What to Do When Sports Get Ugly

“You suck.” – Nine-year-old boy at soccer game

Wow. Yes, believe it or not, this was uttered after our last game by a kid on the winning team to someone on my son’s team. We only lost by one goal, and stayed right with them. If you didn’t count the goal where they tackled our keeper, we would’ve tied. Oh and by the way, they don’t keep score at this level. But somehow we suck.

I have learned that as a sports parent there are many games where all you can do is set a good example. It can take a serious effort to resist getting dragged down by the ugliness that’s happening around you. Many times you have to head home after the game trying to find the positive lesson for your kids.

So, like in the case of this game, a lot of those lessons are about rising above. This kind of flat-out bullying shouldn’t be accepted anywhere, but it kills me how easily people shrug it off on the playing field. It’s just part of the game!

I’m not naive, I know what kind of ugly exists out there in the world. But I’ve worked hard to put some distance between it and myself. I moved to the area I live in because we’re a happy, mellow community. I work with infants, toddlers and preschoolers. I am, as my best friend likes to say, a marshmallow.

So I really have a hard time when I see such bold aggression. I actually have a physical response – it’s probably fight or flight. I get shaky and upset when I see parents and coaches screaming their kids into submission and berating referees and anyone else in the near vicinity.

Then the kids behave the same way because that’s the example that’s being set: This is how we act when we’re playing sports. It’s ok to be a complete animal, because after the game’s over (and we’ve danced in the blood of our enemies) we can all pat each other on the back and say, “Good game.” No hard feelings. We left it all on the field.

Sometimes I think I’m just a sore loser. But I don’t mind losing to a team that plays fair. And I have to think I’m a better sport than the “You suck” kid. I do try not to write them off. I know they’re a product of their environment.

Until now I’ve been unable to think of a way to just watch the game, not get involved in the atmosphere, and enjoy seeing my kids play a sport they really love. So I googled “parenting and sports” looking for some ideas. There were a couple of good articles, like this one, in which coaching expert Bruce Brown says you should “Let your child bring the game to you if they want to.”

I love this idea. Last year we banned re-hashing the game during the ride home in the car, and it was genius. But at some point either my husband or I couldn’t resist the urge to talk about it and give our two cents. I have to accept that when the game’s over, my son might not want to talk about it at all, and that’s OK. It’s not my job (or what they want) to dissect the game, good or bad.

Many of the other articles I found were a mix of “Don’t over-do it with youth sports,” followed by “How to maximize your child’s athletic potential.” The usual bag of mixed messages. We give a lot of lip service to fairness, but secretly we know you’re just in it to get your kid into the pros.

That’s not what my kids want out of sports (which is probably why they aren’t out there trying to dominate everyone). They love the exercise, the challenge, and being with their friends. I have a feeling that many of their teammates feel the same way.

So all I can do is keep taking deep breaths and teaching my sons how to deal with idiots. The best advice I found was that when the game is over, they just want Mom. And being my best Mom means shutting my mouth and listening to what they have to say. Sometimes it means letting them be quiet and resisting the urge to invade their privacy. And no matter what, always be on their side.

A footnote to this post: In response to reading it, a friend of mine sent me a link to this video, which has been making the rounds this weekend. I don’t want to spoil it so please just watch – it’s well worth the three minutes. Everyone in that gym was a better person for what they saw. If only…

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Wallowing in the Winter Blues

I took my kids to see “Rise of the Guardians” last weekend and literally. Cried. Through the whole thing. It’s a good thing I got them extra napkins for their popcorn.

I think I would’ve cried alot anyway, given that the plot is about fighting to keep hope, magic, and fun alive in children, but with current events it just made the notion of innocence that much harder to stomach.

It also didn’t help that recent activity around our house has centered on my children growing up – really growing up. We spent most of the weekend (before watching the heart-wrenching movie) cleaning out the boys room. It’s time for a new paint color, as the baby hues I chose for them so many years ago just don’t fit anymore.

