Changing Perspectives Blog
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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.
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