You’ve done your job. You’re on second base. As you slowly create distance between you and the base, anticipation starts to grow, hoping your teammate will be able to further advance you around the bases. The pitcher starts his windup. As the ball leaves the mound, your focus intensifies. Your heart starts beating faster. You hear the bat hit the ball and in a millisecond the ball rockets over your head. You’re now running. The third base coach is waving you on. You have to trust your coach’s decision. You round third, you see the pitcher running toward home plate as well, racing to get behind the catcher in case of an errant throw. You look at your teammate behind the catcher telling you to slide. The catcher, his arm stretched out to the max, squats protecting his turf. You adjust your course slightly to the right and lunge into a head-first slide. You hit the ground. The impact causes dirt to fly into the air. Like the catcher, your left arm can’t be extended any further. You touch home plate. You know the catcher tagged you. But when? Did you beat the throw? You look up toward the home plate umpire. In what seems like an eternity, you listen and watch for his call. You know it’s going to be close. And then you see his arms making the safe motion and hear that glorious word, “Safe!” You hop up and high five teammates as you make your way to the dugout. Life is good. You feel great. And then you hear it.
“Johnny! Why didn’t you tag him faster? You just let him score. I’ve told you a thousand times that you have to protect the plate. Are you stupid?” Johnny slowly lowers his head. He felt he did everything right. He did his best. But, his dad is pissed off. While you are safe, Johnny is not. He feels shamed. He feels embarrassed. He’s defeated. He fears what his dad may say next. What should be one of the safest places on Earth is not for Johnny.
All over our great land, scenes like this play out too often. Sports are supposed to be fun. Inherent in all sports is a danger of being injured. But, this should be limited to the field, the court, the ice, etc. Far too many of our youth are being hurt from the stands.
Children need three things to grow in to healthy, happy, and productive adults. They need to feel loved, have structure, and feel safe. If one or more of this essential building blocks is missing, the chances that child will struggle emotionally and behaviorally increase dramatically. Upon reaching the teenage years, a teen may turn to drugs, alcohol, and other assorted rebellious behavior, as he or she searches for ways to escape the pain of feeling not good enough, a failure, and not having met the expectations of his or her parent(s).
They need to feel loved, have structure, and feel safe.
As a psychotherapist practicing the art and science of Narrative Therapy, it is our relationship with our own problem(s) that is the problem. As no one, no parent, is perfect, childhood is often a place where a lot of problematic relationships are formed. Relationships with low self esteem, fear, depression, anxiety, and guilt, are often created in the developing mind. If these relationships continue to be “fed” by adults, these problems can grow and become monstrous. Instead of a child blooming, a child will wilt. They will learn that being vulnerable, an essential component of creating deep, loving relationships, is bad and needs to be avoided. Walls will be erected, defenses will go on full alert, and other problematic relationships, such as relationships with anger, shame, hypervigilance and hypersensitivity, just to name a few, may manifest.
One of the hallmarks of youth sports is that inherent in them are positive values and important life lessons. There are so many teaching moments that arise on a daily basis. Lessons about winning, losing, sportsmanship, honor, integrity, loyalty, decency, fairness, empathy, sacrifice, respect, responsibility, and courage are just some of the many positive human values that are on the field for the taking. This is why we, as a society, are so interested in sports at all levels and why many parents encourage their children to participate.
I was curious about the current state of mind in regard to kid’s and parent’s mindset in 2017. So I sat down with Mike Barger, an accomplished athlete having played baseball in his youth, as well as in the army, where he also played football, and then played professional golf. Mike has been umpiring baseball games, little league, high school, city leagues, charity events, and once umpired the USC /UCLA professional football player’s alumni baseball game, since the 1960’s.
|Mike, thanks for taking the time to meet with me.|
|No problem. Happy to do so.|
|You have been umpiring for a long time. I am curious, what has changed over the almost 60 years that you have been calling baseball games from behind home plate?|
|Well, not that much. For the most part, parents, coaches, and players remain respectful. But, there are always those players, coaches, and parents that want to argue over balls and strikes. Recently, I had to call time in a game to call the coaches over to have a conference. I let them know that if anyone started to argue about a ball or strike call they would be gone. People can get very emotional. As a parent, coach, or player you want to make sure the you are modeling good sportsmanship.|
|What do you think is the most important thing parents can do in regard to their children’s participation in sports?|
|That’s easy. Encourage them, don’t belittle them. Children need the support of their parent(s). Children need to be cheered on and supported. Your child needs your support. It is not up to your child to support his or her parent(s). That only puts undue pressure on a child. The worst thing a parent can do is to put down his or her child; to make a child feel that he or she is not good enough, failing, or not living up to his or her potential in the eyes of the parent.|
|Have you ever had to throw someone out of a game or out of the stands for being inappropriate?|
|Yes. There have been times where someone comes unglued and I need to get them out of there. I remember one game where a father kept yelling from the stands. The last straw was when he yelled that I was intentionally helping the other team. My response was “you’re gone!” I can only imagine what must have been going on in his child’s mind.|
|Besides encouraging a child, what else can a parent do to make the field a safe place for his or her child?|
|Not all children are going to enjoy playing a sport. Don’t force your child to play a sport that he or she may not be interested in. Work to find out what your child is interested in. It may not be sports, but in doing so, you put yourself in the position of being able to encourage and support your child. Your child may be interested in music or science and have no interest in sports. Forcing your child to play a sport he or she has no interest in will only cause both you and your child a lot of stress and suffering.|
|Thanks for your time Mike.|
Mike made an interesting point in that encouraging children is very important. Within the word encouragement is the word courage. Courage is a not the absence of fear. Courage is going forward to face a challenge even if one is fearful or anxious. Fear is just one of a number of states of mental energy. And, fear, in the right amount, can be used to power courage. Thus, part of encouraging children is to help them face fear or anxiety in order to be able to move forward and to challenge themselves free of the weight that fear and anxiety manifest. The worst thing a parent can do is feed a child’s fear or anxiety by talking down to a child or making him or her fear failing. Instead, talk to your child about how anxiety or fear may be pushing them around. Ask your child this simple question, “What is fear telling you?” One of my favorite ideas about fear is that fear is a liar. Therefore, help your child see that he or she does not need to listen to fear; that he or she can turn, face fear with courage with you at his or her side, and evaporate it as he or she travels through it. A key is to make sure that your child feels safe enough to talk about what fear or anxiety is saying to him or her. Then you can become his or her ally against fear. Objectify the problematic relationship with fear and anxiety, not the child.
As I stated earlier, making a child feel safe is one of the 3 pillars of parenting. Children are naturally in a position of low to no power. Their lives are managed by adults in their lives. Parents, coaches, teachers, and other associated adults, are all in a position of power over children. If parents engage in actions that builds trust, such as being empathetic, assessing without judging, and being patient, a child will feel safe on that foundation of that trust. Being on a platform of trust allows one to enter into a positive state of vulnerability. It is in that vulnerable space that a child will feel safe enough to let down defenses and be far more open to sharing deep personal fears and anxieties, and to being open to hearing and working to connect to what the parent is trying to teach.
In my next segment, I’ll look at the pro’s and con’s of trying to protect a child’s self-esteem at all costs, a movement that arose out of the field of psychology that gained a lot of momentum in the last few decades, and share thoughts on how a parent can navigate this complex issue. Until then, keep encouraging your child and make sure that your child knows that he or she has your love and support.