Unsportsmanlike conduct in youth sports
It disgusts me to see parents and coaches (or parent coaches) demonstrating unsportsmanlike conduct by yelling at their kids (and other kids) during youth sports. This is a story about a time when I was performing a football volunteer duty that put me “behind enemy lines” and up close and personal with an uncomfortable situation: coaches swearing, throwing clipboards and towels, and berating kids. Hello? These kids are 12. It’s not the NFL!
However, a couple of recent events have got me thinking about it again.
First of all, after a couple of non-football related injuries (one of which required stitches) made wearing his helmet uncomfortable, my youngest son decided he didn’t want to play football anymore, mid-season. Normally I like my kids to see their commitments through, which is why I insisted they finish their t-ball seasons and if they didn’t want to re-enlist in cub scouts, I wouldn’t make them. Not signing up again is not the same as quitting. However, with football, if your heart isn’t in it, you can get hurt. So, I let him quit, but I made him face the (really nice and understanding) coaches and team and tell them himself. As we were leaving the field, I cried all the way to the car. “What’s wrong, Mom?”
“I don’t know, honey. It’s only a game, right?” But I did know. It was because he wasn’t fulfilling my dreams for him, and I knew how ridiculous that was, and I didn’t want to burden him with it. I just wanted him to be happy.
The other event that triggered the need to tell the untold story is the poor sportsmanship of a football team that my oldest son played against recently. They’re a good football team, no doubt about it. They know it, we know it, everybody knows it. They beat us. By a lot. But were the raucous insults the fans slung at us from the other side really necessary? It’s only a game, people.
Behind enemy lines
The unhappy-ending story is about the time one previous season when I had the opportunity to stand behind “enemy lines” during an afternoon football game.
That day I was “Playcounter: opposing side.” That meant I had to go and hang around with the person counting plays for the other team. Depending on the size of the teams, each of the players on the roster has to have a certain number of plays every game. You can help figure out who’s on the field (if needed) or just verify that the Playcounter is checking off names during every play, except kick return and extra points. The guy I was working with that day had a pretty good system, which was color coded by special teams, offense, and defense, and each of the teams had a mini roster, so if Head Coach called out “Eagle Five” (not the real name), a certain set of players would run out on the field, as listed on the color coded key. Clever.
So, I really didn’t have to do much of anything. I made a little small talk (what number is your son, do your other kids play sports, and so on), but very little, because when you’re hanging around in that situation, not only is small talk unimportant, but also I wanted to be sure I didn’t divulge anything I shouldn’t. I had mentioned to Playcounting Dude that I didn’t think we’d ever played their team before, and he concurred, it was the first time. I asked how their record was. “Four and two.” “Hey, that’s great, I have to confess I don’t know what ours is.” “Three and three,” he informed me. I cringed and actually clamped my hand over my mouth to keep from saying anything else.
I was thinking about the game our team had played the week before, which was a terrible loss, and I hoped the team morale had recovered enough by then. Surely this team had heard about that as well, if they knew our record. They probably knew about all of our plays, too, and which of our players they should double team.
Apparently they did not know.
Things didn’t go as planned
It seemed that they expected to run roughshod all over us. Instead, the opposite happened. We had a few plays that just worked, and we repeated them, and they worked again. And again. I was able to refrain from clapping and cheering the first time, but not so much the second or third or subsequent times. I apologized to Playcounting Dude. He said that’s okay. I replied, “Yeah, I guess if your team did that you’d be cheering, too. You have to admit, it was a great play.” He did have to admit, just as I had acknowledged their good plays, many of which involved their quarterback, who happened to be his son.
It soon became clear to me that what I thought was “only a game” was much more serious to all the coaches from the other team. The coaches began swearing, including Playcounting Dude, though he did apologize. I told him I’d heard those words before. They used up all their time outs in the first half. I had hoped we’d get everyone’s plays in before the half, so I wouldn’t have to go back to that side; it was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. But there were about five guys who still needed plays. So, after the half I went back.
After halftime, and nothing has changed
In no time, the swearing resumed. Then throwing clipboards and towels. Then berating the kids. The kids who still needed plays didn’t want to go in; they were afraid to make a mistake. Boys coming off the field were blaming their teammates. There were three or four coaches waving and yelling and swearing, but I think there was only one actually swearing at the boys.
The last straw for me was when one boy wanted to come off the field because his head hurt and the coach wanted him to stay in and they started swearing at each other – including the F word – and the boy was kicked out of the game, all within five feet of where I was standing. I froze, horrified. Playcounting Dude was seemingly shaken up as well.
“You can check off #4, I told him. He’s out on the field.” This may be the first useful thing I did. I wondered if he felt as helpless as I did.
The exiled boy had pitched his helmet and flung himself face down on the ground next to the bench and was sobbing. Surely it takes a lot for a middle-school-aged boy to cry in front of his team if he doesn’t have a physical injury. Where were that kid’s parents? I wondered. Where were any of the kids parents? There were plenty of other adults standing around behind me: did they think it was okay for the coaches to yell at their kids like that?
My momentary escape
Playcounting Dude asked me if I had any Advil. I told him I did, but I’d left everything on the other side of the field.
“Do you mind getting it?”
“Not at all!” So, I ran back and forth as quickly as I could so as not to miss any plays– perhaps this was the second useful thing I did.
He gave them to the boy on the ground and told him to get a sip of water.
Breathless, I peered at the playcount sheet. Only a couple of kids needed plays. Finally, #4 was in for his last play. I didn’t even bother to wait until it was executed; I signed off on the sheet and wished Playcounting Dude good luck for the rest of the season. As I passed the boy, still lying on the ground, I bent over and told him I hoped he felt better. I don’t know if he heard me or even felt my touch on his shoulder through his pads. I’d like to think this was the third useful thing I did that day, but I don’t know. Should I have done more, said more?
Should I have done more?
I still don’t know the answer to that question.
What I do know is that my kids have never experienced that kind of coaching, thankfully, during any of the seasons they played or within any of the organizations for which they played. If they do, I vow here and now not to stand silently on the sidelines.
I also know that youth sports are supposed to be fun. They are not opportunities for us to have a do-over or live vicariously through our kids. If we are not part of the coaching staff, there is no reason to be yelling advice from the sidelines or bleachers, unless it’s something along the lines of “do your best.”
Furthermore, I know it’s only a game. There will always be another game next week…or next season.