This is my confession: I have a confession to make. The primary reason I signed my son up for competitive soccer was not fun. It was a close second, but not the first reason. I know this statement is sacrilegious in most circles, but hear me out.
- The process of self-improvement can teach invaluable life lessons.
- It can be difficult to understand how one can care about the process but be indifferent about the outcome.
- Accomplishments achieved as a result of hard work produce immense phycological benefits.
I am that dad - As a parent, I try to give my boys the world and all the love imaginable. This means, playing together, coaching, helping with homework, field trip chaperoning - the works.
The decision - However, I did make one crucial decision that is very different from most people. When they were really young, I decided that I wanted them to experience the process of becoming elite at something other than education. Elite has a lot of connotations; some positive and some negative. To me, the benefit that comes with learning how to out-think and out-work most people is extremely important and will last a lifetime. Because we do so much as a family, I limit this endeavor to two areas; academics and any activity of their choice.
This Sounds Weird - What's the Logic? - In today's society, American kids, like my sons, live in what I call, "The Paradise of Laziness". Everything is designed to entertain them while encouraging a sedentary lifestyle. The grandson of sharecroppers, I grew up on a farm in South Carolina. Every day of my children's lives would have felt like Christmas eve to me and my brothers. Modern society, with all its gadgetry, is ill-equipped at organically reinforcing life lessons such as hard work, responsibility, delayed gratification, and accountability.
What about fun? The fun part is easy. Just don't get in their way. It's the other stuff that's hard.
The pursuit of excellence - In the absence of the natural learning opportunities that we experienced growing up; I believe the pursuit of something greater than oneself and the process of self-improvement remain great teachers of those virtues. This was inspired by my dad who told this story about his military service. All recruits were required to master the art of cleaning a standard issued service rifle. It wasn't about becoming the world's greatest sniper. The lessons were in the process. Can I do something with perfection? Will I take pride in something that is mundane? Can I demonstrate mastery in a specific area? Considering that everyone is doing the same thing, what advantage can I uncover? Can I perform with a positive attitude even when tired?
Special author's note: While the focus is on the process (and not outcomes), standing out among one's peers can provide a huge psychological boost that benefits the person.
Separating from the proverbial "Crazy Parent" - I am not focused on outcomes and I am not delusional about my kids' ability. I don't believe that I can train them to become mathematical geniuses (especially with my SAT scores) or hire personal trainers to get them full athletic scholarships. I don't even know if soccer is going to be that thing next year. So I definitely won't yell at them because they are not achieving what I expect on the field.
So why elite soccer? Sport is unique because it allows you to introduce important life lessons at a fairly young age. More importantly, there's a reason that soccer is the most popular sport in the world. It's really really fun. As my kids were born in England, this is the activity that they want to excel at. If and when that changes, we will find something else. As a parent, I try to introduce them to as many things as I can and see what they enjoy most.
What about letting kids just be kids? There are many exceptions, but middle-class kids spend the overwhelming majority of their time being kids. In fact, through sport, I am just trying to reclaim a small trace of the experiences that molded honest-hardworking people of generations past. And let's not forget; they are playing a game they love.
What if they don't want to be good at anything? I will cross that bridge when I get to it, but it's rare that a person can't find anything they are interested in more than the average person.
Secretly, don't you want them to get a scholarship and go pro? Yes, I am looking forward to my box seats at Old Trafford and I also want my sons to become the first brothers to actively serve as President and Vice President. I also want them to become the world's most influential scientists and create an invention that earns them billions of dollars. Parents want the best for their kids. It's ok to dream, just don't stress them out, remember to laugh a lot, take breaks, balance it out and enjoy the ride.
Are you worried that you are putting too much pressure on them? I reflect on it often (more with academics than soccer). Parent-children relationships have to be managed well. Come within 100 yards of a soccer field and you will see parents screaming commands at their children. Get a little closer and you will see one or two players holding back tears. I don't have all the answers. I have promised my sons that I will never say anything to them during the game. That's an easy fix.
My advice is to communicate frequently, listen to verbal and non-verbal cues. Laugh, keep calm and focus on the process; not outcomes and love them. Children typically want to satisfy their parents and place pressure on themselves regardless of what you do. So in the absence of no expectations, there is no single answer.
But what happens if they are just not good enough? First of all, that is life. Sometimes your best is not enough, but you shouldn't live your life not trying because you may fail.
There is hope, which I share often with my son, If you work twice as hard at something than someone else, it's still possible for them to be better than you, but it will be rare. This has been the case thus far.