I once looked my son in the eye and told him that getting good grades in school is far more important to me than his performance on the sports field. My children’s future success in life certainly will be dictated by their grade-point average not their batting average. Yet, I will more quickly work with them on perfecting their wrestling moves than I am to teach them at the kitchen table about long division. My hypocrisy has put me into a common Daddy dilemma: how hard do you push your children to excel in competitive sports at an early age, and at what cost?
My sons and daughter all have natural athletic talent and have tasted glory on the field early in their sports careers. But unlike me when I was their age, their performance does not always motivate them to greater heights. If I had let their free will dictate, they would have missed out on a lot. Three years ago when he was eight, my oldest son signed up for full pads tackle football, played quarterback, and won an MVP award in his rookie season. When football season ended, he told me he wanted to wrestle. He went 20-2 in his first year and took second at 52 lbs in the Northern Virginia Wrestling Federation. Then he said he was ready to quit. The next season, he reluctantly returned to the field after I emphasized to him that I did not want to see him laying around the house watching tv and playing video games. I also resorted to bribery. He went out and won two more MVP awards in his second-year of football and wrestling, respectively. As he accepted his awards, he again openly discussed quitting. He is now going into his fourth season of football and again he refused to play right up until the moment he changed his mind.
My second son, who is almost 8 and often follows the lead of his older brother, is showing similar signs of excellence-followed-by-early-retirement. Two weeks ago, he somewhat reluctantly participated in a free summer football camp run by the local youth football program. The coaches chose him as Player of the Week for his age bracket. He strutted around for a few days and talked trash about how good he was before reversing himself. He said, “I am not a football guy.” My daughter has no such problems. She swims and plays two season of soccer per year and takes the winter season off. My youngest is only 2 and I am fairly confident he is going to be excellent at whatever he plays.
I know that pushing my children to compete can easily backfire. They might learn to resent Daddy’s pressure. They may burn out before they reach high school. I don’t want to be the kind of dad that takes his kids sports career way too seriously. Afterall, I know they aren’t destined for a professional sports career. Yet I have convinced myself that at this stage of the game that I know better than they do how much enjoyment and personal growth they will get out of sports. So I feel justified in using a manipulative combination of incentives and persuasion to get them to do what I want.
I apply pressure in a number of ways, and always with the support of my wife who also values what competition has to teach developing children. I explain to them the specific reasons I want them to play a sport and what they will get out of it. I tell them how good they are. I list off their friends who are likely to be playing. I offer to buy them something they covet. I have even offered them outright bribes to play. I also use negative incentives. The most effective one is quite simple: I tell them that Daddy will be disappointed if they don’t at least give it a try. I also warn them that not playing sports will likely lead to limitations on playing video and computer games at home if they become too addicted. This combination of benefits and limitations has so far worked every time. Once registered and paid, they know that quitting is not an option (although I am prepared to pull them out of a sport if it is obviously not fun for them). I also know that if I talk them into something that doesn’t work out so well, I will have damaged my credibility, goodwill and trust down the road. And I wouldn’t blame them for that.
So why put so much on the line if sports is indeed not as important as, say, school? I value everything that competitive sports offers in the way of a character-building experience:
- How to win and lose gracefully
- How to perform under pressure
- Importance of teamwork
- Individual grit and toughness
- Opportunity to test your skills against your peers
- Physical fitness (thanks, Peter, for the addition)
So far, I have gotten lucky and my kids have done everything I have asked of them.
My oldest son this winter easily won a championship in wrestling in Northern Virginia and I suggested for the first time that he wrestle in the annual post-season tournaments. I wanted him to test his skills against the elite. He hemmed and hawed and declined. I then offered to let him buy online a new wrestling singlet in his favorite colors. He immediately agreed and went from reluctant to very excited. That particular incentive package cost me a measly $30. He went on to take second in the districts, and qualify for the mid-Atlantic regional tournament. He ended up losing twice and was knocked out, but we were all very proud of him. On the way back home I asked him if he could have known ahead of time that he’d get his butt kicked twice, would he have still wrestled. He said, “Yes. It was a good experience for me.”
I thought to myself, “What a great, mature thing to say. But, boy, it was a long road to get to that point.”