All too often the focus on youth sports is drawn to the outrageous acts of the parents involved.
There are a multitude of YouTube videos showing dad’s fighting in the stands, mom’s screaming at officials, parent/coaches blowing their tops and assaulting anything in sight. We read stories about rich folk flying their child’s AAU team around the world to compete in tournaments or attend special camps. We see ESPN special’s about the dads and moms convinced their kid is the next Bryce Harper/Jordan Spieth/Serena Williams/Patrick Kane/Alex Morgan/Tom Brady and go way, way, way over the top with these expectations sucking all the fun out of playing a game and having a childhood.
These stories are sadly true and the attitudes and actions of these parents should be condemned and controlled as best a community can. In some cases this means holding youth golf tournaments where parents are not allowed on the course or hockey games before empty stands. Locally, it has been suggested that parents should not be allowed to coach their child’s team or umpire in a league in which their child plays. These actions may, at times, seem necessary but they are also reactionary.
The vast majority of parents involved in youth sports are passionate fans of their children while also being realistic, supportive and loving. We may hope our children go on to Division I scholarships, World Cups or Olympic glory but we’re pretty sure they aren’t. What is important for the 99% of parents who do not appear in BDN articles, YouTube videos or ESPN specials is that their child have fun in a sport they chose to participate in, they try their best no matter what that best may be and learn the fundamental life lessons of teamwork, practice and loving what you do.
The parents I meet at track meets, ice rinks, baseball fields, soccer pitches, swimming pools, and gymnastic barns are there because they love their kids, they love their kid’s friends almost as much, they love to see their kids try and fail and try again and succeed a bit and do something they’ve never done before. They are there to help tie skates and make sure the sunscreen is on. They are there to rejoice in victory and console in defeat knowing that these two are twins and neither will mean much at the ice cream shop in an hour or so.
They show up in dust covered overalls or uncomfortable ties. They show up in work out gear and office casual. They suffer heat and cold and miles and miles of wear on their mini-vans. They are there to cheer, support and protect. Youth sports isn’t all about the kids. Separating parents from children separates parents and children in an activity that otherwise does so much to bring them together.
Personally, I have seen my boys grow not just physically but emotionally and intellectually due, in many ways, to their involvement with youth sports. They have learned how to handle crushing defeat and embrace the joy of victory. They have learned how to fall and how to get up. They have learned that no matter what, their mom and dad will be there for them. I don’t believe in sub-contracting my obligation to my children. They may have coaches other than me or my wife, and they may play sports I don’t understand (see lacrosse) but when Zane or Augi look up in the stands, I want them to see me there. I want them to remember, twenty or thirty years from now that I was there and it was another way of saying, “I love you.”
Maybe this desire stems from my own childhood. My dad wasn’t always the most present of parents in many areas leaving my mom, who worked full time as a nursing professor, to carry the load. Early in my youth sport participation my dad was around a lot. He coached basketball and football and became the president of our Little League organization at one point. And then, somewhere in there, he stopped showing up.
His real estate obligations, among other factors, caused him to be late to pick me up to go to practice or, on several occasions, forget all together. Many a day I’d have to bike to practice, my first baseman’s mitt slung on my handlebars. That wouldn’t have been so bad except our practice field was about five miles away on the other side of the freeway. Usually some other parent tossed my bike in the back of the truck and gave me a lift home as it was getting dark. At games I’d see my mom in the stands and my sister running around with her friends beyond the fence. I’d look for my dad and too many times, he wasn’t there. Eventually, I stopped looking.
I won’t say that his waning interest in my sports activities was the entire cause of my waning interest in sports activities but I’m pretty sure it didn’t help. By the time I got to high school I’d given up on throwing balls and stealing bases, making tackles or hitting jumpers. I did other things and most of our kids will start doing other things too. Some good, some bad.
But here and now, from ages 6-12, these are the golden years. Our kids will never run as free or grow as much and we shouldn’t miss a moment of it. And we should never have to feel guilty for being involved.
Parents drive youth sports. We not only pay the fees and raise the funds, we organize, we volunteer, we walk, we march, we trudge through blizzards. We are the presidents and treasurers and web designers and facebook updaters. We are the equipment managers and public relations teams. We fill the stands, we keep order in the dugout, we put band-aid’s on scraped knees.
Parental involvement is necessary if for no other reason than this. An active, involved parent is the #1 defense against sexual predators. Like wolves and lions and killer whales, sexual predators seek out the isolated, wounded or weak. They seek to gain a child’s need for attention and trust and exploit that need for their own hideous desires. An active parent and parental community, like elephants circling the herd, deters these monsters better than any background check or SafeSport video ever can.
For this reason, and the many others, I will defend parents and parental involvement in all youth sports. I will even defend Jarrod Williams, the Brewer 9-10 yr old softball coach recently arrested at his daughter’s game for allegedly making threats to an umpire. By his own admission, Mr. Williams went beyond acceptable behavior and is remorseful for his actions. I will not defend those actions. I will, however, defend his intentions. He sought to protect his child and his child’s team. He felt an injustice had been done and possible bias was involved. He stepped over the line as a coach and has paid a price for it. But as a parent, his heart was in the right place. He gave of his time, his energy, and his wages to help his daughter and her teammates when so many others could not afford to do so or were simply unwilling.
Youth sports needs parents like Mr. Williams. We need him to keep things in perspective and represent himself, his team and his organization in a more responsible manner but we also need him to be there picking up bats and teaching kids how to hit the cut-off woman.
We need active, involved parents. Parent’s like Ellen White, who has led the push for a sustainable girl’s hockey program in the Greater Bangor Area. Mrs. White, the mother of two girls who run track and play hockey, has faced numerous obstacles the not least of which is bringing together the often competing interests of the Brewer Youth Hockey Witches and the Maine Junior Black Bears. She has engaged the parents of these two organizations as well as the University of Maine Women’s Team in working together to field competitive girl’s teams from age six through high school. She has started with a Sunday skills clinic just for girls at the Penobscot Ice Arena and won’t stop until her daughters and yours have the same opportunities to play as girls down south.
And let us celebrate parents like Jeff Owen, who did so much to bring the Whitewater Nationals to the Pennobscot River, who has engaged his children, Tommy and Katie in the sport and who holds free paddling clinics along the Stillwater to teach the sport to the next generation.
Stories like these are the stories that should be promoted and discussed and given plenty of air-time.
Alas, a mom shuttling one kid to hockey and another to swimming and another to gymnastics aren’t as exciting or easily exploitable as a mom throwing her shoe at a referee. And a dad trying to figure out how to strap his seven-year old into some goalie leg pads isn’t nearly as sensational as one running onto a football field to make a tackle.
The stories of parents going too far should be reported. Their actions should be held up as models of what not to do but let us not forget the 99% who show up every day for all the right reasons.
Let us celebrate the community that keeps our kids running and jumping and skating and skiing and rowing and tumbling and let us teach our kids the right way to be present and helpful at their events. And every now and then, let us buy ourselves an ice cream because we deserve it too.