It’s all too easy for parents (and parent-coaches) to get so caught up in their child’s performance and the outcome of the game, that they completely lose sight of what’s really central and important to youth sports: Our kid’s emotional well-being, self-image and happiness.
How you as a parent handle your child’s early athletic successes and failures can last a lifetime and powerfully shape your child’s later sense of self and happiness as an adult. The following autobiographical; story by Mike Hall is a poignant reminder for us all that there is so much more at stake here!
MY YOUTH SPORTS STORY: SEGNER FIELD
By Mike Hall
We were a team of ten-year-old rookies in our first season of organized ball. The American Alloys Alligators wore bright yellow shirts and hats with a gator on the front.
Corky Ullom was our star player and most observers thought he’d someday play in the majors. He was a talented lefty who could pitch and hit the long ball. One night he hit a home run over the left center field fence that made everyone’s jaw drop. No one we knew had ever hit the fence on the bounce, but his cannon shot cleared it by a mile.
The Alligators had a devoted following of parents who became accustomed to large-margin victories over lesser skilled opponents. The players loved the popsicles and soft drinks shared after each game.
I played third base and pitched when Corky needed a rest. My dad was the coach and although he knew the game, he was a worrier on the sidelines concerned mostly with winning.
Our games were scheduled for seven innings but most were called after five because of the ten-run rule. Baxter Automotive was our chief competitor, and we faced them to determine who would be seeded first heading into the playoffs. Corky was throwing bullets and the Baxter hitters couldn’t touch him. Most appeared to be paralyzed with fear as they walked to the plate.
The Alligators had repeatedly failed to score with runners on base, and coach was getting more agitated as the 1-1 game headed into the final inning. We were the visitors and missed another opportunity in the top of the seventh when Corky was thrown out at third trying to stretch a double into a triple.
The first Baxter hitter struck out swinging in the bottom of the seventh. The next two hitters walked, and a bunt moved the base runners to second and third with two out. The left-handed clean up hitter then hit a weak grounder to third and it appeared that the game would go into extra innings. I fielded the ball cleanly but inexplicably couldn’t get the ball out of the glove in time to make the final out. The final score of 2-1 flashed on the small scoreboard in left field as the Alligators left the field.
This loss still haunts me more than forty-five years later. In my head, I know it was only a rookie error in a ten-year-old game. The coach, my dad, just couldn’t see it that way.
The look and verbal lashing he delivered after my miscue was scathing. There would be no popsicles or soft drinks on this night. I ran to the car, buried myself in the backseat and cried for nearly a half hour.
He didn’t say a word on the ride home but my mom and I sensed his anger and hoped it wouldn’t erupt further. My dad was prone to verbal rage from which even the neighbors recoiled.
When we pulled into the driveway, I quickly jumped out of the car, headed to my bedroom and pulled the door shut. This would be my first experience with depression as I remained secluded for nearly three days.
I felt worthless. I prayed that I would not wake up the next morning. There was no appetite and no desire to see or speak to anyone. My head was in a fog and my heart felt like it was crushed. Looking back, I realize this was a terrible burden for a ten-year-old ballplayer to carry.
There were no apologies offered….no words of comfort or encouragement came my way. On Monday, my appetite returned but I still felt like an alien around family members.
My dad and coach still seemed incredulous that I didn’t make this routine play. My eyes assumed the forlorn look of a scared puppy who had just sullied the carpet. By Tuesday, I still was listless with no intention of attending our practice. The coach forced me to go, but I could only go through the motions.
On the ride home, he scolded me again as I looked vacantly out the window. The fog intensified, and my room again became my refuge.
There would be no postgame treats for me after our remaining four games. I did not have it in me to mingle with teammates after the games. I just wanted to season to be over.
The word “depression” had not been a part of my innocent vocabulary….but now it seemed as if we were bosom buddies. This episode also spawned a destructive defense mechanism that is with me nearly a half century later.
I am a tennis coach but never play. When asked why, I reply that I have a low tolerance for mediocrity. The truth is I can’t stomach missing routine shots. I get angry and disgusted with myself when I do. The anger and self loathing are my defense.
Long ago, I figured that if I showed this angst, I might short circuit my dad’s anger and draw some compassion from him. A rational thought with no basis in real life.
This defense is so automatic it’s as if it is written into my DNA. It resembles an old phonograph record with a scratch that the stylus can’t escape.
I now tell my tennis students that I understand their angry outbursts….I’ve been there. Coaching them on mental toughness skills is a part of most lessons. They probably notice my voice change and the tear in the corner of my eye when I tell them that I’ve been infinitely more desperate after rounds of golf than they’ve ever been in tennis.
What do I advise parents and coaches to do differently today? Be a cheerleader for your kids on their good days and a compassionate friend on the bad ones. Look for signs of dejection and withdrawal and speak with your children…..help them rebound from losses or slumps. Be comforting rather than critical and don’t get too wrapped up in outcomes.
My dad’s obsession with outcomes clouded his perspective, fueled his anger, and led to at least twenty episodes where I might not have made it to morning. I see a handful of tennis parents every summer who have a similar affliction as my coach….my dad.
They are overly involved in their child’s play and cannot believe that the youngster could make an error on such a routine ball. I’ve got news for them. When parents or coaches are cut from this cloth, there are no routine plays. Every point, game and match can be a pressure cooker. Just like each game I played after that night at Segner field.
My daughter has been a competitive softball player for six seasons. I have always found it natural to say at least three positive things about her play after every game, no matter whether her team won or lost.
I am much more the sinner than the saint and nowhere near the perfect father. At times, I’ve wondered how she struck out against pitchers who didn’t seem to throw very hard.
Last summer, I took a long weekend off so we could drive seventy-five miles north for a Triple Crown Tournament in Fort Collins, Colorado. My daughter played third base in the first game against a team that was clearly less skilled.
Her team, The DC Jets, was ahead going into the last inning. The visiting team had two runners on base and one out when the batter hit a routine grounder to third base. My daughter charged the ball and then threw wildly past first to allow the winning runs to score.
She was devastated. Her teammates tried to console her to no avail. For about ninety seconds, I felt like my father….angry and unbelieving at this routine play gone awry.
I’m glad that she could not see my reaction. In the next minute, I saw the situation for what it was. I could see into my daughter’s heart and feel her pain. I walked behind the dugout, called her name, and just held out my arms. Sadly, she walked over and buried her head in my chest and sobbed. I cried.
There we were, two infielders who couldn’t make the routine play when it mattered most. I told her I loved her and encouraged her to look me in the eye.
“You will bounce back from this darling. Your spirit will get beyond this, and you will make yourself and your teammates proud in the next game.”
We took a walk to distance ourselves from her distraught teammates. She promised to let it go….and be a cheerleader in the dugout during the second game of their double header.
Never have I been more proud than when I heard her leading the cheers for her mates in game two. She went on to shine during the rest of the tournament and thoroughly enjoyed the weekend.
I cried writing this. If my ninety seconds of anger and second guessing would have been the first thing she experienced, I have no doubt that her entire weekend would have been ruined. Whatever prompted me to shed the anger and just go to her with open arms can only be called a blessing.
One scarred infielder reaching out to another with love and understanding…leaving behind Segner field and the demons of so long ago.