Dear Mr. Dad: When I was a kid, I did every possible sport – baseball, football, soccer, gymnastics, basketball, track. What’s the best way to introduce my 4-year-old son to sports?
A lot of dads start dreaming about their children’s future athletic performance from the time their wife says the words, “We’re expecting.”
It’s easy to imagine being in the crowd as your child wins gold at the Olympics, hits a walk-off homer to end the World Series, wins the Master’s at age 14, intercepts a pass and runs it back for a touchdown, scores a winning goal or whatever. Sometimes the fantasies are general, other times they’re focused around a particular sport – usually one that the dad either excelled in or failed at.
Figuring out which sports to introduce to your child is a lot harder than it was for your parents.
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To start with, kids – and the parents who drive them – have a lot more sports to choose from than we did, and they’re starting to play when they’re much younger. Your first step should be to ask your son what his favorite sport is. There’s a good chance that it’s the one you’re most interested in.
But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, his tastes can change quickly, and what he’s obsessed with today might bore him tomorrow.
Playing a sport can teach a child all sorts of wonderful life lessons, in particular the need to stick with what you start – no quitting midseason – and the importance of teamwork. But one of the most important lessons is that it takes lots of hard work to succeed.
Young children are easily frustrated and might want to give up if they can’t do something that other kids have already mastered. Telling your son about the difficulties you had when first learning a skill – and how hard you had to work to get good at it – will really help.
Whatever you do, be upbeat, encouraging and supportive; offer to help, but don’t criticize or get angry – that’s the surest way to drive your son away from that sport.
During games, remember that your child is the one who’s out there, not you. A lot of parents act as though their children’s performance is a reflection on them, and it’s tempting to expect your child to either relive your on-field successes or to somehow erase your failures by succeeding where you didn’t.
If you want to relive your glory or undo the mistakes of the past, find yourself an adult league and have at it.
As in almost every other area of parenting, your child is paying very close attention to how you behave, and he’ll be looking to you for cues. Cheering on the sideline is great, but booing the other team, criticizing him or his teammates, or running on to the field and arguing with the officials is not – unless you want your son to behave the same way.
The same is true about your interactions with the coach. In most cases, they’re other parents who volunteered. If you think you can do better, volunteer next season. In the meantime, if you want to know why the coach didn’t play your child enough, take it up in private.
At the end of the game – win or lose – be there with a hug, a fist bump and an enthusiastic “great job out there today!” Your goal for now is to make sports so much fun that your son will want to do it again next year.
Knowing that you feel the same way will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.
Armin Brott is the author of “The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be.”