Recently, video surfaced of a physical fight that broke out between parents at a baseball game for 7-year-old children in Colorado. The cause of the fighting? Parents of the players disagreed with the 13-year-old umpire’s decisions. As video of the incident circulated over social media and even national news outlets, many people appear to be shocked that adults would display such terrible (and illegal) behavior over kids playing a youth sport.
I’m not shocked. Not even a little. As the parent of a 13-year-old baseball player, I have spent years watching the antics of parents at youth sporting events. Although I’ve never seen a full on brawl between the adults, I have seen parents, coaches, and even grandparents be ejected from games for heckling and arguing with child and volunteer umpires and referees. I’ve seen adults have to step between coaches and parents before fists started to fly. I’ve seen people’s cars get keyed by other parents over disputes that happened between their kids on the field. I’ve seen parents encourage their 8-year-old child to “get back” at another player by trying to deliberately hurt them. I’ve seen friendships and entire youth sports volunteer boards be torn apart because of disagreements about a game.
So, when I see video of parents resorting to violence, I’m not even a little surprised. Bad behavior from adults is one of the primary reasons why my son will never ump a baseball game without one of his parents there — just in case the adults lose sight of the fact that they should be acting like adults.
What is the cause of such behavior from adults? Perhaps it is all the stuff lurking beneath the surface. Maybe it’s the murmurs on the sidelines, the passive aggressive posts on social media, or the tendency of adults to try to pull the kids into their adult drama that creates this pressure cooker environment. Eventually all of this build-up leads to total chaos from the adults involved with youth sports.
In short, adults simply are forgetting to be adults. Just last week while I cheered on my 13-year-old son’s flag football team, the mom standing beside me called the coach (my husband) the “R” word. Yes, the “R” word. Her friends standing with her quickly leaned in towards her, whispering and motioning towards me, clearly encouraging her to be quiet as the coach’s wife was standing within ear shot. “Oh I know. I don’t care,” she said in response. Nice. Her son is good friends with my son and she and I are Facebook “friends.” Had I not been able to have the wherewithal to take some deep breaths, find a way to have compassion for her lack of understanding, and excuse her poor choice of words, people would have seen a very ugly version of myself.
A few days later, I sat in a restaurant for a birthday dinner with friends and suddenly the party went to shambles as another adult approached our table and began arguing with one of the party-goers. Restaurant patrons turned to stare, members of our party left abruptly, and I wouldn't have been surprised if fists had started to fly. What were they arguing about? What else? Youth sports. In a restaurant. At a dinner party.
The truth of the matter is, I’ve been in the shoes of these adults that lose their cool. I’ve stood on the sidelines and wondered why my kids weren’t playing as much as others. I’ve seen coaches favor their own kids and restrict kids from playing as a way to get back at them for something unrelated to the game. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve asked questions. I’ve had strong feelings towards coaches and other parents. I’ve wanted to approach other parents and coaches in public and tell them what I really think of them. But, I don’t. I’ve never stood on the sidelines and loudly called someone the R word. I’ve never been kicked out of the stands. I’ve never resorted to physical violence.
It’s hard in times like these to not just pull my kids out of every sport and move on with our life. But, the kids love it. At the end of the day, they don’t care much about bad calls or playing time or winning and losing. They don’t care about taking sides in a town-wide battle between parents who disagree about a selection of a coach. They just want to have fun. They just want to be kids.
If we look hard, beyond the headlines of brawls at youth sporting events, beyond the passive aggressive social media posts, beyond the sideline comments, we can still see the heart of youth sports. Despite all the drama perpetuated by parents, at the core, youth sports are still a magical thing.
During this same week as the baseball game brawl, sideline “R” word, and the restaurant argument, I also bore witness to some pretty amazing moments. An 11-year-old fell into the end zone to catch a game-winning touchdown pass and ran over to the stands, huge smile on his face, shouting “Mom!!!! Did you see that??? I caught it!! We won!!” It was pure joy for that little boy, his mother, and his entire team. Even the adults cheering for the other team were smiling back at the boy.
I also witnessed a 13-year-old baseball player who had been having strike out after strike out the past few weeks finally hit a bomb to left field that drew every parent and kid to their feet and resulted in another huge smile from a child, his parents, his teammates, and the adults around him.
I read a story about a baseball team, umpire, and coaches who decided to let a pitcher with a broken leg enter an inning for one batter to be able to say he played in a very important game.
