Fathering a Passion for Sports

Dads can help their kids develop a joy for playing and watching sports.

Posted Jun 24, 2014

The 2014 World Cup is in full tilt. Billions of fans are watching the action, rooting for their favorite teams and players in this burst of nationalism and athleticism. The World Cup also gives us an opportunity to consider another feature of fatherhood: the role of dads in facilitating their children’s sporting interests.

I know from experience how much a father can do for his son in the realm of sports. My dad took me to countless games and practices in ice hockey, football, baseball and soccer. In retrospect (this wasn’t as clear at the time), the devotion to drive teammates and I to games an hour or more away or to early morning ice hockey practices was remarkable. He stepped in to be my ice hockey coach during a year when the team would have folded without a coach volunteering. He helped as an assistant football coach another year. He made sure I always had opportunities, even when the equipment and travel cost more than the expenses warranted.

This past year, I watched my daughters, aged 8 and 10, begin their soccer experiences. They enjoyed the team experience, post-game snacks, and playing (more than practicing). While one was content to watch a ball after kicking it, the other displayed an aggressiveness and spark that was not taught but came from some deeper well. My wife helped as an assistant coach when one team was in jeopardy of folding without a volunteer coach stepping up, and I became a referee for both of their leagues and games. In that capacity, I did what my dad and many other fathers have done before: foster their kids’ sporting experiences in part to also foster their kids’ social development. If the kids act inappropriately, the whistle blows.

The world of fathers and their children’s sports activities has aligned cross-culturally and historically more often with sons than daughters. In a cross-cultural survey of sports activities, of 248 sports identified in 50 societies, males participated in far more of these sports (95%) than females (20%). The contrast was most stark when focused upon contact sports like wrestling, with males participating in 57 contact sports, females 2. In cross-cultural perspective, most male sports participation was not for idle fun either—it was training for success hunting or in coalitionary violence. Consider buzkashi, as featured in a recent NPR piece (npr.org/buzkashi), in which an Afghani man’s prowess knocking around a dead goat’s headless body while riding horseback could also help hone his riding, hunting and fighting skills. Even for sports originating in England, like soccer or rugby, the saying that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eaton” suggests some of the important military function of boys’ team sports participation.

Sports can serve other ends. For team sports, they can enhance a child’s social development and motor skills. There is no I in team. You’re only as good as your weakest link. Think of all the mantras you’ve heard a coach utter, and there are nuggets of social wisdom embedded, many encouraging a player to give her or his best effort and to sacrifice individualism for the benefit of a larger social group.

Team sports can also manifest the glories and anguishes of group identity. For World Cup fans, that means rising and falling with your favorite team, maybe waving the flag and painting your face. It’s not the first time this has happened. While there is debate about the details of Mesoamerican ball games, archaeologists have found the remains of countless of these beginning to appear 3500 years ago, and well beyond their origins: some of Phoenix today sits atop ball courts, they reached east into the Caribbean isles, and they extended south to today’s Nicaragua. Reconstructions of these games suggest they may have been important opportunities for intergroup competition to (literally) be played out by men, encouraged by fans, with sports betting another piece of that puzzle (and long before Vegas).

In the U.S. today, some aspects of sports continue to show sex-specific patterns. Both males and females are physically active, but males are more likely to choose to play in team sports, particularly at older ages. Just as researchers did at various recreation spots in the U.S., the next time you are at a public park, notice who’s running or stretching alone, and who’s involved in a pick-up basketball game. Yet male involvement, even in the U.S., in team sports diminishes with advancing ages. As they grow older, more men, including fathers, become more likely not to play the team game, but to watch it on TV or to foster their kids’ playing it. So now there are plenty of fathers who may share a beer with their grown son while watching their favorite World Cup match (even beer commercials portray this father-son bonding). My dad no longer drives me to practice, but we talk about the Denver Broncos offseason moves, and whether another Super Bowl is in the cards for Peyton Manning (who is a dad, and whose football career was fostered by his football-playing father).

So whether your favorite World Cup team wins, this may be an opportunity to thank dad for cultivating your sporting spirit.



Deaner, R. O., & Smith, B. A. (2013). Sex differences in sports across 50 societies. Cross-Cultural Research, 47, 268-309.

Deaner, R. O., Geary, D., Puts, D. A., Ham, S. A., Kruger, J., Fles, E., Winegard, B., & Grandis, T. (2012). A sex difference in the predisposition for physical competition: Males play sports much more than females even in the contemporary U.S. PLoS ONE, 7(11), 349168.

Hill, W. D., & Clark, J. E. (2001). Sports, gambling, and government: America’s first social compact? American Anthropologist, 103, 331-345.

About the Authors

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

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