One of my neighbors, a sincere young guy named Derek, recently approached me for advice on a specialized aspect of father-son relationships. That he should approach me about any aspect of parenting is remarkable, considering that Derek has actually met Graig, the 19-year-old product of my own efforts in this area. But Derek's options were limited: He was considering coaching his seven-year-old, Chad, in Little League. And given the decadelong record I compiled as a father-coach (I won a league title, came in second once and coached several All-Star teams) before hanging up my lineup card for good last season, he wondered if I might have any words of wisdom.
There was a lot I could have said, and maybe should have said, to Derek, but his request aroused mixed emotions. On the one hand, well, he did ask. On the other, he was just so bright-eyed and eager that I didn't want to make him feel unduly neurotic about something I knew he was going to undertake anyway. In the end I merely whittled down the insights of my lengthy service as my son's coach to these points:
First, this was not a decision to be made on impulse. Anyone considering this step should spend a summer at the ball field, observing such relationships up close and personal.
Second, there should be a special plea available to fathers who do bodily harm to their sons as a consequence of coaching them in youth sports—something along the lines of "assault with an explanation."
Derek began to laugh and then, noting that my face remained set and unsmiling, thanked me and walked away. I don't know what he made of me, but he is careful not to leave me alone with his son these days.
In their attempts to shed light on the father-son coaching relationship, sports psychologists invest a lot of time in constructing intricate behavioral models, most of which reduce to the fact that both man and boy lug much more than the equipment with them when they travel from the home to the ball field.
Sometimes the spillover from home is unmistakable: I think of the day my frowning nine-year-old folded his arms over his chest and plopped down in the outfield in protest over my refusal to buy him a Slurpee before the game. More often the link between cause and effect is foggy. On one occasion, when Graig, normally a hard thrower, was 14, I yelled out to the mound that he didn't seem to have much on the ball. "Come on, dammit!" I shouted. "Chow [the family mutt] could hit that crap!" He glared at me, and his pitches began arcing toward the plate in a high, defiant softball lob. I yanked him at once, he stormed into the dugout, and it was only when we talked about things days later that I recognized the depths of the emotional morass I had carelessly wandered into. "You say something about everything I do," Graig sniffed. "With my homework, if the answers are right, you complain about the penmanship. When I mow the lawn, you always tell me I missed a spot. Why can't you ever just accept that I'm doing the best I can?"
It's true that a coach's son struggles with his father's shifting identities. And that's sad. But it is equally true that kids can be world-class manipulators. Sensing that their fathers, too, are far from comfortable with the situation, they respond with the unerring, I've-got-you-over-a-barrel instincts of, say, a woman you love very much who knows she has caught you doing something you hoped never to be caught doing.
And that's infuriating.
Typically, a coach's kid wants all the special rewards of having a coach who is also his father but is reluctant to accept any of the special burdens of having a father who is also his coach. His advantage-seeking is expressed in countless ways large and small—from demanding "just one more pitch" during batting practice to lobbying to be penciled in at a glamour position such as shortstop regardless of whether he can actually stop, oh, one out of every four ground balls.