Sunday, May 20, 2012
Last weekend I went to three baseball games for two of my grandsons. Once again I was able to witness the nasty side of parenting. I’m not sure what brings out the monster in parents when it comes to youth sports. I imagine it comes from their own unrealized dreams, the anxiety that their child won’t be a success as measured by rather arbitrary standards and their natural competitive instincts. As events unfold, some parents see themselves as the answer to problems or the augmenter of abilities. In each case, they usually end up overwhelming their own child and in many cases the entire team. The impulse to just tweak one thing the player is doing or help her understand a more complex play is considerable and difficult to resist. I have to admit, when I saw my grandson constantly leaping back from every pitch, I spoke up and told him to stand in there and swing. He did, and he got his first hit of the season. But I usurped the coach’s job (and one coach is my son-in-law, so a double blunder), and I didn’t let the natural course of events create the right atmosphere for Archer to learn. I was at that game; I may never be at another game. But his coaches will be there for all of them.
In addition to my own foible, I unfortunately saw parents going into the dugout and pulling their child out for a discussion. They would even walk a long distance away from the dugout, so the coach would occasionally pop out and ask, "Where’s Cory?" The disruption to the team was only surpassed by the confusing instruction the child received. Dad would say stand back in the batter’s box and the coach would say move up. During the team’s defensive time on the field, several parents were shouting directions to their individual sons pulling focus away from the game. For most of these kids, developing any focus on the game is a huge accomplishment. When the ball is hit to a player, he/she has a dozen options. So a coach is ecstatic when the fielder exercises even the worst one of the options because it shows that the kid was at least listening! But when a parent is looking for perfection, he or she will shout out the best option, take their kid out of the zone and end up causing more harm than good. Even if the kid knew what was best, having the distraction of the shouted instruction could create that significant moment of hesitation costing the team an out.
To make matters worse, parents often use a language that is unfamiliar to the players. I wrote a blog once about the confusing terms players hear from their coaches and their parents. As adults we understand what these terms mean, but for an eight year old they may as well be Greek. A dad shouting to his daughter "Check to!" knows it means move to the player with the ball. However, most young players only know the more common meanings of "check." Naturally, she can’t understand why her dad is asking her to check out the passer. Or in baseball, had I told my grandson to "stop bailing"; he would have looked at me with total bewilderment. We parents have to both learn a different form of communicating when kids are younger and less experienced, but more importantly we need to learn when to communicate.
Yelling at the referee creates another negative for our children and their teams. We need to maintain decorum at all times, no matter how frustrated we get at the officiating. In one grandson’s game, the umpire was calling anything a strike that crossed the plate. He didn’t care if it was 20 feet over the plate or bounced directly on the plate. At first the parents were dumbfounded, but by the second inning they were ferocious as pitch after pitch they witnessed each of their little darlings being struck out unfairly. But the umpire was consistent for both teams, and the game got its full six innings done before time was up. No coach suggested that his pitchers throw purposely high or low. So the pitchers were actually trying to hurl accurately. There were hits, and there were runs. Nevertheless some parents felt that derogatory comments to the umpire would somehow rectify the situation. Had their own children said those things . . . well you get it. The example being shown wasn’t shining.
Despite some negatives, I saw special moments. When a kid who obviously wasn’t used to being struck out heard "Strike three," he began to have a meltdown. The coach went out to him, brought him into the dugout and signaled his dad over. His dad simply gave him a hug and a kiss on the top of the head and then walked away. I’m sure the coach was prepared for an extended episode of tantrum, but with a calm, non-judgmental hug and kiss, the situation was diffused. After a hard loss, where the team was leading 7-0 and ended up losing in the last inning 8-7, there were parents giving advice and critiquing the game. There were many more parents giving a warm hug and handing out praise for well-executed plays, or simply offering their condolences. Most kids will forget a loss and even a major win in a matter of minutes. After all, there are snacks or lunch or some other activity on the horizon. So dwelling on extended post-game analysis will usually result in more boredom than learning. A wise parent keeps it short and sweet no matter the outcome.
We have to resist fulfilling our idea of what a game should be, and leave the game to the ones playing and the ones coaching. I know how hard that is. As soon as I impulsively shouted out to my grandson, I wished I could swallow the words. I may have solved an immediate problem, but what other ones did I create? What will happen when he gets hit by a pitch, and Gramma’s admonition to "Stand in there" sounds like she wants him to get hurt? Who should he be trusting to give him baseball advice? It certainly shouldn’t be a woman who hasn’t swung a bat in a decade. I encouraged the players, but otherwise held my tongue the rest of the weekend. It’s not easy. We see a problem, we want to solve it. We see struggles, we want to alleviate them. We see mistakes, we want to rectify them. But a game or a practice is not the appropriate venue. So take some notes mentally or actually, and then broach the subject when it is just you and your child. We can be the parent that makes life less stressful for everyone, especially our children.