This Ain’t the Super Bowl

On the morning of the Super Bowl I sit and reflect on my sons’ experiences in youth sports. I’ve been told that I’m not a good judge of these things, as someone who was a lousy athlete and never had the competitive gene. I’m also a mom and a teacher, so I come at games with the feeling that all kids deserve equal and fair treatment. Do you see the joke in that?

But for my family sports are a huge part of our lives. Every weekend and several nights a week are consumed by practices and games, and that’s great. Especially for many boys, sports are the one place they get to be themselves without being scolded for being too loud, too boisterous, and generally climbing the walls. On the field it’s encouraged.

Sports keep them busy, engaged, and most importantly, healthy. At my son’s last physical the doctor was shocked by the six-pack he has at his young age. Soccer. I wish that at some point in my life I’d been as fit as my boys are. I’d like to know what it feels like to have your body be that strong and responsive. Without all the work of actually exercising of course.

Overall I’m thrilled that my boys like to play and they’re pretty good at it. But as a parent I still have a hard time watching other parents behave like animals on the sidelines. Younger Son had an intensely scary indoor soccer game the other night. The parents were screeching and screaming from the opening moments, willing their kids on, and if that included being dirty in order to win, so be it. The kids responded by acting as if this was the Super Bowl, literally tackling, pushing, pulling, and slamming our guys into the walls. The coach was also screaming at his kids and hassling the ref from the start – you could see this team’s attitude came from the top down.

I watched in fear as a kid almost my size repeatedly crashed into Younger in goal. To add to my anxiety, Older Son had a collision in goal a few weeks ago and needed an x-ray to confirm he didn’t have a broken bone. I knew it would happen someday – that I’d be half-carrying one of my boys off the field, as I’ve seen so many other parents do – and praying our injuries would be the kind that heal quickly and easily.

A game like that makes me someone I don’t like. I’ve learned the hard way to be impartial at games, respect the other team, and remember the big picture: this ain’t the major leagues. But when I hear a bunch of adults calling for a bunch of kids to attack each other in an arena, gladiator-style, I start screaming just as loud as they are (but with positive comments – GOOD JOB GUYS!!! AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS!!!). Even my husband, who is usually the amazingly calm/cool/collected and impartial-to-bad-calls coach, was screaming at the ref to blow his whistle.

I don’t understand why parents behave this way. What lesson do they want their kids to get out of this? In a meaningless game, in a winter indoor soccer league that most people see as a way to keep moving during the frigid months – why do you behave like winning this game at all costs is a matter of life and death? You know what’s a matter of life and death? Cancer.

After the game we were all shaken. Oddly, the players that were streaming out told Younger he’d done a great job in goal. Was their sportsmanship real or forced? It seemed genuine but our kids didn’t believe them, especially after the beating they’d just taken. They said it was just sarcastic, and I had a hard time myself figuring out what it meant. Is it possible to turn your decency on and off that quickly?

As we watched this spectacle my friend turned to me and said, “We should be so concerned about how they’re doing in math.” I think we aren’t because it’s not a place where we’re allowed to sit on bleachers and watch their performance. If we were, would we be there at every class, cheering the correct answers and screaming when they get one wrong? How screwed up would our kids be in that scenario. I’m actually laughing at the thought.

After the game we re-bandaged a swollen raspberry the size of a softball on Younger’s hip that he’d sustained that morning in practice. He said, “This was the worst day of soccer I’ve ever had.” I felt it too. So why do we do this?

I think more than any other place, in a different way than that math classroom, sports are teaching my kids a lot of life lessons. How to deal with people of all kinds, like those you will meet throughout your life. How to set a goal and keep at it, whether or not you succeed. How to work with others and play a role even if you don’t like it that much. How to deal with authority figures, whether you respect them or not. How to accept winning and losing with grace. How to stand up for what you need and accept the outcome.