My own son, who has been restricted from throwing for the past 8 months due to an injury, finally got the clearance to start a return to throwing program and was able to warm up the right fielder before this weekend’s games. A small step, but huge for him. Even the adults around him made note and congratulated him. They knew how big of a deal it was for him and for his team that he was able to begin returning to the game he loves.
I witnessed friendships being formed and strengthened on the sidelines between parents. I witnessed volunteers giving up their nights to run scoreboards for championship little league games and announce players names over the speaker.
I witnessed childhood happening all around me and it was truly spectacular.
These moments, the ones filled with pure joy and heart, not the moments filled with drama, are the ones that define youth sports. These are the moments that deserve to be circulated on social media and the evening news. These are the stories that matter. These are the stories that prove that we have not lost at youth sports, after all. The magic is still there. Sometimes we just have to look a little harder for it.
Football has been on my mind a lot lately. Perhaps it's because I just binge-watched Last Chance U. Or, perhaps it's because I am currently working my way through Friday Night Tykes. Maybe it's because my family spends most of our afternoons on the football field. It could be because my husband has now become a head coach for the youngest youth football team in our town. It could even be because I have joined my first Fantasy Football league (and I'm winning!). Whatever the reason, Kenny Chesney's "Boys of Fall" is the soundtrack to my life these days.
When I was in high school, sitting in the football stadium stands playing "Carry On My Wayward Son" on my trombone with the rest of the high school marching band (I was SUPER cool), I remember thinking that football was violent and never ever pictured myself being a football parent. In fact, when my oldest son was 6 years old and started asking about playing football, my initial and frequent response was "absolutely not!!" I recall thinking that it was too rough, too unnecessary and far too much of a commitment from me and for him. I was a solid "no."
But, he was determined to play and one year later, after I had done lots of research and talked to some of the local youth football coaches, I decided to let him try it. After all, in that year since I had said no to football, I had witnessed some pretty serious injuries in his little league baseball division. I convinced myself that on some level football might be safer since my child would be fully padded and always in a helmet with a face shield. Plus, I am also firmly against children specializing in just one sport at this young age and much of the research backs my stance.
I sat, in horror, through those first few weeks of football practice as children ran laps and worked out, sometimes until they puked because they had eaten too close to practice, often through tears and while coaches yelled at them. "What the hell did I sign my son up for?"
My son asked me if he could quit football after just two weeks. While a big part of me wanted to take his little hand and march him back to my car, leaving his stinky football equipment on the field, a voice inside me told me that I couldn't let him quit. He needed to stick it out and see what a game was like before he walked away. I didn't want him to have any regrets and I was convinced that he would be completely done with football after one game. So, he continued on and was one of the children selected to dress (but probably not play) for the first varsity game - a home game.
That first game day was almost magical. The sun was bright and hot, a perfect New England September day. The music pumped throughout the stadium and my son got to hear his name announced over the loud speaker at his high school's football stadium as he ran through streamers held by cheerleaders. Although I cannot recall for sure, I am fairly certain that I cried. After all, I cry a lot - especially when I am proud of my children. I was proud of him and his teammates. They had made a commitment to each other and to themselves. Even though he didn't play much that game, he was hooked and he never ever asked to quit football again.
That season, our family's inaugural football season, was perfect. My son, my quiet, insecure and timid son was changing before my eyes. He was becoming more confident, more assertive and more hopeful. I suddenly understood what sculptors like Michelangelo must have felt as they began to see their works of art being carved from blocks of marble. My son was being chiseled into an amazing version of himself, a version I had always known was inside and I had football to thank for the transformation.
Our second season of football was a bit different and after two games my son cried again - not because he didn't like the game but because he felt "invisible" "not good enough." We talked about it as a family and he decided that the best thing to do would be to talk to the coach and find out how he could get better, how he could get more playing time. I watched him have that brief but terrifying conversation and I teared up again (see? I cry. A lot). I knew many adults, including myself, who were too afraid to approach an authority figure and ask for such feedback. But, he did it and things began to change. He ended the season a starting varsity player and truly became him that season. I saw football's lasting impact on his school work, his friendships and in his other sports.
