Husband & Wife Articles


Family, College, Sports

A good foundation in the first leads to success in the others

By John Keating

Parenting expert John Rosemond wrote a useful article some years back in which he reviewed the American attitude toward sports. His primary message was that sports, rightly understood, can teach young athletes how to be team players. His counterpoint, however, was that we should not look exclusively to sports to teach the value of teamwork. Rather, we should regard the family as the “ultimate team sport.”

Keating Family

If we chauffeur our children from one sport event to the next every afternoon and weekend at the expense of contributing to the family – chores, preparing meals, cleaning house, feeding the dog, babysitting siblings – then we risk turning our kids into mere consumers. Fast forward a few years and now these same young people are college-bound student-athletes. This thought is a sobering one for college coaches because the young people under our care are away from home for the first extended period. In fairness to the families, coaches will attempt to continue the good habits developed by home life and pick up where the parents left off, without replacing them. It is a fine line. We walk it by regarding ourselves as guides. We cross it when we regard ourselves as surrogate parents, and there is a serious temptation to play that role.

If a student-athlete is missing classes, should the coach intervene? If a student-athlete of legal age over-imbibes and has to visit the ER, should the coach call the parents? These are all real-life scenarios on college campuses across the country and not always solved by college protocols or legal requirements. One’s gut reaction is to say “yes” in both cases. Your response to these questions might say something about the way you view adulthood. Several years ago in Iowa, I had the good fortune to work with some student-athletes from Serbia. In their teens, they had experienced military conflict, food shortages and other hardships. Their survival stories were remarkable and they truly appreciated the opportunity to attend school in America. They sent most of the little work-study money they made on campus to their parents and siblings back home. While the rest of the student body was visiting local drinking holes, these guys were hitting the books. In summer, while other students were home, they worked for local residents, cleaning, painting, mowing, and then studying some more. Doing so, they found patrons who were impressed with their work ethic and helped sponsor their graduate studies. These student-athletes arrived with a vision and a sense of appreciation and acted more like men than boys, like contributors and not merely consumers. As such, my coaching role was that of teacher and guide, but not that of a father.

How to respond to the athlete who is skipping classes depends on whether you view college kids as boys or men. The former view suggests that you rush to their assistance, call their parents, lead them to academic helpers, and otherwise buffer them from poor grades. The latter suggests that you allow them to choose whether or not they fail. This, in turn, may have a lot to do with the way you view college in general. Fundamentally speaking, is going to college a right or a privilege? In those countries where requirements for entering universities are very stringent, and where there is not the expectation that all high school graduates attend college, the majority of the population does not attend college. In the United States, we view this differently. College is regarded as a rite of passage where nearly everyone can gain admission at some level. This is really a nation’s gift to its young people. Yet it is easy to take college for granted. If we regard it as a right, we have to be careful to avoid ingratitude.

Further, if college is viewed as an integral part of the “growing up” process, we may think that we can delegate to colleges the role of making men out of boys, and women out of girls, if we haven’t done our work as parents. When we compound this by having coaches play the role of parent, we may well be setting these students up for failure down the road. Artificially propping them up through college will not help them on their first day in a real job. Treating them as men and women from day one in college will do them a greater service. This will sometimes involve allowing them to fail.

All of this takes us back to the family, the ultimate team sport. To the degree that we as moms and dads can remove any traces of entitlement from our children in their formative years, insisting that they not merely behave as consumers but contributors to the family, then we help mold them into productive young men and women. They will go off to college already well-formed and capable of balancing athletics, academics, class attendance, alcohol and dating. We won’t need coaches to mature them for us. Such young people will want to be treated as adults, not teenagers. And every college coach worth his or her salt would be remiss in treating them otherwise.

John Keating is married to Toni and is the father of four children under age 10. Formerly a pro soccer player in South Africa, he is currently the Men's Head Coach at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina.