Monday, June 06, 2011
This Memorial Day weekend was spent in a quintessential Midwest setting – a small town park with oak and cottonwood trees, a water tower, pavilion, grills, and eleven baseball fields. It was my grandson's baseball tournament for his 9 and 10 year old travel team. I don't remember either Bryce or Robbie being that good at the game at that young of an age. It was impressive to watch these pint-size Jeters and Brauns school us all in the art of baseball. Other than a smaller field, these kids played with major league rules and occasionally major league expectations.
No matter the game, all youth sports share several negatives: the dynamics of parent-child interactions, conflicts with officials, uneven coaching, and reluctance to play on the part of the child. Happily with my grandson's team there seemed to be few negatives. Some parents got a bit intense, especially when the team came close to defeating the state champions, but for the most part parents were either supportive or silent. No one questioned the referees other than an occasional "ooh" when a close pitch wasn't called as we expected. The coaches stayed positive and instructive. Only one time did a player indicate a reluctance to enter the game. Other teams weren't so fortunate with parents making angry demands on the players both during and after the games, coaches who berated the players, and passive-aggressive remarks to the officials. Coming across the best and the worst of youth sports makes me wonder what we can do to smooth out the situation and improve the conditions.
The main difficulty is that those of us who have gone through years of youth sports have the wisdom of experience, but most families have just started the process. Without that perspective of time, it's difficult for parents to realize what could be better. And since most of us have years of participating in and watching adult sports we can only model ourselves after those behaviors. I admit to seeing a fly ball sail past the glove of the left fielder this weekend and muttering, "Oh rats!" knowing that the guy on third was going to score. I'm used to watching Ryan Braun snag those with great confidence and tremendous athletic skill to pull in the impossible ball. Had Braun missed that fly ball, the crowd would have erupted in venomous disappointment. So it's difficult in a youth game to rein in the editorial comments that would spring naturally to a crowd in a professional game. Nevertheless, we parents have an obligation to make that distinction.
How do we keep youth sports not only civil but fun? We parents need to set the tone every step of the way. We need to keep our coaching to a minimum. I know how hard it is to see your child commit the same mistake game after game and not say anything. So pick one big issue to address before each game and only address it once briefly. Keep the majority of remarks upbeat. I also have found that there is peace in numbers. The team parents who remind one another on the sidelines to stay positive do manage to fulfill that behavior. I've watched parents huddle before a game to repeat some variant of a mantra of "Stay positive, no coaching, and respect the referees." The most demonstrative parents know that they have a standard to maintain and that the other parents expect it. As parents we can also help to monitor during the game and issue gentle reminders as some parents get too vocal. I've seen the spectrum from complete decorum to sideline jousting matches between parents on opposing teams. I definitely prefer the former!
It's more difficult when it comes to the coaches. We all want the best coaching we can get for our children. No matter how much we may say we only want our kids to have fun playing sports, we can't help having an eye to the future. What if our son or daughter exhibits both skills and passion for their sport? What if they can excel at the sport? Then they'll need strong coaching and a strong team. So we may find ourselves excusing boorish behavior from coaches because we don't want to risk losing those coaches. Remedies aren't easy. I've attended club board meetings where parents turned in letters to complain about a coach's behavior and had their issues belittled and ultimately ignored. Clubs can get very touchy about their coaching staff since it constitutes a portion of the club's reputation. Parents may reasonably feel powerless to act. Often there's no good choice: stay with the coach or leave the team. I would follow my child's lead, although he or she may also feel that options are limited to unhappy choices. My sons had a great coach who conducted amazing practices and taught the players so much, but in game situations a switch went off and he became more concerned with winning not just the game but every call with the referees. Parents had a hard time reconciling the training coach with the game coach. But we all stuck with him because we recognized that the training he provided our sons ultimately outweighed the sideline behavior during games. And our kids agreed which made the decision easier.
The toughest issue can be when our kids express reluctance to play. We can have a hard time determining why. For some kids the reluctance comes from transitory issues such as their cleats hurt or someone said something mean. For other kids the issues are far more serious such as not enjoying the sport or feeling uncomfortable with the coach. Kids usually have trouble expressing their real reasons because they can feel our expectations and our pride in their participation. They don't want to disappoint us. Letting our kids know that they do have the option, within certain guidelines, to quit a sport gives them the confidence that they have an out if they need or want it. Most parents expect their child to finish the season. That seems reasonable. It sets up a standard that insures kids don't just quit on a whim and doesn't harm the team to which they made a commitment. Often kids end up working through their concerns as they meet their commitment, and if they don't then we have confidence as a parent that those concerns are serious.
Watching our children play sports on a beautiful spring day brings great pride and joy. We need to keep the innocence of youth in mind despite how adult they play. As one of Robbie's teammates told us parents on the sidelines we need to "settle down." And I'll add we need to just enjoy the ride. Whether they win or lose we'll love them just the same, so that should help take the anxiety out of the equation. As the mother of a goalkeeper, I can assure you the less anxiety you feel, the better.