TL;DR summary … It’s their game, not ours. It’s time to find our own wins as parents and stop basing our self-esteem and ego on our child’s sports success.
I think I’ve found a solution. We all need to go watch other kids play. Go take in a youth sporting event for the sheer enjoyment of it. Watch the kids play and have fun. While you’re there, listen to the parents on the sidelines. Let yourself feel their words. We can change youth sports culture, but it's going to take leading by example on the sidelines. We have to find the courage to speak up.
I had an opportunity recently to watch a 12U lacrosse game. It was two random teams from around the community, meeting in what was apparently the “championship” game of this equally random summer youth lacrosse tournament. My son was reffing the game, it was a blue-sky, warm-but-not-too-hot summer day after a long chilly spring, and I stayed to watch and enjoy the afternoon.
Watching that game turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The sideline was tense – palpable, feel-it-in-the-air tension. The game was tied, and this “championship” was on the line. I don’t think there were any physical trophies being handed out, but clearly bragging rights were enough to elevate this game to the historic levels typically reserved for decades-long rivalries of college or professional teams.
Do I begrudge that game meaning something to those players and their coaches? Absolutely not. Sports iscompetition, and when performed at its purist, it is a thing of beauty. We see that in some of the classic matchups in sports history – the respect for the game, the honor in players’ faces to be taking the field in uniform, the respect each has at the end for themselves, their teammates and their opponents, the excitement in the stands amongst the fans, and as Jim McKay would say, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
But the intensity has to be different when we’re talking about youth sports, right? Can we agree that the level of intensity we bring to a historic matchup like Ohio State v. Michigan or Army v. Navy or even a local high school rivalry should be different than the intensity we bring to a 12U “championship” game on a random summer Sunday at a random youth lacrosse tournament?
The parents I heard on the sidelines clearly disagree with me. Or maybe they just don’t realize what they’re doing, how their words and actions are seen and felt by not just me, an unrelated sideline spectator, but their own child, their child’s teammates on the field, their coaches, and their fellow parents beside and behind them.
Maybe they just don’t know.
Maybe they just don’t know that screaming, “You gotta want it, David!” isn’t going to motivate David in that moment. Trust me. David wants it. He wants it more than anything.
Maybe they just don’t know that yelling, “Do something, Ben!” is infuriating to that boy (and let’s remember, these are boys, not men) who is in fact trying his best to do something, hopefully something Ben’s coach has taught him to do.
But that’s just the beginning of what I heard that Sunday.
“Move it, Carson!”
“You gotta be physical, bud!”
“Are they just playing super sucky defense?!”
“Stay with him!”
“Oh, you guys!?”
“Come on, Rob!”
“Get in there, Sam!”
“You gotta play D, Joe!”
“Come on, guys!”
“You’re killing me!”
“Make that pass, Brett!”
“Go around, John!”
“Get in, Billy! Get! In!”
“Get in the game, Sean!!”
“You can’t let people get behind you like that, man”
“Wake up! Wake! Up!”
“Get in front of the ball!”
The players weren’t the only ones taking the heat. The refs were, too, because these parents were not just able to pack snacks and water bottles and get to the right field on time with their kid dressed in a clean uniform – and both cleats! – which is really about our only true responsibilities as a sports parent.
No, these parents were also officials.
“Come on, ref!”
“Dude, what the hell!?”
“Where’s the hold?!”
“What?! How is that possible?!”
“That’s a hold!”
“That’s a push!”
“Slash! That was a slash!”
And when the refs were able to perform to their standards, “Thank God.”
These parents were also able to COACH from the spectators’ sidelines – loudly. There was no way Ben, Joe, Jack, Sean or any of those boys were going to hear their own coaches over the real coaches that day.
“Get back, middies!”
“Mark up, Blue, mark up!”
“Stay on him! Get on him!”
“Middies, mark up!”
“Push him out! Push him OUT!”
“What are you doing?!”
“Take your time!”
“Go! Go! Go!”
“Attack, get down!”
“Take a shot!”
“Jack, ground ball! Ground ball!”
“Box him out! You’ve got to box him out!”
Can you hear them?
You know who else heard them? One player in particular who I watched break on that field. His teammate passed him the ball as the clock wound down and the game-winning shot opportunity was coming near, and he dropped it. Not only did he hear the chorus of “NO!”s coming from his own team’s sidelines, he watched as multiple parents threw their hands up, turned their backs to the field, or covered their eyes from the horror unfolding before them.
That boy’s shoulders fell along with the ball. His head and stick dropped low. Those parents – not his coaches – took him out of the game while the game continued around him.
