It’s not about you! Advice for parents from ESPN’s Jay Bilas

I talked with Jay Bilas of ESPN for about ten minutes – my notes are indistinguishable but the messages I took from our chat are clear.

Bilas doesn’t pull any punches – not when criticizing the NCAA, not when talking about the “one-and-done” rules in college basketball and not even as he brushed aside my witty open to our conversation with, “Tobin, what can I do for you?”

I respect his candor – and his honesty doesn’t cease outside the painted lines of the basketball court.

I wanted Bilas’ straight scoop – about parenting and athletics, about what he experiences as he travels the country and what he thinks about the role of parents in youth sports.

In just under ten minutes, I jotted down four parenting lessons.

I hope that other parents – even those who stand on the sidelines with me at the soccer field, baseball diamond or at the gymnastics arena – will also take note.

Bilas Lesson #1: If it isn’t fun, why go?

Bilas is quick to talk about his interactions with young athletes at his basketball camps, “I have had nothing but positive experiences with every kid at each camp I’ve ever done.  The kids are great.”

The tone changes as Bilas continues, “It’s the parents, though, that I don’t get.  I’d love to see their game film if they were so good.  Honestly, if going to games isn’t fun for the parent or kid – then why go?”

I can’t recall the last time I willingly missed a game.

At what cost, though?  I get to everything but am quick to complain about having to do so.

In fact, I’m boastful about being at every soccer match or flag football game – never-mind that I’m lost in Facebook updates or yelling at the referee while I attend.

If my kid’s participation is too exhausting, too costly or too much commitment maybe it’s time to heed Bilas’ advice and just stay home.

Bilas Lesson #2: You cannot make a pro athlete

When I asked Bilas about when a parent should look at having their child play “more serious” sports, he quickly questioned, “Why are the parents deciding?  It should be the kids decision.  A parent cannot make a pro athlete, the kid has to want it.”

To Bilas, the idea behind athletics is simple, “Sports are about recreation – or, at least, they should be – about getting out of the house, being active and having fun.  For everybody – parents and kids,”

And, while I find that most parents will tell me that they understand their little baller will not be a future N.F.L. All-Pro, I see hypocritical actions – writing big checks for team fees, screaming, “that is a FOUL!”  at the game official or running ourselves ragged trying to fulfill each of their little star’s commitments.

If I take Bilas’ words to heart, I’d quickly come to the realization that my kids may have picked divergent sports paths if I’d given them 100% ownership of that decision.

My oldest would have played tackle football and my 10 year-old would have likely tried several different activities rather than locking into club soccer for the entire year.

Would my kids be happier?  I’m not sure.

Would our family have more fun, less stress and more dollars in our pocket?  Probably.

Bilas Lesson #3: Talk about how your kids are doing, not how they are playing

After my son Lynden’s final soccer tournament game last Sunday, I asked him, “So, how do you think you played?”

From the backseat, he quietly replied, “Not good.”

Lynden’s head hung low for the forty minute ride home and, after talking with Jay Bilas, I may understand why.

Bilas talked with me about ignoring the play and focusing on the kid, explaining, “There is no model for success in this – it’s about your kid.  Try asking them how they are doing rather than how they are playing.  It’s not about you, it’s about your kid.”

This lesson should be fairly easy for me to put into practice – a matter of simply changing my question to, “Are you still having fun, bud?”  If I would have done so, I’d bet the ride home over the weekend would have been more upbeat.

Bilas Lesson #4: Learn to do the hard things well

With a New York Times Bestselling book entitled, Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court, I felt compelled to ask Bilas about instilling persistence in our children.

Again, his answer flipped my questions upside down.

“There is no canned, standard line for parents to teach kids to be tough.  It’s not about doing Army-like drills.  It is about practice and creative coaches teaching kids to do the hard things well.”

Applying this sports lesson to my household, I’m not sure what hard things my kids do well.  In fact, I’m not sure they are asked to do anything particularly hard with much frequency.

And, although I’m not planning to send my 5 year-old out to chop wood for the stove, I could help my kids by creatively making them sweat at home more often.

As my conversation with Jay Bilas wraps up and I tuck my garbled, illegible notes into my back pocket, I think of the way Bilas started our chat – by asking, “Tobin, how can I help you?”

And, although we may never talk again, I’m prepared to answer now.

From his 6 foot, 8 inch vantage point, Bilas can help me see the forest from the trees.

His advice can help me concentrate on having fun versus perfect form.

Bilas can indirectly help me do the hard things better – even if the hardest of which is looking in the mirror.

About Jay Bilas

Jay Bilas is ESPN’s top college basketball analyst and is widely recognized for his thorough knowledge of the game and his professional, clever style. Bilas provides expert color commentary from courtside on college basketball games as well as the studio as co-host of ESPN’s popular College Gameday, where he skillfully breaks down games and players. Since 2003, Bilas has provided in-depth player scouting and analysis for ESPN’s coverage of the NBA Draft.

A four-time Emmy Nominee, Bilas has three times been named the best analyst in college basketball by Sports Illustrated, as well as by the ACC Sports Journal, and Barrett Sports Media, among others. In 2016, Bilas was the recipient of the prestigious Curt Gowdy Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The New York Times Bestselling author of Toughness: Developing True Strength on and Off the Court, Bilas also writes for, and was awarded the Best Column of the Year in 2007 by The United States Basketball Writers Association.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *