Monday, March 22, 2010
We all have moments we wish we could do over. I once spilled grape juice all over myself during a Joe Biden fundraiser. I was four seats away from the senator and was there with my grandmother who nearly disowned me. This happened in 1979, and I still relive the embarrassment. Those types of moments are not only easy to recall, but easy to recognize as blunders. Unfortunately we also have moments that we should know fall outside the boundaries of acceptable social behavior, yet we seem to be totally blind to the fact. Just attend any youth soccer game and you'll understand what I mean.
At one youth tournament, I was on the sidelines of a U6 game. At that age winners and losers don't factor into the experience. Every team plays three games and every player gets a participation trophy. The fields are so small that they can't even accommodate all the spectators along the sidelines. We had to sit two rows deep. The idea is for kids to get the experience of a tournament without the expectations and pressures of a tournament. In other words, this is for fun. Most of the kids are still clueless about the rules and strategies of the game. They understand they need to kick the ball into a net. Which net is usually unimportant. However, the outcome of this particular game became very important to some parents. It began with arguments about referee calls – which were usually about balls going out of bounds – and escalated to screaming at the kids whenever they scored in the wrong goal. Finally one parent had had enough of her child's coach not correcting the kids and she strode across the field in the middle of the game to give her expert advice to the parent volunteer. When the referee met her on the field to turn her back, the mother began poking the ref in the chest with her finger. The poor referee, who was about twelve, didn't want to be disrespectful to a mother, so he kept asking her to stop, at which point she began to curse at him and poke him harder. Mercifully another parent, perhaps her husband, came onto the field and attempted to persuade her to return to the spectator's side of the field. She responded by slapping him. In the end, it became a police matter, the kids witnessed an extremely unpleasant encounter, and one child in particular had to take home the memory of his mother's behavior as his participation trophy.
That's one of the most ridiculous and extreme situations I have witnessed, but it does highlight the problem of overzealous parents. We watch sports at home where we can freely yell at referees, coaches, and players without fear of someone climbing over the bleachers to punch our lights out. Then we go to a live professional sporting event and get caught up in the frenzy of screaming and criticizing. So it is little wonder that parents can forget where they are when they go to their child's game. These aren't professionals used to the slings and arrows of fan criticism. These are impressionable youngsters who really don't understand what all the fuss is about.
When Robbie played on a coed team we had a game in early spring that even challenged the concept of Refrigerator Soccer. The day was freezing, damp, and windy. Naturally we bundled our kids up in warm-up suits, gloves, hats, parkas, and if they had been invented yet we would have added Snuggies. The referee showed up, a nervous and earnest girl who was refereeing her first game. She had obviously read and memorized the rule book. She made the kids take off their pants and jackets because their uniforms weren't visible. When we asked if we could put their uniforms on outside of the outerwear, she answered no. So we parents were already not predisposed to liking this referee. She further aggravated our good natures by constantly calling back throw-ins for being illegally performed. Her whistle blew so many times I began to think she was a frustrated musician. We all tried to be patient and understanding, but with the cold and the constant calls we parents lost our collective calm and began to say things like "Oh come on" and "You've got to be kidding" To which the young referee responded by threatening to kick some of us parents out. That was the final straw and several parents began to have even choicer and bawdier comments for the young lady. As the exchanges began, one young player streaked by the parents, put her finger to her lips and said, "Settle down!" If she could handle the cold, the calls, the frustrations, then it really wasn't our place to fight her non-existent battle. It was a humbling and significant lesson for us not so grown-ups.
Over the course of years of youth soccer I have seen fights between parents of opposing teams, coaches and parents mix it up, parents and coaches attack referees verbally and physically, coaches attack players verbally and, regrettably, physically. I have passed by parents standing over their children and berating them for a poorly played game, even threatening them with the loss of soccer if they didn't start playing better. I have heard cursing and name-calling which if our kids used even 1 percent of that filth they would be grounded for a week. In many cases these outbursts occurred at games for kids under age 12. Even worse I know I'm not alone in these observations. I'd like to think that we parents could be better role models and gentler spirits, particularly when our kids aren't yet old enough to drive. Being supportive of our children doesn't mean embarrassing them in the process. We don't have to channel Bobby Knight because ultimately at these ages no game outcome is more important than having fun and building positive self-images. I understand giving up criticism is harder than giving up chocolate for me. But we can work towards the goal of focusing on what's going well rather than on what's going wrong. I'm not sure what our kids really think of us when we act out, but I know what I think of my kids when they act out. It's got to be pretty disheartening for them to see us incapable of the adult behavior implied in our admonishments to "grow up."