This is what I saw on Saturday that about made me puke.
At a basketball tournament for fifth- and sixth-grade girls' teams (one of which I had helped coach), a tall girl crumpled to the floor after being fouled. When she began to cry and didn't get up, her coach walked across the court to check on her. We were sitting close enough to hear the whole conversation.
"What did you hit?" the coach asked.
"My elbow," answered the tall girl, still sobbing.
After a momentary pause, the man turned harsh. "What are you doing way out here [at the three-point line]? Quit being a baby and take the ball inside!" Then he looked up toward me and Coach Rick, saw our raised eyebrows, and shot us one of those, "What-are-you-lookin'-at?" looks.
At that moment, I should have said something to him about the sorry example he was setting. But I held my tongue.
The man's team went on to win that game, and he went on berating his girls as if he were the love child of Bob Knight and Pat Summitt. The team was very good, and the players looked very cowed.
Our team finished the weekend with a very respectable two wins and two losses, and we were proud of them. Everyone got to play, and everyone contributed.
But 2-2 was an apt record, since I frequently leave youth sports events with mixed feelings.
At this level, basketball or soccer leagues can be a great introduction to a game kids can enjoy for many years. Most coaches are involved for the right reasons. They like working with young people, they want to teach them a game they love, and they enjoy seeing players develop skills and confidence.
But, consciously or not, many coachesmany more than we'd like to admitare in it for lots of wrong reasons. They want to win above all else. They want to draw attention to their coaching genius. They want to work with only the best players.
You can't miss these coaches. They're the ones who unceasingly ride the befuddled refs. They're the ones who devote much more time to criticizing their players than to praising them. Watch their early-season practices, and you'll see a few who attempt to run off the weaker players by humiliating them or even (as one Williamson County football father related to me) by putting them through hazardous drills. These people can make you booger-eatin' nuts.
This is the point at which most of us beyond a certain age would wax nostalgic for the days when kids mostly organized their own sports. We didn't need adults. The adults didn't expect us to need them. Almost every neighborhood had a vacant lot or was within easy bike-riding distance of a playground. We learned about resolving disputes and dealing with life's minor injustices on our own.
It would be hunky if we could bring the youth sports experience back to the wonder years. Then again, as my cowboy friend Action Jackson says, "If buzzards had jukeboxes, music would fill the skies." It ain't happening. Our McMansion neighborhoods aren't designed for sandlots. Our litigious society, governed more by lawyers and insurance companies than by Congress or common sense, precludes organizations from allowing kids to play on their grounds without adult supervision. Our fear of wolves lurking in the fold precludes many of us parents from letting our kids roam neighborhoods the way we once did.
The reality is that, without organized (that is to say, adult-controlled) sports, there would be few youth sports at all.
So maybe the best we can do is to help some of our immature adults take a more wholesomely childlike attitude toward youth sports. In that spirit, here's some advice to all you Coach What Are You Lookin At's and your attitudinal kin:
As your mamas surely told you, if you've got nothing nice to say, shut the [bleep] up. There is a place for shouting instructions to players when it will help. There is almost never a place for yelling criticism when players commit one of the snatch-yourself-bald mistakes that occur about every 20 seconds. Few will play better because you called them out in front of everyone. On the other hand, a compliment from you, even on something small, can do wonders for a mediocre player's confidence. And here's a tip: you don't improve as a team by pushing a couple of star players harder; you do it by helping the mediocre ones play better.
There is always a chance you will be crushed by a falling meteor. Or, less probably, you will coach the next Mia Hamm. If you're going to coach elementary and junior high kids, you'll need to lower your expectations. A lot. You can devote entire practices to the pick and roll or the offside trap, and never see your players successfully execute it. Someone, if not everyone, will invariably forget the brilliant play you just showed them. Your loud expressions of frustration (see above) won't make them execute one scratch better.
No one is likely to mistake you for John Wooden (especially if you're acting like John Chaney). By all means, don't be a lump on the bench. Shout instructions. Call strategic timeouts. Use every opportunity to teach. Just don't take yourself so seriously.
Don't work the refs. Some coaches think that continually cajoling youth-league refs is appropriate because that's what they see adept college and pro coaches do on TV. But you're not a college or pro coach. And these sure as hell aren't college and pro zebras. They're struggling enough without your help. Most of them are slogging along at 10 bucks a game because, just like you, they love the sport. Most are somewhere south of average. You get what you pay for. It's one thing to disagree with a call. It's quite another to ride them the whole game. Just as with the players, your protests won't suddenly make them more competent. Meanwhile, you'll just make everyone around you miserable.
What goes for coaches goes double for parents. I was sitting blissfully on the bench last year when a parent began yelling from across the gym at the opposing coach. The coach started yelling back. It got so bad that the ref stopped the game. Another time, I saw a priest shout his approval when one of his school's players undercut one of our girls on a lay-up. Nice job, fathers.
Last Saturday, I saw part of Jerry Maguire on TV. Early in the movie, Jerry decides to write a personal mission statement. After hearing Coach What Are You Looking At, I concluded that a good mission might be to "get into the faces of people whose faces need getting into."
I got a chance to try it out the very next afternoon, when I sat down the row from an opposing coach who rode the refs for four quarters. Otherwise, he was an excellent coach with a well prepared team. We played very well to lose by only 2 points.
Afterward, I thought about letting it go, but I remembered the mission. So, after we shook hands, I told him (calmly), "You know, this was a close, exciting game, and you took a lot of the fun out of it by yelling the whole time. Try to remember why you're here."
I was a little surprised when he replied, "Thank you for telling me."
I left feeling almost optimistic. I hope I meet that festered priest again.