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Three (Subtle) Ways to Help an Aspiring College Athlete January 14, 2008

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Parenting/Children.
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The College Football season has officially ended, which means that next season has already begun. As the father of two sons who played high school football, as a former youth football coach, and as the husband of a woman who said (after celebrating our 20th anniversary by going to see her favorite team play in Detroit), “this was so much better than a cruise,” I’m always looking forward to Spring Football, and the hope of the next season.


With one son out of high school and mid-way through his sophomore year of college, and the other starting to receive calls from various colleges (with both academic and athletic questions), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how I’ve prepared my sons for the end of high school, and the strong possibility that this ends their formal athletic careers. In watching my own sons, as well as the sons and daughters of various college athletes, it occurred to me that I’ve done three very specific things in response to my sons expressing a desire to play college sports, and I think all parents of aspiring college athletes should consider them.

0) Make sure you know whose dream it is
I’ve listed this as item #0 in a list of three, because it’s not something that you, as a parent, are doing overtly, but something characterized by what you don’t do. Every time the Olympics return to our collective psyche, I hear athletes praising their parents for pushing them to practice or “being the hardest coach I’ve ever had.” I always wonder, when I hear about this kind of pressure being applied, whether or not the child pursued their own dream, or the dream of their parent

Is it wrong to push a child to pursue your dream for them? I suppose “right” or “wrong” are debatable in some ways, but at the very least, you should be honest with yourself and your child. If you are pushing them to do something that they don’t, deep down, want to do, you are creating a field fertile for resentment. This isn’t to say that they won’t pursue the dream. They might do so. However, there is a very good chance that at some point in their lives, they will resent you having pushed them in this way, regardless of the success that they see.

1) Give them realistic expectations
For my oldest son, the past couple of years has brought mixed feelings, as a shoulder injury cut short his senior season of football, and the resulting rehabilitation kept him from considering football during his freshman year of college. Prior the beginning of this year, he decided that he wanted to try to walk-on with the football team of the Division 1 school he’s currently attending.

In high school, he and I had several heart-to-heart discussions about his ambitions for playing sports in college, enough so that he once remarked, “Don’t think of it as an expensive basketball goal… think of it as inexpensive college tuition.” However, when his height leveled off at 6’3″, he quickly realized that, unless he suddenly developed serious quickness, along with razor-sharp passing and shooting skills, his chances of playing college basketball were very, very slim.

Part of this happens naturally, assuming that you put your child in a competitive environment with their peers. Kids are usually quick to assess who’s “the best” in a given group, and if this happens often enough, most of them will start to see how they “stack up.” Assuming that only the very best high school athletes move on to play at the college level, playing against one or two such players usually discourages someone from “thinking more highly of themselves than they ought.”

One thing to note: As a parent, you can undermine this understanding by providing a range of excuses for why your child didn’t fare so well against a quality opponent. I call this, “pointing to the externals instead of the internals.” Giving your child feedback such as, “You’d have won easily tonight if it weren’t for the crappy officiating” communicates to your child that they may, in fact, be the superior athlete (even though they probably aren’t).

Instead of doing that, it’s good to remind your child that “if you’re the better player/team, it should never be close enough to be decided by a couple of calls not going your way.” This shows respect for the officials, and gets your child to focus their energy where it belongs: on their on performance and preparation. This is great preparation for life, as it’s usually the case that the reasons/excuses aren’t nearly as important as the final product. *

2) Help them balance their social relationships
Elsewhere on my blog, I’ve talked about the benefits of getting to know the parents of teammates. While that’s a definite plus, it’s also important to help your child develop relationships outside of their favorite sport.

My oldest son played basketball and football all through high school, starting on the varsity football team as a sophomore up through graduation. My youngest, also a sophomore/junior/senior varsity football player, now wrestles, in addition to throwing discus and shot put for the track team. However, neither of them have been considered “jocks” at school, largely because of the broad social networks that they’ve built.

For example, on a fairly regular basis, a video project for one of the boys would generate a sudden influx of new faces into our house. These faces generally belonged to kids who my sons didn’t know from a team, but from the class in question. The resulting teamwork and camaraderie was always such that you would wonder if they were working on the project or playing. How could work be done when there was so much laughter? Apparently, quite a bit, because the end-result was frequently chosen by the teacher as examples for the rest of the class. (One of the notable examples was a sock-puppet re-enactment of the first constitutional congress, which included an Eminem-style rap by Benjamin “sock-it-to-me” Franklin.)

