Monday, June 01, 2015
Anyone associated with youth sports knows the broad spectrum of emotions and behaviors on display at competitions. We’ve all seen moments of tremendous restraint, professionalism and dignity. We’ve also witnessed embarrassing scenes of tantrums, condescension, anger and taunting. Contests bring out the best and worst in us as we pin our hopes and self-esteem on wins and suffer through losses. Over Memorial Day weekend I traveled to Ohio to watch two grandsons in their respective baseball tournaments in Dayton and Columbus. Right on schedule, the emotions came out.
Let’s get the ugly out of the way. First, the ugliest behavior didn’t come from anyone at the tournaments, but definitely affects the integrity of sport. Fourteen FIFA board of director members and sports marketing agents were arrested and accused of bribery and corruption. The trickle-down effect on youth sports will be both financial, as sponsors pull out, and disruptive as a tarnished image of soccer gives parents and kids pause. We’ve seen scandals come from powerful people in athletics that left a stain on the sport, especially for impressionable youth. In Milwaukee, the boy-next-door image of Brewer Ryan Braun suffered first through a false denial that he had used performance enhancing drugs then proof that he in fact had. He has rehabilitated his respectability, but the poor kids who had flocked to buy his jersey when he was exalted now felt shame wearing his number. The ugliness that greed and entitlement can bring to a sport demeans the spirit of play.
Ugly sprang up during my oldest grandson’s last game. There was a call against the opposing team. I can’t even recall what that was, because it led to a series of spiraling bad outcomes. The other team’s coach protested the call, and when that failed, continued to yammer disapproval at the umpires from the dugout. Both officials told him to stop at separate times, so by the end of the inning we all thought it would be water under the bridge. Not so. Any close call went our way, strikes became balls for us (nearly half our batting order earned walks in one inning), and as a result we got nine runs that inning. Out of frustration, the opposing pitchers began to throw at our batters, putting even more runners on base. We won in the 4th inning due to a slaughter rule. We needed one more run in the 4th to end the game, and through a series of walks and hit players we got that run. What made this incident so ugly was first that the game didn’t matter and second that the officials colluded to insure our win as retaliation for the boorish behavior of the opposition’s coach. The game was a “consolation” one for teams that didn’t make it to the play-offs. The tournament organizers wanted teams to get a value out of traveling to Dayton, so provided them with a fourth game. What should have been a fun scrimmage got blemished by ego and temper. For my grandson’s team there was little joy in winning because it wasn’t about their skill and persistence. Since the umpires engineered the victory for their own bruised egos, they hurt both youth teams. The adults should have risen above pettiness for the sake of the kids and the spirit of the game, but they were too fixated on being the alpha adult in this circus.
Bad showed up in the usual ways. Although there is no rule against it, teams taunting their opponents from the dugout defies the spirit of youth play. Coaches should lead by teaching and example. Rather than condoning jeering from the team against the competition, they should be teaching encouragement for their players whether on offense or defense. We saw taunting twice, and both times it was really uncomfortable, especially when it occurred in a U-11 game. Bad was demonstrated by the parents who coached from the bleachers, by kids reduced to tears on the mound because they lost their edge and coaches kept them in, by teams knowingly using illegal bats, by coaches loudly and publicly criticizing players, and by parents worrying more about winning than about watching their kids have fun. All too often we accept these bad behaviors because they are so common and we ourselves may engage in them. When immersed in a tournament environment, parents feel the anxiety of a trio or more of games in a weekend that can quickly catapult a team to the finals or drop them in the basement. That anxiety can translate to impulsive outbursts that don’t represent the dignity and positivity that we should maintain in youth sports. We have all been guilty of second-guessing the coach, openly criticizing players, and making demands of our own kids. There’s no doubt that the bad side of our personalities can quickly and unexpectantly creep out. I’ve often wished I could just inhale the things I said out loud without thinking of the impact of those comments on the people around me. We all need to be willing to apologize when we overstep propriety, though many of us don’t. Keeping in mind that our children will mimic our behaviors, we need to try our best to contain those opinions and outbursts. That goes double for officials and coaches. These are the authority figures in our children’s world that most impact their sports behaviors. When the authorities treat the players and the game with respect, kids recognize the importance of exercising their own respect towards their teammates, opponents, and officials.
I saved the good for last because despite the cloud of misdeeds and misbehaviors at the tournament, the overriding mood was positive. We need to acknowledge blight so we can eradicate it. However, we can use the best of a moment as the guiding light for the future. We did witness many examples of extraordinary good sportsmanship. Parents focused on the positives during tough competition and congratulated opponents for good hitting and pitching. Coaches handled disagreements calmly and rationally. When a player was called out at first because he tripped before the base, he burst into tears. Parents from both teams applauded his effort and gave him support as he dejectedly trudged to the dugout. The next time he was up, he got support from the crowd who encouraged him to get a hit. When he reached first base safely, everyone cheered. My U-11 grandson’s team won their first game 19 – 1. It was a final inning burst of hot bats that drove the score from 7 – 1. Naturally the opposing team became frustrated and crestfallen. So after the final out, my grandson’s team quickly gave a cheer to their opponents and the coach publically praised the challengers for their perseverance. As he told them, “It’s easy to keep playing when you’re winning. You showed character in this loss. You should be proud.” These words exemplify the role model adults can be. When a team ran out of water and sports drinks, the other team shared some bottles from its cooler. After watching six games, in four of them both teams left laughing and smiling. When the U-11 team lost a game by six runs, they still raced their coach to the outfield afterwards leaping and shouting with total joy despite the loss. That means they had fun, which is the real point of any youth sport. Only a small percentage of those who start out in a sport will still be playing it by age 15. The statistics show that kids shift their interests after age 14. So these years of playing should ultimately be about enjoying themselves, forming friendships, and learning moral lessons that will carry them throughout life.
I know that both my grandsons will remember the wins and losses from this tournament for a long time. They still talk about games they played two years ago. However, hopefully they will also remember the good from the weekend and block out the bad. What I fear is that the really ugly events made a strong impression tainting all the games they played. We parents need to make those ugly and bad moments teachable, encouraging our children to recognize how the behavior of a few ruined the experience for all. We can direct their attention away from the worst bits and remind them of the best. Most importantly we shouldn’t be the ones creating and/or condoning the uncomfortable experiences. If we can mitigate the outcomes by approaching offending adults, then we should. But if that would only fan the fire, then we should let our children know that we don’t approve. We can offer them positive alternatives so that they learn it won’t always be sunshine and roses but the good things do exist if we just seek them out.