It's not easy being a tennis dad and "just" supporting my son
By Robert Partington
I have a son who plays competitive tennis. That makes me a “tennis dad.” Statistics tell us that most problems associated with junior sports are the result of parental behavior. One of my son’s coaches told me, “Your job, Robert, is simple: support him financially, logistically and emotionally. That’s it.” Sounds easy enough. I can shop; I can drive. But that third one might need some tweaking.
Here’s what happens: If Andrew’s play slips during competition, I start to fidget. As points and games slip by, fidgeting leads to pacing. If Melissa, my wife, is nearby, I externalize my discomfort by muttering about what he’s doing wrong. Often, unable to put up with my incessant chatter, she’ll gently move away to cheer him on from a more peaceful vantage point. I love my wife!
I have a friend who is a “lacrosse dad” and seems to suffer from many of the same challenges I do. He thinks there are quite a number of us out there. Neither one of us wants to hurt our relationships with our sons. As a counselor, I’ve heard from men and women who reached a pinnacle in their sports, but made it at the cost of a damaged relationship with a parent. More often than not, it was with Dad.
“Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Col. 3:21). Some athletes grew up with fathers who doled out love on the basis of performance. When they won, dads praised and embraced, but emotional distance set in when they failed to perform up to their dads’ expectations. Working through the pain of having to earn a father’s affection can take years of counseling in adulthood.
I have a solid relationship with my son on every level except one: When he plays poorly, losing a highly winnable match, something changes inside of me. I feel emotionally unsettled for a number of hours. It feels biochemical. It feels weird.
While talking with my friend, the lacrosse dad, he quoted Dean Smith: “Don’t treat every game as life or death. For one thing, you’ll find yourself dead a lot.”
So, what does it take for me to be a more “sporting” father? First, I need to acknowledge that my son has a coach. I have the higher privilege of being his father.
I need to be more supportive of my son when he needs it the most. Andrew is developing into a talented athlete, but he’s also a sensitive young man and a precious gift from God.
I need to deliver genuine love that looks the same to him, win or lose. Regaining his trust in those few key moments is going to take some time.
Far more profound than all of this, however, is the fact that a child’s early concept of God is shaped by his relationship with his earthly father. God’s unconditional, sacrificial love isn’t going to make a lot of sense if Andrew interprets my love as somehow tied to his performance.
So as a father I have a responsibility to point my son to God by how I live by faith during the good times but more importantly during my most difficult and challenging moments. Pray for me. It’s not easy being a tennis dad, but with the Lord’s help, I’m going to get there.
Robert Partington, M.Div., MACO, is a speaker and writer on the family and the former executive director and founder of Peace in the Home, Inc. Partington and his wife, Melissa, live with their three children in Midlothian, Virginia.
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