I was on the sidelines at my daughter’s 11-and-under travel soccer game. It had been a successful season, but today they were being outmuscled by a very physical team from Warrenton. With a strong wind blowing against them and only one substitute on the bench, the Alexandria Heat were on the wrong side of a 5-0 rout.
Late in the second half an errant ball went in their goal off a defender’s foot, which is always disheartening. A particularly stout fan, I continued clapping and cheering, though now a lonely voice on a quiet sideline. I was confident that our girls could score a goal or two before the final whistle. They’re better than this, I kept thinking.
Then it happened again, a few minutes later, in a classic bungle of a high ball that, untouched, would have skidded safely out of bounds. Instead, it caught the raised leg of a well-meaning defender and was redirected into her own goal.
I wish I could say that, at that moment, I was thinking of how that player must have felt, but I was too disappointed. I felt betrayed. My hands stopped clapping and I stood there as silent as any other parent while a voice in my head screamed, How could you?
Parents now make up a category of sports fan almost as notorious as the drunken goons of European soccer. And not without reason. Who hasn’t witnessed the red-faced parent with pointed finger lay into their poor little kid just moments after a tough loss? And what about the screaming dad who, at this very game, after his daughter was ejected for a flagrant two-handed push that put her opponent flat on the ground, yelled, Oh, come on! Gimme a break!
A lot of effort is directed toward regulating parental involvement in youth sports these days. Coaches and managers instruct parents on how to cheer from the sidelines. They tell us we must root for all the players and not yell specific instructions like, “Come on, pass to my daughter, you ball hog.”
After each game, the parents in our league get rated on how they affected the overall tone. A club rule even says that parents may not speak to coaches for 24 hours after a game. This cooling-off period is intended to save us lunatic parents from flying into a rage at the coach for leaving our little Abby Wambach at right fullback when obviously she should have been playing center forward so she and her team could have finally scored a goal, you know, coach, a goal! Remember those?
One wonders, however, if parents aren’t being scapegoated for some of the more unpleasant aspects of competition, which can only be reduced by so much. Adults can say fun is the most important thing, players can shake hands afterwards saying, “Good game, good game, good game,” and sportsmanship can be praised in heroic odes sung at the breakfast table, but losing always leaves a bit of pain in the very place where you stored your hopes for a victory.
Still, with the end of the fall season, I have been thinking more about how parents should conduct themselves. And, honestly, I see nothing wrong with vigorously cheering for your team. I am a bit of a yeller, and I am not about to stop whooping, hollering, and generally carrying on, especially when my daughter pounds a ball high into the corner of the net from 20 yards out.
But there is something important—and obvious—about the fact that these players are our children. We should not only cheer for them. We should identify with them. When we are disappointed, they are disappointed. And, corny but true, learning how to lose is one of the great lessons sports can impart, to young athletes and parents alike.
As it happened, I had a game of my own the next evening. After about 27 years of not playing in an actual soccer match, I was stepping into a pretty serious 40-and-over co-ed game as a substitute defender.
I can still run and kick decently, but doing so in a hard-fought game left my legs feeling like rotted wood. Midway through the second half, I stood in front of my own goal as a waist-high ball came at me. Untouched, it would have passed safely, but I knew what a player is supposed to do in this situation.
Only I was moving too slowly to capture the ball softly with my chest. Instead, I lifted my creaking right leg to make the stop. But my angle was bad. Bam! The ball flew off my foot and into our net.
It was exactly what the defender on my daughter’s team had done the day before. And, just like her, I shook my head, resumed my position, and got ready for the kickoff.