When my neighbor Pete saw me walk out to the van with my son, dressed in his Junior Bulldog basketball uniform, he called out to me — smiling as only an in-the-know parent can — "Oh, oh, so it's starting."
"It" is travel sports. Pete should know. His son gave up his senior year in high school to live with a host family in South Dakota while playing hockey and hoping to attract college or even pro suitors.
Yet I'm not just a dad of a travel player. When Pete saw me, I was lugging a mesh bag with seven shiny orange balls. Yep, I'm the travel coach. That's me at the head of the bench with 10 hyperactive, dreaming-of-glory (but-still-often-having-to-pause-in-midgame-to-tie-their-shoes) 12-year-olds.
Of all people, I should know better. A few years ago I wrote a magazine story questioning the value of travel sports. I quoted the harsh facts: By age 13, one-third of children who were active in sports at age 10 have dropped out. I quoted Bob Bigelow, a former NBA player and critic of youth sports, on the "downward creep" of travel teams: He sarcastically envisioned "prenatal sports."
As a coach, I'm supposed to rise above the cutthroat competition. As a father, I certainly can't live my dreams through my son. And you're probably already assuming somewhere in this narrative, most likely near the end, there will be an anecdote of a game-winning shot or tale of a player who overcame a troubled home life to find self-esteem in a gym.
Well, the other night my wife, Laura, asked me how practice went. "The kids don't listen," I bellyached. "They don't do what I tell them. I showed them how to break the press, and two minutes later it's like I hadn't said a word." Then, recovering my better self and with tongue firmly in cheek (my wife is a teacher at a Chicago Public School in a gritty neighborhood), I added dramatically, "You have no idea what it's like to try to work with 12-year-olds."
So maybe that's one of the let's-keep-it-quiet facets of youth sports today. The children I've had the privilege to coach are smart, respectful and hardworking. But they're also kids, meaning they're a lot like my three boys. Meaning, well, if you're a parent, I don't need to go on. Let's just say that these kids are not exactly sports automatons. Keeping the attention of boys for even five minutes requires the powers of a hypnotist.
So here's the deal with youth sports. First, it's mind-boggling how big it's become. Last year we drove 70 miles to a university in a cornfield to join 50 other teams in a mammoth field house for a weekend of hoops. There were uniforms of every color and style and teams from all over the Chicago metropolitan area. The courts were jammed one up against the other with few seats. Parents who had been to this tourney before brought their own chairs. Parents who had been to any travel tourney before came well prepared: thermos of coffee, snack bags, toys for younger siblings, newspapers and books to pass the time between games.
I've heard that youth swimming is the worst sport for parents; the waits between swims are interminable and the summer-like indoor heat is oppressive. But try spending six hours trapped in a stifling-hot gym with the sounds of thumping basketballs and piercing whistles.
In all honesty, however, the worst part of being a youth basketball coach is stifling myself. There's something about sports that brings out the ogre in me. Why do I so badly want my son to play well? Why is winning so important? Why will I never forget or forgive that ref who swallowed his whistle when our point guard, well, nevermind.
I suspect a lot of other parents harbor the same impulses. There we all are in the gym or at the baseball diamond, suppressing the urge to yell at the ref or umpire, jealous of the effortless athleticism or brute strength and outlandish size of other parents' and teams' kids, agonizing why our little Johnny let the ball trickle through his hands with the game on the line.
I've witnessed very few parents actually behaving badly. It seems as if everyone is so worried about being branded as a typical Little League parent that the typical Little League parent now is a model of decorum. Not to say it's all rosy. Once two parents, unhappy that I was playing all the boys equally, chided me for not "playing to win." They urged me to play the best players more ("best" being code for their sons) and then pulled out their wallets. "What will it take?" one said, jokingly. I think.
All of this reminds me of an observation made by a journalist whose son was mentally challenged. The problem was not his son's humanity. It was the father's own struggle to accept him as he was.
I try to keep that in mind — with minimal success. Earlier this season I could not fall asleep after a hotly contested game. I was so wound up I could not wind down. So I tiptoed upstairs into my son Kevin's room. He was sleeping soundly.
Jay Copp (GJ89) is a freelance writer in La Grange Park, Ill., and editor of the Lion magazine, the official publication of Lions Club International.
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