So we cleared out and gave away and took loads of old toys and no-longer-loved stuffed animals to donate. I found the Play-doh factory where I spent hours molding with both of the boys. I still have some old ice cream cone sculptures in my jewelry box, because to a mother, those hard, multicolored blobs of clay are more precious than her jewels.

I know that every time we clean out, I’m letting go, and it’s incredibly hard for me to do. The little toys we used to play with, the old, broken pieces of artwork, the collections stashed in old lunchboxes. It’s hard to give up the physical objects because when I look at them, I remember. I am afraid that without the reminders I’ll forget the time spent.

Besides letting go of the material remnants of childhood, Younger Son’s last illusions are being stripped away by his classroom’s study of slavery and the south. Visions of burning crosses dance in his head at night, and I have to soothe his mind before he can sleep. He talks about how painful it is for him to think of people suffering and sometimes I am at a loss for what to say to make it better.

To top it all off, Older just faced his biggest big-boy challenge yet, a really tough decision that involved the whole family and hours of one of my least favorite pastimes: Processing. But after we got the hardest part over, I am left with my amazement at his understanding of the big picture, his own needs, and his bravery in going through with what has to be done. And standing up for himself to boot. I told him what my best friend told me: The hardest choice is usually the right one.

When you look at it all this way, it’s easy to see what it is about childhood that we cling to. Innocence and hope, yes. Believing in magic and the possibility that anything can happen, definitely. But I think it’s the ability to care for people who you don’t even know, to put others first and be selfless and concerned, that means the most to me. And of course being able to live free, without the hard choices that grown-up life brings.

So this morning while getting ready for work I did what I always do when I’m depressed: I put my iPod on shuffle and trusted it to find me a song that would lift me out of my low. It chose the Pretenders’ version of “Forever Young.”

iPod, you so did not get that one right.

Once again I literally. Cried. Through the whole thing. Next came “Find the Cost of Freedom”?! Really?! “Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down.” I’m feeling better by the minute!

Luckily that dirge is short and sweet, and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” came on next. OK. I can breathe again. “All we need is a drummer – for people who only need a beat.” Dance those blues away, baby.

“May God bless you and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay
Forever young

Forever young
Forever young
May you stay
Forever young

May you grow up
To be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you

May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay
Forever young

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay
Forever young.”

– Bob Dylan

Lest You Think a Mother’s Life is Not Busy…

Younger Son had a field trip last week and I chaperoned. This was my to-do list:

  • Make sure my sub (Famous Carol) can come for day care
  • Alert parents that Famous Carol is coming and they need to pick up at 4:00
  • Send in check for Younger’s cost to school
  • Make sure permission slip was signed and returned
  • Send in $2 for his “I belong with this class” bright blue t-shirt
  • Find out that chaperones need to pay and send another check
  • Send another $2 for MY bright blue (“I belong with this class and am not a kidnapper”) t-shirt
  • Ask Michelle to pick up Older after school
  • Make sure Older knows he’s going with Michelle
  • Write dismissal email to Older’s homeroom teacher
  • Note for Older to remember to go home with Michelle and not on bus
  • Have talk with Older to figure out what will happen if he does go home on bus
  • Write down Michelle’s phone number for Older in case he goes home on bus
  • Reassure Older that he will remember to go home with Michelle and not to worry
  • Email Famous Carol to be sure she’s coming and tell her what’s going on with the kids this week
  • Send parents reminder email and write early closing time on whiteboard
  • Write “Bag lunch” on the menu for that day so Dad won’t make normal lunch
  • Take a picture of the TV remote and upload it to computer, print it out and write instructions for Famous Carol
  • Find my small travel backpack (throw out first one I found because it’s disintegrating)
  • Charge two iPods since they’re allowed to bring them for entertainment
  • Gather Younger’s book, headphones, charged iPods, and journal to go in his backpack
  • Find a better journal because the first one is too small
  • Pack my own bag with sunblock, magazine, snack for four kids, bandaids, tissues, itinerary, etc.
  • Go over the checklist sent from the school to make sure I didn’t forget anything (but I’m plagued with the feeling that I did)

