THE BLOG
08/02/2011 09:37 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2011

Confessions of a Fanatical Sports Dad

For all of the anathemas cast at helicopter sports parents, the fact remains that no small portion of major league and college athletes were developed by either fanatical fathers or sports savvy mothers -- or both. Perhaps your Jack or Jill has a great swing or kicking leg and you are thinking of ramping up the training. Of course, as you have already heard time and again, the chances of making it to the pros or earning an athletic scholarship are razor thin. Then again, the same holds when you reach for the brass ring in almost any field of endeavor.

But even if your boy does not become the next Derrick Jeter or your daughter the next Mia Hamm, working on a daily basis together can create a bond and level of intimacy that is hard to match. But take it from a former Tiger dad, there are serious emotional risks to the intense parent/coach relationship. With the sign-up for fall sports but a few weeks away, permit me to flag a couple obstacles that I stumbled over.

A decade ago, I was a fanatical sport parent with both of my sons, one in baseball and the other on the gridiron. We had our private sessions virtually everyday, year round. There were camps and private trainers. The rhythm of home was tapped out by camps, practices, and games.

As a middle-schooler, my elder son Paul was a baseball phenom. He was one of the best pitchers in the state and a superb hitter. There was talk in the house and in town that he had the right stuff to make it to the big circus. However, he stopped growing as a sophomore in high school. In order to compensate for his size, I made the mistake of cranking up our sessions, making them longer and more taxing. I lectured, "If you want to 'make it' at your size you are going to have to work three times as hard." I think he wondered what I meant by, "making it" and eventually Paul had enough. To his immense credit, he felt strong enough in himself and our relationship to tell me one afternoon that he wasn't going to the gym in mid-winter to field ground balls anymore. He was quitting baseball. If I had not been such a Billy Martin with him, he would have enjoyed playing through high school and college, but my urgency sucked the fun out of the game.

My other son, Philip's ego eggs were more completely in the sports basket. His first two career choices were playing quarterback in the NFL and playing quarterback in the NFL. For three years, he commuted 80 miles a day to attend Cretin Derham Hall in St. Paul, a high school renown for producing Heisman-level quarterbacks. After backing up Joe Mauer as a signal caller for two years, Philip started in his senior year and his proficiency in the gridiron arts were very helpful in his college placement. But after a few huge games in college he suffered meltdowns that were not unrelated to the man endlessly pacing the sidelines. And he too called it quits.

Miraculously, our relationship survived the last buzzer. More than that, the thousands upon thousands of passes I caught from him cultivated an extraordinary level of closeness, of an ability to read one another. But make no mistake about it, it could have been otherwise. And there were scars. For months after my boys quit their respective sports, our conversations were stiff and empty. Though I had no right to feel this way I was angry, disappointed -- let down.

In hindsight, neither I nor they regret the crazy push we made. Still, I wish there were do-overs in life as there were a couple of mistakes I made that could have easily been avoided.

Promise in sports can change with age. Kids grow and mature at much different rates. When your son or daughter locks on to a sport and begins to specialize in their early teens or younger, it would be wise to continually check on the connection between his or her physical development and aspirations.

My baseball-playing son went a full year in Little League without giving up a hit as a pitcher. There were two games in which he struck out everyone who came to the plate. However, by 15 he was only about 5'3 and 115 pounds. He was still a fine baseball player but it was lunacy of me to push him as though he were going to be the next Nolan Ryan. He knew the score about his size and was wisely slowly pulling back his investment in a future as a baseball star. My unwillingness to acknowledge reality did not put him in the best relationship with his body.

And there was another pitch I missed by a mile. Even though I made time in a very busy schedule all year and everyday for baseball and football workouts, I never really saw myself as one of those bug-eyed parents living through their kids. After all, I was a nurturing guy and seldom screamed. And if you are not a yeller, you are not putting on the parental heat. Right? Wrong. You don't have to be screamer to load oppressive expectations on your child's shoulder; positive emotions can do the same nasty trick.

When my younger son Philip transferred to the private high school, he had to compete with about 8 other prospects for the QB position. After only a few practices, he was put into a scrimmage and promptly threw six touchdowns. I blush to say this, but it was one of the happiest days of my life. When he trotted off the field my face was steamy with tears. He gave me a puzzled look but I can only imagine what a burden it must have been for him to see what an impact his football play could have on me.

Even if we don't bluster and fume, our children can easily feel, "This sports stuff means an awful lot to dad." The other side of that has to be, if a touchdown rocks dad's world, what is he going to feel about me when I miss that receiver in the end zone. Again, beware, you don't have to be a Vince Lombardi to create a Lombardi-like pressure on your child.

Because of all the criticism, much of it justified, about parents living through their kids, it is difficult for dads and moms to be honest with themselves about how much they might care about junior's performance in a Little League game. Nevertheless, if you and your child are committed to striving together at sports in a way that some parents will work with their kids on the piano, then strive to be brutally honest with yourself about what your child's batting average might mean to you. It is only by acknowledging those sometimes embarrassing feelings that you will be able to control them, and so avert some of the needless emotional bruises that can result from being in denial about what you are really feeling.