Anybody who has ever been around youth sports has seen The Jerk Parent — that loudmouth who berates referees, barks out orders to players, questions coaches, and generally believes his or her child is supremely talented and worthy of special treatment.
Jerk Parents think they know more than anybody about sports, but chances are, they never played at the highest level, live vicariously through their children, and have unrealistic dreams of college scholarships and pro careers for their kids.
Andre Agassi, Udonis Haslem, Vernon Carey and Jeff Conine are four fathers who reached the pinnacle of their sports, and now have children who are competitive athletes.
Agassi, the tennis legend, has a son who is a coveted high school baseball player. Haslem, the Miami Heat player, has sons who play football, baseball and basketball. Carey, the retired Miami Dolphins lineman, has four kids, three of them basketball players, including a 6-9 high school sophomore. And Conine, the former Marlins star, has a son playing baseball at Duke.
Those sports dads know exactly what it takes to get to the top, and are hyper-aware how nearly impossible it is to get there.
That perspective guides them as they deal with their children’s athletic careers. They know when to push and when to back off. They know how to behave in the stands. They leave coaching to the coaches. Most of all, they are determined not to rob their kids of the fun that comes with youth sports.
Asked what he has learned through his sports journey that makes him a more understanding sports parent, Agassi chuckled and replied: “We could spend a year together and write a book on that subject.”
We don’t have a year, but here are tips on how to be a better sports parent, from four who have seen it all.
A lot of kids are not having fun out there, either because of coaches who are too tough, or parents who are too pushy. Don’t be one of those parents.
Jeff Conine, former Florida Marlins player
Agassi, a child tennis prodigy with an obsessive father, revealed in his powerful memoir, “Open,” that as a youngster he hated tennis “with a dark and secret passion.”
He recalled being shipped off at age 13 from Las Vegas to the famous Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, a place he described as “Lord of the Flies with forehands.” He lamented his lost childhood and dropping out of school in ninth grade.
Agassi is a father now. He and wife, tennis great Steffi Graf, have two kids. Their son, Jaden, is in ninth grade and a highly touted baseball player. He’s a pitcher with a nasty curveball, and already on the radar of many of the top college programs in the nation, including the University of Miami.
Agassi admits he and Graf were happy their son chose a team sport rather than following in their footsteps.
“If you were to give us truth serum, neither one of us were hoping for the kids to be interested in tennis,” Agassi said. “You don’t see too many second-generation tennis players because we’ve lived it, and we know how lonely it is. Neither one of our kids showed interest in tennis, and we were pretty relieved.”
Although Jaden is a talented pitcher who excels at his age group, Agassi knows better than to count on him making the majors.
“I’m from Vegas; I understand odds pretty well,” said Agassi, who then explained in great detail all the things that have to go right for an athlete to make it from youth sports to the pros, how the “statistics are such a sobering reality,” and how he imparts that to his son on a regular basis.
“The biggest difference between those that have lived it and those that haven’t is the basic perception of ideas of grandeur,” Agassi said. “There are a lot of great teachable moments through sport, if as a parent you’re so inclined to be aware of them, about longstanding discipline and empathy and work ethic that give them the tools for success in their own life, whatever it is they end up doing.
“In a healthy way, sports can be a great tool for that. But with an unhealthy perspective, not only is your kid set up for failure based on percentages alone but typically you find yourself missing out on all the teachable moments that give them the tools for a well-balanced, healthy life.”
Agassi said the main influence he has over his son’s sports career is “context.” He doesn’t overpraise when Jaden has a great game, doesn’t criticize when he fails. He told of a recent game a few months ago in which Jaden threw a no-hitter against a team they had never beaten. When the game was over, the other parents were singing his praises. Agassi said he didn’t realize the game had ended, and his reaction when he saw his son was to tell him he really enjoyed watching him play, and that it was time to go home for dinner.
“There’s a level of context I constantly need to give when things are going well or when things aren’t going well so that he can learn to meet triumph and disaster, as they say, with the same spirit of engagement. That’s where I try to influence him as an athlete,” Agassi said. “I’d be doing that with studies if that were his focus. I’d be doing that in the arts if that was the focus.
“If you’re prioritizing success wrong, you can be assured your child won’t have a healthy context. And, therefore, whether it be success or failure, it will have a disproportionate impact on their execution in sport, self-image in life, on their definition of goals and success in their own journeys. It has multiple ramifications.”
