Love, Parenting, and the Idol of Sport
by Ted Kluck
It’s a hot day in June, in Michigan, and I’m at an all-day 7-on-7 football tournament at a mosquito-laden municipal park in Lowell. If you’re wondering what a 7-on-7 tournament is, and why they exist, you’re not alone. It’s basically an excuse for people who can’t wait until August for football to start, to have their kids practicing and competing. It occurs to me sometime around the sixth hour of the proceedings, after I’ve purchased my eleventh bottle of water and am treating my severe sunburns, how insane it all is.
My son will be in sixth grade in the fall.
His invitation to this semi-elite, invitation-only traveling squad was something of a stroke to both of our athletic egos, and the practices were, in general, a great experience as for the first time he was able to take coaching from someone other than me, and compete with kids who were his equal, or better, athletically.
Personalizing the Impersonal
I have had a lifelong relationship with football which has been, for me, like a passionate but combustible and flawed marriage to a very fickle spouse in which there are times of great passion and joy interspersed with times where we’re screaming obscenities and hurling plates at one another. But we always make up. Even in this analogy (and definitely in real life) I’ve taken something impersonal (football) and made it intensely personal.
I have always said that I quote unquote “love” football and what that has meant is that I’ve worked very hard at it, and have been pleased with football when it has met expectations and have been enraged at football when it hasn’t. I have loved many of the peripheral things about football as well—the helmets, the jerseys, the finding and watching of old games on YouTube, the strategizing, et cetera.
I have sometimes loved playing and coaching football which really means that I have loved playing and coaching football when I am doing well at playing and coaching football and am receiving positive feedback and approval for playing and coaching well. The same is true of my football parenting. When it’s going well, I love it, and am the genial, back-slapping guy who has a smile and a kind word for everyone.
What’s happening today, in Lowell, is that my son isn’t playing especially well. 7-on-7 football is less like real football—with hitting, pads, and a running game—and is more like soccer with a ball you can throw, or, more aptly, more like ultimate Frisbee. It benefits smaller guys with fine motor skills. My son, by comparison, is a hammer. In real football he’s a linebacker and fullback—a guy who loves contact and lives for the perfect tackle or perfectly thrown lead block. He’s catching the ball well today, early-on, but is playing out of position on defense (cornerback) and is getting routinely torched by kids who are smaller and quicker.
The final straw, for me, comes halfway through the day. My son is running a simple hitch route—run 8 yards, turn, catch the ball. Except that the ball is a half-inch away from his face when he turns around. Not surprisingly, he drops the pass, after which the coach sends him to the bench and he’s basically done playing offense for the rest of the day. His replacement—who happens to be my friend’s son—comes in and has the day of his life.
For the duration of the day, my friend increases and I, literally, decrease. He moves forward to the point that he’s almost on the field with the coaches, and I retreat back to the pavilion where I sulkily sit at a picnic table and watch the proceedings by myself—alone with my rage and, in fact, not wanting to be made to feel better by anyone.
Unlearning Learned Behavior
For as long as I can remember—from the earliest days of my own playing career—I was taught to be disgusted with losing and, in fact, not being disgusted with losing meant that you didn’t “love the game” and that people “questioned your commitment.” So in fact there was both an inward and outward response to losing. Outwardly it meant showering and dressing and riding the bus in silence with a scowl affixed to one’s face which meant that an acceptable level of losing-related disgust was registering with the coaches who silently wore their own scowls in the front couple of seats.
But inside I learned to hate losing as well. I took every loss—even every loss in every rep in every drill—as a personal slap in the face. There were games in which my team won but I played poorly, and I would treat those as losses as well. I thought that if I became even the least bit “okay” with losing that it would somehow infiltrate my psyche and I would become listless and apathetic. In reality, this philosophy just made me miserable most of the time.
The Rather Large Chip
“Why can’t you just take the chip off your shoulder and relax,” suggests my real, non-plate-throwing wife as I recount some of the day’s events by phone. She is back home doing something normal with her Saturday afternoon—going to a graduation party for a friend’s child.
The “chip on the shoulder” is another long-standing football commandment. “Babe,” I tell her, “I’ve literally been told by coaches, for most of my life, to ‘play with a chip’ on my shoulder and to ‘not take the chip off until the end of the game’ or in some cases ‘until the end of the season.’” What this means, similar to being disgusted with losing, is being ultra-aggressive all the time. It means never taking a play off. It means viewing your opponent as someone who is trying to take something from you. It means, basically, hating your opponent. Sadly, I’ve been very good at this for most of my athletic career.
What happens, today, is that our team wins the 7-on-7 championship with my son on the bench, offensively, and playing poorly, defensively. Instead of being my usual back-slapping encouraging self, I pack our chairs and bug spray and sunscreen in silence and silently walk out to the car. This feeling—being benched—isn’t one that either of us have dealt with much before. We don’t really have a category for it and, even though I’ve written at length about sports and faith, I’m having a hard time getting my spiritual bearings enough to put my faith into action.
What I’m feeling, on the way home, is disappointment mixed with guilt. The disappointment part is easy, inasmuch as the day didn’t go the way I wanted it to, ergo, the disappointment. The guilt part is harder to pin down. Did I transgress, in a spiritual sense? I’m not sure, but I definitely feel like I transgressed in a social/political sense, in that the people who were expecting the good-natured and encouraging Ted Kluck were either taken aback by how surly and uninvolved I was at the end or (hopefully) just didn’t notice my silent, angry exit at all.
Faith Working Through Love
So what does “faith working itself out through love” look like in a situation like this? First of all, as a lifelong coach, I’m used to being on the “encouragement” end of this equation, and not the angry-parent end. But God’s grace is evident all around. Not fifteen minutes into the drive home, Tristan and I are having a great conversation not only about what we’re feeling, but about how/if we’ve sinned, and how we can honor the Lord with our actions.
“You know, I don’t feel all that good about winning the championship,” he starts.
“Me neither,” I reply. And with that we are down the road to recovery.
The conversation is good in that it binds us together (instead of my silence driving us apart), but there is the sense that nothing is solved. Core questions remain. Am I “loving the Lord my God with all my heart?” and “Loving my neighbor as myself?” I doubt it. I’m resenting my neighbor for his son’s reps in the game, perhaps because the game itself occupies too great a place in my heart.
I dial my friend and apologize for being surly and distant.
Finally I receive a call and a visit from the team’s head coach, who I find out is a brother in Christ. He has intuited that we were unhappy and insists on stopping by “to talk to Tristan.” When he comes by the house, he shakes Tristan’s hand and says, “I just want to let you know that 7-on-7 isn’t real football…and that I think you’re a heck of a football player. The reason I had you playing out of position today is that I know you have speed, and you were the only one I trusted out there. So it’s a compliment to you.”
His speech is directed at Tristan, but the fact of the matter is that it’s REALLY working on his father.
“I really appreciate the compliment,” Tris replies, sincerely, maintaining eye contact and shaking the coach’s hand as he leaves our home. I’m prouder of him in that moment than I’ve been in any of his athletic triumphs. And I’m proud of the other coach. The fact that, for years, I’ve thought of myself as the dispensary of encouragement and hope is, in fact, incredibly arrogant. What God has done, undeservedly, is to minister to me through the mature actions of my own son and his coach. It’s proof that He’s real, He loves us, and He’s working—even as we do battle with our idols.
Ted Kluck is the award-winning author of over a dozen books on topics ranging from Mike Tyson to Pro Football to the Evangelical Church. He speaks frequently on sports and faith. Visit him online at www.tedkluck.com.
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