On a cold night, I sat watching a JV football game my daughter was cheering in. While shifting around trying to stay warm, I noticed three roles. There was the referee, the cheerleader, and the coach—and I realized that as dads, we tend to be one of the three.
Each of these three roles has different characteristics that are helpful. But I do think there’s one position that embodies all the best traits and more. Let’s look at the referee, the cheerleader, and the coach. Ask yourself which dad you are and which dad should you should be.
1. The Referee DadIf you only see yourself as your kids’ referee, it’s time to reevaluate your role.
The night I watched the JV game, I noticed the referee’s role is to look for rules being broken. He’s the rules guy—the protector of procedures and policies. His role is to enforce the rules and administer penalties.
Are you the referee dad? Do you find yourself being the rules guy all the time? Is your focus on having authority? You’re the constant disciplinarian, quick to punish rather than talk or ask questions. You enforce punishments for broken rules and hold kids accountable. You may change behavior, but you’re missing heart formation. Just like the referee only sees play by play, this dad lacks the vision to see beyond the positional behavior to foster connection, model empathy, and connect with his kids. If you only see yourself as your kids’ referee, it’s time to reevaluate your role.
2. The Cheerleader Dad
As my daughter cheered her heart out that night, she performed her role well. But, I know a secret—she knows little about the sport for which she’s cheering. In fact, I learned there’s a cheer coach who’s watching the game, understands what’s happening on the field, and signals to the cheer squad so the squad knows what and when to cheer. While cheerleaders are helpful at encouraging the players, many cheerleaders miss the game.
Of course, dads should cheer on their kids. But the dad who’s only a cheerleader rarely fulfills the rest of his role. This dad is often not engaged and active enough to enforce the rules. If the referee is only negative reinforcement, the cheerleader dad is only positive. The cheerleader can encourage, but his role has limited influence.
3. The Coach Dad
The best coaches instruct, assess strengths and weaknesses, and address the motivation of players. They know rules and boundaries and are active and engaged. Coaches walk with their players. Come game time, win or lose, the coach is right there to walk with his players through everything.
As a dad, sometimes your role is to enforce rules and encourage. But it’s always to teach. It’s always to listen and assess, to ask the right questions. Coaching is about empowering kids to make decisions on the field. Your role is to see the big picture, have a vision, and help your kids navigate situations as they arise.
You’ve been where your kids are. You speak not just from stoic rules or from uninformed encouragement; you speak from engaged experience. If you think about it, the coach dad walks with his kids like Christ walked with his disciples—and like He walks with us today. Jesus was always teaching (Matt. 13:34). He watches everything, knows everything, enforces rules, encourages, gives hope, guides, shapes, and walks with us.
Sound off: Which dad are you most often?
Huddle Up Question
Huddle up with your kids and ask, “What do I remind you of more: a referee, a cheerleader, or a coach?”