Column: The Gift of Growing Up

Advice for parents who try to fight their children's battles
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Teresa Bloodman’s son was thrilled to pass the first two tryouts for his Maumelle, Arkansas, high school freshman basketball team, which allowed him to play on the team for the first two months of the fall. But, when the football season ended, the coach held a third round of tryouts so the football players could come out for the team, and he cut Bloodman’s son.

Teresa Bloodman was so livid she sued the school, the district and the state. She claimed cutting her son was arbitrary, that the lack of a formal appeals process was a violation of due process, and that her son has a constitutional right to participate in school sports.

I can appreciate a mother’s pain seeing her son suffer a setback. And certainly, coaches make plenty of arbitrary decisions, even unfair ones. But if Bloodman wins this case, the rest of us will lose – especially her son.

Her lawyer wants the coach to use a quantitative evaluation system for tryouts – rating each candidate’s skill in dribbling, passing, and shooting, for example – to make the process more objective.

But only an idiot would pick a team on stats alone.

In 1980, U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks decided the key to beat the all-powerful Soviet team was speed, not scoring. And that’s why he cut two-time All-American Ralph Cox, one of the nation’s leading scorers that year, for players with fewer goals but more speed. Brooks’s team won the gold medal. Guess he picked the right guys.

Any coach with a heart will tell you tryouts are the worst day of the season. When I coached the Huron High School hockey team, “cut-day” inevitably ended with a lot of long, private conversations and plenty of Kleenex, but almost all the players and parents handled it extremely well. One mom, however, I will probably never forget.

Before I became head coach, her son had been accused of stealing money from the locker room as a freshman. Unsolicited, he told me he didn’t do it, and I believed him – and even if he had, any ninth-grader surely deserves a second chance.

After my first team finished the season, we let him join our spring team, which was normally reserved for guys who’d already played on the varsity, and our summer team, and our fall team. He asked us to move him from defense, to offense, then back to defense – and we did. But he didn’t play very well at either position, and did no better in our tryouts. With dozens of good players trying out for the team, I felt I had no choice but to cut him – and many others.

It wasn’t fun. I had grown to like him quite a bit, and admired his attitude.

But I thought that was that, until I received a long letter from his mother. She misquoted something I had said to the players in August, when we were running outside. “I can tell even now what kind of team we’re going to have,” I said, praising their dedication and hard work. She wasn’t there, but claimed I’d said, “I can tell right now who’s going to be on the team.”

Not quite the same things – the latter being something only the dumbest coach in the country would ever say.

She added this kicker about her son being cut: “Others have committed suicide for less.”

Wisely, I did not respond then. But I will now. First, some advice:

  • Don’t automatically assume your child is telling you the whole truth.
  • If your kids have a problem with their teacher or their coach or their choir director, let your kids approach them first. If they don’t learn how, now, who’s going to approach their professor, or their boss?
  • If you must write, wait at least 24 hours. And don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to their face. Email gives false courage to cowards.
  • Even better, don’t write anything at all, or else you’ll deny your child a vital lesson: Life is tough, and not always fair. But you have to keep going anyway.

In eighth grade, I had had a great spring hockey league, scoring five times more than the other center. But that fall, he made the travel team, and I didn’t. I was crushed. But my parents did something wonderful: Nothing. The next year, I realized a lifelong dream when I made the high school varsity.

A few years later, when some colleges rejected me, I could handle it. When I started out as a writer, and received literally hundreds of rejection letters from magazines, I could handle that, too. And if I couldn’t, you would not be reading this right now.

And I would not have the chance, in print, to thank my parents, for not fighting my battles for me, and giving me the great gift of growing up.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.

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  1. May 18, 2012 at 9:21 am | permalink


    We both recall the days when parents automatically sided with the person of authority in situations like this. Those days are gone – maybe for the better, maybe not.

    When a parent automatically sides with their child (emphasize CHILD), they become an enabler for that child to NEVER grow up. Your suggestion that the athlete first go to their coach is spot on – mostly because it teaches the athlete to take FULL responsibility for their behavior/performance/outcome. Until a parent fully places the responsibility for their child’s outcomes SOLELY on the child, that child will always be just that – a child, no matter their age.

    Becoming an adult means taking full responsibility for yourself and your outcomes. Sadly, the parent in Arkansas has a lot to learn.

  2. By Steve Borgsdorf
    May 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm | permalink

    C’mon John, disappointment is unconstitutional these days. Anyhow, are this kid’s claims even ripe? Cut day isn’t the end of the road…two years in a row I got cut from the River Rats baseball team (given my talent this was certainly not for want of due process), but eventually made the team by hanging around and carrying bags and warming up pitchers; eventually even Goffee had to put me on the roster.