"Stop the clock! He's not stopping the clock! Ref, check the clock!"
The woman's shrill and increasingly intense yells from her perch on the bleachers cut through the sounds of the bouncing basketball, squeaking sneakers, fans' cheers and general chatter. I turned my head to look for the voice's owner. I recognised her right away as a parent from a team my daughter Lily's team had faced the previous day. Now, their game was in its final minutes before ours was scheduled to begin.
"There should be 10 more seconds! Ten more seconds on the clock!" She screeched again, pointing to the man and his young daughter at the score table and clutching the pen and paper I could only assume was her own running tally of points and fouls, in case the official game book was wrong.
In our game the day before, I'd been the volunteer charged with keeping the clock, and though I'd missed most of her comments from my seat on the other side of the gym, reports filtered in from other parents about how obnoxious she'd been. Apparently, she'd argued almost every call, commented on our individual players' performances, even mocked our team name by changing "Flames" to "Flakes." At one point, she'd screamed at me because I'd forgotten to put up an extra point on the scoreboard for a foul shot. As I struggled to reset the numbers (because those clocks can have the appearance of the telemetry equipment at NASA's mission control), she continued to harp on the mistake.
Now, the tempers our parents had kept in check the day before flared, and an exchange of angry words erupted. I'd like to say I stayed above the fray, but the raging current pulled me in, and I added a few words of my own about not being able to expect perfection from scorekeepers if you aren't going to volunteer for the job yourself. It didn't end well. The woman got increasingly defensive. We got increasingly defensive. And our daughters witnessed the whole thing, probably fearing a full-out brawl.
My friend Beth, whose son plays competitive hockey, calls the atmosphere currently permeating youth sports a "vortex of dysfunction." She's spot on.
But, it's not the kids feeding the whirling maelstrom. It's the parents. In the years since my older son and my daughter began playing sports, I've witnessed scenes like this (and, unfortunately, many much worse) play out over and over again on the sideline.
I admit that, on some of those occasions, my husband and I have participated. It seems that no matter how hard we try, we let our hopes for our children's successes get tangled with our competitive egos. We stop helping our kids to become the best they can be on the field or court, and often, instead, show them the worst of who we can be.
My children have gained so many things from playing competitive sports. They've learned to identify a goal and work to achieve it. They've found camaraderie with teammates, and come to understand the value of collaboration. They've benefited from the knowledge and examples of wonderful coaches who are also excellent role models. They've been challenged to practice harder, play stronger and think smarter. They've nurtured a dedicated passion for their chosen sports.
But when I wade into the waters that Crazy Screamer on the bleachers obviously swims in regularly, I'm guilty of eclipsing those positive things and reinforcing a dangerous and potentially damaging trend of making the youth sports experience more about me than my child.
Take that tournament, for example. Lily played back-to-back games on Saturday. In the first, she fouled out of the game with 13 minutes left in the second half. She walked off the court, head down, fists clenched, fighting tears of anger, and sat for the remaining minutes watching her team lose their lead, distraught to be leaving them short-handed. I breathed in her distress and stewed on it for the rest of the game and carried it into the second game, where I over-analysed the refs' calls, and voiced my own anger when, again, she fouled out with four minutes still on the clock.
In the car, driving back to the hotel, I reiterated to Lily, more than once, the precaution her coach had given her for the next day's game about how "if it looks like a foul even when it isn't, the refs will likely blow the whistle."
"I already know, Mom," she sighed with an exaggerated eye roll. "I get it."
I spent the evening discussing with other team parents the absurdity of the refs calling 45 fouls in a single game at this level, and I obsessed about our placement in the consolation bracket of the tournament that resulted from our loss in the first game. I even went as far as emailing the tournament's organisers for a clarification of the rules. All of these actions were justified in my mind, because I was looking out for Lily's feelings. Protecting her well-being.
You know what Lily was doing while I internalised the day's events and ratcheted up my blood pressure? She was playing sharks and minnows in the hotel swimming pool. She was piling her plate high with desserts at the team barbecue. She was taking selfies and creating ridiculous videos on her phone's "musical.ly" app with her teammates. She was naming the starfish-shaped wristband her coach gave her for good luck ("Jiggles") and marvelling that it glowed in the dark. Lily was doing exactly what I should have done: leaving the game behind her on the court and looking ahead to the next thing.
What does my 13-year-old daughter have in her playbook that maybe adults could benefit from learning? Perspective. She sees that refs' calls aren't always fair. She understands that she's going to make mistakes on the court and she'll get the chance to correct them sometime in the future. She knows that she can still have fun even when her team loses. And she gets that, at the end of the day, it's just a game.
On our late-afternoon drive home, with Maine's towering pines whizzing past our car windows, I glanced over at Lily and asked, "What was your favourite part of the tournament weekend?"
I expected her to maybe mention the three-point shot she'd sunk in the final three seconds of the last game or the decisive win her team had managed to pull off. Instead, Lily turned in her seat, her long, blond ponytail swinging against the headrest, and simply said, "Snuggling with you, Mom, in our hotel room's king-sized bed."