Think that boy remembered their reaction the next time his teammate passed him the ball? Think that played a part in him missing that second pass, too?
I’d bet money on it.
Were his parents a part of the chorus? Did they speak up, or did they quietly endure the public ridicule of their son? Did their fellow parents’ reactions anger them? Or were they embarrassed, disappointed, or angered by their son’s play? What a question to ask.
He’s 12. He dropped a ball. That’s all. Yet I didn’t hear a single parent say, “That’s ok! Keep going!” And if coaches were saying it, he physically wouldn’t have been able to hear them, let alone mentally.
He. Was. Broken.
Is that what we’re really doing to our kids? Approximately 70% of kids quit sports by the age of 13, reporting that it’s not fun anymore.
I don’t blame them. I don’t want to be yelled at like that, do you? I wonder what the car ride home was like for some of those players, even the ones on the winning team. Was it 40-minutes of critiques, lectures, and you-should-haves? Or was it, “You hungry? Wanna stop for ice cream? Have all your stuff? Water bottle, too?”
I pray there were some love you’s in there. I really do because I drove home sadly thinking there might not be many.
I’ll never forget that game. When I stand on the sidelines of a game now, I'll try my best not to get emotionally invested in what’s happening on the field. I'll try to not say anything critical of their performance or their teams. Not in the moment. Not on the ride home. I’m not perfect, and I know I’ll make mistakes along this youth sports journey but darn it if I’m not going to try.
Prior to this game, I watched two 10U teams play their hearts out. That was fun. I cheered every great pass, each score, any shot a goalie saved, regardless of the team. I got to clap when they were successful and stay blissfully quiet when they weren’t. It didn’t matter.
Maybe that’s what we need to do as parents. We need to switch sides. We need to go watch the other teams play, so we can cheer on those boys and girls who remind us so much of our own and let our kids enjoy their game. Because somewhere along the way, we’ve tried to make it our game, and it never will be. Our time is done. We’re off the field. We are on the sidelines now.
We’ve got to find our own wins and stop basing our self-esteem and ego on our child’s sports success.
I get it. Conversations with parents pretty naturally turn to the kids and what they’re up to. We’re proud of them, and we should be, so we talk about how well they’re doing in school or what thing they tried out for or how well they performed in their last game. When was the last time you bragged about yourself to that sideline parent? Do you tell folks about the big client you landed, the compliment your boss gave you, or that great website you coded?
We brag about our kids instead, and then we somehow as parents feel less-then if our kids aren’t accomplishing the same things as the next.
Is that what escalates the emotion on the sidelines to the level I saw at this game? Were there parents the next morning who woke up to coffee slightly more bitter tasting because their kid’s team “lost” the “championship” game? Wasn’t it enough they played? Hopefully had fun? Learned a life lesson or two? Had some snacks? Shared some laughs and memories with their friends? Got to be kids on a beautiful summer day?
Equally, did those winning-team parents walk into work or swim team practice or the grocery store with a bounce in their step the next morning? Are their lives now changed so dramatically for the better because their son played on the 12U “championship” team of this random little tournament in the middle of Ohio?
When we as parents make it matter so much, we’re taking the experience away from our kids. We’re taking their joy, their sadness, their feelings, good or bad, their life experiences that shape them and help them grow and adopting them as our own.
It’s not our time.
We have to do better. Like the woman who acknowledged to her friend as a little girl left their seating area, “I think we’re being kinda noisy and scary for her.”
Or the husband who implored his wife, “Take a breath.”
Let’s all take a breath. And maybe find the time this summer to go watch a youth sports game just for the fun of it. Lacrosse, baseball, softball, a swim meet. Just go. Not to watch your kid, but to watch all of the kids. Remember what it’s like to be young in the middle of summer, playing with your friends. Observe the parents. Listen and feel.
And then maybe next time when it’s your son or daughter on the field, you’ll be that parent. The one who just enjoys how cute the kid with the too-big helmet was running the wrong way down the field. The one who cheered the speedy kid who cut through the water like glass and the kid who had to fight for every inch of that pool she covered. The one who clapped for the strikes and the home runs, the safes and the outs, the goals and the saves.
Because it’s fun to watch kids being kids, playing a game.
Because it’s fun to be a kid, playing a game.
Because it’s fun to remember being a kid, with all the hopes and dreams and confidence of the innocent and unjaded. When we thought we could do anything.
Let’s not take the experience away from our kids anymore.
Take back the sidelines this summer and lead by example. Will it be easy? No. It sucks to be the one who speaks up and says something. It’s scary and awful in those awkward moments of silence after you do.
But it stops the talk. It works.
And somebody has to stand up for these kids.
Will it be you?