I admit to listening in to some conversations. A certain word or phrase will pique my interest, and I find myself straining to hear the discussion. At other times I can’t avoid what others are saying. They sit behind me at soccer games or walk nearby carrying on with loud, clear voices as if they want the world to join their dialog. No matter how I come across these snippets of advice, comments and criticisms, I can’t help but catalog the most memorable of these. Here is a compilation of some of those examples that show the wide swathe of ideas people express before, during and after youth games.
This weekend we traveled to Columbus, Ohio to watch our grandsons compete in several baseball games. They each play on three teams, but don’t ask me which team is which. There’s recreational baseball, travel baseball and Little League. One of these games proved a rich mother lode of comments. At one point, a player was in the batter’s box ready to hit when the coach started shouting, "Move left, left, left!" The player shifted with each "left" to his left. Then the coach said, "That’s right." What followed was a routine worthy of "Who’s on first." The player turned to the coach and said, "No, I’m moving left." To which the coach answered, "That’s right." Totally bewildered, the player began to move to his right thinking somehow he passed through the baseball looking glass and was now in an alternate universe. The coach shouted again, "No, move left!" At this point, the umpire, who had patiently waited through this exchange shouted to the coach, "Make up your mind" having also been confused by the instructions, and then told the pitcher to throw. The poor batter stood there unsure if he was right, left or middle, swung and missed. Then the instruction began again. "Move left!" followed by "That’s right!" It took the assistant coach to clear up the confusion and rectify the miscue by shouting "That’s correct!" Even then, I’m not sure the coach figured out the confusion he had caused.
Walking back to the car after another game, a father with two boys was walking behind us. The game had finished late, around 7 p.m., and the boys were complaining that they were STARVING! They begged and cajoled for dinner at several possible locations, all of which the dad nixed for various reasons. With each denial, the boys got more plaintive and higher pitched. Finally the dad, disgusted with their attitude barked, "Stop whining like 9-year-old girls!" I nearly whipped around to give him a piece of my mind, but didn’t want to embarrass our grandson who had gone ahead to the car. However, I wish parents would understand how comments that denigrate a group of people as somehow weak, stupid, lazy or otherwise inferior to themselves affect the future attitudes of our children. "You throw like a girl," "You sound like an immigrant," "You’re as slow as a fat kid" all buy into stereotypes that give our kids the impression certain groups have traits that prevent them from being amazing. If they begin to approach these groups with these preconceived notions, then they can’t give everyone a fair shake. These seemingly off-handed similes give kids the worry of being seen as the negative side of the "like" statements, not to mention giving them fuel to distrust or dislike certain groups.
Several weeks ago a family sat behind me at a college soccer game. They happened to be a family from our opponents, but that didn’t excuse their constant barrage of criticisms. Every one of our players who went down was accused of "flopping," even the player who had to be taken off the field for stitches in the forehead. Every ref’s call was questionable no matter how obviously egregious the foul. The level of distrust, anger and negativity spewing from this family finally hit its climax when Robbie was taken down from behind with a crack that could be heard 30 feet away. As the ref issued a yellow card to the offending attacker, the father behind me once again shouted, "That was a flop!" Now my son has plenty of faults on the field. He’ll wait until the ref isn’t looking and use extra force to check a player out of bounds he feels has been particularly rough on a teammate. He’ll use whatever means to insure he gets the ball, some of which aren’t legal. But he will not flop. In fact, all his soccer career coaches have been begging him to flop in the box. When Robbie goes down we all know it’s for real. So with a mother’s justification I turned to the father and said, "That’s my son and he doesn’t flop." I know, I know — I preach don’t engage other parents — I admit I’m fallible. But the effect of my comment got this father to be quiet and I hope realize that these types of constant negative comments are not only uncalled for but can be hurtful. I added, "How would you feel if I accused your son of flopping every time he was tackled? Sometimes a tackle is a tackle." I doubt I made a life changing impact on him, but hopefully each time he opens his mouth to shout his poison, he’ll think a bit on my response.
