Sports Parenting Lessons from “My Old Man”

By Tom Gullen

The Gullen House in Deerfield was neither wealthy nor poor. My Mom was the bubbly one. My Dad, herein referred to as “the old man” because that is what my brother Bobby called him, was an off the boat Swede who grew up in Andersonville during the Great Depression. As a result, he was cheap. Very cheap. He spoke only when necessary and smoked a pipe morning, noon, and night. He never removed the pipe while speaking so most everything out of his mouth was mumbled. When I was 12 he decided to teach my sister and me how to mow the lawn. He started the lawn mower and then got a rubber mat out and ran over it, shredding it into 50 pieces. “That could be your toes.” Lesson over.

Baseball was and still is the religion spoken in our house. My brother had talent, I made it through one year of High School ball. Then when my brother was in High School he started playing more than our customary pond hockey at Jewett Park. I was allowed to tag along because I had no issue playing goalie with guys seven years older than me. Took a few pucks in the face. Life went on. He played on the first ever Deerfield Hockey Association team (aka the Falcons) in what was called the Juvenile level (ages 17/18). Never was a name more appropriate.

Of course I now wanted to play organized hockey like my brother. My Dad, of course, said we had no money. I would not give up. Eventually, I won and played six relatively uneventful years for the Falcons and Deerfield High. However, the lessons I learned from my Dad were priceless. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from his “hands off” approach.

“If you want to play, you’re going to pay”

And so in the spring of 6th grade I was trying to wear my Dad down to let me play hockey. Finally, he said yes and said “get in the car”. I figured he was driving me to Gunzo’s to get me new hockey stuff. Unfortunately we weren’t going that direction. After a few minutes the car pulled up to Thorngate Country Club. “If you want to play, you will pay half the fee. Go see the caddy master.”

In addition to teaching me the value of making a buck at age 11, it taught me that playing was not a right but a privilege. Even back then it was an expensive sport, and my Dad never wavered on me paying half the fee. Most importantly, I fell in love with the game of golf. I caddied for eight years, all because I wanted to play hockey.

“If you don’t like it, quit.”

Failure in sports occurred frequently in my life. Note to all parents: failure is good. Getting cut from a sports team does not “devastate” a child. There are other things in life that are devastating, but not making a team is not one of them.

As a kid I was either the worst kid on the best team, or the best kid on the lower team. So I understand being cut better than most. As a 12 year old I was trying out for the Travel Baseball team. I thought I was a lock because I could hit. Unfortunately I overheard the president of Deerfield baseball tell the coach that he must pick his kid. And of course, that kid played the same position as me. I was cut and there was no soft letdown; they announced the team and those who didn’t make it walked away.

I rode my bike home, threw my mitt against the wall, and went into a tirade. My Dad was sitting in his chair, pipe in mouth, reading the paper. Finally he looked up at me and said, “If you don’t like it, then quit.” And went back to reading the paper. There was no discussion, there would be no calls to the coach. I was cut.

The message which I learned was that this was my sport, not his. I then went on, many other times, being the best kid on the lower team. Always had more fun there. Life went on, and somehow I got over those so-called failures.

And quitting? That was never an option. If you love a sport, you do not quit because you didn’t make a team; all that does is validate the coach’s decision not to pick you. Whatever level you’re at, play the game.

The Park Bench Under the Scoreboard

Jewett Park had a great Little League Field; not as nice as Roemer Park in Wilmette or Thillen’s in Chicago but still a great field with real dugouts, grass infield, and lights. There were bleachers behind home plate where everyone watched from. Not the Old Man. He sat beyond the left field fence on a park bench, smoking the pipe and reading. I never understood why he did that. Finally I asked him why he didn’t sit with everyone else. His answer: “You’ll see.”

That was his way of saying he wanted no part of the chatter between the parents about who should be pitching or whatever. That stuff drove him crazy. His message: Be seen, not heard. Say nice things, or say nothing at all.

Lead, follow, or stay out of the way

My Dad never coached me. I don’t think he ever volunteered that much. I wish he did, but that wasn’t him.

And so he stayed out of the way. He didn’t schmooze the coach, he didn’t second guess the coach. He maybe made it to 10 games a year. He didn’t protect us if the coach felt he needed to kick us in the rear. Come to think of it I bet there were coaches we had that he never even met. Our coaches were free to coach us. It was our sports.

The Last Game

As I put my hockey gear away in my basement following my senior year my Dad came down into the basement. The basement where my brother and I demolished multiple washing machines and broke many a window waging battles. The final words from him about my athletic career; “You know Tommy, you never loved playing on hockey teams as much as you loved playing outdoors at Jewett.” He then left.  He was right. Took me 20 years to realize it but he was right.  I guess I have a thing for outdoor ice rinks.

Think back about the lessons your parents taught you and instill them on your children.  Those lessons will help make this journey a realistic and fun one for your kids.

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