Thursday, August 11, 2011

Field of Dreams

*Written for the August/September issue of Robious Corrior Magazine

The start of the school year is just around the corner.  We’ll head to the store to buy mountains of school supplies trailing our children who will bear a look of pitiful resignation: the summer is almost over.  However, many will take to the fields for the ritual of Friday Night Lights.  I love high school sports.  It’s a joy to see athletes who have graduated beyond the ankle biter juice box leagues, flinging themselves around the field of play, passionate about sport, really getting it. However, there is always the few who wreck it for the many, who exhibit bad behavior and ruin it for everyone else.  And it’s coming from the bleachers: “REF!  ARE YOU BLIND???? THAT’S A BLATANT FOUL!!!!!”  Yes, I’m talking about the parents.  Not all parents, just the nutty few.  You know the kind I’m talking about: they are pillars of society, hold good jobs, keep their lawns neat, help elderly ladies cross the street.  Put them anywhere near a place where their child is locked in athletic combat and they morph into a seething mass of screaming irrationality.   They know their children’s sports stats thin-sliced to the nth factor, but ask them the name of their son or daughter’s math teacher and they look at you like you’re speaking in Aramaic.  The cautionary tales abound of over-the-top sports parents – their patron saint is Marv Marinovich, who started training his son Todd to be an all-star quarterback at the tender age of one month.  His father wondered how well a kid could be developed if ‘given the perfect environment’.  So he set out to create it forgetting that his grand assumption neglected the very real fact that his kid would eventually have to inhabit a very imperfect world.  I think Todd probably woke up one day and couldn’t even ask himself “what do I want to be when I grow up?”  It was probably more like “WHO do I want to be when I grow up?”  He was just a big grand experiment, an athletic monster to his father’s Dr. Frankenstein.  The kid who was never allowed to have a Ding Dong growing up has spent most of the last 10 years in rehab.  The moral of the story is this: LET YOU KIDS HAVE A DAMN DING-DONG

The truth of the matter is that nothing kills the fun of kids sports like parents.  The remedy is simple: we need to back off and shut up.  Period.  I know whereof I speak:  My name is Monica and I’m a recovering sports parent.  The following are my own stereotypes of over-the-top parents from my years of half-wit, unscientific  and wholly undocumented soccer, football, hockey, figure skating, lacrosse, swimming, tennis, cross-country field research.  Yes, I know: several of the aforementioned sports don’t use fields.  Its allegory, get over it. 

The Early Achiever
It’s a late summer football scrimmage.  Parents are standing along the sidelines chatting, it’s a lovely late afternoon, the sun is just beginning to set.  The air is fragrant with the smell of trampled grass.  If you were to look at the field, you’d see novice football players and 4 coaches trying to coax some form of organized play out of them.  It would – to the untrained eye – look like an exercise in cat herding.  Next to you is a guy dressed in business attire.  He’s shed his suit coat and loosened his tie.  He stands there, unsmiling.  “Look at them.  It’s pathetic.  You’d think those coaches would have prepared them better.  Look – they can’t even run routes.”  You look at him with a mixture of amusement and confusion; you wonder if he’s joking…you say gently, “Yeah, but… the kids are only SIX.”  You hope you see some sense of logic enter the mind of this guy, but NOPE:  you’ve met the Early Achiever.  He (or she) is the guy (or gal) that didn’t make the cut in high school, or made the team but didn’t do anything extraordinary.  He has ‘it’ all figured out.  “It” is the reason why he/she didn’t make the team and usually heavily discounts an absence of natural athletic ability.  And he is still bitter about it.  On any given day his complaints are like a Chinese menu of excuses and the blame will fall squarely on the coaches, the athletic organization, or the mom who organizes the snacks.  This guy may never graduate to full-fledged screaming in the stands because his kid will get sick of the constant grumbling and give up sports for something that will not attract the glare of parental attention, like Accounting.

The Tennis Mom
This sports parent almost exclusively appears on girls’ tennis teams.  They are close cousins to their northern species, The Figure Skating Mom.  They themselves typically belong to tennis clubs and are active participants in the sport.  They are rarely seen out of their own jaunty tennis apparel, and are always well groomed.  They have an overwhelming need to take over the tennis program and turn it into a junior version of the country club.  They have somehow forgotten that parental participation shouldn’t extend beyond the checkbook and minivan.  Some ban their daughter’s boyfriend from attending matches because “it’s distracting”.  Their daughter’s seed on the team is inversely proportional to their mood.  If another girl challenges their daughter for their spot on the ladder, they get so fiercely protective they make Tiger Mothers look like pussycats.  They demand a buffet at each tennis match that typically includes the following list of snacks: “A sweet, a salty, Gatorade, bottled water, sandwiches, 7-layer Mexican dip” which is I believe more food than is needed for all participants in all 27 stages of the Tour de France.  When challenged on the need for a catered affair, they will icily respond “IT’S TRADITION”.  Do not – under any circumstances – reply “So is rampant obesity.”  Jaunty tennis attire is not appropriate wear for a rumble.

The Soccer Mom
Hasn’t this one been done to death?  Yeah, I think so. 

