by Amy Tiemann PhD
Athletic competition gives us an important window into American society. Whether it takes place on a tennis court, soccer field, track and field, in a swimming pool, hockey rink, baseball diamond, or football stadium, many Americans are sports-crazed society. Living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I see every day how our powerhouse college basketball team, the pride of UNC, shapes important aspects of the University of North Carolina, the town of Chapel Hill, and even our state’s laws and public policy.
Behind the money and glory, at the heart of these endeavors are kids playing sports. Even the college basketball players are unpaid student athletes, unless and until they become one of the select few who make the leap to professional basketball, or endorsement deals. But rather than focus on big-time college sports and the money that is being made by the NCAA, the media and others, let’s start by going back to the beginning to examine the social, emotional and safety goals that adults should value for younger kids playing sports.
It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of winning, and agony of losing, but we encourage every parent, coach and spectator to think about the right set of goals for the kids who are playing. I hope we can all agree that at the heart of the matter, we want kids in sports to have fun, to grow as people, to get good exercise, and to learn to work as a team in team sports, and have a healthy relationship with coaches in all sports. Competition is a part of most sports, but there are real dangers of a “winning at all costs” mentality. This is ultimately not good for the minds, bodies and spirits of young athletes.
Often, adult ego gets in the way. It is all too easy to project our adult hopes and dreams and even our own identity onto our kids. This is not healthy. I have two examples from my own experience as a student athlete that stick with me years later, one by my own well-meaning father, the other by parents who really got out of hand. In high school and college I was a Varsity women’s lacrosse goalie, and back in the 1980’s the game was played without well-defined boundaries on the sidelines. As long as the play was basically in-bounds, and headed in the right direction back onto the field, referees would let the athletes roam fairly freely. There were not distinct “out-of bounds” lines marked on the field. When I was in high school, my father really enjoyed taking photographs of me playing goalie, and without a strong boundary to keep him in the right place, he would walk way too far onto the field in his quest to get a better picture. This was extremely embarrassing and distracting to me as I would try to basically shoo him off the field, as the play would rapidly move back toward my goal. Years later this feels like a perfect example of a well-meaning parent making the game too much about his needs and not the needs of the athletes on the field. He was overstepping both the boundaries of the game, and my emotions as his child. I could not keep my head in the game with him running onto the field of play! Being a goalie is as much about psychology and strategy as it is having quick physical reaction times. Having to worry about my dad intrusively take photos hurt both my performance and my enjoyment of the game.
As kids get older, developing into teenagers and young adults, one of the biggest jobs of a parent is to allow a natural separation to occur. We can love our children as much as ever, but as they get older it is increasingly true that their needs are both separate and different from our needs. The closer parents and kids are, the more painful this process can feel, but as adults, it is our job to mindfully let it happen and even encourage it. Watching our kids play sports definitely offers an example to practice the ways that can we stay in a healthy place on the sidelines and cheer, without making the game about us adults.
However, even on the sidelines, things can get out of control. My second negative experience as a student athlete was created by overbearing parent-fans gone wild. When I played college lacrosse, two fathers of my teammates insisted on making our games all about them. These men would make disparaging comments about the referees’ calls, and loud running commentary about what was going on in the game. It was extremely embarrassing and really shamed our whole team that our “biggest fans” would act this way. They became a larger-than-life presence at both our home games and many of our away games. As I recall, their daughters hated their behavior, but did not know how to make them stop. To make matters worse, these men gave large financial donations to fund the team, creating a situation where even our professional coaches felt hindered to say anything to these powerful, “generous” donors. These fathers turned the spotlight on themselves and basked in negative attention over the objection of everyone else involved. Years later, I don’t even distinctly remember the resolution to this situation. I think the higher-up male leaders in the university athletic department had to get involved and tell these fathers to cut it out or they would not be allowed to attend games. But what I remember most is the appalling behavior these parents displayed.
Fortunately, in recent years, coaches and leagues have made efforts to reclaim healthier, realistic values for kids in sports and have found new ways to communicate and set boundaries. I love this brilliant sign from the Buffalo Grove Park District:
This is a game being played by children.
• If they win or lose every game of the season, it will not impact what college they attend or their future income potential.
• Of the hundreds of thousands of children who have ever played youth sports in Buffalo Grove, very few have ever gone on to play professionally. It is highly unlikely that any college recruiters or professional scouts are watching these games; so let’s keep it all about having fun and being pressure-free.
• Imagine how you would feel if you saw a parent or coach from the opposing team cheering for you child when they made a great play. Then envision what kind of person you would think they are for doing that. You can be that person.
• Referees, umpires and officials are human and make mistakes, just like players, coaches and you. No one shouts at you in front of other people when you make a mistake, so please don’t yell at them. We do not have video replay; so, we will go with their calls.
• The only reason children want to play sports is because it is fun. Please don’t let the behavior of adults ruin the fun.
BUFFALO GROVE [IL] PARK DISTRICT
This sign spells out values, helps keep everything in perspective, and importantly, sets ground rules that can be referred to if a parent’s behavior goes off the rails. And, we can hope that other members of the parent community would feel empowered to say, “Chill out, let’s remember that we are here to support our kids, and it’s only a game.”