The Parent Trap

A picture is worth a thousand words. While this may well be the case in some instances, I don’t think it always applies. A recent picture of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez sitting watching their sons play football went viral. They were lauded for appearing to sit back and relax while their sons played for a Barcelona youth team. Despite their own word class talent and obvious knowledge on how to play football, there was no sign of either player shouting instruction. The picture kept repeatedly popping up on my Twitter feed as it was retweeted over and over by people commending these world class footballers for their approach to parenting.

Messi and Suarez sit back and relax to watch their sons play football.

I have recently coached my own son’s U6 team. “Coached” should not be used literally here as working with 5- and 6-year olds, I was generally just trying to organize them into a rabble. If you had happened to snap a photo of me on the sideline at one of our matches, you may have caught a variety of different situations all open to interpretation. In one I might be shouting and pointing. What would people make of this? Would this just be another sign of a parent expecting too much too young, while in reality was it a coach trying to tell the kids they were shooting at the wrong goal? On the other hand, you may have caught a picture of me looking relaxed and laughing. Would this put me in the same category as Messi and Suarez, not as a player, but as a laid back parent who just let the kids play?

Coaching or should I say organising my son, Patrick’s, under 6 team.

I can tell you if someone had actually taken photos of me during the games they would have caught a wide range of reactions and emotions and all each photo would have shown, was a snapshot of one moment in time. Perhaps you could have caught a huge smile as one of the lads scored his first ever-goal or a grimace as one of the boys decided to the pick the ball up despite been constantly told not to use his hands. I certainly would not want my approach to coaching or parenting dissected or analyzed on the basis of one picture and I don’t think we should put Messi or Suarez on a pedestal just because they sat back to watch their sons play football.

I understand the point many people were trying to make.

If one of the greatest footballers that ever lived can sit back and let his son play, then surely Joe Bloggs that hasn’t kicked a ball in his life shouldn’t be screaming and shouting at the side of the park telling his son or daughter what or what not to do. We have all seen it. Those parents at the side of the park that treat youth football like the World Cup Final, screaming at anyone and everyone. The poor referee, the opposition manager or even opposition parents, it seems no one is immune from their tirades. This is not acceptable and never will be. Parents should be there to support their own child’s team and everything else should be insignificant. I think despite the outpouring of admiration for Messi and Suarez, there is major grey area about parenting young sports people that people have forgotten or perhaps overlooked. Everyone was eulogizing about such a laid-back approach to watching their kids, but I can’t help but wonder if some of their praise was misplaced. Is there more to a parents’ role in helping develop a young aspiring athlete than some people think?

Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Andre Agassi. These three names symbolize greatness in their own sport. For my generation, these sportsmen and women are icons of their sport, synonymous with being the best in the world and they all have one thing in common. Their parents pushed them to be the best they could possibly be from a very young age. Tiger’s dad didn’t go to the driving range and sit back in his chair and just let young Tiger hit some balls on his own. He instructed him, he encouraged him, he challenged him and at times scolded him. In the end, he produced one of the best sportsmen that has ever lived. Agassi’s dad hand-built a tennis court in his own back yard and a machine nicknamed “the dragon” that fired balls out at a ferocious rate. Agassi points to this machine and his father’s constants demands to return the ball harder each time as the reason for his fantastic forehand.

Tiger and his Dad shared an exceptionally close relationship.

Tiger and Agassi are both products of an environment where they were pushed every day by their parents to be the best they could be. At times did their parents cross the line of what was considered by the general public to be acceptable behaviour? From stories I have read, I think it is safe to say they did, but was that perhaps necessary to produce a world class athlete?

While hard at times, I suspect these athletes all look back now and are thankful for the way their parents moulded them. Would they have had all the trophies, accolades and money if it wasn’t for that constant push from their parents? The Williams sisters’ dad can always be seen sitting in the tennis stadiums around the world supporting his daughters, a sure sign that their relationship is as strong as ever despite his role as taskmaster during their formative years. Where would Tiger’s career be right now if his dad Earl was still around? Many feel Tiger’s demise started when he lost his father. Earl was not only Tiger’s father, but his best friend and mentor as well. Tiger didn’t despise him for pushing him hard as a child; He idolized him.

As a young child growing up you need advice, guidance, encouragement and support, but at times, you need to be disciplined, challenged and pushed to reach your full potential. While I never reached the heights of the aforementioned athletes, I have enjoyed a career in professional sport for more than 15 years. I think I have managed to get the most out of the ability I had thanks in large part to my parents.

Of course children at times need to make their own mistakes and learn from them, but the experience and wisdom a parent can pass on from their own experiences are invaluable. During your teenage years, when there are so many distractions, you need someone to point you in the right direction. At that age, it is so easy to just follow the crowd and succumb to peer pressure. If you have parents that can warn you about the pitfalls of making the wrong decisions and guide you along the right path, then the impact later in life can be huge.

