The Monkey played soccer this fall. He had two practices a week and games every Saturday at the expansive Earl Huffman soccer complex in North Lubbock. He played for the "Texas Boyz," (sic). He talked about it for months and was very excited to finally get to play. The three-times-a-week schedule was hard for him to get used to (he regularly broke down in tears about getting his gear on for practice before finally deciding it was okay and then running out to the car fully equipped and happy to be going).
I heard a parent say: "Hey Ref...those boys are pushing! That's illegal! They're playing dirty! That's +*&^%$ ridiculous. Come on! Watch the pushing...(then, to her son when he comes to the sideline to get some water: "Hey, son, don't let them play dirty. Push 'em back!)
"Watch the ball!"
"You better get up and play if you know what's good for you!"
"You gotta attack that ball. Are you kidding me?"
"Get your head in the game now, or I'm pulling you out!"
And then this particularly painful moment:
"What is your problem?!?" (Spit literally flying from coaches mouth as he held his son's shoulders in his hands...At this point the assistant coach speaks up and tells the head coach to calm down, and several parents murmur that the coach needs to calm down, and I raise my voice and say "Coach, he's only four," and without turning around the coach says, "He's my son, I'll take care of him." And his son his crying at this point, holding both hands to his mouth. The boy runs back on the field.
There were certainly plenty of coaches who were kind and encouraging all around, but too many were too hard on their own boys. and it wasn't just coaches. Many parents on the sidelines were just as guilty and just as likely to ridicule their own sons and cheer on someone else's son in the same breath as the coaches were. It got to the point that we didn't want to come to games anymore.
After games and practices I found myself in conversation with the Monkey, asking him what he thought about the way some of the parents and coaches talked to their sons. He never seemed too bothered by it, except to say that he was glad we didn't talk to him that way, but he also seemed to be buying into the criticism he heard levelled at some of the other kids. "So and so really needs to learn to listen," he would say, or "so and so doesn't pay attention very well." We talked about the point of soccer (to have fun and learn to play as a team and have fun and follow directions and get exercise and have fun) and about how some kids are still learning some of the basics and about how sad it was that some parents took the game so seriously. But we left it at that and now I think--no, now I'm sure I should have done more. Too many parents, including myself, stood by and let the shouting and harping go on unchecked week after week. I didn't approve, and a few times I spoke up a little to those around me, and once to the coach himself, but for the most part I just kept my mouth shut and made sure no one shouted at my own son. But in my silence, in all of our silence, we were perpetuating a winning-is-everything culture that distorts the purpose of youth sports and sets ups a generation of boys to base their self-worth on their dexterity with a ball and whether or not their dad is shouting at them.
John Gottman (marriage and family therapy guru) says that the key to a successful married relationship is to outnumber negative comments with positive comments 5 to 1. So what is the key to a successful father/son relationship? At least that--maybe more. There is this one important difference. A married couple may grow apart, may separate or divorce, may start a new life apart, but a father/son relationship is forever. Couples can "fall-out-of-love," but it takes a lot for son to give up on his Dad (in fact, I'm not sure a son can give up on his Dad. Even an absent or abusive father still has a profound influence on how a son sees himself and the world). A father wields what a writer friend of mine called "mythic" power over his sons.
Whether we want to or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we are willing to do anything about it or not, our sons live for our approval and much of their self worth, their ability to navigate the world, to accept their own sons, will be learned as they grow in our shadows--for a son always lives in his father's shadow. And it is up to fathers to either bring light to their sons' lives in the form of kindness, patience, understanding, comradery, and humility, or to make it ever darker through anger, unreal expectations, spite, aloofness, and pride.
I think the boots-on-the ground answer to the soccer issue is this: if I want things to change, I've got to volunteer--yeah, that's probably it. Isn't there some line about being the change you want to see in the world?