Monday, March 19, 2012
We’re a nation of winners. We create competition everywhere just so we can declare ourselves the winner. We beat the guy at the light so we can be ahead of him for the next six blocks, no matter that 2,000 cars covered those same six blocks ahead of us. We won the battle of the light! We push our shopping cart just a bit faster and ignore the lady coming from the right so we can go through the check out first. We brag about the deal we got buying our car, do a victory dance as our bracket succeeds, and challenge co-workers to their opinion on the best restaurant. We can’t stand to be vanquished in anything. Unfortunately we can carry this obsession over to our kids’ games to the point of ridiculousness. We take any loss personally, as if the victory gods purposefully slighted us. The results of this intensity can be at best embarrassing and at worst violent.
This past month, two disturbing events occurred in youth sports. Following a sixth grade basketball game, the father of a boy on the losing team barreled through parents and children to attack the coach of the winning team. With barely any warning and without a word he jumped on the coach, punched him and bit off a portion of his ear. Spectators were stunned. In fact the teams were meeting in the center of the court to shake hands following the game. The father literally knocked several children to the ground in his rush to attack the coach. To add irony to the incident, this occurred following the finals for the Catholic Youth Organization. This was a game for 12-year-olds which would have ended up a simple asterisk in the memory bank of the participants. Now it will forever be the incident where children felt bullied, witnessed an act of horrific violence and left dazed and confused by the outcome of a simple game.
A few weeks previous to this incident, a father was arrested at his daughter’s hockey game for directing a laser pointer into the eyes of opposing players, in particular into the eyes of the opposing goal keeper. He gives new meaning to the phrase "sixth man." Following the game, players complained of headaches and spots in their eyes. While he was removed when the score was 1-1, his daughter’s team went on to win the high school state game 3-1. Officials decided that his behavior didn’t affect the overall outcome of the game, but many parents and players disagreed arguing that the laser affected the eyesight and perspective of players for most of the game and that his actions demoralized players. No matter the upshot of his behaviors, they were completely unacceptable. Right now his daughter’s team’s victory is hollow and tainted by his actions. They can’t completely celebrate, nor can they carry with them the positive memory of a significant accomplishment. Hopefully the daughter wasn’t complicit in her father’s plan, but she will always be under suspicion. The joy she should have felt participating in and winning the state finals will never be hers.
Most of us won’t be driven to these extremes. But we can recognize the impulse. We’ve all been at a game where our emotions have stirred to the point of anger. We’ve witnessed parents from opposing teams getting into it during a game or parents taking on referees. When a war of words between a parent and the opposing coach erupted across the field of an Under-10 game, the coach heaved his keys at the parent hitting him square in the face. A mother at a U-8 tournament game was so incensed at the referee that she ran onto the field and began poking him in the chest. The referee was 12 and the mother was arrested for assault! A father recognized another father from a previous meeting of two teams and the two continued the battle they had begun at that game resulting in both of them throwing blows. If we perceive unfairness in the officiating, dirty play, or find our team being slaughtered, we naturally feel the frustration and anger associated with those events. We’re already in a heightened emotional state because of the competition unfolding before us. And, of course there’s that pesky drive to always be winning.
In my case I’ve learned I have to be seated when I go to my sons’ soccer games. If I am up and wandering I release my inner Bobby Knight. Each of us has to find the way we can curb our emotions at games. Open enthusiasm is appreciated; open aggression is not. When you consider that frequently these parental outbursts occur at youth games, it seems even more ridiculous that these tantrums are happening. Most pre-teen players are off to some other interest and conversation minutes after losing a game. Their disappointment is quickly replaced by more immediate concerns such as where they’re going for lunch or who they can have over to play. It seems we adults are the ones hanging on to what happened during the game. We may need to internalize the mantra "It’s only a game" in order to shake off our frustration and discontent. Recently, I had the boys clean out their bedrooms and asked them to pack up their memories since they had both moved out. I was shocked to find they had gathered up their trophies, medals, and ribbons from competitions previous to high school and thrown them out. As they said, "We can’t even remember what tournaments these things go to!" If those wins mean so little now, the losses have to be completely insignificant. What we all took so seriously has faded into oblivion. For those few truly significant contests, I hope win or lose they would be remembered fondly and without drama. In the end most of our players will eventually end up playing soccer for fun on the weekends with a bunch of friends rather than for intense competition and certainly not as a profession. Rather than focusing on the outcome of the games, we should be focusing on the play of the games – what did our child do well, what was amusing, what was exciting? If we do that, we’ll probably live longer and without a criminal record.