You don't have to produce the next Tom Brady to teach your kids the positive skills they get from sports.
In your heart, I bet you—like every dad I know—want your kids to be good at sports. If you were a jock, you want them to follow in your footsteps. If you weren't, you want to spare them that awful feeling of being picked last in choose-up games, then delegated to play right field.
But life doesn't deal us all little Michael Jordans, Derek Jeters, or sisters like Serena and Venus Williams. In your head, you know that what counts in the long run is not that your kids excel, but that they try, that they learn what it's like to test their bodies in competition.
To get your head and heart to work together, try these dad-and-coach-tested tips. They'll get your kids into sports, keep them from quitting, and develop their lifelong love of playing for the sheer fun of it.
Expect them to play. When you insist that your kids play something, you are not being pushy. Rather, you are setting an expectation in one of life's fundamentals, just like "I expect you to go to school, on time, and to try hard." When my son was turning into an eight-year-old couch potato, I made it clear that I expected him to play some sport after school, the same expectation I had of his older sister who had, on her own, taken up gymnastics.
Match the sport to the child, not the child to the sport. Just because you were great at tennis or love watching basketball doesn't mean those sports are the best fits for your kids. Figure out your child's athletic inclination, and then find a sport to match. Because his eye-hand coordination was weak, my son hated playing catch. I could have insisted that we keep tossing a ball around in the park, and frustrated us both. But when I remembered that even as a baby he loved being in the water, I signed him up for a swim team try-out at the local YMCA. Within a year, my couch-potato was swimming two hours a day, five days a week, with no prompting from me.
Set short-term goals to prevent quitting. "Instant replay makes everything look easy, but covers up the years of hard work that pro athletes put into a sport," says Nick Markoff, the Athletic Director at the Maret School in Washington, DC for the past twenty-one years.
To keep your kids from quitting as soon as they "don't like it" or "get too tired" or "will never be any good," give them short term goals: "Finish one week (month, game, season), then we'll talk about it and you can make the final choice." When my daughter hit a low point and wanted to quit cross-country one year, I urged her to finish the month. After that, she decided to finish the season and signed up for the next year.
"Once they quit a sport," says Markoff, "quitting will become easier as time goes on. Little victories prevent that from happening."
Be there. Don't expect yourself to make it to every game or event, but don't minimize the impact when you can attend. Your kids will carry the memory of your cheering them on into adulthood—and someday they'll pass that experience on to their own kids.
Tips for moms. Don't leave it up to dad to be the only one encouraging the kids to participate in sports; you have a vital role too.