Before the game began, the other team’s coach eagerly ran up to me and said, “I think we should be allowed to move freely up and down the field to coach our players during the game.”
“Works for me,” I responded.
He then asked ever so politely if we would mind allowing a coach down by the goal to guide the player protecting the net. Again, no problem.
And so the kids began to play. They ran hard and the game advanced quickly to 1-1. I happened to notice he kept calling to one girl on the field, always giving her the throw-ins and expecting her to take the lead. When that girl came over to me and attempted to grab a ball that had gone out, I looked her square-on and said, “Are you the ref?”
She nodded and reached for the ball. I pulled it back and said again, “Are you the ref?” She again nodded yes. Finally I looked this little girl square in the eye and said, “I don’t think so” and tossed the ball to the teenage ref.
Our team makes it a priority to give every player a chance in goal, a chance to throw in, a chance to kick off. Sports at any age, but especially this young, should be a place for exercise, for fun, and to learn the skills necessary to be part of a team. And for parents, it’s an opportunity to cheer on your child, to spend time focusing on them and letting them feel your undivided attention.
For most of the game, I focused on my own players, ensuring my team exhibited good sportsmanship even as we pulled into a fat lead.
When one of my players was down and injured, crying on the field, I directed my kids to drop to one knee and focus on the injured player until he recovered. The other team, having never seen this before, watched, stunned, until their coach encouraged them to follow suit.
When my players started a rousing chant of “we will, we will, crush you,” I quickly demanded good sportsmanship. “Just cheer on your teammates,” I said, and they resumed with a cheery, “Go Finches!”
So it took me by surprise when, in the second half, with us leading by 4-1 or 5-1, I ran up the field, crossing over the mid-line to where our opponents’ parents sat, and a dad on their side said, “You know, you really need to stay on that side of the field.”
I looked at him quixotically. Hadn’t his coach made it a point to insist on free flow of movement up and down the field?
“Actually, I can coach my players from anywhere on the field,” I retorted, knowing full well that were I male, he wouldn’t have exhibited such guff.
Within a minute, the coach who started out the game so kindly, started yelling. He said, “you know, this is supposed to be fun!”
Um, yeah. I had already turned on my heel to retreat to my side, and didn’t quite notice that he was chasing me down the field, yelling all the way.
So interesting (and pathetic) that he was all chummy and fair play until we took the lead. The same thing happened a few weeks back when we were beating a team by quite a large margin and the parents on the other side started heckling the referee.
Keep in mind, our refs are teenagers who earn all of $15 for one hour of calling plays for 6-year-olds. Some of them still have braces and pimples. I can’t imagine fielding shouts and accusations from adults when I was that age. And as an adult, I can’t imagine needling a kid – or even an adult ref – to make a different call. It’s just not how I work.
But apparently not all parents share my perspective. In that other game, when we scored because the other goalie couldn’t quite get his hands on the ball, the parents on that team tried to convince the ref to say it wasn’t a goal. I had no choice but to step in and point out that, until the goalie’s hands are on the ball, the ball remains in play.
I know it’s hard to lose 10-0. We have tied and lost and our kids were downtrodden. It was important, though, that they experience that and we took it as a teachable moment during which they learned strategy and how to be smart on the field. “They may be bigger or faster,” I tell them, “but you can be smarter.”
Kids aren’t born with poor sportsmanship and bad manners. They are not cruel or disrespectful unless they learn from others to be that way. Children don’t see barriers or difference, they just see people. It’s adults who corrupt kids and turn them into the kind of adults who keep the downward spiral going.
Children learn kindness, compassion and love – or the extreme opposites – from the examples and role models guiding their upbringing. When an adult gossips and points, baits and insults, the child learns to do the same.
I’m saddened, but I guess not surprised, that parents are the problem in children’s sports. I’d heard of this happening but until now, my children’s experiences on teams have been wonderful, the coaches nurturing and nice, the other parents people I’ve become friends with.
I remember when my older son played soccer, as he entered his fourth year of playing (at the young age of 8), parents on some opposing teams yelled and shouted, loud and constant during games. I was appalled then but didn’t pay it much attention.
As coach now for five seasons for my little guy’s team, I get a lot of the flak and commentary. I’m the target because I lead the team.
I do it because it’s a gift to be on the field with my son and his sweet friends. I get to spend an hour in sunshine focusing on nothing other than ball-handling and the politics of teamwork with lovely, innocent children. I get to listen to their conversations and insights, to express delight at their excitement and to wipe away their tears when they stumble.
Coaching renews my sense of wonder and awe at the world. And maybe, just maybe, I get to be a positive presence for these children, teaching them to behave the way we all think it should be – kindness, compassion, joy and exhilaration. The good things in life. Counteracting the bad.