If you are looking to stir up a hornet's nest, no two words will get things buzzing like “daddy ball.” If you don’t believe me, go to your favorite social media baseball parent support group, type “daddy ball isn’t real” into the prompt, and grab some popcorn. It’s a thing, for sure, and it creates frustrated and resentful parents. When the coach's child gets preferential treatment in terms of playing time, positions, or opportunities, the atmosphere within the team and among parents becomes uncomfortable. Those who are affected rage against it while those who aren’t attempt to stay under the radar.
I watched a lively discussion about daddy ball take place on social media. By “lively”, I mean hostile. I noticed 3 distinct camps.
Camp 1: Daddy Ball Is Real, and It Has Screwed My Kid Over.
It’s a thing, for sure. Parents and athletes are disappointed when they feel that the coach's actions don’t align with the principles of fairness and equality. Even if you haven’t experienced it, you might at some point. It’s real. As a mental skills coach, I have worked professionally with coaches who brag about the power they have and how they misuse it.
Camp 2: Daddy Ball Is Not a Big Deal. My Kid Is Fine. Maybe Your Kid Should Get Better.
This perspective probably comes from parents of athletes whose position isn’t affected by the coach’s kid. It’s like bigfoot and alien abductions. It’s only real when it happens to you.
Camp 3: I’m a Coach or a Coach’s Spouse. No One Understands How Hard This Is.
I have worked as a mental skills coach with people in this camp, too. It’s a difficult position to be in. To appear uber objective and neutral, the dynamics between a coach and their own kids can get funky. Coaches go the extra mile to show they aren’t favoring their kids, which makes it harder on their kids. Coaches agonize over fairness and equality, only to be accused of daddy ball anyway. As a side note, I coach some coach's kids. The things upset parents say about them and how they don’t deserve what they’re getting… they hear it. The ugly things said about their parent/coach… they hear that, too. They also see and feel the glares from the stands. I can tell you, the kids of coaches have it very rough.
Boiling It Down
For those affected by daddy ball, it feels awful. We want our kids to have fun and do well and when they aren’t given the opportunity, we feel like there is nothing we can do. There is a system working against us we can’t change. We aren’t helpless, though. While we can’t do anything to get our kid on the field, we have control over ourselves, our kids, and our perspectives. The first step to relief is to accept what is as it is. It’s our inability to accept what is (instead of what we want) that keeps us fired up. Is it unfair? Yes! Is it frustrating? Yes. Is it discouraging? For sure. Does being super vocal about it change it? Nope. It only causes problems. Quitting mid-season in frustration doesn’t solve it either. Don’t give up, but stop doing what doesn’t work in favor of something better. When we are subject to external control, the only things we have control over are our actions and reactions. Stop rallying against unfairness and external control. Fighting against them only increases the friction. If you are in the daddy ball vortex, there are some things to do to manage it.
Be Better: Managing the Narrative
It’s easy to get caught up in the narrative that the deck is stacked against your athlete in the system. The mind loops the story, comparing the actual situation to what we think should happen and viola. We are whacking the hornets’ nest like it’s a pinata. Communing with other parents who are on the wrong side of daddy ball feels good. Talking smack on the car ride home about the unfairness of it all vents some steam, too. While they feel good for a second, they create a poisonous attitude for you and your athlete. They certainly don’t contribute to getting your athlete on the field. Even when it’s true and the deck is stacked against you, it’s not the best story to dwell on. There is a negative emotional, psychological, and physical reaction to that narrative every time we use it. Frustration grows, taking us farther from being able to stay productive.
Switch your narrative by switching your focus. When you are stuck in a bad situation, instead of focusing on the unfairness of a single moment, game, or season, pivot focus to long-term development. This will help you and your athlete practically, emotionally, and psychologically salvage some part of a difficult season. Instead of missile locking on daddy ball, playing time, and unfairness, figure out what your athlete can learn from the situation. Instead of stewing on what can’t be done, find things that can be done. Create a holistic and strategic approach that goes beyond the immediate circumstances. Fill the car ride home with conversations about ways to increase knowledge and baseball IQ. Build a mindset that prizes consistency in showing up, managing adversity, and dedication to getting better. These things are all within you and your athlete’s control, whereas playing time isn’t. Control what you can and let the rest go.
Ideas for Controlling the Controllable
Build a relationship with the coach. Have your athlete do the same. I know, I know… this feels icky considering any mistreatment you and your athlete may have been through. While it may be difficult to navigate through the built-up anger and resentment, it’s a powerful exercise in internal control. Shift the goal from playing time and justification for your anger toward learning to manage difficult situations and difficult people. This is important for you and your kiddo and is a building block of emotional intelligence. Help them with this, and it is a skill that will serve them for life. There will be other bad coaches and some bad bosses farther down the line and being able to be relational will come in handy!
Practically, it’s easier and more fruitful to have honest, but respectful discussions with a coach through a cordial relationship. When you do, focus on the child's development and how that incorporates into the team's larger goals. In your mind, you want to roll in with your intellectual guns blazing about the unfairness of it all. Resist that. Instead, ask the coach for feedback on the areas needed for improvement. I know it’s inauthentic and it might feel icky, but this will minimize their resistance. Coaches have their own way of doing things. If you operate within their parameters, even if you secretly don’t agree, the coach will perceive that you respect their coaching style and decisions. You might say, “I’ve already done this, my kid has already done this, and it didn’t work.” If so, I’ll bet you did it with the goal of convincing the coach your kid should play, not as an exercise in relationship building. You might never sway the coach, ever, but if you do, it will come more easily from a platform of relationship rather than one of outrage.
Leave With Grace
Sometimes, the only thing within your control is your exit from the team. A pro-level sports parent keeps a running tally of teams and coaches. Be a pro. Consistently network with other parents when and where you can. Even if times are good, keep your ear to the tracks about who’s doing what, where. Find out where the best situations are for you and your athlete. When you do, you can plan a couple of moves ahead and be ready to pivot at the end of the season. When you do decide to go, I recommend finishing out the season, with the perspective shift described above.
Mine what you can from the bad experience, then when it’s time to go be professional and respectful. Move on with grace. You’re human and you want justification for your unfair treatment. There is no need to let anyone have it, burn bridges, or create a dumpster fire fueled by your bad feelings, though. If you do, you create a bad impression of yourself and your athlete. It also gives the coach an argument that you were the problem all along. Explain that while you appreciate the opportunity to be part of the team, it is time for you to move on to prioritize your kid’s development. For you and your athlete, the season’s end offers a chance for reflection, growth, and a restart. Celebrate achievements and lessons learned regardless of their nature and let the bad stuff go. Carrying it with you taints your new experiences. Letting go allows a fresh start in a new situation.
When faced with daddy ball, instead of dwelling on the injustice, reframe the situation as an opportunity for growth, resilience, and long-term development. This shift in focus from frustration to personal agency will serve you and your athlete well in the current bad situation and beyond. Daddy ball tests the patience and fortitude of both parents and players. If managed well, it also develops them. Find environments where growth, camaraderie, and personal development are the currency. You may not escape favoritism, but you can help yourself and your athlete learn to thrive in undesirable situations.
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