My guys don’t care that much about the Super Bowl. Maybe that’s because I don’t. Maybe it’s because every four-hour football game broadcast has only 8 minutes of action compared to the 90-plus minutes in soccer. (Maybe I have a hard time cheering for wife-beaters, drug-abusers, and guys who literally kill people and get away with it because of money and power. Or as my husband put it, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people got as upset about inequality and corporate greed as they did about deflategate?” But that’s a different story.)

My husband remembers being rapt and excitedly watching every minute of the Super Bowl when he was young, but I haven’t felt that way since the 1987 Giants. Sure we’ll have some friends over and watch the game, but I’m most excited about having an excuse to eat crappy food. Mid-way through the second quarter, the boys will disappear with their friends upstairs and play FIFA. They won’t care that much about who wins. We’ll be back at soccer practice on Tuesday. There will be more games. There will be triumph, drama, pain, and despair, much like life. And they’ll have sensational abs.

Advertisements

Trophy Kids Indeed

Oh. Something tells me I’m gonna love this.

Or maybe not so much love, but watch helplessly, like a car crash. These parents must have known they were being filmed. Did they tone it down? Or tone it up?

The clip is from the new HBO Sports documentary “State of Play: Trophy Kids” by the actor and director Peter Berg, who studies the insanity of parents who push their kids too hard in sports. Just looking at this short clip shows the ridiculous lengths people will go to, including teenagers with personal trainers and parents making their kids cry on purpose to “toughen her up.” I can’t imagine a parent seeing their child break down in tears, specifically caused by them, and not feel heartbroken.

I’m amused by the mother who, blubbering through her own tears, says “What if I didn’t do everything I could to help them realize their dreams?” Here Berg gets right to the heart of crazy sports parents: it’s 100%, completely and totally vicarious. It is rarely, if ever, the kid’s dream.

What my parents dreamed for themselves is certainly not what I dreamed for myself, as is the same for my kids. Luckily my parents realized that pretty early and let me find my own way. They supported the choices I made for the activities I wanted to do. I hope to be able to do the same for my kids, and so far I think I’ve done an OK job.

In fact, it makes my skin crawl when people say I’m a soccer mom. Not just the stereotypical van-driving, coffee-drinking, hair-in-a-ponytail and sweats on because I ran out the door at 8AM on a Saturday to get to my kid’s game mom. Because, yeah, that is me. But I think of the stereotypical “soccer mom” as the woman in the movie.

I am a soccer mom in that my kids play soccer. They’re good at it, and they love it, and for those reasons I love watching them play. But if I ever became that woman, or anyone thought of me as her, I think I would die of embarrassment.

Not a soccer mom. But this is the ornament the kids got me for Christmas.

Not a soccer mom. But this is the ornament the kids got me for Christmas.

What it takes to become a professional athlete is a very unique and very rare combination of ability, skills, motivation, and desire. One can only be born with this set of attributes, and no parent can give them to their child just because they want them to succeed. The freak success stories of people like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters make everyone believe they can turn their kids into stars. But those people happened to have the one-in-a-million lightning bolt combination to make it.

It pains me to see the looks on the faces of the kids in that video. If someone else made those kids look that way, wouldn’t the parents rush to their defense? They are so hurt, ashamed, embarrassed – and any parent who thinks they can encourage their child to do better in sports using those tactics is just wrong.

Here’s a new rule. Instead of forcing your kids to do the sports you think they should do, make sure they do at least one thing. Let them pick it out. It doesn’t have to be sports. When my son wanted to quit basketball it tore us up. But he found something else he loves and begs to go whenever we have a free moment. We had to let him find it himself and now we support him in this new path. Who knows how far this activity will take him? It could be something he does his whole life, and his love for it will be shared with others who love it.

I doubt very much that the parents in that video would take this advice. They may be shocked when their kids end up resenting them and turning to all kinds of bad behavior because they’re so stressed. They may be shocked when the principal calls them in to say their kid is a bully (I haven’t even explored that avenue but where do you think they come from?). I hope to get a chance to watch it and see if anyone changes their ways, or what their response is after the video goes public. This is compelling and important work, and I thank Peter Berg for having the guts to make it.

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…