Advice for parents from ESPN’s Jay Bilas

It's not about you!

Tobin Walsh

| 5 min read

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Tobin Walsh — who blogs about kids, adoption and sports at The Good-Bad Dad — interviewed Jay Bilas, ESPN’s top college basketball analyst, about parenting and youth sports back in 2018. But the lessons Bilas shared for youth sports parents everywhere stand the test of time.

Lesson #1: If it isn’t fun, why go?

Jay Bilas is quick to talk about his interactions with young athletes at his basketball camps, “I have had nothing but positive experiences with every kid at each camp I’ve ever done. The kids are great.”

The tone changes as Bilas continues, “It’s the parents, though, that I don’t get. I’d love to see their game film if they were so good.  Honestly, if going to games isn’t fun for the parent or kid then why go?”

I can’t recall the last time I willingly missed a game.

At what cost, though? I get to everything but am quick to complain about having to do so.

In fact, I’m boastful about being at every soccer match or flag football game nevermind that I’m lost in Facebook updates or yelling at the referee while I attend.

If my kid’s participation is too exhausting, too costly or too much commitment maybe it’s time to heed Bilas’ advice and just stay home.

Lesson #2: You cannot make a pro athlete.

When I asked Bilas about when a parent should look at having their child play “more serious” sports, he quickly questioned, “Why are the parents deciding? It should be the kids decision. A parent cannot make a pro athlete, the kid has to want it.”

To Bilas, the idea behind athletics is simple, “Sports are about recreation or, at least, they should be about getting out of the house, being active and having fun.  For everybody parents and kids.”

And, while I find that most parents will tell me that they understand their little baller will not be a future N.F.L. All-Pro, I see hypocritical actions writing big checks for team fees, screaming, “That is a FOUL!” at the game official or running ourselves ragged trying to fulfill each of their little star’s commitments.

If I take Bilas’ words to heart, I’d quickly come to the realization that my kids may have picked divergent sports paths if I’d given them 100% ownership of that decision.

My oldest would have played tackle football and my 10 year-old would have likely tried several different activities rather than locking into club soccer for the entire year.

Would my kids be happier? I’m not sure.

Would our family have more fun, less stress and more dollars in our pocket? Probably.

Lesson #3: Talk about how your kids are doing, not how they are playing.

After my son Lynden’s final soccer tournament game last Sunday, I asked him, “So, how do you think you played?”

From the backseat, he quietly replied, “Not good.”

Lynden’s head hung low for the 40-minute ride home and, after talking with Jay Bilas, I may understand why.

Bilas talked with me about ignoring the play and focusing on the kid, explaining, “There is no model for success in this – it’s about your kid. Try asking them how they are doing rather than how they are playing. It’s not about you, it’s about your kid.”

This lesson should be fairly easy for me to put into practice a matter of simply changing my question to, “Are you still having fun, bud?” If I would have done so, I’d bet the ride home over the weekend would have been more upbeat.

Lesson #4: Learn to do the hard things well.

With a New York Times bestselling book entitled, Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court, I felt compelled to ask Bilas about instilling persistence in our children.

Again, his answer flipped my questions upside down.

“There is no canned, standard line for parents to teach kids to be tough. It’s not about doing Army-like drills. It is about practice and creative coaches teaching kids to do the hard things well.”

Applying this sports lesson to my household, I’m not sure what hard things my kids do well. In fact, I’m not sure they are asked to do anything particularly hard with much frequency.

And, although I’m not planning to send my 5 year-old out to chop wood for the stove, I could help my kids by creatively making them sweat at home more often.

As my conversation with Jay Bilas wraps up and I tuck my garbled, illegible notes into my back pocket, I think of the way Bilas started our chat by asking, “Tobin, how can I help you?”

And, although we may never talk again, I’m prepared to answer now.

From his 6 foot, 8 inch vantage point, Bilas can help me see the forest from the trees.

His advice can help me concentrate on having fun versus perfect form.

Bilas can indirectly help me do the hard things better even if the hardest of which is looking in the mirror.

This story originally appeared on The Good Bad Dad.

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