Udonis Haslem’s oldest son, Kedonis, is a 6-4 and 300-pound offensive lineman who just graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High and is headed to the University of Toledo. Last December, Udonis got permission from the Heat to miss a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers because he wanted to be in Orlando for his son’s state 7A championship game.
His 10-year-old son, Josiah, is a first baseman on a travel team. And his youngest, 6-year-old Elijah, is “the most gifted athletically” of the three, but is too young to know which sport he likes best.
Like Agassi, Haslem said what he offers his sons as a sports dad is perspective and advice — not so much on how to play, but how to behave, how to treat coaches and teammates, and how to handle success and failure.
When he watches a game from the sideline, he observes his sons’ body language when they make a good play, and when they make a mistake. He rarely yells anything during the game, and never interferes with coaches.
But he admits he lost his cool one time. Kedonis was a sophomore at Dade Christian, and had just been taken out of a football game. He threw his helmet and sat at the end of the bench, away from the team.
“That fired me up, and it’s the only time I showed emotion and got a little loud,” Haslem recalled. “I went down to the sideline and gave him an earful. Not because he made a mistake, but because of how he reacted to that mistake.
“I told him, ‘That’s not how we act. If you want to be mad, be mad. You want to be frustrated, be frustrated. But reserve that energy for the field. What you did is selfish. It’s not the way we do things and nobody wants to play with a teammate like that.’ He never did it again.”
Vernon Carey said although his expertise is in football, not basketball, he knows “what it takes the win the big game, the little things that separate good athletes from great ones.” So, he stresses hustle and defense, rather than other parents, who are more concerned with scoring.
He said he has gotten calmer on the sideline as he has gotten older. He understands that his kids need to find their own way on the court and field.
He said some parents are “over the top,” and they don’t realize how detrimental it can be to the young athlete. He never embarrasses his kids during games. If he has any suggestions, he does it after the game, in private.
Carey said he typically stays to himself at his kids’ games.
“A lot of the parents don’t know what they’re talking about, and they’re yelling all kinds of stuff, so it’s better for me to stay away.”
His advice to sports parents is not to be too hard on their kids, and not to impose unrealistic expectations on them.
“If you really love your child, let them enjoy playing sports,” he said. “Stay quiet on the sideline, don’t criticize too much, and let the coaches coach.”
Being the son of a Major League Baseball player has its benefits, as Griffin Conine has discovered. He has a full-time baseball and life coach who can guide him through the sport’s ups and downs. But there is one major drawback.
“There are a lot of expectations piled on him because of his last name,” Conine said. “People think he has to play baseball, and he has to be good at it. I’m very cognizant of that, so I have never put any pressure on him to play. If anything, I maybe went too far in the other direction, suggesting he play other sports. When he was 11 or 12, just after I retired, I remember telling him, `I don’t care if you ever pick up a bat again. Don’t feel you have to play because I do.”
But Griffin insisted his love of baseball was independent of his father’s success, so Conine decided to coach his Little League team. Some parents who initially were excited to have their sons coached by a Major Leaguer were surprised to learn that Conine cared very little about winning trophies and medals.
“My goal was for the kids to learn how to play baseball, and to have fun,” he said. “If they strike out three times in a game, who cares? They’re 12. I wanted to coach a team that had get-togethers at houses, where the parents and kids all got along. That’s what youth sports is about.”
Conine was appalled at some of the behavior he saw from parents, including brawls in the stands. So, when he held tryouts for his son’s team, he vetted the parents as much as the kids. “I could tell right away which parents had things in perspective, and which didn’t,” he said. “And if I felt a parent was about trophies and stats, I’d tell them they’d be best off somewhere else.”
His biggest complaint about youth sports is that kids specialize in one sport rather than playing different sports each season.
“These kids are playing 100 games and on three different teams,” he said. “At the end of our season, I’d have parents ask if they should get a private coach during the off-season, or have their kids go to baseball clinics, and I’d say, `No. Have your kid play basketball, soccer, racquetball.’ They’d look at me like I was crazy.”
“If I could offer advice to sports parents, it would be to let their kids have fun, because sports are meant to be enjoyed,” Conine said. “A lot of kids are not having fun out there, either because of coaches who are too tough, or parents who are too pushy. Don’t be one of those parents.”