This example also makes the point that eavesdropping works both ways. When we make comments on the sidelines we have to remember that the families of these players are sitting or standing there. Saying something that they can overhear can be hurtful. I’m in an unusual position because I’m Scottish and Irish and my sons are African American, so people often don’t know they are commenting on my child. But that’s the point: you never know who’s in earshot of your comments. It could be grandparents, parents, siblings or friends. If I hear parents making some negative comment about a player’s ability with that child’s relatives right there, I’ll do the finger over the lips or even the slashing move across the neck to warn the speaker. It doesn’t always work. It’s worth remembering to be careful with our observations around people.
Sometimes I overhear questions about the game. That’s a sticky situation. Do I let the person know I eavesdropped? I don’t want to embarrass anyone by offering quick answers about soccer strategy or rules, but I also don’t want people to continue to misunderstand the game their child plays. Some of these comments are, "Aren’t they going to that goal down there? Why are they kicking the ball backwards?" or "He wasn’t offside when the ball was kicked" not understanding receiving the ball first after returning from an offside position. Out of bounds is a huge topic of conversation. Recently my brother came to visit and watch Robbie play. He knows nothing about soccer, so I got to see the game through the eyes of a novice. It certainly taught me some patience and tolerance towards those who don’t fully understand the game yet. After all, that was my brother who I love and respect. I should also respect others who are struggling with understanding the game. Those who are new to the game are the ones who will ultimately make soccer grow in this country. I usually try to respond to those who have questions by saying, "I couldn’t help but overhear your question. I think I can explain it if you’d like." Often they take me up on my offer and I even end up engaging them throughout the game talking about some of the more complex rules, the choice for team formations, and strategy. I’m not an expert by any means, but I do have the benefit of watching thousands of games, both those of my children and games on TV. So I have some perspective on the sport.
My favorite eavesdrop experience occurred at a youth football game. I was seated behind the platoon of players waiting to go on the field. The boys were fooling around and doing the usual 6th-grade jabs and non sequiturs. Suddenly one boy shouts, "Hey look at Jaden. You can totally see his butt." All eyes snapped to the field followed by comments like "Oh gross!" Then they realized that the team’s white pants revealed EVERYONE’s rear end. Briefs’ outlines or worse athletic cup straps were out there for all to see. This led to a serious examination of one another’s bums that came close to "Do these pants make me look fat?" The game was totally forgotten. All that mattered was the extent of the revelations and what that meant in terms of the boys’ modesty. Discussions were hot and heavy on whether or not people could see too much — so hot and heavy that the platoon missed that the offense was coming off the field and they were supposed to be charging onto the field. When the coach finally got their attention, they began to complain to him and ask his opinion on how transparent their pants had become. The squad coming off the field got immediately informed of what their teammates had seen which resulted in neck-craning to see for themselves how prominently their anatomy had been revealed. Then, naturally, someone realized that if you could see the rear, you might also see the front! The game was now merely a distraction to the examination of the relative opacity of their outerwear. Each boy had a comment that ranged from "I can’t see anything" to "It’s scary obvious." This discussion lasted until the end of the game, each crew charged with checking out whatever group was on the field. Like a bad episode of "Project Runway," the fashion police were out in force. Interestingly, after the game, the boys asked their dads about the situation, but not their moms, which speaks to the modesty they were now trying to maintain. I didn’t get involved and just observed, not wanting to add further embarrassment. But just watching and hearing the scene in front of me was entertaining enough.
What we overhear or say to be overheard can be hurtful, curious or humorous. We know we shouldn’t eavesdrop, but should try to maintain the privacy of the speakers. But we’re human, and when a comment makes an impression, it’s difficult to avoid listening in. There are gems of discovery out there that may justify our aural intrusion and there are teachable moments that eavesdropping offers. Out in the wide open of a sporting event or even the intimacy of a restaurant, it’s nearly impossible not to overhear other people’s conversations ranging from the young man in the theatre who informed his date that he would never use his soda can as a urinal to the child at the museum who told his mom as they gazed on a Picasso portrait that she was "much prettier than that." Unfettered conversation gives us great insight into our world. I plan to stay tuned in.