Monday, April 21, 2008

Athletic Spectatorship

Last week at my #2 son’s AYSO soccer game, I sat on the sidelines with the other parents. As a group we were pretty mellow folk. We chatted amicably while watching and commenting on the game. While parents called encouragement to players from time to time, no one got out of sorts or yelled, even when the referees made what appeared to be bad calls.

One of the moms sitting nearby commented about how this was such a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere compared to the comp league games she attended for her kids. She said that quite a few parents at every comp league game she attended got extremely intense — often to the point of embarrassment (or perhaps even abuse).

At this week’s game I sat next to this lady’s husband. He explained that she was attending a comp league game with another child. This dad mentioned how the AYSO games always start late and that even then, it is common for a number of players to show up long after play has begun. He mentioned that the play at the AYSO games is sloppier and that there doesn’t seem to be nearly the level of effort that he sees at comp games.

I think that’s pretty much what is expected. To join a comp team by high school age, you’ve got to be pretty good. In AYSO, everyone plays, regardless of proficiency. Still, I smiled at the different views presented by this mom and dad.

I find that I’m one of the parents that kicks back and takes it easy at games. Regular readers will know that I probably would never attend an athletic event unless one of my children were playing. I cheer on my child and the players on my child’s team. I like to get to know the names of my children’s teammates so that my cheering can be informed. But I also cheer players on the opposing team when they make a good play.

I have a brother that very much enjoys getting intense at sporting events. It’s part of his personality. I don’t think he could be effective at the kind of work he does without that kind of edge. The only times in my adult life that I have gotten uptight at an athletic event have been when a parent has done something to intimidate a player or a referee.

I once watched a huge guy — a dad of one of my son’s teammates —threaten a nine-year-old on the opposing team. The ref stopped the game and said that if the guy didn’t leave the field at once, the game would be forfeit. The man hesitated to leave, even after other dads encouraged him to do so. He finally walked over to the player, got down on his knee so that he could be at eye level, and sincerely apologized, saying that there was no excuse for his behavior. He then folded up his chair and left. Even though this guy had let his temper get the best of him, my estimation of him went up immensely.

I enjoy taking it easy at my kids’ games. Others like to be more involved. It’s best, however, if they can make sure that the game continues to be a good experience for the players and for the other spectators.


Tom said...

Good post, Reach. I started refereeing soccer around 1992. I was young, but it was (is) something I enjoyed.

One of the biggest challenges soccer is facing is that we cannot keep our young referees. Parents' behavior drives too many of them out of refereeing. All too often this past year I've had to ask parents or coaches to leave.

I've seen parents insult and threaten young kids on the opposing team. I've seen parents berate a young assistant referee (linesman)--in some cases as young as 12. I've had a (drunk) parent take a swing at an opposing player following a game. Two years ago, I abandoned a 10-year-old boys game because the opposing coaches wouldn't stop fighting.

[As an aside: Perversely, the most difficult parents are for youth games ages 11 to 14. (Particularly girls games, for some reason.) This is the age where soccer starts to get more physical. Perhaps for many parents this is their first child in soccer ...]

Poor behavior is often driven by coaches--when coaches start, then the parents start. When the coaches and parents are berating the officials and the players, the kids start doing it too (and then their ability to play well goes to hell in a handbasket). We see poor behavior modeled on TV in other professional sports, but these flaws are overlooked as "part of the game" because of a coach's expertise.

To the parents out there: be more considerate. If you disagree with the quality of officiating, become an official to replace him/her. (And promise not to quit until you've done at least 10 games.)

Scott Hinrichs said...

Thanks, Tom. As far as I'm aware, there's never been a perfect referee. And it's darn hard for even an experienced ref to see everything that could be seen during a play.

Referees come in varying levels of quality, but I am fond of telling my children that living with the calls made by the ref is part of the game. "You don't have to agree with the call, nor do you have to think it was a good call, but you do have to live with the call," I've often told my kids.

I also tell them that the sooner they learn to handle things like that graciously, the better off they'll be, because real life just isn't fair. And you will be much happier if you learn to deal graciously with life's setbacks. Don't get mad. Get up and move ahead keeping your focus on what is important.

Tom said...

It's good advice. Most of the referees I've had the privilege of working with are better than most fans give them credit for. Yeah, there are bad apples and bad days, but more than once I've watched a game thinking the referee did a great job while a fan behind me is grumbling about unfair calls.

The players who learn to accept things and move on are, I think, better players on the whole. Maybe it's because those same traits make them more coachable.