Sports Dads: Curry, Wozniacki, and My Dad on the Back Bleachers

By: Chris Dagonas

This past Monday was Family Day for us here in Ontario. Originally instituted by the Dalton McGuinty Liberals in 2008, Family Day has quickly become a favourite for young adults looking for an excuse to add an extra day to their weekend.

Oh, and sometimes visit their families.

Every time I manage to wander back to my parents’ house part of the conversation turns to sports. We are a family of casual sports fans; we check the standings online, discuss for a few minutes, then move on. Sometimes, we talk about my “sports” history as an all-star first-baseman from the ages of 10-14.

Of course, not every family treats sports as a simple distraction. For those that want their kids to pursue a career in sports, it has to be bigger than that. In many cases, it tends to overwhelm and overtake everything else.

This year, the NBA All-Star weekend happened to fall on Family Day Weekend. The Saturday night festivities included Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine ascending into heaven, but another of the big winners of the night was Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry.

The Currys!

The Currys!

Curry won the 3-point Shooting Contest, and also participated in the Shooting Stars Challenge, alongside Sue Bird (no relation to Larry) and Steph’s dad, Dell. Raptors fans remember Dell Curry as part of the 2001 Vince Carter missed jump-shot team.

Dell was known as a catch-and-shoot specialist, and dead-eye 3-point shooter. Back in those days, his son Stephen was 12 years old and would often be out on the court warming up with the players, shooting jumpers and lay-ups with Vince Carter, Antonio Davis, et al.

Curry’s family stressed religion and education as their priorities. Sports, whether basketball or volleyball, were an extra. Dell wanted his son to be a successful person, not a successful basketball player. And it shows.

These days, Steph is a top-3 player on the league’s best team. His dad works for the Charlotte Hornets as a TV colour commentator. Steph’s brother Seth plays in the NBA D-League, and the Curry’s have a glowing reputation as one of the league’s “first families”. And they’re having fun with it. Steph plays with a loose, carefree attitude, and rarely displays the tension and anxiety that comes with children of overbearing sports dads. Some former athletes, on the other hand, have more intense approaches to coaching their children.

Piotr Wozniacki, the father of former top-ranked female tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, is one such example. He was a soccer player in his native Poland, before moving to Denmark to end his playing career in the 1980s. Caroline has been playing tennis since a young age, and her father has been her coach. Based on the way he treats her when the cameras ARE on, it’s hard to imagine how seriously he took her “development” when she was a young girl or teenager. While I don’t know the details, it appears that Wozniacki was more interested in creating a successful tennis player, than a successful person. That makes a huge difference.

Dell Curry and Piotr Wozniacki are two sides of the same coin; professional athletes who know what it takes to reach the highest level of their sports, and who wish to instil that work ethic and ambition in their children. But one seems to have taken a gentler approach, while the other appears to rule with an iron fist. And, to be fair, both of their children have, or at least had, reached the elite level. Who wouldn’t want Steph Curry on their favourite NBA team at this moment? From 2010-2012, Caroline Wozniacki was ranked the number one female tennis player in the world.

Look, it’s not secret that kids get stressed about pleasing their parents, grandparents, coaches, and teachers. Stress and anxiety levels are increasing among kids and teenagers, and a large stressor is organized sports. Between school, social pressures, and lack of confidence, every kid has stress to deal with. Parents want their kids to be the best, and that is an admirable goal. But there are far too many parents who want their kids to be sports superstars, and won’t accept any other outcome.

Don’t get me wrong. Parents should put kids in organized sports. There are too many good life lessons involved in playing sports to miss out on. But the lessons are missed if the focus is on winning every game, or on becoming the next world champion. Even more so if that world champion also happens to be your father.

I didn’t have that stress. My father is anything but a world-class athlete. But, he was a world-class sports dad.

It's a long way away from the Rogers Centre.

It’s a long way away from the Rogers Centre.

Growing up, I played little league baseball at one of Toronto’s best organizations. Whenever he could get time off from his restaurant, my dad would bring me and watch from the bleachers. While other dads would yell encouragement, suggestions, or in some cases, criticism, my dad sat passively by, sipping a water bottle and munching on a bag of sunflower seeds. Whether I hit a double or struck out, scooped a ball out of the dirt at first base or missed it, my dad was not there to criticize.

His rule was to talk about the game only on the car ride home. Any pride, frustrations, or anger, was dealt with in the car, and once we got home, was erased forever. It’s not that he didn’t care about baseball. Hell, he even played catch with me on the street after 10-hour shifts at the restaurant. He just didn’t want me to be one of those kids that took the game too seriously.

When we talked, it was not about whose fault it was if something went wrong. He did not blame the umpire for calling a bad strike, or the other team for using an over-age pitcher. He asked if I knew what I could do next time, explained it to me if I didn’t, and then we got home in time to watch Seinfeld.

While other kids were slamming bats after strikeouts and crying after losses, I was usually telling jokes and playing pranks in the dugout. While other kids used practice time to perfect their ground ball form or practice their curveballs, I was using it to throw left-handed or move from first base to centre field “just to try it.”

Needless to say, I was not very popular with my teammates. And of course, since I never took it seriously, I never made it past little league. But I’m OK with that, I didn’t need sports success to value myself.

We learn so much about athletic competition from our families; how to win, how to lose, what importance to place on it, how hard to work at it. Between my dad’s aloofness and my mom’s sarcasm, I was able to avoid falling into the stats of rising childhood stress that overbearing sports parents can cause. And no, I never made it to the major leagues. But I’m pretty sure I know how to properly prioritize sports in my life, and will be sure to pass that teaching on when the time comes.

I will put my son or daughter into organized sports. I will want them to work hard, and will be willing to support them. But, my focus will be on creating a successful person, not just a successful athlete. Sports will be an interest, a diversion, not a top priority. I look forward to being the dad of that goofy, weird kid, while sitting on the back bleachers, with a water bottle and a box of Triscuits.

Sunflower seeds are too messy.

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