SPORTS PARENTS: BEWARE OF THE BEAR

“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

—-Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz

How do you detect such beasts in the jungle of youth sports?  The parents who are Lions set a high standard with admirable traits such as self control, team focus, positivity, and perspective. The Tigers on the other hand are preoccupied solely with their own athlete, often going it alone as they spread negativity, and display self indulgence.  Therefore, their youth sports experience is in stark contrast to the experience of Lions.  I believe that parents can exhibit a mixture of  both, but most aspire to share the qualities of the Lion, which tend to produce joy, over the traits of the Tiger which lead to anxiety.

Now we introduce a third animal, the Bear.  You may not have encountered this beast if you are a new parent to youth sports.  Indeed, parents may rarely witness a bear interaction along their journey. But if you have ever been on the receiving end of a bear attack, you will not soon forget it, nor take it lightly.  I first observed this Bear phenomenon while I was still an assistant coach, before I became a sports administrator.  The event is etched in my memory because it transformed my thinking like no curriculum could.  ( To me, that is the key to how sports teach;  information is gained within the  context of emotions, often intense, which is not quite the same as sitting securely in a classroom.)

After a hard-fought overtime victory in middle school girls’ basketball, our team was huddled together in celebration…except for one B team player.  She had not been granted her request to go into the game during the crucial waning moments.  Regretfully, I had been cross with her when she asked.  She and her parents were waiting near an exit, expectant, expressionless.  The head coach and I made our way over to their “territory” to make contact.  What then ensued is a long story; however, this is the summary of what I learned that evening.

1.  Yes, Virginia, there are Mama and Papa Bears inside otherwise reasonable, amicable, loving adults.

2.  Being a loving parent is likely prerequisite to releasing the inner bear, because parental love means protecting one’s offspring whenever he/she is perceived to be threatened in some way.

3.  No matter what rationale or factual information is presented to counteract the intense emotions of a Bear, it will be ineffective during the conflict.

4.  A cooling off period is essential for meaningful resolution to occur.

5.  A Bear resides within most parents, and how and when it manifests depends on one’s ability to apply restraint, a willingness to obtain additional facts, and about 24 hours before reacting.

It would be easy to vilify those parents who not only killed my buzz after the big win, but lashed out with demonstrable anger in front of their child!  However, I, too, have played the role of Mama Bear without realizing it at the time.  Once I dashed across the track during a meet to confront the athletic director of my son’s high school, based on incomplete information.  Later on I learned it could have been totally prevented.  Another time, I called up the cheer coach who I perceived had offended my daughter and let her have it over something senseless.   Looking back, I would characterize it as a complete overreaction.  And there are other accounts.  But you get the idea.

The coaches and administrators showed me grace during those times, which too was transforming.  When I became an athletic director, I learned to put  bear attacks in perspective.  As my mentor and boss had taught me, there is always at least a nugget of truth when angry parents’ complaints are aired, and wisdom dictates acknowledgment of that fact.  Those nuggets can actually make the team, the coaches, and the program better.

Dear parents, be aware of, and learn to restrain the Bear within.  There are indicators that will help you detect its emergence.   Try not to give full vent to your anger in such moments.  Then you can look back and be glad that damage was minimized, and relationships and joy in the sports experience were sustained.

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