Family Man: Jock Itch
By Gregory Keer

My son Jacob runs up the track, his back straight, his arms and legs pumping with precision. The taller kid in front of him looks like he'll easily win the race, but Jacob has a kick. His feet tap the composite ground like Gene Kelly and Jacob whooshes ahead to the finish line.

A thrill leaps in my chest. That's my son! He may only be a 6-year-old running in practice, but I can already see him flying down the lane in high school, college, the Olympics …

"Daddy, can I eat those goldfish and sit on your lap for a little break?" Jacob asks.

In my bleacher seat, my overheated expectations cool as I reason with myself that this is not about me.

Truthfully, though, some of this is about me. Ever since my first son wriggled with impressive strength on the hospital bed beside my wife, I imagined my children would be athletes. It's an age-old father fantasy, though I know a lot of moms share in the hopes of seeing their kids score the winning basket or smack a game-tying home run. Some of it sprouts from my desires to relive the excitement of childhood sports, especially since I cannot run or jump without being severely injured or depressed by my lapsed skills.

Yet, as I enter my second decade as a dad, I'm rebuilding my thoughts about athleticism from the kid up. After too many "soccer dad" comments that, at their worst, made my eldest son cry, I've found a balance between pushing my boys to compete in sports and giving them space to simply enjoy playing and being part of a team.

For Jacob, sports have been a natural release for a kid who seems best suited for a bygone era when children could climb and frolic outside for whole days at a time. On the fields and courts, my primary challenge with Jacob is to keep him from fouling the other players in his zeal. He finds true freedom and exhilaration in every sport he tries, even if he stinks at the skills part.

His 3-year-old brother Ari is my little jock, or so I hypothesize by his habit of kicking and throwing anything round within his sight. He's also the one who challenges me to races and tries to jump into the games he watches his brothers play.

Benjamin, 10, is more complicated. Two years ago, he appeared ready to chuck in his sneakers, unhappy with the stress of competition and feeling that he just wasn't any good at sports. Aware of my shallow tendency to force the issue, I dug deeper. I suggested that if he could see what I see in his steady physical growth and improving abilities, he would want to participate. He looked at me, uncertainly. Then I promised not to ride him.

Benjamin played soccer and started the season as he always did, picking daisies. Slowly, though, he gathered confidence with each game. By the end of a league championship season, Benjamin realized he was a good defender with more speed than he had imagined. He also took it hard when the squad lost in the playoffs, broken up over the end of time with a group of kids who had depended on each other.

I couldn't have been happier, especially since Benjamin has continued his participation in sports, finding escalating satisfaction in himself and knowledge of what he can do with his body, as well as his mind. During the most recent basketball season, Benjamin - who usually balked at practicing in the back yard with me - frequently asked me to shoot around with him. As memories of one-on-ones with my own father dribbled in my head, I fought back tears almost every time Benjamin and I played. I was proud of his inner motivation to improve his skills, but this bonding exercise meant the world to me.

I don't know if any of my children will compete in high school sports or anything beyond that. My wish is that they'll play for camaraderie, for fun, maybe a little for dad. I also hope they'll play for their own kids when it's their turn on the sidelines.

Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher and father of three boys.
You can read previous Family Man columns at the
Family Man Archives.