How to survive sports politics

By Luke Hill

I had my middle son at a basketball tournament this past weekend – five games in two days, which for us parents means roughly five hours of cheering for our kids interspersed with seemingly endless hours of waiting around with very little to do but analyze the games, the referees, the coaches, the other teams, and (last but in no way least) our own team.

I generally try to stay clear of these conversations. Complaining about the referees won’t change anything (although I do make a point of going over and shaking their hands if they’ve officiated a good game). Evaluating the players on the opposing team after the fact doesn’t give our team any actual advantage (although I do also try to congratulate players who have played particularly well). Critiquing the coaches isn’t generally helpful either, since most of us don’t know enough to have a useful opinion on their performance anyway.

I particularly avoid any discussion of the other kids on our team. There are just too many feelings to get hurt. I’ve seen example after example where one parent criticizes the play of another parent’s kid, and feelings get hurt, and immature drama unfolds. It’s almost always a disaster.

There are various reasons for this, of course, and most of them are completely understandable. It’s a normal reaction for parents to be protective of their kids, to defend them when they’re being criticized, even (maybe especially) when the criticism is justified. It’s also normal for parents to want their kids to succeed, unconsciously emphasizing their successes and minimizing their failures. It’s even normal (though perhaps not very healthy) for parents to live somewhat vicariously through their children, feeling their successes and failures (and also other people’s criticism) as their own.

I’ve had many of those feelings myself as I’ve listened to people critique my kid’s play, even if it’s rarely intended in a malicious way. I might overhear someone yell, “Where’s the help defence?” when it’s clearly my son who has missed his assignment, or someone else mutter, “Not the shot we want,” when he hoists an ill-advised and contested three-pointer. It would be easy to get offended. It would be easy to speak back. It would be easy to start unnecessary drama.

Which is why I have a few points of advice for parents of athletes:

1) Leave the criticism, analysis, and coaching to the coaches. That’s their job. Your job is to encourage and support your kid (and other people’s kids). Praise and encourage their hustle, effort, and execution. Let the coaches take care of the coaching.

2) If you do have enough knowledge about the sport to contribute helpfully, check with the coach first to be sure you’re not undermining what the team is being taught, and then share it after the game, quietly and positively with the player. In other words, if you know enough to be a coach, then contribute respectfully to the coaching team rather than just screaming from the sideline.

3) Model respect for the referees, coaches, players, and other spectators. How can we expect our kids to behave like adults when a bad call makes us yell obscenities at the officials, or a missed shot makes us talk disrespectfully of a player, or a lost game makes us yell out the coach? Show them how to handle adversity with poise and self-control.

4) Keep a realistic level of expectation for everyone involved. That house league coach you’re screaming at is probably just a helpful parent without any real experience in the sport. That referee you’re giving a hard time is working a U11 game at an invitational tournament in Thornhill on a Sunday morning, and probably has that level of experience. Give them a break.

5) Be realistic about your own kids’ abilities. Absolutely push them to work hard, practise, and do their best, but don’t force them to be something they’re not. They might be the hardworking second-string defensive specialist, or they might be the starting point guard who fills up the bucket, and both are fine. Encourage them to be the best at the role they’re capable of playing, rather than trying to force them into a role they’re not suited to fill.

6) And, above all, remember that none of this is the end of the world. Whether your kids make or miss their shots, whether their teams win or lose the game, whether their careers end in house league or in the pros, none of the important things change. They’re still your kids. You’re still their parents. The important thing is still the relationship between you. Behave accordingly.

For more from Luke Hill check out his blog “Wait ‘til your father says home” at cityparent.com.