As a kid, I never understood overly intense sports parents. I had a grade-school basketball coach who once bellowed at our team, “What do you think this is, a game?” When that preposterous question elicited the snickering it deserved, he really snapped, screaming, “You can all blow it out your asses!” Everyone thought that was great, except of course for his son, who was mortified that ol’ pops imagined himself the Bobby Knight of the elementary gym instead of a glorified baby sitter presiding over eight pudgy fifth-graders.
But now that I am a parent with my own sports-aged kid, I’m starting to understand—understand that a lot of parents are total lunatics. My older kid, Rhys, is 5, so we enrolled him in a youth indoor soccer league. To quote Ed O’Neill on Modern Family: “World’s worst sport. World’s worst players of it.”
You wouldn’t think anybody would have high athletic expectations for 5-year-olds, but you’d be wrong. People scream at their kids nonstop, their voices fraught with either excitement or frustration. The cheering gets very specific, as if they think they can control their child via voice commands, like a live-action Siri. I stay mostly quiet, but when Rhys kicks the ball into the wrong goal, I do what any sane adult would do. I yell, “Great job, Jaden!” and pretend that I’m cheering for a different kid. Maybe there isn’t even a Jaden, but there probably is.
Most of the time I don’t have to worry about Rhys kicking the ball in the wrong goal, because most of the time he’s nowhere near the ball. He might be over at the water fountain getting a drink, or standing idly on the periphery of a scrum of more-determined children, or holding his hands over his ears and staring at the scoreboard because he hates getting surprised by the buzzer. The halves are 10 minutes long, so he spends about 18 minutes per game eyeballing the clock and doing the earmuffs move. This makes me feel better about not cheering for him, since he wouldn’t hear me anyway.
I confess that I’m not exactly encouraging soccer because I find the game excruciating no matter who’s playing. Personally, I prefer sports that require cool equipment and hand-eye coordination, like jai alai or freestyle motocross. Unfortunately, there are no local youth leagues for those, so our other extracurricular activity is swimming. This, at least, is a useful life skill. And I’ve heard that some people, after learning to swim, sometimes attempt to swim faster than other people in the water, in the manner of a competition or sport. Maybe he could get into that if things don’t work out on land.
Swim lessons are nice because of the minimal parental intensity. You don’t have to cheer at swim lessons. But you do have to use the locker room, and shepherding a 5-year-old through the public shower process is guaranteed to be the low point of any day. At this age, kids don’t understand concepts such as “Don’t touch the walls of the shower,” or “Don’t put your towel on the floor and then pick it up and use it,” or “Don’t stand outside the shower and pee into it.” In the pool, he’s learning the backstroke. In the locker room, he’s learning that the bathing-suit-drying centrifuge thing is covered in the bacteria of a thousand butts. Why would you put your bathing suit in there? Just let it stay wet! Better yet, incinerate it.
He’s also learning about locker room culture, which dictates that the amount of time you spend wandering around naked is directly proportional to your age. I think there’s one guy in his 90s who just lives in the locker room and doesn’t own any clothes. In any case, 5-year-olds tend to find their way around a room in the manner of a defective Roomba, getting distracted, blundering into things and generally spacing out. And when you’re 3 feet tall, you don’t want to aimlessly wander around in a men’s locker room, because the thing you’ll blunder into will be a droopy pair of Hanes. If you’re lucky.
Maybe I’ll get more enthusiastic about extracurricular activities once the skill level improves a bit. But I don’t know. I’d like to think that I won’t get all delusional even if my kid eventually kicks the ball into the proper goal. I merely hope that if he keeps playing, he’ll learn that true success in sports doesn’t hinge on whether your team wins or loses. What matters is that you play well enough individually to be cool and popular. That’s true whether you’re talking about soccer or swimming or actual awesome sports like freestyle motocross. And if you want to be popular, it’s important to have non-embarrassing parents, ideally ones who don’t even identify themselves as your parents. Go Jaden!