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Confessions of a Sports Dad

When I was five or six, my parents took me to our local rink to see if they should get me hockey gear. From behind the Plexiglas, I marveled at the speed and grace of the skaters, the slap of the puck against the boards and bodies. Then I turned to my parents and declared: “A kid could get hurt playing this.”

And that was it for me and organized sports.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t play sports. In Ottawa, there was shinny in the winter and pick-up street hockey, basketball, touch football and softball when the city thawed. But my folks never forced their timid and bespectacled son to join a team. I think I turned out okay.

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More than 30 years later, in Victoria, I faced the same dilemma with my own two kids. I knew the mantras of motivation: There is no “I” in “team.” Always give 110 per cent. Sports build character. Yadda yadda yadda. But I’d spent my nerdy high-school years terrorized by the jocks, so I didn’t buy the easy promise of better child-rearing through Darwinian competition. Sports might reveal character—like when the rugby team tried to give me a wedgie—but so do ballet recitals and videogame tournaments.

Still, even before he grew hair, my son loved to throw and kick and catch every type of ball. His younger sister graduated straight from crawling to running like the wind. Whatever my personal biases, sports would likely one day find my kids.

And so I repeated my parents’ pilgrimage to the local rink. We watched a young player crash into the opposing goalie, then a defenceman spear the fallen forward in the spleen, and finally a wall of parents hammer on the glass and howl at the teenage referee. My kids looked shocked, and we left quietly before they released the lions. Mission accomplished: I evaded years of pre-dawn hockey practices and expensive equipment fees.

Instead, my wife and I put our kids in soccer—a sport that, for youngsters, barely deserves the adjective “organized.” There’s a ball, a scrum of high-kicking little people, and a huddle of parents stroking their iPhones in the rain. An hour or two of running our kids ragged for the price of shin-pads and second-hand cleats. Even here, though, I once saw two fathers nearly come to blows when one five-year-old daughter accused the other of cheating.

Soccer is the gateway drug to becoming a Sports Dad. The next spring, we added baseball to our roster. Our son seemed okay with the idea because most of his friends played, until I told him to grab his gear for the first practice. “Why did you sign me up?” he howled, clutching a book on the sofa and breaking into tears. “I want to stay home and read!”

“Put down that book!” I shouted. “You’re going to baseball!”

I shuddered. What kind of monster had I become? Worse, I’d signed a “Contract of Parental Behaviour” with the clause: “I will not force my child to play.” Oops.

Despite my son’s misgivings, he ended up loving baseball. His coaches taught him the rules and brought out the best in new and experienced players. And the boys and girls looked so darn cute in their uniforms! I volunteered to work the microphone at games as the announcer—because why should a father wait until his kid’s wedding to embarrass him?

And he got good, too. As a teacher, I could see the feedback loop of learning: practice, failure, more practice, success, lose some, win some. He developed dexterity and agility and self-confidence alien to me at his age. The small skills of throwing and catching and swinging and running and not pulling dandelions in the outfield evolved, by the end of the season, into a cooperative effort that looked something like baseball.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied how “optimal experiences”—often physical activities—can induce in us a state of “flow” in which we surf a harmonious wave that oscillates between challenge and competence, anxiety and boredom. Baseball—a sport with much boredom and anxiety for fans and skeptics alike—was pure flow for my son. The obsessiveness of his then nine-year-old imagination also set aside Star Wars and Minecraft and found new purchase on the lore and science of the game: statistics for favourite players, YouTube tutorials on how to throw a curveball.

Which isn’t to say his experience has been all sunshine and smiles. There might not be an “I” in “team,” but there is often a “cry,” usually after a hard slide or a misplayed ball or a tough loss. That’s difficult to watch as a parent. And yet my son always bounces back and never wants to miss a game or practice.

By the next summer, the whole clan was hooked. Our son did spring training and regular season, played on a summer select team and a fun fall squad, too. We cheered the HarbourCats and the Blue Jays. I got drafted to coach softball so my then seven-year-old daughter could play, too. My homework included how to grip a ball on its seams and the rules of “What Time is it Mr. Wolf?” I wore a ballcap and a team T-shirt most weekends. One day, I looked in the mirror and realized I’d become an accidental Sports Dad.

Sure, we tried not to care about the outcome of our kids’ games—without much success. Soon our social life began to revolve around local ball diamonds. At home, we watched Ken Burns’ documentary history of the sport, which offered the context and the chance to talk as a family about big issues: sexism, racism, economic inequality and why they no longer serve you a beer when you reach third base.

I already look back on those summers with the nostalgia so common to sports fans. My son moved up to new leagues, where the game is faster and more competitive. A kid could get hurt playing it perhaps. I worry about the stats on how participation in organized team sports drops dramatically as young players enter their teens. I worry, too, about the countless terabytes of cognitive energy we devote as a culture to tracking the Sports Industrial Complex of millionaire ballplayers and puck-chasers.

But then I remember the nights when I come home frazzled from work, and my son and daughter grab their gloves and a ball and wait out on the street for me to send one more text or check one last email.

“Put down your iPhone!” they shout. “You’re going to play baseball!”

And I do.

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