Thursday, October 29, 2009

Parents, coach thyselves

The stereotypes of bad youth sports coaches and psychotic youth sports parents have been a prevalent part of pop culture at least since the original "The Bad News Bears" came out in 1976. Unfortunately, as is always the case, these stereotypes exist because they have roots in truth. Also unfortunately, as is almost always the case, these stereotypes still exist, a sad fact that was learned last week by my pal Catherine Durkin Robinson and chronicled here and here.
I'd like to pile on by sharing my own personal experience...

A long time ago, I was asked by my boss to umpire at North Tampa Little League, where his kid played. It sounded like fun, so even though it was strictly on a volunteer basis, I said sure. My very first game, I was assigned to umpire behind home plate on a field where home plate faced due west. I don't know what kind of idiot orients a baseball field so batters, catchers and umpires have to face directly into the late afternoon setting sun, but there I was. Subject to the questionable control of 11-year-old pitchers and a typical Florida summer sun blasting my retinas, I couldn't even get out of the way of half the pitches, let alone call them balls or strikes. Imagine the anxiety of the catcher who had probably yet to develop significant trust in his protective cup, not to mention the hitters who didn't have the benefit of chest protectors and face masks. After a few minutes of watching balls ricochet off of helmets, elbows and unswung bats or just sail past everybody and slam into the chainlink backstop, the coaches of both teams called time out and we huddled at the plate, where they suggested that we postpone for a half hour or so and wait for the sun to set. I was impressed by an intelligent proposal from reasonable men who obviously were concerned with the welfare of the players on both teams and said yes, by all means, let's do that. After about ten minutes, just as the spots in my eyes were going away, the league president came running over from one of the other fields, screaming at me. "You can't postpone! We have games scheduled after this one! What's the matter with you?" I replied, "Nobody can see. It's a safety concern. Someone's going to get hurt." "I don't give a shit!", he screamed back. "Get both teams back on the field right now or they both forfeit." I was pissed. "Fine. But this is my first and last game. See you tomorrow." Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you; the league president was my boss at the time.

Look, sports can be great for giving kids a little toughness that they might not otherwise get. But that comes from learning first-hand that scraped elbows and knees heal, that you count on your teammates and they count on you, that it's okay to get your hands and clothes dirty and that winning is awesome and losing sucks (sorry, "'s how you play the game"ers, but that last one's indisputably true). It doesn't come from adults screaming and hollering and generally conducting themselves like maniacs. Drill sergeants in the military do that because they're preparing young people for the psychological stress of war. In spite of athletes being labeled "warriors" and games being referred to as "battle", sports at any level are never, ever even close to anything remotely resembling war. And anybody who doesn't know that lacks the perspective to be involved in youth sports...or the military, for that matter.


Anonymous said...

Over here, soccer is the big sport so that's where you get this behavior. I played it when I was 8 or so. I still remember a game I watched with other 8yo playing. A mother shouted "kick his legs" (I wish I could translate the way she said it, slang and all). She was telling/encouraging her son to physically hurt an opponent, no 2 ways about it. This was over 30 years ago.

I'm glad my son wants to play baseball. As far as I'm aware, this behavior is rare or non-existent in baseball over here.

Unknown said...

I'm glad youth baseball is a civilized activity in the Netherlands. I'm even more thrilled that baseball is becoming more popular in the Netherlands! However, my friend Manny, who is from the Dominican republic, would disagree with that last part after the Netherlands eliminated the DR in last year's World Baseball Classic.