Last spring, while waiting for my daughter’s lacrosse game to get started, I walked past a middle school boys team. The players were down on one knee in front of their coach, huddled up for the halftime pep talk. Minus the pep, that is. The coach was screaming at the boys to “start getting a body on someone” and then pushing his players over, theoretically under the guise of demonstrating how he wanted them to up their game in the second half.
Rage, yelling, and shoving children do not equal good coaching.
I am continually amazed at how adults can lose their minds over kids’ sports. If you’ve been at any kind of youth sports competition — which you probably have, since leagues seem to start as soon as potty training ends — you’ve almost certainly seen otherwise-rational humans yell at kids or coaches or refs or other parents during the heat of a game. I just can’t understand how we let ourselves get so wrapped up in the outcome of a 10-year-olds’ baseball game that we lose our cool. Aren’t these the same kids who profess to be unable to make their own sandwiches or find matching socks in the dryer? Is a Division I coach hiding behind a tree somewhere with a stack of full-ride offers for the winning team?
You may have seen the parent reminder signs on the fields at Kidsports, or ones like them in another town. They all say something to the effect of, “Please remember that the players are children, the adults are volunteers, and we expect you to model sportsmanship.” The fact that these signs are an unremarkable part of youth sports complexes, as natural as the scoreboard or bleachers, is an uncomfortable testament to our collective behavior.
Believe me, I understand the competitive impulses that generate this kind of terrible sportsmanship in adults. I was a collegiate volleyball player and am competitive to my very core. I will still mercilessly thump my children on the basketball court in a game of HORSE and not feel one little bit bad about it (mostly because I know it’s not going to last forever and someday soon they’ll be thumping me). If I step on a volleyball court, I will still do everything in my power to make sure the ball goes down on my opponent’s side. When I sit down at my daughter’s volleyball game, however, I know that my role is to yell things like “Nice try!” and “You’ve got this!” no matter how many serves go straight into the net or how many calls the line judge misses.
This transition, I think, is where we as parents sometimes get lost. We forget that when our kids are playing, we are no longer the ones competing. We just can’t keep a lid on our desire to win, even though we’re not the ones wearing the uniforms, and we forget that our anger — no matter who it’s directed at — is not ever going to help our kids play better. I’d be willing to wager that even Tom Brady would be horrified and embarrassed to see his dad screaming epithets at the refs from the sidelines, and he has quite a bit more on the line each game than a middle school soccer player.
Our role as parents is to model the good sportsmanship we want to see in our children, even if that means shoving our personal competitive impulses down into a box and nailing the lid shut while the game clock is running. Of course, we want our kids to experience the joy of winning, but no one wins everything, every time. Isn’t it more important for them to learn how to handle victory, defeat, and obstacles well? No matter who our kids grow up to be, life will hand them wins and losses. Sports can be a great opportunity for them to practice perseverance and develop character, but that’s less likely to happen if we set the example of yelling at someone else every time something goes wrong.
Parents, let’s pretend this new school year is like New Year’s Day and make some fresh sports spectator resolutions: When I go to a basketball game, I will not act like I went to a very shady bookie and bet the family home on some 12-year-old’s ability to make layups. I will model the sportsmanship I want to see in my children, and if I don’t have anything positive to say, I will sit here quietly with my jaws locked shut. At the end of the game, I will remember that what my children really want from me is support and encouragement. And if I just can’t stand the way the game was officiated, I will sign up to be a ref.
Find more of Katie Cantrell’s thoughts on parenting and life at www.katiecantrellwrites.com or on social media @katiecantrellwrites.