Now for the morning of the trip:

  • Pack the bag lunches and Younger’s snack
  • Change whiteboard message for parents to pickup early today
  • Set up the cribs
  • Get pile of VCR tapes
  • Leave check and instructions for Famous Carol
  • Leave the tv set to VCR
  • Vaccuum under the snack table because I forgot to last night
  • Greet kids arriving at normal time
  • Review TV use with Carol
  • Make sure Younger’s ready (which he is, because he’s awesome)
  • Go on field trip!!!

Older’s field trip is next week.

 

On Hitting Trolls with Brooms

Yea, I stole it from Amazon

A while back I wrote about some of my son’s favorite books and was looking for pictures of them on the interwebs. I came across a review of one of our all-time classics, Harry and the Terrible Whatzit.

It’s a story that Younger Son always loved. He went through a very fearful phase and we had a whole stack of books specifically about dealing with fears (and he loved each and every one of them, and still gets excited when he comes across them). I loved Harry because it’s an old-fashioned book from the ’70s with quaint pictures and no marketing involved.

It’s about a little boy who’s afraid to go in the basement to look for his missing mother. But he needs to find her! So Harry plucks up his courage and goes in the basement, and of course there’s a Terrible Whatzit down there. He starts beating it with a broom.

Here’s what the review said:

“I almost hesitate to recommend this book to other parents and teachers because it shows a little boy hitting someone (or something) else. And hitting isn’t a message I want to send to the little boys out there.”

OK, let’s not panic here.

The story is about empowerment! It’s about defeating the boogie men who live in the closet!! It’s not saying that you should literally carry around a broom for beating people!

Kids know the difference between reality and books. Would there really be a two-headed warty troll in the basement? No. So you wouldn’t need to beat it with a broom. But when Harry hits it, the troll shrinks and eventually runs away. It’s an ingenious way to show kids metaphorically that if they face their fears, they can overcome them.

Who wasn’t afraid to go in the basement? I still remember the fear that would rise in my chest from just looking into that dark, brick-lined pit. The value of a book like this is in being able to pinpoint that feeling and teach a child how to overcome it without lecturing. And to show that maybe the thing you’re afraid of isn’t so big and bad, and you’re smart and tough enough to handle it. Like my friend Natalie told me the other day, “You’re so much stronger and braver than you give yourself credit for.” We all need to hear that every now and then.

There is violence throughout literature because there is violence throughout life. I understand that there is a point in trying to shield our kids from it (such as the WWE, God help me my sons idolize mulleted insane muscle freaks). But we can’t totally. Violence is part of human nature.

Teaching kids not to be violent is a daily, ongoing process, during which we show them that all kinds of behavior aren’t acceptable. Instead we teach them how to treat people in a respectful way.

You know, probably by explaining about not going around hitting them with brooms, and stuff like that.

The best way to teach non-violence is to live it. Most kids would never see you beating anything with a broom unless you had a raccoon in your garage. We teach by how we live. If they see you being courteous, treating people with respect, and apologizing when you’re wrong, then they’ll know how to do these things too. And hopefully we can show them how to protect themselves from violence a little bit, too (but that’s another post).

For example, Older Son was worried that he’d hurt someone during a basketball game and didn’t know what to do. I told him next time something like that happens, just pat the guy on the shoulder and say, “Sorry about that, are you ok?” Easy. But until I gave him the simple steps, he didn’t know what to do.

I have another old ‘70s book in my collection of classics called Sunday Morning by Judith Viorst. We discovered it when my kids were about 7 and 5. In it a parent threatens the kids with a spanking if they’re not quiet. The first time we read it Younger Son turned to me and asked, “What’s a spanking?”

Can I say that was one of my proudest moments as a mother without looking like a self-satisfied jerk? But kids will come across a lot of things in books that they’ve never actually seen happen in real life.

