Friday, April 23, 2010

If You Can't Say Anything Nice...

Before my kids were playing any sort of organized sport, I thought I would be the dad who watched, clapped and said the occasional “Good job” at a slightly elevated volume from the sideline. Apparently, my own perception of my ability to keep my cool was over stated.

Instead of being the laid back father who smokes his pipe in the bleachers and says, “Tut, tut,” and, “Bully for you, son,” and waits to discuss the details of the game over celebratory ice cream, I find that I am apparently the dad who inserts himself as an assistant coach when he sees there is a need for extra volunteers. Thus, I end up intentionally clapping louder than originally planned so the players can’t help but notice my enthusiasm and cupping my hands to my mouth as I shout out coachly advice like, “Let’s be ready out there!”

Let me point out that I am being supportive of every kid on the team. Also, while I am louder and more active at my sons’ games than I thought I would be, I’m not a yeller. I firmly believe that parents who yell at their children from the sidelines during sporting events are not helping. They aren’t helping the coach and they certainly aren’t helping the kid.

By yelling, I don’t mean “C’mon Johnny, you can do it!” or “Get a hit!” or supportive things like that. That’s not yelling, it’s cheering. I think shouting out words of support for your child, in fact, is better than saying nothing. The kid knows you’re there and knows you care about them and want to see them do well. You aren’t just going through the motions. You are showing interest, even if your shouting from the sideline embarrasses them. I think it’s best to have a kid who is embarrassed by how much you love them than to have one who resents you for trying to push them too hard.

What I mean by yelling is criticism. Now, it’s one thing for a coach to yell critical things at a player, especially as the skill level of the sport increases. The coach’s job is to be a mentor and a teacher of the given sport. It’s important that a coach instill discipline and knowledge in a player under his management by pointing things out to the players as they happen, or immediately thereafter. This is acceptable in my book. The parent who shouts critically in the middle of the game is a different story.

The parent who yells constantly at their child to the point that you can hear them loading all their failed hopes and dreams on the kid’s shoulders in order to live vicariously through them is something that I don’t think is healthy. Call me Captain Obvious, but I really don’t think some parents get this. They don’t see that their shouting at their kid for misplaying a ground ball is different from the coach doing it. They don’t see how much more embarrassing and emotionally damaging it is for a kid to hear his dad criticize his play publicly than it is for a coach to do so.

I was thinking about this over the last few days as I helped in several ways at my sons’ baseball games. I began asking myself some questions. Why was I helping coach? Why did I insert myself into a role that I hadn’t planned on filling prior to the start of the season? Was I just trying to exert my influence on my own sons while making it socially acceptable?

I worried for a second. I thought I might be taking a step in the direction of the pushy parent. I wondered if I would see that look in my sons’ eyes as I told them what they needed to do to play better, the look that says I’ve sucked all the fun out of the game. I pictured myself getting into heated arguments with various umpires and referees and following parents from rival teams to their cars and expressing my anger on their hood with the nine iron from my trunk.

Then I realized that I seemed to be the first one clapping at most of the events on the field, including for the other team. My applause was usually followed by the applause of other parents who were watching the game. I didn’t feel embarrassed to clap by myself as loudly as I could as the team came off the field each inning. I wanted them to hear somebody cheering them on. I wanted the kids to see they had a fan, an advocate. I wanted all the kids, not just my son, to feel like somebody was proud enough of them to stand there and clap and shout “Great hit!” I loved seeing them smile and go out onto the field the next inning with a visibly greater amount of confidence.

I guess that’s why I volunteered to help. Not because I’m one of the greatest baseball minds of my generation, because I most certainly am not, but because I knew I would focus on the positive. I knew that kids learning a new sport needed to be encouraged to keep playing it first and foremost. When all one hears is criticism of their performance, they tend to want to give up. I wanted there to be an extra voice telling the kids what a great job they did.

I figure the more encouragement the kids receive now, the better. We all get ample opportunities in this life to be told we suck at something. I know I have.

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