How To Not Be 'That Parent': Chilling Out On The Sideline

I don't remember much about playing elementary school basketball now, 30 years later. I know we were the Cobras. I know we wore green hand-me-down uniforms that smelled funky.

I don't remember my coach's name, or most of my teammates. I don't remember what they taught me about layups or zone defense vs. man-to-man.

I do remember two things with perfect clarity. One: We sucked. And two: I remember the rides home from the games. Twenty minutes in my mom's Pontiac station wagon, my sweaty 10-year-old self fogging up the glass while my parents kindly explained, in great detail, everything I'd done wrong. I dug my fingernails into my palms and bit my cheek while they talked.

The rides home were worse than losing.

My parents were not pushy or overly critical. As North Carolinians, they had watched and played a ton of basketball, and they thought I needed their advice. All at once. At the same time. In a car, when I couldn't get away.

I quit basketball after elementary school. Meanwhile, soccer made me feel like flying. Like the fastest, toughest chick on the planet, barreling over anyone in my way. For years, I thought my aggressiveness and competitiveness just helped me perform better at a more physical sport.

But recently, my experience with my 8-year-old son's soccer practices provided me with an epiphany, the real reason I played soccer with joy and abandon and played basketball through gritted teeth.

My parents didn't know jack about soccer.

My post-soccer game conversations with them went like this: "Did you have fun? Good!" They trusted my coach to tell me how to play my position and improve. They stayed out of it, mostly because they didn't know what else to say.

I know this now, only because I wasn't staying out of it when it came to my son playing. I was that parent, the one patrolling the sidelines -- even at practices -- barking orders and instructions at him. In the car later I'd talk about what he could do better, until he squirmed and said, "Can we please not talk anymore?"

Sound familiar? I know a lot of us have this same impulse, and it's only gotten worse in this age of over-involved parenting. At least our moms and dads dropped us off at practice and left. Now, as parents ourselves, we bring lawn chairs and drinks and camp out to watch. Youth sports start at early ages now -- 4 and sometimes 3 years old. Maybe that makes us feel like we have to be there, helping and cajoling. A 4-year-old's soccer practice is a chaotic zoo. Maybe, as some experts now believe, it's chaotic because they're not ready.

My son is what is kindly called "spirited." What's going on in his creative, churning brain is more important to him than what you have to say. He participates in practices when and how he wants -- and sometimes that means leading a rebellion of kids who want to play their own games.

I swear, I was only trying to help when I'd shout "Focus!" from the sidelines while his team trained. "Listen to your coach! Stop that! Pay attention!"

This fall, he started practicing with a competitive soccer team. Expectations were low. Of course he wasn't ready for the travel team, but I wanted him to learn. To train. To listen. To try.

And so, I shouted at him.

Finally, one of the coaches talked to me after a practice. "I know he's a handful," she said. "But it would be easier for me if you would just step back and let me handle him. And keep it positive. Everything you say to him about practice should be positive."

Translated from positive-speak, she said, "Lady, sit down and shut up."

So, I did. From then on, I parked away from the field, so I could see but not hear. I brought a laptop to do work. I built sandcastles in the dirt with my 4-year-old. I shut up.

Without me, he learned and listened. He felt confident and happy. He looked forward to practice. I had been the problem, not him.

Many of you have already learned this lesson, or are some of those Zen people I envy who already knew. But for the rest of us, we sideline patrollers, game dissectors and shouters, let me impart my hard-learned wisdom: Sit down. Shut up. Let your kids control the ride home.

Repeat after me: "Did you have fun? Good!"

Angela Moore Atkins teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi. Her work has appeared in the Tampa Bay Times and Garden & Gun.