So people, be not afraid. Read “Harry and the Terrible Whatzit” and fight monsters and slay dragons. Your kids will feel powerful and strong and maybe next time (or, a year from now) you won’t have to go in the basement with them.

What More Can I Say But…WWE

OK. I’ve done it. I’ve been to the dark side…and come back to tell the story.

I went where I swear I would never have gone, and had no desire to go, in my whole life – if I didn’t have two sons in it.

A real-life WWE cage match.

This is just the latest thing I banned from my kids’ lives and they insisted on having, so eventually I caved. Just like how I said there’d never be war toys in my house and now we have an arsenal – literally. There are so many guns and swords that they had to be moved into their own room (you know, the office/guest room/armory).

BUT, as I learned with the guns, the toys you play with don’t make you who you are. It’s how you treat other people. And teaching my boys how to treat other people has nothing to do with toy guns. So I do my usual daily work of guiding and teaching, and I let the WWE seep in. Or come crashing in, literally and figuratively, as it did for my boys. And we continue to talk about how you don’t resolve your problems by throwing someone through a wall.

Older Son was angry when I told him how I felt about professional wrestling. Here he’d found this awesome, intensely cool thing that spoke to him on a level I can’t understand, and all I could do was say how bad it was. I told him I can’t stand to see people beating on each other.

He put his hand on my arm, looked in my eyes, and in a tone of real concern asked me, “You do know it’s fake, right?”

I had to admit it – he’s a pretty smart kid. So I let it play. In a matter of months they’ve obtained toy wrestling rings, a collection of action figures, and a soundtrack that must be cranked whenever we’re in the car. So Santa decided it would be fun to take them to a real match (against my will). I decided to look at it as a sociological experiment (which I guess is pretty much how I see most of my life these days).

I figured the crowd would be entertaining and boy was I right. There were a few who were really downright scary – you could see the security guards keeping an eye on them (and in real life they’re probably the sweetest people but put them in the right situation and they look terrifying). The 65-year-old lady and her 35-year-old son gesturing wildly to each other when the announcer said the next live match would be in March. The (again, adult) lady behind us yelling and screaming and making the most hilarious comments – to people who don’t take the WWE seriously enough (“Oh yea, he’s dirty like always!” “Look out behind you!! The chair!!! HE’S GOT THE CHAIR!!!”). Full-grown men wearing WWE championship belts.

And I loved how the wrestlers had security guards escorting them down the aisle to the exit. You, John Cena, man of muscle, who just lifted a 275-pound 7-foot tall man on your back and slammed him to the ground AND won the match, need this scrawny dude to protect you from the weaklings in the seats?

The wrestling actually looks more fake in real life than it does on TV (sorry everyone who believes it’s real – and there are SO MANY of you out there). But even I gasped and covered my eyes several times when people were being body slammed or worse. And of course there were moments that got the teacher and protector-of-children in me going, like when they showed the video montage of the WWE’s anti-bullying program.

Really? A sport that is based solely on bullying, and they’re sending the stars out there to tell kids not to do it to each other? They actually had the nerve to say “It’s all about respect.” Because when you kick someone in the face, that’s respect!

And the fact that they kept making a big deal out of their shows being “PG.” What’s PG about people slamming other people’s faces into walls or smashing chairs into their bodies? Michelle told me, “The G is for Guidance, and as a Parent, that’s WHAT YOU DO.”

I told her to shut it.

And then we got in a divas cage match right there in the car on the way home from the show.

The Beauty of Youth Sports

What? Me, the big whiner, writing about the positive aspects of youth sports? Wasn’t I just bashing baseball a week ago?

There are good things about sports, even I have to admit that. And we’ve just gone through a post-season that has reaffirmed my belief in those ideas. Wow. Sorry if I’m getting a little crazy here. Let me explain.

After our town’s little league seasons are over we enter post-season tournaments with other local towns. These are towns that have a long history of beating up on our teams because they have more money, more kids, and they play together longer (and we don’t always lose, we do get to win sometimes and it’s so nice).

