I was recently having a conversation with a parent of small children who is a former youth basketball assistant coach after we shared laughably similar experiences from two different locations around the same time. We were discussing what we observed after being sit-in witnesses at elementary school-aged recreation basketball games; he from the scorer’s table and me from the bleachers.
Now, let me preface this by saying I am actually not a parent. I am an uncle, a former youth basketball coach (lead and assistant), a former sports camp and youth enrichment summer camp counselor, former full-time classroom personnel for a northern VA public school system and an elementary school classroom volunteer. Despite my experience with the youth, the typical paper shield response to me having an opinion on anything related to children is “You wouldn’t understand – you don’t have kids.” Yes, the old “how can you coach the game if you’ve never played it?” (There’s some solid foreshadowing and irony there in case you’re eager to highlight something). Somehow this implication shows up with this topic in a way that it never does anywhere else – that a prerequisite of having an opinion is a first-person perspective. Luckily, the person whom I was having this exchange with spared me.
I listened to the stories of how this scorekeeper had to deescalate and mediate situations between opposing coaches of these little kid hoops teams EVERY SATURDAY because the coaches would have confrontations and nearly erupt to the point of altercation. I listened to him tell me how he would voluntarily gauge the temperature of the opposing sides and even watch the non-verbals to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. I heard about his concerns of fans seemingly ready to go at it in the bleachers weekly with the most recent week being the worst he had seen it. Yes, this was a real thing at elementary school-age sporting events!
I offered up my own bits. I talked about people fussing at refs strictly from bias with no regard for the actual correct call or rules of the game. I talked about how parents were calling out and shaming specific players on the opposite team for mishaps and jeering as much as cheering. I shared how shocked I was by how some parents appeared as their nervous energy FOR A REGULAR SEASON 5TH GRADER INDOOR BASKETBALL GAME (in a small gym where everything could easily be seen from any seated position in the bleachers) forced them to have to stand or pace (and yell) THE ENTIRE TIME to the point of having to relocate so they wouldn’t obstruct the view of others. There was a husband reeling in his wife for obnoxious rooting, a mother rising up out of her seat to bark at officials even though the game was well out of reach in the favor of her child’s team and a grandmother jumping into a conversation between two little boys she didn’t know just to refute their opinion that an official made a bad call; all things I had seen and shared in our convo. I concluded by explaining how many times I found myself just looking around almost embarrassed at just how crazy parents behaved over grade school rec ball.
I think there is an imbalance that makes for this messy, maniacal fandom that we call “support.” I don’t mean that each of these parents (who, in parenting, do the hardest job in the world in my opinion) has a chemical imbalance that makes them act crazy. No. Instead, I’m referring to a theoretical imbalance of the things that make up our inner fan. Those things are what I would call “the three P’s”: Position, personality and perspective.
POSITION, in this case, refers to your connection to the game and its young athletes. How you feel about the game will likely vary if you are an official, coach, extended family member of a participant or an actual parent of one of the kid’s involved in said sport. A parent views the game through a remarkably biased lens that can jade their assessment of what takes place on the court or field of play. As an uncle, I understand that there is a level of connection that I cannot fully relate to because I do not have children of my own but that also protects me from a level of denial in the case of unfavorable outcomes during youth athletics that parents often times see as anyone else’s fault other than their kid or their teammates and instructors. The referees feel it most, as they pretty much never make a good call in the eyes of half of the on-lookers in each instance. Still, it’s a scapegoat to solely use the parent/child relationship as an excuse for crazy behavior when adults watch their little children compete given one simple fact: Not all parents act so over-the-top. That brings me to my next point.
PERSONALITY naturally dictates how far you might take things when cheering people on in a competitive environment. Some of us are just louder than others by default. Some people are out-spoken, direct, confrontational, hyper-competitive and comfortable drawing attention. Others can be more subdued or even-keeled no matter the intensity level surrounding them. Even though we do have more control over the actions that spawn from them, we don’t choose our temperaments and personalities. For these reasons, our final component is so vital and that one is…
PERSPECTIVE. Given my position and personality, some semblance of perspective is what allows me to often verbally acknowledge the best plays and players on opposing teams in cases where I find myself watching a game that features a child I’m related or connected to and cheering for in any way. (I regularly find myself saying “That kid is good!,” “Nice move!,” or “Good play!” no matter which team it is.) Perspective reminds me that only a fraction of the kids who are involved in athletics in elementary school will remain athletes with each step up in age/grade/competition level. Perspective is knowing that American professional athletes in primary sports are less than 1-percenters and that, while it’s not impossible, your kid isn’t likely to become one (especially given the impact of uncontrollable intangibles like height, injuries and area competition). Perspective is realizing that there is a line that we can cross that separates being supportive and involved from being absurd and out-of-touch.
As spring sports really take off with little people flooding flag football, soccer and baseball fields all across the country, I hope family support is at an all-time high. I hope the joys outweigh the moments of frustration for our young athletes and that they are properly guided towards the balance of competition and fun. Just as much though, I hope that the adults who ultimately control these athletic circuits keep in mind one thing: Youth sports won’t define these children and it certainly shouldn’t define you.