It didn’t matter that everyone thought Brian was crazy. If 9-year-old son Jeffrey had two soccer games in Riverside sandwiched around a basketball game in Torrance, Brian would make sure that Jeffrey got to all three. The 250 back-and-forth miles he logged in the Highlander Hybrid was just a typical Saturday. Jeffrey was a multi-sport phenom and Brian was his Number One Fan, even if every coach and referee admonished him for the volume and verbiage of his rooting.
Quiet family dinners? During soccer season? Michelle would have laughed at the fanciful notion if she wasn’t racing between carpool and cooking dinner for her three soccer-playing sons, all of whom were in different clubs with different schedules. The youngest would get home, starving and tracking mud across the kitchen floor, as his older brother was tossing his plate in the sink and dashing out to the waiting carpool, while the eldest had a later practice and would often eschew dinner in favor of post-training pizza with his teammates. Michelle often wondered, why did she bother?
Phil didn’t have time for critics. Anabelle was a gifted, natural athlete, as tall as a 15-year-old, yet still a few months shy of her 13th birthday. The local volleyball club was adamant about Annabelle playing with her peers, but logging 40 kills a game against squads of pee wees provided neither enjoyment nor challenge. So, Phil fought to elevate Annabelle onto the 15U team. The conversations the 10th-grade girls had in front of his middle-school daughter weren’t that inappropriate. Certainly acceptable when you believed as he did that if you wanted to be the best, you had to play with the best.
And then the world stopped. COVID-19 landed like a Mike Tyson right hook, and youth sports, like everything else in our daily lives, was sent reeling. In mid-March, in-person organized sports ceased to exist. For Brian there was no more driving. Michelle could close her home-based restaurant. And Phil no longer needed to rationalize his insistence that Annabelle play up.
We’re almost six months into the COVID-era. Family dinners have been a revelation. For the first time since the kids were little and dropping food on the floor to be licked up by the dog, everyone sits around the table and actually talks (with fleeting glances at supposedly banned cell phones). The “nuclear” in nuclear family once more refers to closeness and bonding, rather than the volatility of people living under the same roof with conflicting schedules and competing commitments.
High school sports have been mothballed until January 2021, and even that date may be wishful thinking. Many youth clubs and programs, after quickly regrouping on Zoom and other video conferencing platforms, are practicing again, most adhering to socially responsible, public heath recommendations. Meanwhile, the debate rages over the wisdom and safety of returning to games.
Sitting here in limbo, it’s difficult to imagine youth sports returning in the near future. Still, there’s a blessing hiding within this curse. If we can avert our eyes from the train wreck that is the news for one second and take a deep breath (better make that two or three), we can begin to appreciate that we have been given a gift: the gift of time. The time to reflect upon our role as sports parents. The time to review the decisions we’ve made for our kids, and the time to turn the focus from their performance on the field to our performance off of it.
During this time, we need to ask ourselves questions, important questions, hard questions. How do our kids feel about our presence and behavior at games? When we raucously shout their names or reflexively go off on the refs, how does that affect our kids? When we grill them in the car about why they passed the ball instead of taking the shot, or why did Coach take them out in favor of their obviously inferior teammate, is this a constructive conversation? Are pep talks about future college scholarship opportunities motivating for our 8- or 10- or 12-year-olds?
Those of us with visions of sugar-plum scholarships might do well to train our peepers on the actual statistics for athletes playing in college. In their yearly publication, “Probability of Competing Beyond High School,” the NCAA reveals a set of sobering odds that should sit any sentient sports parent back in his seat. While many of our kids may make it onto their high school teams, a worthy achievement in its own right, the numbers plummet for those striving to compete in college. For the truly vertiginous drop, check out the percentages who make it to the pros. It’s infinitesimal. Which is why I firmly believe that our kids have a better chance of owning a professional team than playing on one.
Like it or not, there’s a 10-year window on our participation in our kids’ sporting lives. From their first organized practice to their last game in high school, we’ve got a decade, give or take, in which to be part of their world. The virus has effectively lopped a year off of that. So how do we want to spend what precious time we have left? Finding fault, offering unwanted suggestions, freighting our kids’ experience with our expectations?
The virus is offering us the opportunity to reset our default patterns and re-emerge as calmer and more enlightened sports parents. But there will be a test.
When the COVID cloud lifts – and it will – youth sports will roar back to life. Clubs and programs will race to make up for lost time – and lost revenue — by returning to the frantic follies of the pre-COVID era. They’ll look to us to rev our engines and rejoin the rat race. What will our response be?
Will we enthusiastically re-enlist, once again throw dinner at our kids as we rush them out to practice, re-plant our lawn chairs on the sideline and resume our barrage of referee baiting and coach criticizing, exclaiming, “Hell yeah, it’s good to be back!”
Or will we assume a humbler posture, choke back a welling wave of gratitude and tell our kids to just “go out and have a great time.” We should return as sports parents who understand that sports are games. Games are played. And play is fun. Because when we get to the end of this road and look back at the journey, what we should want to stand out will be, what a great ride it was.
Coach Steve Morris is a SoCal father of three, founder of Coast Sports, and author of “What Size Balls Do I Need? A Road Map For Survival in the Dizzying World of Youth Sports.”