There are few things more satisfying to the fathers of female athletes than seeing your daughters out there balling. Whatever the sport, watching them honing their skills and learning how to impose their physicality on others is immensely pleasurable.
But as the father of two skilled female athletes, I was thoroughly disgusted reading a story in the New York Times that profiled the insanity that has taken over the world of youth girls soccer—a place my girls have toiled for nearly the past decade. A majority of the top Division 1 college women’s soccer programs begin offering girls soccer scholarships in the 8th grade, according to the Times—the schools already have their entire rosters filled by the time those future college freshmen are still juniors in high school. The high-stakes system has gotten to the point where parents are driven to near insanity, desperate to snag one of those golden tickets, while the poor little girls are on the verge of nervous breakdowns, waiting for the nod from a college coach before they even know how to spell acne. Meanwhile, the college coaches wind up each year with rosters teeming with girls who peaked early and are no longer Division 1 material by the time they hit 18.
As the father of a teenage daughter, I am absolutely certain that NO major decisions about their long-term interests, proclivities and abilities should be made before the girls hit puberty. No one knows who they are going to be and what they will care about when they emerge from that traumatic human test called adolescence. By the time she’s heading for her senior prom she may HATE soccer—particularly if she’s been locked in the pressurized world of youth soccer for 13 years. It’s ridiculous that these college coaches, afraid they are going to lose out on top players, have continued to give life to this foolishness.
The college recruiting process was difficult and painful enough when we went through it with my son with football—and he was 17 at the time. I couldn’t imagine trying to endure that with a 7th or 8th grader.
Fathering female athletes is hard enough without this madness to worry about. While I am closely involved in the athletic careers of my girls, I am in no way one of those overbearing helicopter dads/coaches, who can never seem to find anything right with their child’s efforts. I hear them on the sidelines, berating with such loud and ugly words that the rest of us parents feel embarrassed and pained to hear them. Mind you, I have been known to speak up when I feel they are doing something wrong or aren’t giving 100 percent. But I try—not sure my wife would agree here—to keep my comments to myself. With varying degrees of success.
I remain continually amazed at how each stage in their growth brings new and unexpected challenges. My oldest daughter just started playing high school sports this year. That means she took an enormous step in her athletic career because this is the first time most of her sporting endeavors are taking place outside of my watchful eye.
Up until high school, through her flirtations with track-and-field, swimming, softball and soccer, I was there carting her to practice, to games, watching her moods, her exertions, monitoring her aches and pains. But now her high school softball and soccer practices are right after school, on distant fields that I never see. The only time I see her in action is during games. So if the lessons haven’t been internalized at this point, it probably ain’t gonna happen. If she hasn’t made the link between practice repetition and game performance by now, it probably ain’t gonna happen. If she hasn’t learned the importance of mental toughness and playing with pain, you guessed it—it probably ain’t gonna happen.
I’ve come to see in recent years how crucial a role fathers play in the sporting life of daughters. Unless mom is an athlete herself, she will likely be reluctant to keep pushing her precious little girl outside of her comfort zone, particularly when pain in involved. And the fact that pain is so closely connected to high-level athletic performance makes pushing girls that much more complicated.
When my son was playing high school football, I felt no hesitation about pushing, about advising him to fight beyond the pain, the discomfort. There was one memorable game when I made him play football when he had the flu. Everybody around me thought I was insane. The boy was lying in bed with a fever, his body aching and nearly emptied of fluids. But I made him get up and put in the two periods necessary to have his attendance recorded in school, then come back home and get back in bed until the Friday night game. I recounted for him the night that Michael Jordan played with the flu during the 1997 NBA finals, scoring 37 points and leading his team to victory over the Utah Jazz when it looked like he could barely stand up straight.
My boy didn’t have his best game that night, of course, but it permanently implanted the image of his toughness in not only the minds of his coaches—who had been questioning it up to that point—but also in his own mind. After he pushed himself that game—with me constantly running down to the concession stand buying Gatorades to hand to the training staff so they could keep him hydrated—he knew that he could do anything. It was a game-changing night.
I have no illusions about my daughters repeating his performance if they were sick—there’s no way in hell my wife would let them play. I get that. But it does raise the question about how much you can push girls outside of their comfort zone, about how much you are going to let them play with pain and discomfort. My younger daughter, nearly 12, is a highly skilled athlete. Whatever sport she jumps into, her natural athleticism quickly rises to the fore. But she’s also very fond of theatrics. She loves the attention her injuries can bring from Dad and particularly Mom. Every ache is going to be loudly pronounced and thoroughly discussed. And so we hear a catalogue of her pains after every practice and every game.
But she also knows she’s probably the most valuable player on the team—so the team can’t afford to let her sit one out. I’m not even sure she really wants to sit one out; she just wants everyone to know she’s playing in pain. So you must acknowledge it, give her the attention she wants—and push her back out on that field. In the process, she learns crucial lessons about the effort and single-mindedness necessary to succeed in all facets of her life.
But as the younger daughter continues to advance in her beloved sport of soccer, and as I read about the insane system of youth soccer we are deeply immersed in, I must constantly assess our level of commitment. Are we going to try to keep pushing, placing her on clubs where she will be traveling around the Southeast to square off against the best players in the region before she’s even in 8th grade, trying to grab the eye of a college coach? Or do we prefer a more reasonable soccer existence that allows her to have other interests and maybe even—gasp!—play another sport once in a while?
Are we going to get with the program, or fight against it?
It’s a question that gets answered and re-answered with each passing week, as I shake my head in consternation at the monster that these college coaches have created.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.