The Lemon
This parent is pretty bitter.  A close relative of the early achiever, this parent’s child somehow manages to stay with the sport.  The child can be gifted or not, a starter or not.  The complaints aren’t usually about the performance of his/her child but about other kids out there, usually those that are better/faster/stronger.  There is an inherent need to chip away at a performance.   The amount of kid-bashing that goes on would make a Child Beauty Pageant Mother proud.  Anything is fair game: their equipment, perceived dedication at practice, performance on game days, their ethnicity, shoe color, parents’ professions, suspected mental defects.  They often accuse other players of cheating.  You can spot these people from afar by simply looking a guy who is surrounded by other parents squirming to get away.  One of my son’s plays the cello, and I tried to imagine a couple of parents engaging in this behavior at an audition.  This is how I imagine it to go:

Parent A: Did you see Billy?
Parent B: Yeah.  You know he’s going to get the first chair, he’s so good.
Parent A: Pfft.  I know, pathetic.  Do you know his private instructor?  NOT EVEN EUROPEAN.
Parent B: Ok, but…
Parent A: And his parents?  They have the orchestra director WRAPPED AROUND THEIR FINGER.  He gets to leave early because of his private lessons.
Parent B: Well, yeah, but the kid is nearly a prodigy, they’re saying “Julliard”
Parent A: With that instrument?  YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.   He doesn’t even have a BELGIAN BRIDGE.
Parent B: Well the music he plays, it’s so beautiful.

You get my drift.

The Thief
When I was growing up, there were these two girls who were incredibly gifted runners.  Ridiculously so.  They were a year apart and were breaking national age-group records in middle school.  Their father was beyond intense.  I mentioned him to my dad a few weeks ago and he replied “He was a monster”.  If the girls didn’t run the time he demanded he was known to hurl empty soda cans at them and scream at the top of his lungs.  I’m not sure if the girls ran out of fear or the need to please but by the time they were seniors in high school these girls who had competed at the national level were washed up, burned out, barely able to win a local meet and rebelling hard against their dictatorial dad.  I competed against these girls and despite their handing me my rump in every single meet, I really felt sorry for them.  I’d see them out on training runs and there was no joy in their face.  They’d be out there pounding the miles with this look of – I don’t know – maybe, uncontained fury.  I always wonder what happened to them.   I couldn’t imagine running with that weight of my parents expectations on my shoulders.   

I used “Mr. G” as an example of the over-the-top parent, and we’ve all seen them out there.  Their kid isn’t necessarily a national caliber athlete – that is wholly immaterial.  What they have in common is that they’ve stolen the dream from their child.  Whatever fun their child had is long gone and has been replaced by the expectation to perform at a certain level for the benefit of the parent.  Somehow the term “extra-curricular activity” is lost in the equation.  They morph from reasonable people to thinking the balance of the earth rests in the outcome of the sporting event.  Their entire ego is wrapped up in it, and if their child (or child’s team) fails, they have failed, they lose too.  They’ve forgotten the meaning of the word ‘spectator’. 

I witnessed perhaps the worst example this at a lacrosse game this past spring when a father was thrown out of the facility for verbally harassing and threatening the referee.  I watched this man – who is probably a pretty reasonable guy – spin up and out of control the further his son’s team fell behind.  His intermittent shouts turned into a full-throttled barrage of insults at perceived missed calls, accusations of favoritism and finally – the coup de grace – threatening bodily harm on the ref.  Finally – after 30 minutes of the screaming (during which a substantial gap opened up between him and the next person) – the ref threw a yellow flag for an offense committed off the field of play.  He motioned for the coach, met him mid-field and said – very loudly – “I want THAT MAN OUT OF THIS FACILITY NOW!”   The father threw his hands up in the air and stomped away before he could be escorted out.  I felt only pity for his son, who was left to finish playing the game.  I wondered how he managed to play with the humiliatingly heavy cloak of his father’s public shame draped squarely on his padded shoulders.  For these people, there is only one cure: DUCT TAPE.

As parents, we need to recognize that our child’s best might not be THE BEST.  And while we may dream of our son or daughter reaching the highest pinnacle of sport, of imagining them standing on the top podium,  belting out the Star Spangled Banner, the camera panning to a shot of you, the weeping parent who drove him 2 HOURS A DAY TO PRACTICE!  WHAT DEDICATION TO THE CHILD!  Cue the sappy music… STOP!!!!  STOP IT RIGHT NOW.  I know, it’s hard, but there is a cure.  Be the ride, the financial sponsor, the reasonable cheerleader.  Let the coaches teach them a bit about life using the field of play as the chalkboard.  Let their teams be THEIR TEAMS; you can cry and cheer for them, not with them, because you are – I’m sorry – an outsider.  Back off, loosen the apron strings, and if you’re sitting on the side lines, for heaven’s sake put away your whistle.  Most importantly recognize your kid’s dream as theirs and theirs alone.  They should have sole dominion over them, they are entitled to it.  And you’ll see that in play – not in sleep as Shakespeare suggests – what dreams may come.

And if you can’t do that, then bring a big roll of duct tape.

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