When my sons joined a pre-K soccer team years ago, I was as excited as they were. For one, they looked adorable in their tiny team jerseys. And then there was the off chance that they’d turn out to be prodigies who’d win scholarships and sign multimillion-dollar deals with Nike.
Not surprisingly, given their genetic inheritance, they spent most of the game in the middle of a clump of kids who resembled an agitated sea monster with dozens of wildly flailing limbs. “Remember your positions!” the coaches yelled futilely from the sidelines before burying their faces in their hands.
Occasionally a kid would break free from the mass to kick the ball (usually in the wrong direction), and the parents would applaud, unsure who or what we were cheering, but wanting to be encouraging.
As our kids grew older, though, involvement with sports teams took on a new gravitas. Our first clue was the snack spreadsheet. No longer could I toss a bottle of water into my purse for my own son. Snacks were a group experience, and you could tell a lot about families by what they brought.
Some parents were crowd-pleasers who filled coolers with two kinds of juice boxes and Costco-size packs of cookies and Cheetos. “There’s plenty for siblings!” they’d shout while the kids fell upon the offerings as if they’d just finished an Ironman Triathlon, instead of trotting up and down a field a couple of times before getting distracted by a clump of dandelions.
We belonged to the second group of snack parents, the ones who always forgot it was their turn until they’d already driven to the game. One of us would leave and race to the nearest convenience store and come back with a bag of chips and a few bruised bananas while avoiding the accusing eyes of the kids: Get it together, would you, folks?
As our children turned another year or two older, sporting events became even more serious. Our clue was the advent of a parental designee to defuse tension and encourage sportsmanship during games—not for the players, but for the parents. In essence, a baby sitter is assigned to pace the sidelines to keep troublemakers in line. The worst part? They’re absolutely essential.
I’m not sure when or how it happened (though caffeine may be part of the problem, since every other parent is clutching a Starbucks cup), but many adults get really worked up about kids’ sporting events. Much more than the kids ever do.
I’ve never seen an actual brawl erupt like the one in Georgia, where a group of parents and coaches got into fistfights at a baseball game for 4- and 5-year-olds. But here in Bethesda, I’ve heard a coach scream at his players to “break the arms off” the opposing team—a group of 11-year-olds who presumably thought they were signing up for basketball, not a Lord of the Flies re-enactment. I’ve also seen a parent berate a teenage referee who left the field in tears. (That same parent, when questioned about his behavior, challenged the mild-mannered coach of our soccer team to a fight.)
Was it always this way?
I called my father: “Dad, remember all my swim meets? Did parents fight with the referees and scream nonstop like they do today?”
“You were on the swim team?” he asked.
He was kidding, but I don’t remember my parents ever getting agitated at any of my sporting events. Doing so would have meant they’d miss socializing with other adults, which was the highlight of the competitions for them.
Sometimes I’ll see a kid struggling to throw a strike or missing a soccer goal or standing at the free throw line while frenzied adults capture the moment on iPhones and scream directions. That’s when I stop cheering—because, yes, I’m doing it, too—and think how strange it must seem to the kids that their performance matters so much to so many adults.
Once, though, I witnessed over-the-top parental enthusiasm that seemed completely appropriate. A kid on the basketball team had worked hard all year, yet hadn’t scored a single point. During the final minutes of the last game of the season, his shot went in—a beautiful swish through the net. Everyone erupted in cheers and a dad leaped into the air, injuring an ankle that was already in a cast from surgery the previous week.
I don’t think that little boy even heard—or cared about—the cheers, though. He was too busy staring at the basket, a huge smile stretching across his face.
Sarah Pekkanen’s latest novel is The Best of Us (Washington Square Press, 2013). She can be reached at email@example.com.