball courts near his suburban Alexandria, Va., home, Cooper saw plenty of fathers who fit the archetype: Guys who grew up loving sports and now enthusiastically dive in as volunteer coaches. Those guys – the grown-up incarnations of the kids who didn’t want him on their team – know exactly how to respond when their kids say, “Can we go outside and play catch?”
But where do Cooper and so many other uncoordinated dads and moms fit in this picture?
Nicole LaVoi understands why these parents can feel ill-equipped to handle this potentially pivotal chapter in their kids’ lives. But in her work at the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports, she’s found that parents like Cooper actually have an unexpected advantage over more athletic parents.
Kids who believe their parents view them as competent athletes are more likely to enjoy and stick with sports as they grow, her research shows. What determines how positive a kid’s sports experience turns out is “not whether the kid is good or not,” LaVoi says, “but whether the kid perceives that the parent thinks they’re good.”
All parents have to resist the urge to offer a post-game litany of advice and constructive criticism on the drive home. But those of us who duck when a ball is thrown in our direction may find it easier to simply celebrate the best moments of a game and not enumerate the ways a child needs to improve before next week’s matchup.
It’s more important, LaVoi says, to give unconditional support than to offer even the most useful tips on throwing a better curve ball or executing a more effective tackle.
“Regardless of the outcome,” she said, “you’re there to say, `I’m here. I care about you, whether you win or lose. I love the effort you gave. You didn’t give up regardless of the score.’ ”
Brooke de Lench shares this message with parents, especially the growing number of non-athletic mothers who find themselves thrust into coaching because they’re raising children alone or their husbands are frequently away. The author of “Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports” (HarperCollins, 2006), de Lench counsels sports-averse parents to embrace their situation.
Parents with little sports experience or skill can learn alongside their children, she says. She encourages parents to ask their kids for help learning the rules and strategies of a sport. Attend games together and sit up high, taking in the way the ball or puck is handled and how the players work as a team.
Non-athletic parents may also find it easier to let kids determine how large a role sports will play in their lives.
“The parents that I’ve spoken to are not emotionally invested in their kids’ sports lives the way that the parents who were super-athletic as kids are,” says Mark Hyman, an author and lecturer on youth sports. “The emotional temperature in the household about sports tends to be lower.”
Parents who were successful athletes tend to approach sports “with a plan for their children,” he said. “They’re already looking down the road to that first travel team and maybe the time when their child is going to be specialized in one sport.”
For his most recent book, “The Most Expensive Game in Town” (Beacon Press, 2012), Hyman spoke with families who spend thousands each year on equipment, travel team expenses and private coaching. Once you’ve done that, he says, “if your kid says, `I don’t want to play soccer anymore' and you’ve invested $25,000” the result can be conflict.
Parents who played rarely or badly aren’t likely to make that investment unless their child pushes for it. They “tend to understand,” Hyman says, “that their kids’ needs come first. … If they’re having a good time, then if there’s some prestige attached to having a child that’s a super athlete that’s great, but that’s secondary.”
In every household, questions invariably arise: Should you steer your kid toward committing fully to a sport or treat each season as optional? Should you spend hours helping your child refine her goaltending skills in hopes of landing a scholarship, or stick to cheering her from the sidelines?
To figure out how to best support his sports-loving son, Cooper looked to his only positive memory from childhood athletics: a coach who took photos of the entire team and managed to make even the most uncoordinated kids look like all-stars in at least one shot.
Remembering the power of those images, he has taken on the role of photographer for every team his son has joined, chronicling entire seasons and sharing the photos with the team families.
He tries to be a steady, encouraging voice for all three of his children.
His now-12-year-old son’s love of sports has become a source of positive interaction and connection between them. It’s a victory he never saw coming decades ago as he squinted in the sun, dreading the arrival of the next fly ball.