Last year we were unprepared for the level of play during these tournaments and frankly, we got spanked. The kids didn’t care – they got free hot dogs after the game and one more day to play ball. In fact one of my proudest moments as a mother came after a particularly severe beating (we were mercied after dropping by ten runs). One of the opposing team’s players walked past Older Son and I thought he would drop his head and skulk by. Instead Older looked him right in the face and said, “Good game.”

Wow. Either me or the coach was doing something right.

This year we prepared better. Practice every day. Lots of repetition and drilling the basics and reviewing the insane little rules that could get us in trouble.

And the coaches took every kid who tried out, even if they didn’t play at the higher level this year. They played every kid on the team – no one sat on the bench for a whole game. When I commented to Michelle that it was nice of them to take the younger kids, she said, “Coach wants them to like playing ball.”

That is the key to what I want out of my kids playing sports. To have fun, and want to continue to play as they get older. I’ve seen too many kids get discouraged by a losing season or a negative atmosphere. And why play if it’s no fun?

That, and what I saw happening on this team this year. Maybe they’ve finally reached an age where they understand what a team is. I was so impressed to see this group of boys work together. They supported each other, celebrated each others’ successes and consoled bad plays, and they taught each other how to fix their mistakes instead of yelling. They were just happy to play and it showed.

I know very few adults who work together this well.

If we lost today’s game we were out of the tournament. We were down by four with two innings to go. It was raining hard and the field was sloppy so we missed some key plays and allowed more runs. No matter – the moms huddled together under umbrellas and cheered for everyone. When we put in a new pitcher and the opposing team put on a song to taunt him, we danced around and made it our own.

Both the game and the weather were looking bleak, but on the sidelines we prayed for sun so we could get our last ups. We allowed another run, but finished the inning with a great play and we cheered like crazy.

The coaches and parents on the other team were looking at us as if we were slightly off. We basically lost the game in this inning and yet we were smiling and dancing. I turned to the moms and said, “We’re in their heads!” In a town that prizes winning above all else, how was it conceivable that we were laughing, dancing, clapping, and having a great old time? (And it seemed to me that our kids playing out on the field were just as happy.)

Out came the rally caps in the dugout. And still every kid on this team had their turn in the game. The coaches put in the younger and weaker players even in key moments so they’d get their turn.

Would it be too cliche if I said I had the song from the Bad News Bears running through my head at this point?

We actually got back a couple of runs, Older got to pitch for the first time in post-season play, we continued to scream and yell, and then we lost. And we all cheered those kids as they walked off the field as if they were champs. Coach told the kids, “We had one bad inning that cost us the game, but we had 23 good innings during the rest of the tournament. Last year you had one good inning in the whole thing! So you should be proud.”

(And, by the way, might I brag a little, that they WON a game this year AND were never mercied. They were a contender. Really. That’s not just Mom talking.)

I’m really going to miss baseball. I think part of the reason this team worked together so well is because this is an area where boys can really shine. In school they’re already at a disadvantage because they’re boys and they learn by action, not sitting still and focusing like girls do (don’t get all “You’re sexist and disgusting!” on me, you know it’s true, especially if you’ve ever worked with kids). Here they get a physical challenge and a common goal to work for, one of the great motivators of men. The older boys get to share their knowledge with the younger ones, and the younger kids get to surprise the older ones with their skills.

Even after losing we are feeling pretty good about baseball in my family. As one of the moms said to me, “We’re just a happy community and our kids are happy too. Put out love, and you get love back.” I know the ballfield is no place for love. There’s no crying in baseball, either. But a mom’s still gotta protect her 10-year-old boy. When I walked by the dugout four of them swarmed me to show me their injuries. We can dress them up like little adults and stick them out there and berate them when they don’t play like major leaguers, but underneath all that they’re still just boys, and they need encouragement and positivity so much more than pressure. Growing up is hard enough. I guess I’d just rather have my kids play for the Bad News Bears and feel good about themselves. No trophy beats that.

Am I Doing the Wrong Thing?