Before a parent can really push a child to reach the top in sport, there are two ingredients the child must have. For anyone to reach their potential at anything, they need to be passionate about what they do. I have always lived and breathed football. Growing up, it consumed my thoughts every hour of the day. One of my report cards once read, “At times Neill’s mind is at Rugby Park and not in the class.” To be fair to the teacher, she was spot on. I was single-minded in my desperation to be a professional footballer.

On top of a passion for the sport, you need to show an aptitude for it. I have seen many players who loved football but even with the best will in the world, they just didn’t have the ability no matter how much they wanted it. If you have both the aptitude and the passion, then I think you’re able to handle a parent pushing you to be the best you can be. If you don’t have these ingredients, it will just end in tears for everyone.

When I read autobiographies or listen to interviews from sportsmen or women, they often site their parents as the biggest influence in their career. The influence of parents obviously varies with every athlete. In some cases, their parents didn’t have any clue about the sport their child participated in, but supported them in other ways, like ferrying them all over the country to and from training and events, lending emotional support after disappointments and encouraging a level head after great victories. In other cases, parents have vast knowledge on their child’s particular sport and were able to actually coach the intricacies of the game. Would Andy Murray be world number one if it hadn’t been for his mother Judy’s influence in the background?

As a father of four young children myself, I appreciate I will have decisions to make over the coming years on how to best help my children pursue their dreams whether it be in sport or academics. One thing I know is that they are all already uniquely different characters and will therefore each require help in different ways. Growing up, I had a vastly different character to my sister and for that reason, my Mum and Dad would push, encourage and cajole us in very different ways. While I have enjoyed a career in professional football, my sister went on to earn many caps for the Scottish Women’s Netball team as a goal attack.

To produce a professional athlete, I don’t think it is a prerequisite to have a parent as a major influence, but I guarantee if you ask any sportsman or woman, they will all have an important figure that played a major role in helping them on their journey. It may be an aunt, uncle, grandparent or coach but there is no question help and guidance has to come from somewhere.

My dad played a huge role in my football career. He was my coach from the age of 6 to 13. He enjoyed a short professional football career himself before becoming a Chartered accountant and continuing to play semi-professionally. My dad would be the first to admit he didn’t take the Messi approach to watching me play football.

I can remember appearing for the second half in games and looking over to my dad and getting the distinct signal to liven up, or, as we say in Scotland, get my finger out my arse, if I hadn’t reached the standards I was capable of. There were also days I hopped back into the car after a game thinking I had performed well only to be told in no uncertain terms that I hadn’t. “You need to do things quicker.” “Why didn’t you get tighter?” As a youngster there were times where I didn’t like this frank appraisal, but it always made me strive to do better and raise my standards and this was exactly the response my dad was hoping for. He could see the ability I had and how much I wanted it, but realized I needed to be pushed to achieve it. I can safely say that without these demands being placed on me, I wouldn’t have made a career out of the game. If I had jumped in the car after every game and been told how great I was, I doubt I would have made it past semi-professional level in Scotland. I needed to be pushed to reach my potential. I knew what I wanted to achieve but my dad knew HOW best to get me there having made the journey himself and from years of life experience.

Playing for Queens Park at 17 in the Scottish Third Division my Dad looking on in the background. He didn’t always look so relaxed.

For any parent reading this thinking that this is the approach to take, I would urge that there is no one-size-fits-all method. While at times my dad was demanding, I was also always aware he was my biggest fan. During some of my biggest disappointments, he was always there to pick me back up and restore belief in my ability. At fourteen, I was released by my boyhood heroes, Kilmarnock FC, and Aberdeen FC within a week. I was devastated and suffering a crisis of confidence, but my dad was steadfast in his belief that I would come through this stronger. His unwavering support despite the knock backs gave me confidence to keep going and prove the doubters wrong. Without this support at an age where insecurities are magnified, I would have believed the so-called experts and just faded into the background never to be seen again. The people that hold the positions of influence and power do not always know best. It is worth bearing in mind Michael Jordan did not make his high school varsity team.

Every athlete takes a different route on their path to professional sport, but one constant is the need for a positive influence, whether it be a parent, family member or close friend. It has to be someone that solely has the athletes’ best interests at heart. Coaches have a huge number of players to look after and a club to answer to. Agents might say they have your best interests at heart, but really have clubs, managers and chief executives to keep happy if they want to enjoy a long working relationship in that industry.

A parents’ role should never be underestimated, as in reality, they are the one person with only their childs’ best interests at heart. If they don’t try to push their child to be the best they can be, there are no guarantees anyone else will. So the next time you see a parent at the side of the park trying to motivate their child to do better, think twice before condemning them. They might just be nurturing a future champion.