It took a rejection from my son to learn that encouragement works better than tips on improvement
There was a period when I was banned from going down for my elder son Shaun’s school hockey games. The worst I had ever received was a letter of warning from my other son’s school for coaching a few of the rugby players from the sideline and giving them instructions which did not quite tally with that of the coach. But this time, the restriction came not from the hockey association or the school, but from Shaun himself.
I only found out about the ban when I proudly announced to my family one day about how I was making time that day to go down for his game. ‘No, Dad. Stay away,’ he said. Suddenly a few of his vague responses in the past, began to make sense. Whenever my schedule permitted, I would ask him about his upcoming game so I could try and catch it. He would have some reason or other about why it was not a good idea – like how he was injured and was not sure he would play that day, or that it was only a friendly game and he was not sure of the venue.
Initially, I bought his reasons. But it was his ‘not sure of the venue’ that gave him away. Over time, it dawned on me – that Shaun who was in Secondary 4 by then – just did not want me at his games.
Now, for a father who believes in sporting excellence and that many of life’s lessons can be learned on the pitch, it was a real blow. But I later realised it was precisely this enthusiasm and passion for sports that were the root of the problem. I believed so much in sport – not about winning, but about the need for commitment, teamwork, playing fair, not letting the rest of the players down that every game was a cup final to me. Even the friendly kickabouts on weekends with my neighbours was serious business to me, Shaun used to try and tell me subtly.
This weekend football involved a few fathers and their sons in my neighbourhood getting a game going on a small plot of grass in our condominium compound. We used boots to mark the goalposts. That was how informal it was.
Still, my philosophy was this: Whether it is a five-a-side with our neighbours or a serious full-blown football match, you give it 100 per cent. My two boys were not allowed to walk out halfway through these weekend sessions. If they took a knock, I would get them to spray a pain-killer and continue with the game.
For me, that plot of grass became Old Trafford and the game a crucial match comparable to a Manchester United-Liverpool showdown. For Shaun, these sessions were a time to relax and have a good time. Our differing philosophies showed up on the pitch.
One of my neighbours had said to me many times: ‘Matt, your son and you should never play on the same side. He will never enjoy his game. You take football too seriously.’
But then, my seriousness was because I had meant to teach not only football skills, but also life skills like not giving up when you are down, being honest and being a gentleman.
While I don’t think my friends disputed the lessons I was trying to teach them, it was the manner I went about it that they didn’t quite agree with. It could be compiled into a manual on: How to kill your child’s enthusiasm for sport.
Because of my over-enthusiasm, I learnt that Shaun, who was about 10 years old then, felt that I was hard on him during the game because I always wanted him to play well so the team could win. At no point did it strike him that what I had wanted of him was to play his best and to be committed, not that he be the most valuable player for the day.
Though Shaun is in junior college now – and a bit wiser and more forgiving of his Dad’s over-enthusiasm – I sense he still thinks that until he can dazzle his opponents with fancy stick-work on the hockey pitch, and be able to score a goal a game, I would not be pleased with his performance and therefore he should not invite me to watch him play.
I also remember Shaun grumbling that I would be too critical, if I were to watch his game. Shaun had seen my attempts to correct as criticism. My daughter Natasha has made it clear she appreciated only encouragement. No amount of encouragement is too much. After a game, that was what they needed first. It was good to give them tips to improve, but that could wait.
I became more mindful of these as my children grew.
More recently, Shaun spoke to me about some particular aspect of his game that he was not happy with. We had a chat about it and I gave him some tips on how he could possibly tackle it. On Sunday morning, I dropped him off for a friendly match and reminded him about our chat and what he had to do. Later that morning, fresh from his match, he came up to me and said: ‘Dad, I had a great game.’
I could tell he was pleased with the way he had played and also grateful for my advice. He saw I could help him in sport, in spite of the history behind us. It thrilled me that we had cracked the problem together. There is hope yet, I thought. Maybe one day soon, Shaun will ask me down to watch him play.
About The Author: Mathew Pereira is currently the Sports Editor of The Straits Times. Between 2004 and 2008, he wrote several columns which talked about his personal experience of fatherhood. This piece was one of many in his collection of fatherhood stories. Mathew is a member of the Fathers Action Network (FAN).
First published on 31-01-2012.