Letting My Child Swim, or Sink – a tale of football, failure, and (hopefully) perserverance

A few months ago my oldest son, Jackson, told my wife and I that he wanted to play football.  Jackson (11), is the oldest of our boys – his 8 year old brother loves football and has played it into his 4th season now, and Seth (5) is trying it on for size in his first season.  Jackson is a good athlete, but hasn’t learned what it takes to win, and worse, is really bad at losing and often has a negative attitude about all things new.  For that and other reasons, his mom and I discussed the commitment of the season, the collisions involved, the work of practices (which are more frequent and intense than soccer and basketball) – frankly, I tried to talk him out of it.  Personally, I was excited he wanted to try something new and because I knew if he didn’t try football soon, he would miss the window of learning the fundamentals and the life lessons it teaches.  “Maybe he’ll take to it and really find something he enjoys!” I thought.  However, his mom and I braced ourselves for the worse and seeminly inevitable “I hate football and want to quit” and the crying when he got tackled, and worse, the other kids (and parents) ridiculing him (and us) over his behavior.  I talked to the man who would be his coach and explained our situation; he was a seasoned coach who understood the predicament, and I was comfortable that he could handle him well.  We signed him up and begin mentally preparing ourselves and Jackson for the challenges to come.

In an effort to help him gain some conditioning, he and I (and his brothers) went on a run-streak starting in early June.  Our deal was that we walked/ran 1 mile every day for 30 days, and at the end of thirty days I would give them $30 each.  The caveat was that they must complete the full 30 days, so they couldn’t quit at some point and collect a portion of their earnings – it was $30 or bust.  Jackson was the only one of his brothers who completed the streak with me, and by the end of the month he was running the whole mile!  Now I know that running a mile a day wouldn’t prepare him for stardom, but I wanted to do something that would give him a fighting chance.  While there were days it was a battle (and many when I felt like he was giving less than his best effort), I was proud of him for sticking with it and completing the streak.

Jackson looked forward to his first practices.  The first week or two is mostly conditioning and getting used to equipment.  He always told us he was looking forward to practice, and never gave us a hard time about going.  This was a small victory in and of itself.  His effort at practice was, in my estimation, lacking.  I was not a great athlete, heck, I wasn’t even a good athlete – so I wasn’t expecting the apple to fall far from the tree, but I do expect my boys to give their best effort, and I just wasn’t seeing it.  However, he was showing up, following direction, and participating as well as most of the other boys.

Every football coach knows there are some kids where football just isn’t for them.  This usually materializes fairly quickly in the second or third week of practices when contact begins.  There is the kid that cries endlessly. There is the kid who does everything he can to avoid contact.  When Jackson’s team started contact, about half the players were new to football, so the coaches did a good job of easing them in.  I was reassured.

Jackson is one of the smaller boys on his team; I was expecting him to cower from the contact, but what surprised me that he wasn’t giving even close to his all at sprints, running, and other fitness drills; he was half-assing it.  He didn’t do awful in tackling drills, but I heard his whimpers when I did see his practices (I was coaching his brother for the first hour of his practices), and mom informed me on more than one occasion that he was not having a good practice.  At the end of practice they ran sprints up and down the sideline and around the goal, then stop, then sprint again.  Jackson was always one of the last, usually staying with guys who had 90’s on their jerseys (these are often the husky kids).

I’ve worked hard on not criticizing his performance (though I have a long ways to go), and I’ve stopped punishing him over his pitfalls in sports – I’ve stuck with the mantra that this (sport) is for him and not me.  He should be having fun – I don’t want him to hate the game/sport (and in my mind losing things you really enjoy to do things you may not enjoy is not a recipe for positive reinforcement).  I want him to love sports, to have fun, to gain fitness, to learn life lessons, to meet new people and make new friends.

His mom and I watch from the sidelines as he’s jogging while all the other kids are sprinting, and he’s back-peddling as the opposing linemen is pushing him back – I’m disappointed in his effort.  But again, I have to remind myself that I won’t punish him for sports.  Instead, I would talk to him about his effort, only to hear him tell me he’s trying his hardest, and that he cried because that tackle hurt, and so on.

After a few weeks of practice, his team had a scrimmage.  The coach finally put him in for the last minute where he saw 2 snaps.  He had no idea what to do, or was most likely scared to do what he knew he was supposed to do.  He embarrassed himself, and was lucky not to get hurt.  The next week he gave the same effort, and one night I watched a practice where I reached my limit with watching his effort.  I consider myself a hard-working man and a good dad; I was embarrassed of his level of ‘effort’ (and tired and frustrated with other things in my life), and so I berated him after practice.  I was angry, upset, and hurt that he just wasn’t trying hard enough.  Now, I could go into detail here, but I don’t need to – he was giving the least amount of effort possible – he was just showing up.  I said a lot of things on that ride home I’m ashamed of, I hurt him with my words; his brother, a passenger, was upset at me, his mom – who was waiting at home – was hurt and angry at me.  I was angry at me, I was hurt that I hurt him.  I was a frustrated dad who was running out of answers – how do I motivate this child?

I fear raising a child who will be unemployable, one who will rely on the kindness of others just to get by.  I fear my child not becoming a positive, contributing member of society.  I’d rather be hard on him and he hates my guts when he’s grown then to give him a pass and let him be a quitter who doesn’t give the effort required in this life.  I love him and want what is best for him, I am not afraid to be the bad guy when I’m backed into a corner – but on this night, I went too far.

In the second and last preseason game.  Jackson did not play, not a minute.  He stood there on the sideline in his pristine uniform.  He did pay attention the whole game, and even cheered when his team scored.  This was an improvement; his previous game he just kicked the grass and walked around not even showing the slightest interest in the game going on.  His mom, brothers and I sat and cheered on his team.  The dad in me wanted to shout “get my boy in (I’m not here to watch these other kids)!” – the coach and father in me knew the truth; putting him in would be dangerous for him and the other boys on the field; He still doesn’t know his assignment, he would run in and potentially be unaware or out of position and get hurt or get someone else hurt.  This had happened in practice when he was being blocked and was back peddling when a receiver who was running his route, crashed into him violently.  More than anything, rewarding his behavior would show him he could half-ass practices and still see the field on game day.

I started encouraging my boys to keep goal journals (okay, I make them fill them out once a week).  They write one school goal and one football goal.  I want to show them to work towards tiny goals to get a lot better over time.  I asked Jackson if he wants to go through the practices (which typically aren’t super fun), and then stand there on the sidelines on game day – he answers with a resounding no.  Jackson wants to play.  He still looks forward to practices, and really looks forward to games (though he’s played a total of 2 snaps in 2 preseason games) Hell, his mom and I want to watch him play in games.  But I can’t fault his coach, and I can’t fault his parents – as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, and we’ve done that.  He is 11, and the effort is up to him, he will sink or swim when it comes to football, and for that matter, other things in his life.  Only he can choose to do the work to become successful, or live the life of someone who won’t.

The last 2 Sundays, we’ve lined up his 8 year old brother against him and go through some additional tackling practice to help him get accustomed to the contact and have faith in the tackling skills he’s learned.  I encourage him, and talk to him about working hard, about giving the effort for his teammates, coaches, and family.  I remain hopeful and faithful to the fact that being consistent and letting him earn his way will make him a better man someday – even if that means mom and I have to root for his teammates while he stands on the sidelines.

In youth sports, children often get participation trophies.  In life, there are few rewards for people who show up and participate – and I desperately want him to learn that lesson.  It is hard to watch, and the dad in me is shouting for him to see some playing time – but life comes first – he has to work harder to be rewarded.

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