I have coached a variety of recreational sports in my community. I hate to admit it, but for many years I was a downright jerk. Now, years removed from my coaching “jerkiness,” it’s hard to believe that I took winning so seriously. But I did. Several of us coaches worked hard at beating each other. Somehow we forgot about the kids. At least I did. I wish I could have a “do-over” on those years, but I can’t.
I was very hard on my own children as well. I put so much pressure on them that they were unable to enjoy the sports they loved. My blind spot wake-up call came one day when I berated my daughter for striking out. Here is the story from my side and then my daughter’s side. I wrote mine with Paul’s words in Colossians 3:21 ringing in my head, “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”
From the time that I was seven years old, it was drilled into my head. Every coach from 10-and-under to college bellowed the same command, “Don’t take a called third strike! If you strikeout, you had better go down swinging. When you have two strikes, widen your stance, choke up a bit, protect the plate, don’t take anything close. Whatever you do, never watch the third strike go by!” So when I began coaching my kids, I repeated the same instruction.
I will never forget one particular softball game. My oldest daughter Brittany, a fifth grader at the time and a great player, made the last out of the game by taking a called third strike. My insides ignited. After the obligatory handshakes and post-game “great game girls” talk, I walked to the car with Brittany. The very second the doors were shut, I exploded. “What just happened out there?! Why didn’t you swing the bat?! Never, I mean never, take a called third strike. How many times have you heard me say that? You could have pulled that pitch down the right field line. As fast as you are, you could have made it to third easily. We could have won the game! What were you doing?” I stopped to take a breath and then started repeating the questions with a louder voice. Then I saw the tears. My heart sank and I realized how foolish I had been to get so upset with my daughter over a recreational softball game.
Please don’t do what I did. Do not embitter your children. The word “embitter” means to “irritate” or “provoke.” One translation used the word “exasperate.” This continued practice will cause them to lose heart, confidence and respect in you as a father. As fathers, we are called to demonstrate what it means to honor the heavenly Father in all things. As fathers, we are called to build up our children. As fathers, we are called to demonstrate unconditional acceptance and love. Embittered hearts will walk away from God and us.
The walk back to the car might have been worse than the actual strike out. Check that statement. It was infinitely worse. When I think of bad games, none stick out in my mind like that particular one—my at-bats consisted of nothing but strikeouts and infield pop-flies. Never in my five years of playing had I struck out so much in one game. Usually, I was not one to watch a ball pass by (I was notorious for swinging at the first pitch). During this particular at-bat, I was horrified to hear the umpire—an energetic baseball enthusiast whose “strike” call always made us jump—call “staaariike three! She’s out!” From my left handed batting stance, my dad in his third base coach position was directly in my line of sight. My stomach flip-flopped as I, anxiously glancing up the third base line, saw my dad drop his head. Game over.
I walked numbly to our old gray Honda, dragging my cleated-feet against the pavement, dreading the car ride home. My mom, who had driven separately, passed by on her way to the van. “See you at home,” she said, giving me an empathetic glance and my arm a reassuring squeeze.
“Bye, Mom,” I managed to choke out, while in my head I was screaming, “Please! Ask to take me home! I don’t want to drive home with Dad!” But, unable to read my thoughts, my mom walked away, and I was left to face the terrible silence preceding whatever my dad had to say in response to my “unacceptable” softball behavior. I don’t remember everything he said, but I didn’t cry often as a child. I cried on that car ride home. And then I cried more once I got home. But once I got out of the bathroom (I took a “shower” so that I could sit in the bathroom and cry some more), my dad was right there, waiting to apologize and to console me.
Those were some intense softball years. We can look back on those years and laugh at the ridiculous level of intensity, but up through the seventh grade, recreational softball was competitive—to put it lightly. Winning was king, and I remember feeling discouraged on many counts when I felt like I had let my dad down. Softball was more nerve-racking than fun. I was always nervous that I would mess up and disappoint my dad. Don’t get me wrong. My dad was a great coach. He was great at teaching the fundamentals, knew fun drills, and was enjoyable to be around. But when the subject of bitterness comes up, those softball years always re-surface. I’m really not bitter about it now, but Colossians 3:21 brings up a good point. I think that becoming “embittered,” or to be made to feel troubled or distressed, is something that a lot of children struggle with.
No matter your age, when one feels like he has not lived up to his parents’ expectations—not gotten the grades, made the cut, landed the job—it can be really discouraging. And while I think having high expectations for your children is completely justifiable (after all, they’re your kids, you should want the very best for them!), loving us (not necessarily “tough love!”) through our failures is vital for our emotional well-being.
I have never—not even for a tenth of a second—doubted that my dad loves me, but that didn’t stop me from feeling anxious before softball games. I can’t tell you how many times my dad has asked me to forgive him for his years of ultra-competitive softball coaching. And I’m totally over it (it’s great to have something to hold over his head, though!!). But since realizing his mixed-up priorities, my dad has been nothing but encouraging in my various sports endeavors. He wasn’t my coach while I played in high school, but I always enjoyed having him at my games! If I’m discouraged, he’s always there to support me. In the seventh grade, the last year he coached my team, we won the championship.
Winning the championship should have been exciting, but once again, I was in tears on the way home. This time I disappointed in my own performance. But to this day, my dad still reminds me of the vital role I played in those games. Without my parents’ support through my years of softball, various sports, and other activities, I don’t know where I’d be! It might sound strange, but I really think that going through those years of intensity, and then realizing that we had our eyes on the wrong prize, created a stronger bond between us. We were both able to grow as a result of seeing how our priorities were out of whack, and I think we’re closer because of it.
One summer, I had the chance to help my dad coach my younger sister’s third and fourth grade softball team. Getting to coach alongside Dad was a blast, and it’s so fun to see how laid back he’s become (youngest child syndrome). On multiple occasions, after playing against a team with an intense coach, we would laugh most of the way home, the conversation usually starting off with, “Who did that coach in the purple shirt remind you of?”
I wish I could say that was the last time I blew it with my children. I have had to go to each one of them more than once to ask for forgiveness as well as asking forgiveness from my Father. That event happened over a decade ago, and by God’s grace, Brittany and I have a great relationship. She even has a touch of my sarcastic humor. And sometimes right out of the blue she’ll say, “Hey, Dad, do you remember that time you made me cry in the car after that softball game?” Then she lets out her patented chuckle.