Cat’s in the Cradle

There are times when a parent’s involvement in their kid’s academic or athletic development becomes extreme, but Preston Gilstrap has found the balance.

Preston Gilstrap looks on from his spot in the bleachers as head coach Bart Epperson gives his son valuable words of wisdom in life and on the football field.

Defensive lineman Zach Gilstrap jogs off the football field. As a sophomore, it’s his first year on the varsity team. He’s having one of his best performances of the season. There’s no way he can stop.

But it’s one of the hardest games he’s played all year.

He’s drenched in sweat. He can barely stand.

He doubles over and begins to take in as much water as he can when he hears a booming voice shout his way, urging him to get up.

Come on, 62!

Something Coach might say, he thinks.

He knows the voice, though. And this isn’t coach. It’s his dad.

•••

The Lions would go on to win that game, and Gilstrap would exit the locker room to the face of one of his biggest fans – his dad, Preston Gilstrap – beaming with delight. The first words out Preston’s mouth after every game are about how proud he is of his son. Without fail, Zach can expect to hear that every Friday night.

Preston is more involved with Zach’s athletics than most parents. Part of the reason why he gets to work at 6:30 a.m. is so he can attend as many of his son’s practices, football games and track meets as possible, and he considers himself extremely fortunate to be able to do so.

But he knows there’s a fine line he must walk to avoid becoming too involved in his son’s sports. He does all he can to avoid the line entirely.

Contrary to Preston’s philosophy, however, former professional football player LaVar Ball received national criticism after publicly making numerous comments regarding the athletic ability of his NBA draft-declared son. Ball received headlines again after he took the players on his high school son’s basketball team – of which he is not the coach – for a meeting in the locker room after a game.

National media criticized him for becoming too involved in his sons’ athletic careers. Some NBA teams have reportedly considered not drafting his college-age son because of the waves Ball made in the news.

To avoid situations like that and to allow the coach to do his job on the field, Preston has tried to mold his son with easy-to-remember sayings that he feels embody how his son should work and play.

“We always start at home,” Preston said. “Our main principle is, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ That’s one thing I’ve always tried to instill within him.”

Along with hard work, Preston has also encouraged Zach to stay dedicated to everything he takes on since he played his first season of football at age three.

“We would have father and son moments to understand the fact that once you start something, you don’t quit,” Preston said, “If you decide that’s not what you want to do next year, you make that decision and you go through with that. But if you start, you don’t ever let your team down by quitting in the middle of the season or not finishing the job at hand.”

Even though Preston instilled these mentalities in Zach early on, he understands that his son still needs a professional coach and tries to respect that as best he can.

“I think I draw the line where I can no longer take him any further,” Preston said, “when I need someone who does this full time to put their hands on him and take him in the right direction. From being a coach, I understand having spectators yelling things from the stands, so I try not to be the person who over-coaches the coach as a dad. I try to let the coach do his job.”

While Preston understands that he could become overly involved in the team, he feels that the coaches have always supported his participation.

“Actually, [the coaches] seem to enjoy it,” Preston said. “I think it was [varsity wrestling] Coach [Justin] Turner who calls us the ‘Varsity Blues’ when me and the other dads are sitting on the sidelines at practice. He calls us that because we’re always at practices, just sitting on the sidelines watching what the kids are going through.”

Zach is thankful for his father’s support and hopes he will continue to encourage him in all his sports. He is especially gracious for his support as a parent compared to his advice as a coach.

“I always want him there for his support,” Zach said. “It’s just that I want him there as a supporter and parent than as a coach. I really want that motivation to keep going.”

Zach feels having a parent on the sidelines gives him an extra incentive to play as best he can and believes it’s crucial for every athlete to have someone on the sidelines cheering them on.

“I just think it’s really important,” Zach said, “especially for athletes in general, to have that figure on the sidelines, outside of the coach, who can give you that motivation and who can instill in you that you’re not just fighting for your team, but to make your family or friends or whoever is on that sideline proud.”

A coach and parent who believes a parental influence not only helps motivate the players, but also can be a good asset for a team is varsity baseball coach Johnny Hunter.

“A knowledgeable parent can be your best ally as far as coaching goes,” Hunter said, “It’s happened a couple of times where the message that you are trying to reinforce as a coach is also echoed at home by someone who knows the game or has played the game before.”

Even though a parent can be helpful to a team and their atmosphere, there are times where the dad or mom can step over the line between supportive and intrusive. Hunter feels a key to balancing that line is communication.

“As a parent, I understand being an advocate for your son or daughter in sports, in the classroom, etcetera,” Hunter said. “As a coach though, there has to be some kind of boundary that is set as to what is appropriate or not. Sometimes that boundary can get a little hazy. I think that as a coach, you just have to be clear with saying that we appreciate positive support, vocal support that is geared toward motivating our players.”

Overall, Hunter feels the combination of interactive dialogue between parents and coaches paired with communication can create a bond that is very productive for any team.

“Parents are such a viable and vibrant part of any sports community,” Hunter said. “When they have a knowledge base of the sport and of what the coach is trying to do, the better off we’re all served. I think if there’s common ground that can be found between parents and coaches, you’re setting up a situation that could be a healthy, positive, productive environment.”

Preston thinks the importance of an athlete trying to appease both his parents and a coach with his performance is minimal compared to the importance of them taking pleasure in their own work.