SPORTS and PARENTAL VALUES
A Father’s Journey With His Daughter

by Don Martin, Ph.D.

I am continually amazed how life places us in situations where we learn to give to others. Like most fathers, I struggle with caring and intimacy with my daughters. One of the ways that has helped me find a common ground with them is through sports and the values that they can teach. However, helping a child reach her potential in any endeavor, whether in sports or academic studies, can be a difficult and trying experience. As a father, teaching my daughters about athletics seemed awkward at first and a role many fathers may be somewhat hesitant to approach. Over the years, I have found my parental journey with my daughters to be both enriching and difficult, much like most experiences that life has taught me.

While both my daughters have played basketball, this story reflects the trials and tribulations of helping my oldest daughter, Paige, who has completed her college basketball experience. For many males, sports and parental values are intertwined and may bring back memories of their own childhoods, whether good or bad.

I had played basketball in college and loved the game. It would be a cliché to say that basketball has been an important part of my daughter’s life. Without it, a big piece of her would be missing from the person she has become. And more important than playing basketball, it gave my daughter and myself an opportunity to get to know and love each other in ways I had never realized. Basketball provided a rare experience, something fathers and daughters involved in sports can share together. At times, the experience had heightened significance because I was not her biological father.

Being male, I had trouble at times understanding my daughter. Basketball was an opportunity to share common values and the chance for us to grow together. The basketball court became life’s playground where our relationship developed. It mirrored our struggles and disagreements; our disappointments and joys. And, of course; it mirrored our conflicts and reconciliations. Sometimes people outside our family would not agree with what we did. They may have thought that I pushed her too hard or that she was too young to understand what commitment to a sport would mean. It would upset me that the same issues would not be voiced if she were a male. But I knew that someday my daughter would understand her sacrifices and that is what mattered most to me. When my daughter began playing basketball over 15 years ago, the sport for girls was not very well known. There weren’t many female role models. Women’s games weren’t broadcast on national television. Times have changed. My daughter has been a part of that process.

When Paige was six or seven years old, the game really didn’t hold much interest for her. When most of her friends would be playing or talking on the telephone; Paige would be shooting baskets or practicing dribbling. Most of her friends couldn’t understand why she even bothered playing. When she would try out for teams as early as the 4th and 5th grade, most of the girls in her classes didn’t participate. Unlike boys, there wasn’t much positive reinforcement for playing basketball from her peers. Neither teachers nor friends would suggest that being an athlete was a good learning experience for her. Many times, she’d wonder why she was practicing every day. Being her dad, I knew that these were not easy things to discuss. She was a middle class kid and really didn't "want" for very much. Basketball wasn't her way out of the “urban ghetto,” a hostile environment or the chance to go to college. Basketball was an opportunity to learn the value of hard work and the concept of excellence.

To me, basketball was an opportunity to share beliefs and values that seemed to be disappearing from many of my daughter’s classmates. She could learn how to be committed to something, to practice everyday; to see the fruits of her labor; to succeed and to fail; to get knocked down and to get up; to have courage; to have common goals and to be a part of a team while learning when to lead and when to follow. I believed that through hard work and effort, she could learn how to feel better about herself; a perspective many young girls seem to struggle understanding today. I wanted her to know that I would be with her in every step of her effort because I loved her. I believe that with great effort, wonderful things can be accomplished.

Diligence, perseverance and effort became a hallmark of our relationship. I realized that for her to be successful, I had to be just as committed as her. It was a mutual journey. Paige was not a particularly gifted athlete. Everything for her had to come through practice and repetition; doing things over and over again. On her high school team, she was one of the slowest people to sprint across the length of a basketball court. She couldn’t jump particularly high and she had to work over and over again on her “catching” skills. She is not unusually tall, yet it’s amazing what she’s accomplished. In the beginning years, there were many struggles and by no means did we always agree. She’d yell at me and often didn’t want to practice. Many times playing basketball was looked upon as drudgery. Sometimes I couldn’t understand why kids in the city playgrounds would be running at home to grab their basketballs. They would run out to play where she would always hesitate or give excuses. But day in and day out she would practice; hours at a time; year after year. And I would always be there even when I wanted to leave or give up due to my own laziness or frustration.

Sometimes, our relationship with basketball became tiring for me. But I always continued because I knew it was best for her and for us. I would insist that she keep “working” no matter how many crying spells, temper tantrums or disagreements we would have. Sometimes I’d wish that my daughter received more competent coaching in the schools she attended. Some of her coaches didn’t know what they were doing; not through their own faults but because no one wanted to coach the women’s teams whether it was the fifth grade or high school. I managed coaching her through many games and recognizing what skills she had to learn in order to succeed. Eventually, she began to see that her hard work was leading to success. She would score points or winning baskets in games. She began to be rewarded through her play and her excellence. She was learning that giving her best was good enough, no matter the outcome.

Through basketball, she learned that there were no guarantees in life; that she had to come back from her setbacks. She learned these sorts of struggles early in her development. For example, I can remember when she was in 5th grade on the basketball team and the school awarded the most valuable player trophy to another girl on her team. My daughter was upset and began to cry on the bench when the award was announced. I whisked her out of the crowd and we talked. When basketball parodies life, it’s not always so amusing. It was hard for me to see her feel such pain at a young age. Even still, it was tougher for my daughter to gather herself and go back to the gymnasium and congratulate the girl who won the award. This lesson in humility gave her a taste of the importance of competing; the purpose of doing her best rather than seeking the recognition of others. Remarkably she became even stronger, ready for the next step and a little less “needy”. In 7th grade, she took her middle school team to the state championship game.

In high school, my daughter began to learn what sacrifice meant and how it felt to be practicing when her friends were doing “fun” things. Her road to excellence wasn’t quite as easy as the self-help books seem to imply. But her hard work was eventually rewarded. Her high school team won two state championships and through it all, she remembered those early lessons of humility. Whether she was quoted in the newspaper or interviewed on television, she always recognized the efforts of her teammates and understood that closeness and teamwork is what contributed to their success. She learned a team effort was more effective and everyone plays an important role.

During her college years, my daughter went to school away from home to continue her basketball playing at the Division I Level. Even though I didn’t see as many games as I would have liked, we would continue to talk for hours on the telephone. On a drive to Connecticut one winter day, I realized that her basketball career was ending. I was traveling to see her last college game. When I walked into the gymnasium, she glanced at me and I could tell what this last game would be like for her. All those moments together had reached this conclusion; a paradox of satisfaction, yet sadness. My daughter had a great game that night and scored nearly twenty points, had 10 rebounds and a few assists. When it was over, she walked over and without a word she just held me. I told her how much I loved her and how proud I was of her. I thanked God for giving me such a wonderful daughter. Watching her play that day helped me erase some self-doubts of whether all those hours of practice and struggles had been worthwhile. My daughter had learned how to succeed and feel good about herself in the process. This was a journey of struggle and triumph; and I had a role to play through our experiences together. Sports had taught both of us many invaluable lessons and we had become closer and better people because of the experience.

References

Murphy, S.(Ed.) (1995) Sport Psychology Interventions. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Williams, J.M. (Ed.) (1993) Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. Mountain View, Ca: Mayfield

Don Martin Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and counselor in Ohio. His son was a small college basketball all American in college and is now a lawyer in private practice in Tennessee. His oldest daughter has a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and is director of special education in a local school system in Ohio. At the present time, his youngest daughter is a senior being recruited by several Division I universities to play basketball. Dr. Martin is the author of four books and over 50 research articles. He is actively involved in consulting with public schools on character education and helps coordinate a community clinic within the graduate counselor training program at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

01/15/03

 

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