The other day, my wife took an afternoon nap, rolling the parenting dice by leaving yours truly unsupervised with our 10-month-old, Novi. After lying, “I’ve got this,” I rolled up my sleeves and slowly lowered myself onto the floor as my creaking joints and tight quadriceps screamed, “What are YOU DOING?”
Novi was busy organizing her alphabet animals, 26 three-inch plastic, smiling creatures. And by organizing, I mean impersonating a t-rex in search of lunch.
Eager to fully engage with my beautiful daughter, I quickly organized the animals into four columns, six deep. The Holmenkollen 50k was underway.
I provided commentary as the animals shuffled around the room — “No one expected Alligator to be here at this point in the race, Bob!” Novi’s response to my snow indoctrination was everything I’d hoped. Namely, not screaming for Mom.
Koala was in the lead before a large baby-monster yanked her off the course at the 2.4-kilometer checkmark and attempted to eat him. Producers cut the FIS broadcast immediately as crews tried to rescue the surefire winner. I’m a good dad. Change my mind.
A Twitter thread describing a youth coach’s admittedly bizarre soccer practice conditioning session — 2×800, 3×400, 4×100, and a tagged 400 at the end — has made the rounds recently. Everyone from distressed parents who attempted (and failed) the workout to Olympic 10,000 meter runner Kara Goucher have blasted the coach.
While I would venture to guess this person deserves some ripping, I’m going to hold my tongue. Here’s one reason: when I was 10-years-old, I joyfully wrote this exact workout and did it — alone — on a rural Minnesota gravel road.
I was playing!
I was doing what I had seen my parents and brother do, and by golly, if I was going to beat grade-school pre madonna McCauley Spandl in the mile, I needed to fire up Survivor, lace up my tenni-runners and get after it. I remember hurting, sure, and when the neighbor’s dog came after my ankles, I sped up on the penultimate rep — surely a physiological no-no — only to sprint home faster than I thought possible on the final 400.
My workout was ok because it was play. But, don’t be mistaken. It had all of the salty grit of a “I’m-going-to-make-myself-do-this” track workout loathed even by lifelong runners. As someone who has loved almost every sport — even golf (and I’m at best a +55 handicap) — and hated endurance sports until about third grade, I am fully convinced about one thing.
The line between guiding kids to receive the transcendent, all-important values like dedication, toughness and commitment inherent to being “serious” about a game — and the hard-to-define “fun” value — is razor, razor thin. Protecting it, as many Twitter-warriors believe they can do, is nearly impossible.
That’s not to say, however, that parents aren’t influential. In fact, on the floor with Novi, I was passing along my style of pre-Playstation play. I still remember awkwardly shuffling my beanie babies around a make-believe Target Center court in my rec room, launching a ping-pong ball into a mini wooden hoop I built with a plastic cup as the rim/net, taped to a stack of encyclopedias (their only good use) to achieve the correct height.
Flip Saunders may have wasted Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett, but under my guidance, Fetch and Stretch led the Timberwolves to victory all the time. I would play and announce 82-game seasons and — I’m seriously not making this up — write box scores and game recaps in a massive notebook.
I did this for football, hockey and eventually distance running until sixth grade – can you imagine? — when our family bought a PS2 and I realized that NBA Live 2005 did all of this for you.
Now I write for the Vail Daily and announce cross-country ski races for FIS part-time. I also have a podcast, which means I still talk to myself about sports — my imaginary world hasn’t dissolved completely!
My point is this: ultimately, we want our kids to end up finding a job they love. One that hearkens us back to those childhood passions. Whatever brain cell was jumping up and down when they played games as a kid should be jumping up and down when they go to work. But, and it’s a big butt that sometimes needs a diaper change, they also need traits — hard work, problem solving, character, perseverance — that only seemed to be honed once you let go of the “let’s just do this for fun” mantra. Then again, my dad once told me, correctly, that ‘fun’ and hard work are not mutually exclusive.
Ultimately, kids define what’s fun — and what hard work looks like – by watching their parents. Author Doug Wilson once put it this way: “Kids, your mother and I are doing this … and you’re coming along.” Apparently, when it comes to sports, this doesn’t have to end with oppressive drudgery.
“We weren’t forcing them to do this stuff because we wanted them to be great athletes someday,” Holly Simmons told VeloNews when talking about how she and her husband brought their son Quinn, now a world champion pro cyclist, up in a lifestyle loving long days in the outdoors.
“Honestly, it was a lot more selfish. It’s like, ‘I need my exercise and you’re coming along with me.’”
Instead of rebelling, Quinn became enthralled with the idea of pushing himself and checking off his parents’ challenges. If it’s fun for them, it must be fun for me. At six, he insisted on riding the 100-mile White Rim Trail. He did it in three days.
“I think I learned to let it be organic—if you push too hard it can backfire,” Scott Simmons told Fred Dreier. “There’s a fine line where it’s not fun anymore. You have to keep it fun.”
And in order to do that, you have to model why it is fun. More importantly, you have to model. Period.
It’s one reason why I’ll hold the door for my wife. It’s not because my wife isn’t capable. Trust me, after my kids see that it’s the diminutive 4’11” mom fixing the taillight on the sprinter van and entering into the NCAA 5k race unattached — just to show dad he’s not the only athlete in the family — I think they’ll know she can open a door if she wants. I’ll hold the door because it’s paramount for me to proclaim to them, and anyone watching, “See here people — women are worthy of honor and respect.” The message a little boy receives is “got it.” Little Novi will think, ”I’ll make sure someday I find a guy who thinks the same thing about me.”
I guess I’ve ranted long enough. I need to keep indoctrinating her on skiing. When we go home to Grandpa in Minnesota this summer, he’ll probably try to take her fishing.