Trying To Practice Sports Parenting, With The Emphasis On The Latter

Getty Images

Watching the warm-ups of a soccer game on a Saturday afternoon last spring, I was decidedly uncomfortable. And not just because my jeans were sticking to my legs on that unexpectedly warm April day.

After a minute of sizing up the two teams, I could tell my son's team -- let's call them the Stars -- was doomed.

The team, filled with 8-year-old boys who were either fairly new to the sport or hadn't developed far enough in their brief careers to be picked for a more advanced team, played in a rec league in our Denver suburbs. As a whole, the Stars had the skills that you'd expect third-grade boys to have. They could pass when they remembered to look up the field; they could keep the ball in control if they truly concentrated; they stayed in their positions for kickoff, but after 10 seconds, all bets were off. The coach yelled, "Don't bunch up!" easily 40 times a game, and postgame snacks, while not the reason for playing anymore, were definitely still alluring.

As the Stars (jerseys untucked, shorts in every color) casually shot on a dad standing in for a goalie, the other team (full-on uniforms, including tucked-in jerseys with their last names across the top) was doing complicated passing and shooting drills that were clearly well-rehearsed. We're in for a game of Slick versus Sloppy, I thought to myself, and I know who wins these contests.

Plus, only nine players on the Stars showed up, which meant they had just one sub and lots of running up and down a huge field for the next 60 minutes of the hot, hazy day.

I think the score was 3-1 for Slick when one of the Stars players got called for his third handball in as many minutes. "Keep your hands away from the ball!" I heard his mother yell after the final call. Almost immediately, his tears started to flow. He wiped them away as he ran down the field.

An 8-year-old at a rec soccer game was crying. Maybe because he had the bad luck of a ball being fired at his hand and didn't have the reflexes to pull it away. Or maybe because his mom was yelling at him from the sideline about mistakes he made that were already clearly on display.

In a worlds-colliding moment, I'd recently contributed to a sports-parent guidebook, where I crafted nifty phrases like child athlete: emphasis on former word. Always. And sports parent: focus on latter word. No exceptions. I'd done enough research to realize how oddly invested we parents have become in our children's lives, specifically in their sports careers. The trend made me embarrassed personally -- my unchecked and misplaced competitive juices often dribble into my kids' sports -- and concerned overall. The lessons we talk about sports teaching (goal-setting, teamwork, resilience, hard work) seem to be trumped by numbers of goals scored, even if we only tally subconsciously.

In the course of talking to experts, I also was reminded that instructions parents yell from the sideline are usually not heard and are definitely not helpful. I didn't know the mom or her child, though, so I yelled something like, "Let's go, Stars!" to try to shift the momentum, at least on the sideline. (Slick were up 5-2 by now.)

Then the mom started in on the referee, an older woman who was hustling as best she could, her cheeks as red as all the players' faces. "Open your eyes, ref!" and "Call the foul on them too!" I don't know enough about the rules of soccer to rate the ref's performance, but I could tell the mom's comments were impactful enough to make an impression on everybody, including at least seven kids, aged 12 and under, on the sideline. I started to feel twitchy and angry. I get that she was frustrated -- as a Stars parent, the game was painful to watch -- but her behavior was wrong. The other parents were silent. But I couldn't contain myself anymore.

"Your yelling at the ref isn't going to change the game," I said loudly. She was sitting 20 feet away from me, and there were about six people in between us.

"Excuse me?" she said.

I repeated what I'd said, and then went on a small rant about how the ref is human, too, she's doing her best, and what are you teaching the kids around you about respect?

We went back and forth a few times. My words were clunky, and I started regretting my decision to speak up. Finally, another parent on our team said, "This is a rec soccer league for 8-year-olds. Chill out." There was quiet for about 30 seconds. Finally, the other mom said, "You could've come down and talked to me in person."

That idea hadn't hit me until she mentioned it. I felt awful for embarrassing her. So I walked down to where she was sitting and apologized for calling her out, but we kept talking in circles. I became so annoyed at my inability to make my point (or maybe her inability to understand it). I mentioned that she was so intense, she even made her son cry. She insisted his tears were a result of his being irritated at himself. Maybe that was true. I shouldn't have inserted myself into her parenting, but my train of thought, filled with self-righteousness and emotion, was as sloppy as the Stars' passes upfield. Nothing was connecting.

As the kids scarfed their fruit snacks after the game (6-2, Slick), I walked up to her one more time. We introduced ourselves, and then we tried again. I started to explain the sports-parent handbook project and how it shaped my perspective. But really, we just talked over each other. We both ended up teary. When I got into our minivan to drive home, I felt like I had just played my heart out for two full halves -- and tied the game.

I went through the scene over and over in my head the next few days, wondering if I did the right thing. I think so. I did my best to defuse a situation that felt wrong to me, even if my delivery was poor and my words might not have a lasting impact. I put the focus on the latter word of the phrase sports parent, and these days, that's the kind of win that means the most to me.