To the parents of the child athlete:
Hey, guys! You know me, I’m one of you! We’ve shared some great times together over the years at the games, the meets, and the awards ceremonies. We’ve shared collective high fives, sported team jerseys, and worked that concession stand like a boss!
I’ve loved every minute of it. There is nothing like hearing the crack of a bat or the whoosh of the winning basket when the one behind the ball is your own child. I have mastered the humble mom smile and how to return the compliment in response to the other parents’ comments on my little superstar. I sit in the bleachers beaming with pride. My mind fast-forwards to years from now, to the high school games, our kids together again on a much bigger field, in front of a much bigger crowd — the scouts, the offers, the opportunities.
I am shaken from this fantasy by the groans of a couple of the parents sitting next to me. One of our star players was just pulled from the game, to give some playing time to a rather uncoordinated teammate.
“Great!” I hear one of the dads grumble. “There goes the game.”
I cringe as I quickly scan the bleachers in hopes that this child’s parents are not within earshot.
I recognize the look on their faces. I know it all too well. I am one of them too. I am also the parent of a “not-so-athletic child” — to put it nicely.
The thing is, he’s a child. There is a considerable amount of developmental variability in regards to athletic ability, and it just so happens that our younger son developed a lot faster and earlier than our older son.
The fact that our older son lags behind his peers puts him at greater risk for giving up on sports before he reaches his full athletic potential. He may become frustrated with himself, or worse, his coach, his teammates, or even their parents will become frustrated with him, concluding that he is no good, that he doesn’t deserve the time out on the field, or that he is a hindrance to the team.
Watching one of his games is a much different experience than watching our younger son’s games. We watch most of the game being played by his teammates while he sits patiently on the bench. When he is called to play, we hold our breath, hands clasped together, praying that his short time on the field goes smoothly.
At a recent soccer game, he was quite a bit behind the rest of the team while the opposing team had control of the ball. One of his teammates gained control and kicked the ball to my son who was wide open and had a huge advantage to get across the field and possibly score. He recognized this opportunity, dribbled down that field, set himself up for the goal, and took a few steps back. He ran full force toward that ball and gave it everything he had. I’d never seen him kick with such passion, such power, as he did that moment.
Unfortunately, he completely missed the ball and landed flat on his back. The rest of the kids ran right past him, and the ball was recovered by the opposing team.
I heard a mother yell, “Oh, come on!”
One of the dads threw his hands up in the air, “You have got to be kidding me!”
My heart hurt for my boy as he stood up and laughed at himself in an awkward, embarrassed kind of way and jumped right back into the game.
That bravery. That resilience. To get up and brush himself off and get right back in there after that — after the obvious disappointment expressed by the crowd of people five times his age. That to me is far more impressive than any home run, or game-winning goal, basket, or touchdown scored by his brother.
The words of those parents stung. This was a game — a children’s game. It’s supposed to be a chance to develop confidence, character, and sportsmanship through teamwork. That’s something I am not willing to deny him, just because he is not as “good” as the rest of the team.
Parents, you may think that it is not your job to help my child build up his self-esteem. Fine. But it is certainly not your place to break it down.
You may argue that this is the problem with kids these days. We have created a generation of entitled children who expect to be rewarded “for just showing up,” who expect playing time “even if they suck,” but I beg to differ. I do believe we have created a generation of entitlement, but it has nothing to do with giving them opportunities to learn or for rewarding their efforts. Efforts should be rewarded. We want to encourage hard work, determination, pushing through, and giving it everything they’ve got — even when they suck.
The real problem is the over-involvement of these parents, the micromanaging of schedules, the clearing of paths to ensure that their child is receiving the best opportunities with the least amount of effort, picking them up when they fall, or worse, creating an environment where it is impossible for them to fall in the first place. It’s investing in the best top-of-the-line equipment, carting them around from activity to activity, standing on the sidelines, groaning when their kid is pulled from the game, and arguing with coaches while insisting that their child is “too good” to be sitting on the bench.
How can these kids learn to be team players when their parents have taught them to throw a fit when they don’t get their way? That the game could not, and should not, go on without them? How can they learn respect when their parents are yelling obscenities from the sidelines, and sometimes at the expense of another child?
Parents of an athletic child, I am one of you, so let’s make a pact. I vote that we let the coaches do their jobs. We let the refs and the umps do their jobs. We support our own children, and their teammates as well, regardless of their performance that day. Let’s teach them to get back up when they fall. And for God’s sake, let’s teach our children that if they ever see another player fall, to reach out a hand and help them back up again.