I was privileged to be a close observer of women’s athletics for nearly three decades. My daughters, born a decade apart, were both outstanding high school and Division I university athletes. They both earned PhD degrees and are very successful in their careers as adults. But more importantly, I observed that there were many girls who played sports and grew up to be just as successful as my daughters. I saw that there was a special ingredient in their success that was not often discussed. It was a close and unique relationship between father and daughter. I have interviewed hundreds of fathers over the decades to try to get a sense of what is different about this relationship. What is the role that dads play in helping their daughters become successful adults in the business world?
As a researcher and psychologist, I noticed some interesting patterns among these athletic girls at an early age. In my impression, they seemed to benefit from sports more than boys. They often seemed to do better academically. Then the data began accumulating. Girls who participated in sports were less likely to do drugs, engage in abusive relationships or have unwanted pregnancies. They graduated more from high school and received more postgraduate degrees. They earned more money.
Then, over the years, women became a potent force as business executives. In fact, in a recent survey of nearly 1,000 female executives from 15 countries, more than 90% of women in executive positions have played sports during secondary school or university education. More than 55% of top-level executives have played university sports. Nearly 80% of these women believe that their membership on an athletic team gave them invaluable experience in helping their organizations become successful.
But What Else?
I thought the success of these women didn’t solely come from their experience on a team. Something had to be occurring at home that was different. Through my interviews, I found some interesting characteristics and a unique father-daughter relationship. It is true that the role of dad in the U.S. has diminished or is certainly changing. Nearly one in three children in our country don’t live with their fathers, which is almost 15 million young people. Men are often negligent in providing child support, and only about 45 percent of families receive their full child support payments in any given year.
But at athletic events for their daughters, I saw a very different dad than is described in the media. And these fathers participated at high levels compared to any other event where parents typically attended. When I interviewed these men, I noticed that their involvement was far beyond the typical male roles to provide, nurture and guide. These men had a special relationship with their daughters, and I observed four common themes which I want to discuss.
For these men, sports were a way to connect. They often admitted to me that they floundered in intimate communication or struggled with sharing their feelings. But they could kick a ball or shoot a basket with their daughter. It was an opportunity to spend a lot of time with their daughters doing something positive. These men felt they had purpose and meaning in their daughters’ lives. It was the one opportunity they had to be alone together. They could shoot baskets until dark debating about whether the Cavaliers or Warriors would win the championship.
These men would often tell me that it was often tough balancing the demands of work and their home lives. But they always pushed themselves to be present at their daughters’ sports events and spend time practicing together. Their daughters forced them to rethink the balance of work and fatherhood.
Another theme I observed were the specific values represented by sports that were important to these men. Their daughters’ athletic participation enabled these men to talk to their daughters about values they believed would help them be successful in what they viewed as a man’s world. These things included grit, resilience, teamwork, perseverance and the recognition that it takes a lot of hard work and help from others to be successful. These dads would often share that these discussions may not always have been easy, especially when their daughters wanted to quit or were lacking in effort. But they also reveled in their daughters’ goals and successes.
I was also surprised to learn that their daughters’ athletic participation provided a window into the issue of women’s inequality. They observed the difference in attitude and funding between male and female sports. Sometimes they believed that it was harder to find good coaches for their daughters because male sports had more prestige. These men often told me that it was because of their daughters that they began to understand how women felt in their organizations. They began to question how they treated women and the subtleties of bias.
One common theme among these men was that they couldn’t understand why their daughters were often chastised or punished for being as aggressive as boys within their sport. It was a double standard that infuriated them. These men recounted how they spent hours teaching their daughters to be assertive. Yet, other adults in their lives, including coaches and referees, would tell them the opposite.
The most important gift for these men in participating in the daughters’ athletic endeavors was that they thought they had meaning in their daughters’ lives. It was something concrete to them. They could see the fruits of their participation and their caring. It was something special, a bond and a journey they shared together. Every win, every defeat, every obstacle was something they shared together, and years later they still talked about these experiences. Looking back, these men viewed those days with their daughters as the most important experience that has changed them and made them a better person.
Last weekend, I consulted with a local dad and his daughter, who happens to be a very good soccer player. She is overwhelmed about the path to college and about seeking a scholarship. Her dad, who never went to college, is unsure about what to do. He is not unsure, however, about how much he loves her. Once again, I got to observe their unique bond, something I have seen many times before. And as they joked about their relationship, I knew this young woman would find the right path. It happens all the time.