Cori (Coco) Gauff became an overnight sensation when the 15-year-old upset three straight Wimbledon opponents before losing in the fourth round. She became the youngest female to win a Wimbledon match since Jenifer Capriati in 1991. In the world of tennis, she instantly became an American hero.
But she wasn’t the only Gauff celebrity at Wimbledon.
Her parents, Corey and Candi Gauff, captured their own headlines as their daughter spent two weeks winning in England. Former collegiate athletes themselves, they stood out in interviews for representing a sane perspective while handling a child prodigy.
Surprisingly, their approach to guiding Coco actually offers loads of wisdom for any of us trying to parent an athletic child.
If you have kids who play sports, you’re already well-acquainted with the difficulty of navigating those choppy waters.
Without doing so intentionally, the Gauff’s offered up some reminders about what a godly approach to sports might look like. Here are five things we can learn from their interviews along with action steps to consider.
Emphasize character more than performance
Besides her obvious talent on the court, Coco demonstrated what it looks like when parents teach that there’s more going on than just the game.
She prays for herself and her opponent before each match. She repeatedly thanked Wimbledon for the opportunity to play. And after her win against Venus Williams, she thanked the 39-year-old tennis great for paving her way.
She performed under stress with grace and class sometimes difficult to find in competitors twice her age. She wasn’t born with those qualities—she’s being taught them!
When we put our kids under the supervision of a good coach, he/she will teach them how to play. But it’s always our primary role to teach them how to live. Sports provide a great laboratory to encourage growth in the virtuous life, but it must be intentional.
Godly character results as the Holy Spirit sanctifies our own spirit. But He never does that work in a vacuum. He uses the teaching of parents and mentors and guides who say, “Live like this. Not like that.”
Sports provide many teachable moments if we value finding them. How to handle winning. How to handle losing. Disappointment. Anger. Unfair decisions by a coach or referee. Conflict between players. Moments the Spirit of God can use to blaze virtue into our child’s heart.
Game Plan: Become aware of the most important character qualities you want to emphasize with your athletic child. Then help them understand what those qualities look like in the context of sports.
Consider respect as an example. How do I demonstrate respect to my coaches? My teammates? To other players? Referees/umpires? Fans? To the game itself? Focus on and praise our kids for what they can always control and not just final stats.
Play a variety of sports
In today’s youth-sports climate, every sport implicitly demands specialization before kids reach their teen years. But even with a daughter who very early showed signs of being a prodigy, the Gauffs encouraged Coco to play multiple sports.
Candi Gauff says, “Very early on she did soccer, a bit of gymnastics, track and field, some basketball, a bit of dance. But tennis always stood out for her and that is what she stayed with.”
If our kids learn to love a single sport and decide early on that’s all they want to play, fine. But resist the temptation to cut out all sports simply because a coach or organization make it seem it’s your only option.
It’s not, especially before the teen years. If the Lord somehow makes it clear that your child should start to specialize early, then do it. But don’t let a self-interested coach or organization take the place of God in making that decision for you!
The last few years of high school will provide your child an adequate opportunity to focus on a particular sport and be seen by college coaches. They don’t have to participate in every “select” tournament offered to 10-year-olds for fear of missing out as a 13-year-old.
God created play for our enjoyment, a healthy, joyful expression meant to demonstrate something of His love for us through our physical bodies.
But too often now youth sports have become a means to an end—the quest for identity, status, a scholarship. Our kids need us to view sports as an opportunity to play. Not a way to acquire something more.
Game Plan: Let your child play whatever they want for as long as they want without worrying about the need to specialize. Most kids won’t play a sport in college, so they might as well enjoy every sport they can while they are able.
Pay attention to burnout
Seeing his daughter’s love for sports at an early age—especially tennis—Corey Gauff intentionally studied the paths of other tennis prodigies. Not just to see what they did to win on the court, but even more importantly to understand how to win off it.
Gauff is parenting Coco, a child prodigy, but even he worries about not doing too much all at once.
Is your child doing too much too soon? Are they getting a break from the sport they love the most or are they playing through all the seasons at age 10?
It’s almost a guarantee: No one else will pay attention to the threat of burnout for your kids. Nor will anyone else help them understand that life is more than sports.
Sabbath has practical application in sports, too. Beyond whether or not we should play on Sunday. Try to help them understand the value of rest—even if you’re struggling to find it yourself!
Game Plan: Take at least one season completely off from your child’s favorite sport. If he likes baseball, he doesn’t have to play games in the spring, summer, fall, and then attend workouts three times a week in the winter. Give him a season or two off and he’ll be much more motivated when he’s actually in season.
Better still, help your child invest that off time in something service-oriented or church-based or in some other form of development. Intentionally build their soul more than their bodies!
Don’t try to force a drive to succeed
“I never have to say ‘go to practice,’” Corey Gauff says. “It’s always been her wanting to go practice and asking to go to practice. She’s willing to do the work and never complains about the work. … She has this uncanny determination.”
Coco has a meticulous approach to her own practice schedule and gets upset when it’s changed.
Early on, Coco expressed and demonstrated a desire for greatness, and her parents created an environment for her to pursue it. Too often, however, parents want their kids to be great when the kids just want to play.
If you’re a parent, you know this feeling: wanting more for your kids than they sometimes want for themselves. I get it.
But far too many of us are ruining sports and the pleasure of play for our kids because our goals trump their goals. If our child or teen is destined to be part of the tiny percentage of athletes who go on to play college sports—a path that God ordains within them—they will have to be motivated themselves. They’ll need an inner drive to do what needs to be done, and you can’t be a surrogate for that drive.
Game Plan: If they have it, nurture it. If they don’t, don’t force it on them. You’ll know when it’s time for things to become more intense—they’ll let you know!
Let the coaches coach
Candi Gauff intentionally limits her tennis voice in Coco’s ear. “I try to back away on the court, because too many voices can be a crowd,” she said. “I let my husband be the coach, and I’m the supportive mom, the one if she hurts or is crying that she can communicate with.”
Maybe she finds staying quiet easier because she’s married to her child’s coach. Who knows. But have you ever checked how much coaching you do from the bleachers?
Kids should only be processing two voices in their head during competition: their coaches’ voice and their own voice. Ideally, they could be learning to use sport as an opportunity for worship, starting with a conscious awareness of God’s presence.
An awareness of His presence should empower them in their attitude, effort, and motivation for competing. Every other voice coming at them—including yours!—produces mental clutter that makes playing “as unto the Lord” even more difficult.
Our kids may never know how to ask us to be quiet, but they desperately want it from us. Learn to give silent support. Instead of talking to them during the game, consider talking to God about them!
Game Plan: Try sitting at one of your child’s games in a discipline of silence. Can you just watch without saying a word? Then ask your child after the game if they noticed. Ask them whether they’d prefer you stay quiet or they want your constant advice throughout the game. And ask God to give you the power to stay quiet!
(If you have younger children, check out Brian Smith’s The Star in the Stands and help your kids consider what it means to play for an Audience of One!)
Copyright © 2019 Ed Uszynski. All rights reserved.
Ed Uszynski has a PhD in American culture studies. He and his wife Amy speak at the Weekend to Remember getaway®. You can find him on twitter @Uszynski32.