The beginning of spring sports means new reminders for adult spectators to be gentle with young athletes. Signs posted at Little League fields outline parent do’s and don’ts. Fliers passed out on the first day of soccer describe appropriate sideline behavior. And moms everywhere whisper about the noisy dad who won’t stop yelling from the bleachers at his son on the field.
Unfortunately, an entire demographic that actually needs these “reminders” is overlooked — because they cannot read. Also, 5-year-old younger brothers usually don’t listen anyway.
You see, the number of “guidelines” is inversely proportional to the age of the athletes. What is acceptable at a 12-year-old’s Little League game is not OK at pee-wee soccer. And, ironically, my youngest son, Lindell, 5, has been to way more of the former than he has the latter. To him, sports are to be enjoyed AND won. Keeping score is not optional. And winning is the ultimate outcome.
Lindell just started playing “real” soccer last month, even though he’s had his own shin guards and cleats (to be like his older brother, Owen, 9) since February. Last year he was on an instructional team. This year, he would have no part of that; he wanted a team name, team colors and a uniform — just like his older brothers. And despite the soccer coach being the parent of a friend, Lindell wants to call her “coach.” He takes this very seriously. He is ready.
I was proud of Lindell because I, myself, have never understood the whole everyone-wins-and-gets-a-trophy mentality. Let’s be real: in sports, as in life, there are “winners” and “losers.” Hard work pays off. Talent is a rarity to be admired and treasured. No one — not even Dustin, who is pretty good at most things — can be the master of everything.
Gentle reminders and do’s and don’ts are important, but so are realistic expectations.
When Ford, now 11, was younger, he claimed to “hate soccer.”
“Let’s not blame the sport,” I told him. “Instead, be honest about your strengths and weaknesses.”
Soccer is not Ford’s talent. He’s much better at other things.
Why can’t we say that?
I’ve always chosen honesty and reality over insincere praise when it comes to sports and my children. I’m not the noisy dad yelling from the bleachers, but I’m also not the one who says, “We’re all winners,” after they’ve lost a game.
However, while I am sensitively realistic, my older boys, Ford and Owen, are just plain competitive. They keep score. They are not afraid to cheer when the other team gets an “out.” They know when they’ve lost, and they know when they’ve won. Their favorite trophies are the ones they actually earned.
So perhaps Lindell was influenced by all of us — my careful honesty and Ford and Owen’s frankness — but at his first soccer game last week, one thing suddenly became abundantly clear: if Lindell had had a Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee, he probably would have thrown it on the ground and stomped his foot when his 4- and 5-year-old teammates scored a goal … into the wrong net.
“You’re going the wrong way!” he screamed, his wispy-fine hair standing on end as it blew in the wind.
Then he sat back down on the sideline and shook his head.
I cringed and smiled apologetically at fellow parents on either side of me.
After the game, someone asked, “Did we win?”
“They don’t keep score in this league,” the referee said.
Lindell got up on his knees and said, “Of course we didn’t win. They totally beat us!”
As far as I could tell, no kid cried from his honesty.
All the way home Lindell parroted things he’s heard from his brothers: “My team’s got some work to do,” and, “We didn’t stand a chance against those guys.”
I didn’t stop him from talking this way, even if I didn’t participate in it. I didn’t tell him, “Actually, you were all winners.” Lindell wasn’t wilting or collapsing from the “defeat.” He was gathering courage and determination. Not an entirely bad lesson
A few days later, however, at his brothers’ Little League game, Lindell crossed the line and became “that dad,” only, in this case, it was “that kid.” Our baseball team was ahead by five runs. Two more runners came across home plate. Lindell got up, went to the chain-link fence and yelled, “Now, that’s what I’m talking about!”
After a quick celebration dance, one that kicked up gravel and dusty gray dirt, he went back to the fence again and said to the other team, “In your —.”
I reached over and put my hand across his mouth. He finished his sentence into the palm of my hand. I laughed anxiously and looked back at the other parents. “He can’t read,” I wanted to say. “He doesn’t understand all those do’s and don’ts.”
But instead I just smiled and said, “He’s the youngest of three boys.”
Knowing faces smiled and nodded sympathetically from the bleachers.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.