By: Chad Conat (Media Network of Central Ohio)
Copyright 2013 Mansfield News Journal
All Rights Reserved
Mansfield News Journal (Ohio)
In my son's soccer league, there is a parent who seems to consider every game a World Cup title match.
He stalks the sideline, shouting instruction and criticism to every player on his child's team. Don't dare give up a goal. He'll loudly wonder why you didn't stop that easy shot. I mean, it's because you are almost 8 years old. But, don't tell him. Just play like Tim Howard. Or else.
I occasionally look around during these performances to see if Lionel Messi is on the field. Alas, it's always just groups of first- and second-graders. The biggest trophy is the sports drink and snack after the game. There are no national honors. Everyone plays and most of the kids roll with a turn at goalie. Even the kids who are not quite sure they want to get in front of the ball want to wear the neon jersey.
So, as you might think, the wins and losses are pretty quickly forgotten, except for that happy piece of overcompetitive energy.
My son usually doesn't know who won unless I tell him. Our typical postgame conversations are somewhat like this.
"Dad, I did my best and my team did really well."
"I know. You all played great. Isn't winning games fun?"
"We won? Neat. Can I play Angry Birds when we get home?"
That makes perspective easy to keep.
But it's harder for some. A colleague has a 5-year-old daughter who loved soccer last year at age 4 and showed well. This season in her first game the team was playing "up," competing against a squad a year older, either for competitive reasons or scheduling necessities. Whatever the case, he reports her love for the game all but disappeared when a horde of giant 7-year-old boys came charging downhill, bent on scoring repeatedly on her tiny tyke teammates.
Where just a few months ago she couldn't wait to play soccer, she now dreads it, and may not continue.
Sports are made to be distractions. When people playing the games are still learning the rules, adults need to have enough good sense to make sure the games stay fun. We all know this isn't always the case.
I used to umpire youth baseball games. I did it as a way to have a little extra cash when I was in high school and college. I stopped when I got a real job mostly because it's hard to work in the sports department of a newspaper and umpire in the evenings. As the newspaper was keeping food in my refrigerator, it won.
But, I would have found time on weekends or days off if it hadn't become more of a hardship than it was worth. The older I got, the more I appreciated the fun the kids had playing. It made it worth the $10 or so a game to spend two hours taking fastballs off the shins. But, the more I worked games, the more noticed things I didn't like.
The end for me came on a day with a coach I liked. His team was losing. His 10-year-old son was playing second base. A rather large 12-year-old lefty got every bit of a ground ball and it nearly split the second baseman in half. Because this kid wasn't Brandon Phillips, he ducked and threw his glove in the air. The ball made its way to right field, where it went between the right fielder's legs and to the fence.
The coach responded by berating his son so loudly and viciously the boy started crying. On the field. It was so bad, I purposefully blew a call later in the inning just so I could toss the coach. I finished that season and haven't umpired since.
It's at times when parents put more into youth sports than is rationally acceptable that I try to remind myself of a few things:
- My kid is playing this sport because he likes it. He thinks it is fun. It is teaching him at an early age that sometimes, even our best effort won't mean things turn out perfectly. We occasionally do our best and our team loses 6-0. It's OK, because there is always another day.
- No matter how skilled a kid is or how many camps they've attended, this is still a child. This sport may turn into a passion of theirs for the rest of their lives. They may also decide it was worth trying, but next season they'll pass on it. A sure way to make sure they aren't interested is to act like there are huge implications to every play in every game.
- The outcome of the game is irrelevant. By the time we get home, my son probably won't remember who won. He definitely won't care. So, by the time we get to the car, we stop talking about the game. Want to kill your kid's interest in a sport? Make discussing how they play more important than talking about what interests them.
- By being part of a team, my son is learning how to work with others for a common goal. The kids on his team all have varied skill levels. We have kids whose first experience with soccer was at practice four days before the season opener, kids who look like they were born wearing shin guards and every skill level between. It is a valuable thing to learn that not everyone is good, but everyone has a strength that can help a team.
- By being one of his two biggest fans, I'm helping my son understand that, at his age, sports are just games. Our goals never change. He does his best, he roots for his team when it's his turn to sit out and does what his coach says. As long as he does that, we're happy.
There will be a time to care who wins and loses. That time is a long way off. We always want to try to get better. But, when it's a kid who is just trying to learn a sport, sometimes getting better is remembering not to pick up the soccer ball unless you're the goalie. It can mean doing a throw-in properly or helping a teammate out of a tight spot.
As parents, we should be invested in our kids' lives. In some respects, their interests become our interests. But, let's all agree that sports are supposed to be fun. Our job is to make sure they stay that way.
Chad Conant is a sports copy editor for the Media Network of Central Ohio. He can be reached on email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mnj_fantasy.