By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck
I was taking my dog for a walk at a nearby grade school one Saturday morning and I passed a youth soccer game on the field. I knew from the uniforms that one of the teams was a local, competitive club. From the sizes of the boys, I judged them to be around eight years old. I was stunned by the vociferous parents, yelling at the teenage referee about every call, and screaming instructions to the players each time they touched the ball. I kept walking that day. But a few weeks later, on the same route, I encountered the team again. As I approached, there was a huge blow-up from the parents of the local club. It escalated back and forth between both sides. The referee, an older gentleman this time, halted the game and warned the coach that if there was one more outburst, he would clear the sidelines. This time, I couldn’t help myself. I stopped and said something.
I know it was none of my business. I’m not the youth sports police, although as I write that phrase I’m thinking maybe it would be wise if there were such a thing. After the ref threatened to remove the spectators, I paused behind the dad who had just gone ballistic, screaming for a foul. I said, “Do you act like this at every game? What are these kids, eight years old?”
He whirled and asked if I’d seen what just happened, claiming the other kid nearly broke his son’s arm. Two other fathers jumped in and told me to to butt out and keep walking. I stayed there for moment and said I didn’t know how they thought they were helping the kids. The ballistic dad told me to mind my own business, but I got the sense he was a little embarrassed. One of the other fathers began screaming at me to leave, the veins in his temples bulging. Knowing I wasn’t accomplishing anything positive, I shook my head and continued down the sidewalk.
A short while later I heard the whistle blow, signifying the end of the game. As I made the loop back toward my house, the ballistic dad was walking through the parking lot on his way to his car. He was holding a chair that I don’t believe had been used much that morning. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I just had a hunch that he was not a bad guy. That he had gotten too wrapped up in the emotions of the game. I didn’t say anything else to him, but, looking back, I wish had stopped and said this:
“You’re putting so much pressure on these little kids. It’s not supposed to be that important at this age – maybe not ever – unless they’re getting paid to play. When they see you get this angry, this crazy, they’re going to become terrified of the sport. Instead of waking up on a Saturday morning looking forward to the fun game they get to go play, they’ll have a pit in their stomachs, full of nerves, knowing what they’re about to do is so life-and-death important to you. Surely, that’s not what you want.
“Plus, you’re going to be embarrassed when you look back in 10 years. Trust me, I know. I have two kids playing sports in college and two more playing in high school. When they were young, I was intense, sometimes too intense, though hopefully never to this extreme. But in retrospect I feel ashamed about the way I behaved at times when the emotions got the best of me and I forgot what the game was really supposed to be about.”
As I said at the beginning, I’d seen this team before. On the first occasion it was a different dad, and his wife, who were doing the bulk of the screaming and yelling. I heard this particular father shout, “Don’t even think about it!” to the teenage ref who had blown his whistle after a foul. Though I didn’t say anything that day, I did stop and watch for a while. A few minutes later two boys collided and one stayed on the ground. It turns out to have been the angry couple’s child. The coach helped him into a chair on the sideline and the little boy cried, bawled, like a baby. He was still sobbing uncontrollably when I left. If I had to make my amateur diagnosis I’d say he was crying not from physical, but rather, psychological pain. All of the built-up anxiety and frustration along with the overwhelming relief he felt not to be on the field anymore combined and gushed out through his tears. His injury wasn’t inflicted by the opposing player, but instead by the grown-ups who are supposed to have his best interests at heart. For those of us who love youth sports, is there any sadder scene we can imagine?
Brian Gotta is a former professional recreational youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is President of Help Kids Play, a collection of companies whose mission is to further the development and enjoyment of youth sports.