A recent study by a marketing group revealed that the perception of dads has shifted from the inept portrayal of a father left in charge of house and children in the film "Mr. Mom" to one of competence. Instead of grilling cheese sandwiches by ironing them or putting on a diaper that falls off immediately or being sprayed while changing said diaper, dads now confidently step in and handle the day-to-day of domestic life with cheerfulness and aplomb. The marketers wanted to know if commercials that focused on the overwhelmed dad thrust into sudden household situations, confused and unprepared, still resonated with consumers. What the study discovered was that very few men and women saw dads as incapable of doing day-to-day chores. Further support came from dozens of government studies showing that the division of home labor has evened out between husbands and wives. We still get the ads of a mom coming home to her husband cleaning a disgusting fish on her pristine kitchen counter or a new father putting in the car seat backwards. But we are seeing fewer and fewer. There are commercials with only a dad feeding his two sons breakfast or a dad teaching his son how to throw a baseball on the front lawn.
It’s this last ad that got me thinking about the reputation of dads when it comes to youth sports. While the image of a domesticated dad may have sprung up in the last decade, the image of a hard-driving sports dad has been around for longer than that. Plenty of news stories report the extremes where dads have attacked, injured and even killed coaches, referees and other parents. We’ve witnessed the dad who goes to every practice and game, conferences with the coach constantly, berates his child after a game, yells at the referees with vulgarities and even takes on parents from both the opposition and his own child’s team. When I oversaw Wisconsin Soccer Olympic Development Program, I had dozens of fathers calling me to complain that their child wasn’t being fairly considered by the coaches. Each dad informed me that his child was capable of playing NCAA Division I soccer. Of course, not a single dad, when confronted, could establish that his child actually wanted to play college soccer, much less Division I. Kids believe early on that doing well in activities their parents value equates with acceptance by their parents. No child wants to disappoint, so a player will continue to strive toward a goal he or she may not want. The problem with the "intense sports dad" tends to be that the dad’s wishes overshadow his child’s. In case after case, I’ve seen kids achieve at the level the dads believe they can, but not have the passion to sustain that achievement.
This points out why I love the ball throwing commercial
. The ad is for a car, with father and son on the front lawn and the car in the background. It opens with the son coming out of the bushes. "Did you find it?" the dad asks. "Okay another one just like that. Right into the old bucket." The son heaves the ball awkwardly stepping forward on the wrong foot and sending the ball right past his dad to the car. "That’s was better. A good toss. You kept your shoulders square and your eye on the target. Let’s try it again. Now watch me." And with that the father throws even more awkwardly than his son right into the ground. I like the ad because it points out that the dreams of parents are often based on ridiculous expectations. If dad can’t throw, how can he hope that his kid will be the next Curt Schilling? It also plays against type because during the entire ad the dad only has encouragement. This dad doesn’t channel the hard-bitten behavior of Bobby Knight. So perhaps he recognizes that he doesn’t really have the baseball genes to pass onto his son to make him a star, but he can give him the self-confidence to try. I suspect if we could fast-forward to the bleachers behind the backstop we’d hear the same encouraging words despite his son striking out or throwing the ball past the first baseman.
I am hopeful that the media image of the intense dad can give way to a more moderate image. Certainly dads continue to worry about their children’s sports "careers." We revere sports to such a high degree that we forget there are literally hundreds of outlets for our children’s talents, none of which have anything to do with sports. On the first day of the Teen Jeopardy Tournament, one female contestant told Alex Trebek that she had lettered in high school academics and soccer. Alex remarked, "Wow, those are two very dissimilar achievements." I wanted to leap through the TV and set him straight. Sports and academics are very symbiotic. NCAA Division I athletes have higher grade point averages and entrance test scores than their non-athlete peers. But the fact that they are dissimilar activities is exactly the point. Kids should have lots of interests. They should want to emulate their parents’ career choices. They should take part in family activities that don’t center around sports, even if that is a significant family interest. I’d love to see an ad where we zoom in on a college football stadium packed with fans. Along the sidelines a dad paces obviously nervous about the events that will soon unfold. A voiceover begins while the football team leaps and grunts before taking the field, "You can prepare years for this moment. You train, you sweat, and you sacrifice all in the hopes of coming to this championship, all in hopes of giving the performance of your life." Then suddenly the marching band struts out, we cut to the dad on the sidelines going crazy, cut back to the band with a close up of a kid with cymbals. With a flourish he crashes them together. We cut to the dad grabbing whoever he can to announce "That’s my son. Way to go son!!!"
When it comes to youth sports, dads, and by extension, moms, need to remember that the journey is just a beginning. Most of what happens before age 12 can be affected by so many factors: size, speed, interest, opportunity, friendships, competition and knowledge of the game. Like any developmental ability, learning how to play a sport and be somewhat successful at it takes years of growth. Some authors don’t publish their first novel until well into their sixth decade. Right now, there is a rookie golfer on the PGA circuit, Brad Fritsch, who is 35 years old. R.A. Dickey retrained himself to be a knuckleball pitcher so he could extend his career at age 38, and we all remember Grandma Moses who had to wait until she was well into her 80s to gain notoriety for her artwork. So if our children aren’t being tagged as the next youth superstar at age 10 or fail to make the traveling team at age 8, that doesn’t mean we parents have to become more aggressive in our involvement. We don’t need to turn into that shrill, argumentative, intrusive stereotype of the sports dad. We need to find a different role model. Playing catch with our son or daughter, even if we can’t provide any level of competence in our own play, can do more to get them happy and involved in the sport than pressuring them and acting out on the sidelines. We need more ads that show sports dads in a positive light. Ads tend to follow trends, which is why we are seeing more and more commercials of a competent and loving Mr. Mom. Therefore, I’m heartened to see the ad of a dad struggling to be a mentor in sports rather than a task master. No one has ever said women were the perfect caretakers of the home; they just were expected to fill that role. So now that men share those duties, perfection also isn’t required. The same can be said for men who decide to take on a more nurturing role with their youth sport players. All they have to do is throw the ball the best they can — both parent and child.