Written by Mike Deegan
Congratulations! Your child is going to college and attempting to play a collegiate sport. What an exciting time. While there is cause for celebration, I wanted to let you know that challenging times are ahead. Playing a collegiate sport is hard. Being a parent of a child playing a collegiate sport can be even harder; if you let it. There are no shortages of stories of parents and coaches not getting along. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, both the coach and parent have the best interest of the young person in mind.
Today, I will provide some information and give a few tips. The collegiate game is completely different than travel sports. In many ways, parents are set up for failure. The rules have changed and no one has told them. Information is power. My hope is to shed some light on what things will be like moving forward. Some things may resonate with you, while others will not. This is meant to help, and it is in no way meant to be demeaning. I know my limitations; I am not in a position to tell you how to parent. The thoughts below are from 20 years of being in collegiate athletics and observing both positive and negative parental experiences. I hope you enjoy.
“Release the Experience:” This is your child’s experience not yours. Remove “we” from your vocabulary: “we’ve worked hard to be in this situation.” Or, “we’ve had hitting/pitching lessons since he was ten.” This isn’t a shared experience. Understand that your experience will be in 2D while his will be in 3D. He is immersed in culture; as a parent, you can only observe and hear accounts of the events. That is not the same as being there every day; living and breathing it. Let them own it completely. All the success, strife, and failure are theirs. What about if they are not getting along with the coach? Not getting along with people is part of life. Isn’t this a great time to say, “Figure it out.” Please don’t call a coach about playing time. This is not for the coach, it’s for your young adult. It severely damages the relationship. Part of trust is being transparent; having conversations without your child present is not fair to them.
Tip: Stay Busy- parents get in trouble when they become consumed with their son/daughter’s playing career. Pour yourself into a new personal challenge. Remind yourself that the best days are still in front of you and that the collegiate experience is your child’s; not yours.
Understand Your Limitations: You love your child. You’ve watched them grow and develop. You know their whole story; the obstacles they have faced and overcame. It is impossible for you to objectively evaluate them. Here’s the good part, you are not alone. I’ve seen long-time coaches who are fair and objective of other people’s kids be completely biased with their own child. Even people who do this for a living can’t separate the two! Parents get in trouble when they start trying to evaluate.
Tip: Refrain from the common response, “I know he’s my son, but I know he should be playing.” Remember, you are seeing things in 2D not 3D. Never speak negatively about another player. That is a bad look. Also, give yourself a break, you should be blinded by the love of your child.
Winning Matters: Collegiate sports are not about “exposure” they are about striving for excellence and winning. This is a paradigm shift for many. You won’t be able to ask the collegiate coach, “when will Johnny be throwing this weekend?” His playing time will be earned and dictated by the situation the game presents. At times, this will seem unfair, “They played a doubleheader and he never got an at-bat. That’s just not right.” Fair or unfair, this is going to happen. The coach cannot make decisions trying to make everyone happy; that is a rabbit-hole they cannot go down. The focus is no longer on individual exposure; instead, it is on putting the team in the best position to win.
Tip: After a defeat, give the team some space.It is important to give the players and coaches time to decompress. Understand that a lot has gone into the event and emotions may be high.Send your child a message; plan to connect later instead of right outside of the dugout. Remember, winning matters at this level.
Support but Don’t Enable: Your child is entering a competitive environment. This environment will knock them out of their comfort zone. There will be moments of weakness where they will make excuses. There may be times when they want to quit; the desire to “tap out” is not uncommon. Derek Jeter, known for his mental toughness, called home every day crying his first-year in professional baseball. This challenge is overwhelming even to all-time greats! Living outside of the comfort zone is tough, but it is also where growth occurs.
Tip: This is a great opportunity for tough love. When they bring you a complaint just, say “Good.” (Jocko Podcast) “If it were easy everyone would be doing it.” “Did you expect this to be all roses?” “I love you son, but this is the time where you display grit.” Resist the urge to try to fix the problem for them.
10-80-10 Rule: I can promise you this, wherever your child attends school there will be really good players. Roughly 10% of players will find immediate success; their talent level will be noticeably higher than everyone else. They are easy to spot. Another 10% will be extremely far behind. They are equally as noticeable. The rest will fall into the “magnetic middle”; which is where 80% of the players reside. This means that the differences between the players in this category are extremely narrow. I don’t know how, but typically the cream will rise to the top. The people in this group who stand out are the ones who are consistent in their approach to school, athletics and life in general. Rewards for this group can be slow; the game doesn’t have an exact timetable. All I know is that the athletes who pay attention to the game will reap the benefits. It may not be exactly what they envisioned, but the game will reward them in various ways.
Tip: Play the percentages; there is a high probability that your child will be in the 80% category. Prepare yourself mentally; I cannot overstate how important this is. Your child’s journey will be full of valleys and peaks. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do to help. If it stays important to them, the chances are strong that things will work out.
This is a 2-part series. On Monday, I will add another five pieces of advice. I hope you find this useful.