So, when our youngest son became old enough to sign up for football, I didn't hesitate. He knew what he was signing up for - he had just watched his brother play two full seasons. Of course, the transition into the practices and conditioning was difficult for him but he never asked to quit. Just three plays into his very first football game, he scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak play. I suspect that moment will be one of the moments that sticks in the photo album of his childhood in his mind - one of those moments he'll tell his own children about someday. He beamed coming off the field and couldn't wait to talk to his big brother about it. It should come as no surprise that I cried then too :)
But, in the back of my mind, I hear a voice of doubt. "What if they get hurt?" "What about a concussion?" "Is it too much for them at such a young age?" Then I watch shows like Last Chance U and Friday Night Tykes and have moments of disgust as I watch those coaches swearing at and belittling other football players. Is this what my children have to look forward to? Each season I watch as new children join our football teams and I see the same sheer panic overcome their parents' faces as their child takes their first tackle or stays on the ground longer than the other children and they feel the "Oh my God! He's hurt?!" feeling that sends a parent's heart into the pit of your stomach.
If I'm being honest, I have that same level of panic every time I watch my boys ride off on their bikes or walk along a busy street or rough house on a playground or do almost any of the crazy things boys their age do. I have that same fear when I drop them off at school and have to push back the worry that something bad could happen there too. I feel the same dread when we are in a large public gathering. What if??
But, then I arrive at game day and Kenny's words ring in my head and I remember that I cannot let fear dictate or direct my life. When people ask me "Why football?" my reply is always the same. I cannot wrap my children in a bubble (even though I really wish Amazon Prime would sell one). My children love the game of football. They love creating these memories with their friends. They beam with pride when their lap pace increases, they score a touchdown, have a great block on the line or make a key tackle. Football has helped my children gain confidence and identify their limits in ways other sports have not. It has helped them build character and forge lifelong friendships. It has created change in them that could not have been done with just my parenting alone. It unifies my family in the fall and allows us a shared experience. More importantly though, football is just one piece of our life. In addition to being football players, my boys are baseball players, musicians, basketball players, compassionate friends, academically bright, insightful, creative, funny and great with animals.
At this point in my children's lives, the positive benefits of youth football outweigh the risk of negatives. They even outweigh the nasty, smelly football pads that stink up my car after practices and games. And no matter what time of year it is or how far my boys go with football, on some level they will always be Boys of Fall and I will always be a Mom of Fall.
Recently a friend from high school invited me out and I found myself having to decline: "It's July. I'm pretty much at the baseball field all month."
If you had told the high school version of me that this would be my life in 2016, I would have laughed at you. (Let's be real, the 2012 version of me would have laughed at you too.) But, it is my life and the baseball field is where I spend most of my free time during July. It's also where I spent a lot of my time during March, April, May and June. That is, of course, except when I was at the flag football fields. Once August rolls around, my new hang out becomes the football field until November. During the winter months, it all slows down and our schedule is free. Just kidding. It's basketball season.
Many parents of school age children can probably relate to my schedule. When my boys were younger I looked ahead to these years with dread and felt sorry for the parents who seemed to spend all their free time watching their children play sports. I'd drive by the football field and think, "Those poor parents!" I was wrong. I feel lucky, blessed and deeply appreciative to be able to spend so much time on the sidelines watching my babies grow and develop into young men; young men with goals, drive, confidence and true, lasting friendships.
My boys get a lot out of their busy sports schedules but so do I. Being a sports mom continues to teach me new lessons every day, many of which are applicable to all other aspects of life: things like learning how and when to bite my tongue (because no one wants to get ejected from their child's game by an ump), how to pack a bag that is prepared for anything, how to clean grass stains from white baseball pants, how to deodorize football pads and how to cram an insane amount of sports equipment and coolers into a tiny Toyota Prius. You know what else I get? A Mom Squad.
Some of you may think that a Mom Squad is a group of 40-something moms driving around town in mini-vans looking for children to scold. While this isn't something I would put past my Mom Squad, it's not an accurate description. A Mom Squad is the group of moms (and Dads too!) that sit at your child's games day after day, night after night, weekend after weekend. You can find them in their fold up chairs along the ball field, beside their child's dugout, under portable pop-up tents and seated on back-protecting fold up cushion seats on the basketball court bleachers. They almost always have large tote bags with them; filled with everything from snacks to extra cups (not the kind you drink out of - the other kind) to medicine to ice packs to cooling towels to extra clothes to a bowl that was left at the last team get-together. They can coordinate a team meal in a matter of minutes and can re-hydrate and cool off 12 children like a team of professionals.
