My son, Jack, loves sports. Walk into his bedroom and you’re greeted by a larger-than-life cutout of San Fransisco Giants catcher Buster Posey. Step into our living room any morning after 6:15 and you’ll find him there, cereal in hand, watching ESPN. He loves baseball, basketball, football and plays all three. In a 52-week year, he is actively participating in a team sport for 50 or more.
He’s a good kid. He’s a bright kid and, like many oldest children I have met, he’s a pleaser. He likes people to be pleased with him. He wants to do the right thing. He can’t stand the idea of letting anyone down, disappointing them, being the object of their anger or frustration. And, while he’s all smiles 85-90% of the time, there are times when he gets down on himself, when he withdraws into his head. It’s usually when he’s worried he’s let someone down.
Saturday, his basketball team had an away game. The gym was small, the parents of the home team were rowdy. They shouted at the officials. They said nasty things about our team, our coaches, even Jack. For me, this is like a youth sports nightmare: parents who care only about winning and are vocal about it. One parent was even ejected for arguing with the ref. Yes, these kids are 11. They are in grade school. But, apparently for some parents, winning is the only thing.
I sat in the stands with a clenched stomach. I don’t believe in blaming the refs for game results. I don’t believe that a parent shouting in the stands at visiting players sets a good example. I also don’t believe that I would have been doing any good or setting a positive example by reacting. So, for the entire game, I sat as stone-faced as possible wanting nothing more than to erupt at the inappropriate behavior of those around me.
I saw it in his face first. Late in the first quarter, Jack (the biggest kid on his team) set a high screen. When he did, he leaned into the kid instead of standing straight up. The crowd erupted. The home team coach erupted. The woman behind me called my son – the straight-A student whose never been in trouble in his life – a thug. The quarter ended and the home team coach continued to berate the ref. He pointed angrily at my little boy. He called him everything but a bully.
To be clear, Jack leaned in. He shouldn’t have done it, but it was obvious there was no ill will. The kid he screened stayed on his feet and moved around the pick without much trouble. It was not as if Jack had hurt anyone. But in an environment like that, I knew he was hurting.
His face went pale. He sat on the bench with his head in his hands. I knew he heard what the other coach and maybe what some of the parents in the stands were saying. He played less in the second quarter, barely in the third and never got of the bench in the fourth. We lost, by a lot – not just because Jack wasn’t playing, but because the other team was good and we played poorly. I went up to him at the end of the game and there were tears in his eyes. His stomach hurt, he said. He blamed it on a chicken sandwich he had eaten for lunch, but I knew the truth.
The other coach yelling, the crazed parents in the stands, it was all too much. He felt like he let people down and it had him tied up in knots.
My wife and I don’t coddle Jack. We talk to him. We talked to him about playing through the tough times, about being strong not just in body, but in mind. We told him he had made a mistake, but it was something to learn from. So too was the coach’s response a teaching moment.
Sunday, he had another game and on the way to the gym, I talked to Jack. I told him he would make mistakes. He would do things wrong. He’s a fifth grade basketball player with a lot to learn. But the one mistake he couldn’t make again would be to give up, to let someone else’s behavior dictate his effort.
Whenever my kids have games or performances, homework or challenges, I tell them the same thing. A player cannot control the refs or the other team. A student cannot control the test. The one and only thing a person can control is their hustle. Work harder than everyone else to get ahead and to set the tone. Be willing to come home exhausted. If you do that, it doesn’t matter how many points you score or questions you get right, you will not regret the outcome.
Sunday’s game was different. The home team parents were civil. The refs were fair. The teams played hard and we managed to squeak out a one-point win. But, after the game, I told Jack the win didn’t matter. What mattered was he didn’t give up. He didn’t take himself out of the game. He worked harder than I’ve seen him work all season and I could tell he was exhausted, proud and a completely different kid than he was the day before.
I’ve never been so proud.
photo taken from: https://townofstanley.org/announcements/rec-basketball-sign-ups/