3) Prepare them for “life after they can no-longer play”
What would your child do if they suddenly were unable to play a sport, ever again? Football here is a great example. As soon as you graduate from high school, how often will you be able to put on cleats, pads, and a helmet, and go out and play tackle football. Yes, you’ll be able to play “700,” flag football, and just toss the ball around in the back-yard. Even so, it’s just not the same as the visceral response your body feels from a solid hit or tackle.

If all of your child’s friends are from within that sport, the day will come (possibly sooner than you realize) when they can no longer play, and those relationships will instantly disappear. For those of us with average ability, that day may be at the end of middle school (14 year-olds). For someone with more ability, the last day of high school may be “the end.” For a much smaller number, graduating from college will be the day that they “hang up their spikes/cleats/shoes” and say goodbye to their favorite sport.

However, even those who are the very best, people who play a sport professionally, all see their days come to an end. (Well, except golfers. They play right up to the point of death, and then. rumor has it, have the opportunity for additional rounds in Heaven.) The pros that planned ahead may be announcing the sport on TV, teaching/coaching others in the sport, or maybe move out of the sport entirely, and move on to something dramatically different. Former defensive star Bob Lilly, once famous for crushing quarterbacks, is now a professional photographer (and he’s very good). For the pros, it’s called a “fall back strategy.” For the rest of us, maybe it’s a “fall forward.”

Play it Forward
Sports aren’t for everyone, but they do provide a platform for teaching many important life-lessons. Some of our kids are going to have the gifts and abilities to play a sport after high school, where those lessons are no less important. However, as a parent, you can lay the foundation for success, regardless of whether your child is destined to be the next Heisman-trophy winner, or if the only ball they pick up is embedded in the end of an ink pen.

* Update: Yesterday ( 2/15/08 ) I was in exactly the position of doing this, as my youngest son lost a wrestling match in the state tournament (eliminating him completely from competition) on a highly controversial call as time expired. He was up by one point, but his opponent appeared to score a 2 point reversal several seconds after the clock had gone to 0:00. I didn’t say anything about it other than “I thought you had it won… all of us in the stands did. We thought the clock had run out.” He looked dejected and said, “I did the very best that I could do. I left it all on the mat… used every bit of energy I had.” Now, even in defeat, he can walk away feeling good about his performance, regardless of the result.


1. Steve - January 15, 2008

My son is not the accomplished athelete or academic achiever both of yours are. You have reason to be justly proud and you and your bride have done a credible job as parents. Your advice is no less cogent for my son whose developmental disabilites would seem to limit his AND MY aspirations. You well remind me that it is about him and not about me. My job is to inject realism and provide the spiritual, moral and relational underpinning and example as a foundation of success. Great words from a great Dad I have watched and admired. God blessed your sons with you.

2. Tim - January 15, 2008


Thank you for that. I think both of us would agree that there were many ways that your parents and mine got some things right, and some things wrong. The job they obviously got right was giving us those foundations for long-term success, which is to say success that may not be borne out in my lifetime or yours. Instead, that success may not be fully realized until one examines our sons, and the lives that they lead. – Tim

3. Sister - August 9, 2008

Any advice for parents about how to talk to college coaches, or even if this is appropriate?

4. Tim - August 9, 2008


This is something that you have to do with great caution. Even in high school, most of the time, it’s better for the student-athlete to talk to a coach (unless, of course, there’s an issue of inappropriate behavior by someone affiliated with the team). There are several reasons for me to say this, but one of the main reasons is for the student-athlete to take responsibility for issues related to playing time, coaching style, and so on.

In the case of college coaches, I would put yourself in their position, and consider how things look from that perspective. Except with “money sports” (Division I football, basketball, and in a few cases, baseball), coaches generally don’t have enough staff to get things done with anything less than Herculean effort. Because of this, they’re generally suffering from fatigue and sleep-deprivation most of the time. Put yourself in such a mindset, and then imagine someone coming to talk to you about your job. Even if the question is completely legitimate, you may get a short or ill-tempered response. It’s just human nature.

Instead, I would seek out someone associated with the team, but not on the coaching staff. Have the student-athlete talk to one of the players, or possibly an assistant. They might suggest a discussion with the coach (in which case it’s appropriate to proceed), or they might be able to answer the question directly. Either way, you’re demonstrating respect for the coach’s time, even before the first conversation. Who wouldn’t appreciate someone doing that? – Tim

P.S. There is one clear exception to this, and that’s when the student-athlete is at a sport-specific camp. At such events, you probably won’t see the head coach, but you should have a chance to talk with some of the assistant coaches, and can probably get the information/feedback you’re looking for.

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