Clearly the Mom Squad comes in handy, right? Isn't that cute? Yes. It really is. But, a Mom Squad is so much more than handy and cute, my various Mom Squads over the past few years have taught me some pretty invaluable life lessons. Before I get to the list, let me first acknowledge the rampant sexism and gender bias contained within this post. I mean no offense by any of it and am deeply grateful to the sideline Dads and the sports moms who know far more than I do about the world of sports. Onto the list:
1. THE VALUE OF SUPPORT
Moms in the Mom Squad don't cheer only for their child. They cheer for everyone's child - even children on the opposing team. They know what to say to encourage my child behind the plate, in the field, on the mound, on the line of scrimmage and at the foul line. They know when he is down and needs support. They know when he needs to hear silence. They get him. They are my surrogates when I am not at games, texting me scores and play updates and providing color detail like "he's smiling soo big after that hit!" Their support is not just for my son but for my entire family and I had no idea how important it would be to have such support in my family's life.
2. THERE IS CRYING IN BASEBALL (and football and basketball...)
Despite what Tom Hanks may say, there IS crying in baseball. Sometimes there is lots of crying - both from the kids and the parents. The Mom Squad is there to hand out tissues, give hugs, provide words of encouragement and, if needed, whisk you away behind a car so you can cry without your child seeing it.
3. LAUGHTER MAKES IT BETTER
Let's face it, some of these games can be long. Sometimes there are double-headers. Sometimes we travel long distances. Sometimes our boys get very very smelly. Sometimes our team just can't catch a break and we have a win-less season. The Mom Squad can find a way to laugh together and make everything a little easier.
4. SOMETIMES SILENCE IS GOLDEN
Sometimes we just don't feel like crying, laughing or talking. Sometimes we just want to show up at the game in our ugly sweats, hair in a messy bun and not talk to anyone. You know what? It's ok. The Mom Squad is there to give you space without judgement or pressure. They get it. They've been there.
5. BEST PLACES FOR POST-GAME DINNERS
If you want to know the restaurant with the cheapest kid's meal options, shortest wait times or most flexible check-splitting policies, ask your nearest Mom Squad. They know it all!
6. HOW TO GIVE SOME KICK ASS CHEERS
A few years ago the only way I knew how to cheer from the sidelines was to meekly clap and yell "Yay!" and "Go!" Now I've got a whole slew of cheers and phrases to yell. I also know how and when to institute things like the wave and changing seats to help our boys rally. I've also learned when NOT to yell (maybe I learned that from the coaches...).
7. THE RULES OF SPORTS
The Mom Squad is where you can go to ask the ever important sideline questions like "What's that mean?" "Why is he out?" "Why is the game over?" Together you try to crack the signals from the coaches and learn the signs from the umps and refs. Watching each other learn a rule or sports concept that is new to us is exciting! You know what's even more exciting? Figuring out the score without a score board and being correct!
8. THE BEAUTY OF TOURNAMENT VACATIONS
Summer baseball means weekends of baseball tournaments. Mom Squads know how to find and suggest destination tournaments which will require a weekend away with other baseball families. The coaches LOVE it! (<---insert sarcasm there)
9. FAMILY ISN'T ALWAYS BLOOD
So many of the women I have met at the ball field have become my family. My sisters. Aunts to my children. Their children have become brothers and sisters to my children. They are the people that we invite to our house even when our house is a messy disaster. They are the people that we let see the real us. They are our family.
10. HOW TO EMBRACE THE NOW
Someone recently told me that children are gifts that we can only keep for 18 years and after 9 years, we are halfway through our time with them. She was right. Childhood is short. So so short. Someday my sons will beg me to avoid their practices, not sit so close to their game and not cheer so loudly for him. So, for now, me and the rest of the Mom Squads out there will continue to spend our free time watching our babies grow into young men before our eyes. All of the rest of the stuff can wait. We are going to embrace the now.
About Changing Perspectives
I often find myself encouraging people to consider changing their perspective or reframe the way in which they view things. This blog is an extension of that practice and is also an opportunity for me to write from a number of different perspectives including clinician, educator, mother, friend and supervisor. Blog topics are also quite varied and changeable. Topics explored include, but are certainly not limited to, grief, parenting, health and wellness and relationships. Join me and explore a number of changing perspectives!