How can parents be so sure about some things but so confused about others? (And is that just a sadly cliched way of describing human nature…) Last Saturday I spent hours teaching a class about how to handle power struggles with kids, which I’m 100% confident about. I can see a child fighting and stop it in its tracks. I can make a decision and say, this is the way it is, period, end of story, move on. I’m really good at it.

For instance, that evening my son wanted a sleepover, then didn’t, kept his hostess up late so I could arrive to get him, and when I got there wanted to stay. Without thinking twice I said “Get your stuff, we’re leaving.” There was no way he was staying, I knew that! And I had no guilt or second thoughts about it.

But the next morning, I was consumed with doubt about letting my sons play sports. Two completely different topics, I know that, and probably why I can’t figure it out. My husband and I both wonder if it’s the right thing to do. The boys are torn. On one hand, they’re a bit bored and sometimes don’t even want to play (and are afraid of getting hit by baseballs, which has happened twice this year). On the other hand, they have so much fun when they make a great play or get a big hit, and of course they love extra time hanging out with their friends (AND don’t forget treats from the snack bar).

We are convinced that they have to finish the season they started, no question. But our doubt kicks in when we see the ADULTS BEHAVING BADLY as the season progresses. Here’s how it goes, every season, every sport. At first, all the teams are playing by the rules, just having a good time, even giving each other mercy when one team is down a few players or a team scores five runs in one inning.

As we get closer to the “playoffs” (a word I wish we wouldn’t even use at this age) real, actual bloodlust kicks in and people start to act like idiots. I try to stay out of it for my husband’s sake (he’s the co-coach). I sit way down at the end of the parent section with Michelle, hiding in the trees, cheering for the kids and making each other laugh.

But at the end of the game I hear reports of the father standing behind home plate telling his pitcher son to “Put this one down.” I want to walk up to the guy, bitch-slap him, and say, “Did you know that’s my seven-year-old son you’re talking about?!”

And there’s the problem. I can’t go around bitch-slapping people, even if they deserve it, because that would not be setting a good example for my children. So we try to teach them to rise above it. Is that the value of playing sports? Rising above bad behavior?

Then I go to Natalie’s kids’ music recital and I am so moved. There were about fifteen boys and girls of all ages and abilities and they were so brave. They went up on stage and played the best they could despite the stress of performing. There were the usual pauses and missed notes, and some were revelatory in their talent and some could barely raise their eyes to look at the crowd – but every one of those kids got a rousing ovation. You could feel the love in the room even when someone messed up. The audience was willing those kids on and supporting them completely no matter what happened.

In sports, I’m usually willing something to happen – the ball to fly off my son’s bat or for him to not miss a big catch. But I sit quietly as parents jeer and scream and allow – or even encourage – bad sportsmanship. Not too many people are willing success for all the kids on the field. And that’s the paradox of little league – we’re all about growing good people! But you know what? Not really.

So when Older said he wanted to join the drama club next year I thought, maybe that’s it. I was never cut out for sports and maybe despite his natural abilities, he’s not either. Drama club loves everyone. Maybe despite our best efforts to change it, the cycle continues: jocks and geeks, cheerleaders and band members. And the best we can do is walk away from the things that diminish us and find the places where we belong.

Dave and I debate the value of keeping them there – teamwork, exercise, learning a sport and maybe wanting to pursue it in the future. But we realize that as we are trying to teach them respect for others, and following the rules, and just behaving in general like civilized people, that there are so many people out there who are living the total opposite example. Grown adults who scream at seven-year-olds and rejoice in their defeat.

Did I mention that I hate youth sports? Back to the point – how can I be so sure I’m doing the right thing for my kid sometimes, and at other times be sure I’m doing the exact wrong thing. I guess I can only do my best. But I know one thing for sure – despite popular opinion to the contrary, the life lessons will NOT come from the ball field. Or maybe they will, and the lesson will be how to deal with awful people. And at what point do I accept that this is not the best thing for my sons, and move on to something like music lessons.