Tanya Prewitt-White, Ph.D., is a professor of Sport and Health Psychology at Adler University’s Chicago Campus. She is an expert in the interconnection of exercise, health, sport, society, family, and politics.
As a fearless freckle-faced girl with braces, I wanted to be just like my dad. I sat in the bleachers with a ball in my hand at his “old man’s” basketball league, cheering as he nailed three pointers, intercepted passes, gave pump fakes and finished floaters in the lane.
I treasured the car rides alone with Dad to and from those games, when Dad would tell me stories about his childhood as a poor farm boy in southern Indiana and remind me how much he believed in me. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the pride and love that came with his attention.
But my sport-loving, athletic father was not always perfect. One day, while practicing throwing softballs from home to second base, he said I threw like I had a puss arm. I hate that word and even as a sixth grader I knew it meant that, in the world of sport, being a girl meant being less than.
Dad almost never talked to me that way, or made it seem like I couldn’t do something. But, it slipped. Dads, coaches, and people make mistakes and say things without thinking. I’ve learned over the years the complicated layers of sport and sport relationships.
In fact, one of the first research projects I devoted myself to investigating in the field of sport psychology was the role fathers play in their daughters’ sport experiences. My study, ‘“He Just Wanted Everything to Be Perfect, Me to Be Perfect”: U.S. NCAA Division I Daughter-Athletes’ Experiences of the Father-Daughter Relationship,’ was recently published in the Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology journal.
The qualitative study conducted interviews with NCAA Division I female athletes. The four main findings were:
1) Father-daughter relationships revolve around sport.
While daughters were thankful and appreciative of the bond they shared with their fathers due to sport, they wanted more. Daughters wanted their dads to ask about their romantic lives, to talk about academic or professional pursuits, or to spend time doing something other than sport.
2) Mothers are the emotional bridge between fathers and daughters.
While female athletes were never asked about their mothers directly, each participant brought up the emotional support and devotion their mothers provided during their athletic careers.
Participants also stated that they went to their mothers for emotional support and comfort when dealing with the aftermath of an argument with their fathers or when trying to understand their fathers’ ongoing criticism regarding their athletic performance. However, co-authors and I caution readers that mothers, in their efforts to serve as a bridge between fathers and daughters, can sometimes be a wall that keeps them from developing the emotional bond both want.
3) Fathers make tough coaches
All but one participant had had their fathers as coaches at one point in their athletic careers. Interestingly, this was the most negative of all of their experiences. The feeling of “never being good enough” resounded for the daughter-athletes. Even though the women expressed that having their fathers as coaches was what helped each of them grow and develop as athletes, it was also the most difficult aspect of their athletic experience. This complicated relationship was especially evident when participants described how much their father taught them, pushed them, and held high expectations for them, and how this resulted in long-term benefits.
4) Daughters: “Dad has always been there”
Each of the participants discussed that their dad has “always been there.” More than anything else, the women discussed the relevance of their fathers attending their athletic events and being committed to supporting their athletic endeavors. Not only were fathers present physically, but they were also there to encourage, teach, inspire, and push their daughters. No matter the experience – positive or negative – fathers’ presence in these daughters’ sport experience had a significant impact.
This is where I share that my father has always been there for me but his physical presence here on Earth is no longer. My beloved father passed away on January 14, just a few months ago.
Fathers, if you’re involved in your daughter-athletes’ lives, you will make mistakes, but keep holding high standards, keep showing up, keep having the conversations about sports and life and love and family. Little girls need dads who are always there and push them beyond their limits in sport and life.