As far as entertainment goes, it’s tough to beat people watching. It’s free, easy, and you can do it just about anywhere. Sure, some places are more rewarding than others—the airport, Las Vegas, Black Friday sales—because you can always count on the fact that at any moment someone will do something completely devoid of common sense, self-consciousness, or even a rudimentary understanding of basic civil conduct. For my money, though, there's somewhere that tops them all.
The sidelines of any kids’ sporting event.
I’m not sure how many of my kids’ games I’ve attended or coached, but the number is pretty high. And in terms of parental behavior, the sports can differ quite a bit.
At one end of the spectrum is cross-country. The courses are often hilly, twisty, and extend way beyond the bounds of any field of play involving a ball. So, it’s incredibly difficult for parents to observe the entire thing; the best that the most ambitious of us can manage is to jog around to different points in the course so that we can get a quick look at our kids zipping by. This has two main advantages (from our kids' point of view, no doubt). First, parents like me are usually too winded from running from place to place to do much more than clap and offer a “Woo-hoo, [insert son or daughter’s name here]!” And second, there’s something about the sport that invites shouts of encouragement only. When your child is only doing one thing—in this case, running—you don’t really have much to offer in the way of detailed advice. Plus, they’re not listening anyway.
On the other side of things is baseball, where I’ve seen some of the worst parental behavior on display. One reason, no doubt, to the length of the games. After sitting out in the heat by a dusty field for a couple of hours, even the meekest of souls might be stirred to take someone’s life—or at the very least, to do some serious maiming. Also, baseball is a “narrative-rich” game. There are all kinds of little stories going on, and these stories provide way too many opportunities for parents to insert themselves. Consider an at-bat: all those pitches, and with every pitch, the story (and, of course, the shouts of advice) changes. Then there’s the story of a hit ball, the story of a fielded (or not fielded) ball, the story of a steal. For each of these stories, there are multiple characters and perspectives—the team at bat, the team in the field, the various players who become involved in any given play, and naturally, the parents of all these kids. Sometimes after coaching a game, I’d have no voice left because I’d spent most of the time trying to make myself heard over the shouts coming from the stands.
When you study something long enough, certain patterns emerge, so without further adieu, I’d like to present a few characters—all dads—that I’ve encountered over the years. There are more, but these are my favorite. And by “favorite,” I mean “least favorite.”
Anyone with a child on a sports team knows that parents are required to show up at least sixty minutes before game time. Sometimes more, depending on the sport. While the kids warm up, the parents look for something to do. For me, that usually means setting up my folding chair and grading papers. For others, it means chatting over the tops of Starbucks cups. For the Analyst, it means checking out the conditions of the field, listening in on the coach’s pre-game advice, and studying the other team as they run through their drills.
A couple of Saturday mornings ago before my younger son’s soccer game, I was trying to in vain to find something resembling a thesis in one of my students’ papers when one of these dads saw me. I was hunched over, pen in hand, brow furrowed in concentration. So of course he assumed that I wanted to talk. Or rather, to listen.
“This is gonna come down to our midfielders,” he said, nodding.
“Last time we played these guys, they killed us in time of possession. They got some big guys. Big, but not fast.”
“Field’s pretty sloppy in the center.” He paused here to point out some dark spots on the grass. “There, there, and there. If our guys are quick to the ball, they can use their guys’ size against them. Didn’t hear Coach mention that though.”
“You should say something,” I said. And let me get back to grading.
“Yeah…yeah, I think I will,” he said, nodding, as he trudged across the sub-par field, pausing to more closely study the spots that would figure in to his unbeatable strategy.
The Macho Man
For some odd reason, this dad has linked his own sense of self and masculinity to his son’s performance on the field. Sadly, this psychodrama usually plays itself out publicly and almost always involves tears. The son’s, of course.
I’d see it all the time in baseball, usually when a kid got plunked at the plate, or caught a grounder with his chin, or was hit in the back as a base runner by an errant throw. When you think about it, baseball with young kids is insanely dangerous; they’re unskilled, usually hopped up on some post-school sugary snack, and wielding aluminum clubs and rock-hard orbs.
Once, one of my players was at bat, turned toward a high, inside pitch, and took it square on his left cheek. Now I’ve been hit with a baseball before. It hurts. And this kid started howling. Another coach and I ran over to him with our league-issued ice pack, and before we got to him, his dad was at the backstop fence, fingers locked into the chain link. He had sunglasses on, and I assumed that behind them was a look of concern. I was wrong.
“Suck it up and get back in there!” he shouted to his son. “Be a man!”
We iced his face, calmed him down, and got him back at the plate. He was terrified of the ball (and who wouldn’t be?), but I think he was more scared of his dad.
Mr. Advice, aka “Captain Obvious” (this nickname courtesy of my son Tony)
This is the dad who knows exactly which kid should be doing what and how. He’s not the coach, mind you—No time with work and all, out of town a lot, you know how it is—but that doesn’t stop him from liberally dispensing pointers at the top of his lungs.
During an 8am basketball game one Saturday morning, in a gym that was so cold it might as well have not had a roof, I was sitting next to a Mr. Advice. While most of us were trying not to succumb to hypothermic shock, this guy was on his feet for nearly the entire game. I couldn’t really gauge the breadth of his basketball knowledge because he was concerned with only one thing: how often the kids would pick up their dribble, get swarmed by the defense, and turn over the ball.
Now, this was rec ball and these kids were pretty young, so the scene described above pretty much sums up every game. Most parents accepted this, but Mr. Advice was dead set on helping out.
“DON’T PICK UP YOUR DRIBBLE!” he’d yell from in front of me. Then he’d catch my eye.
“Why do they pick up their dribble?” he’d ask. I’d shrug. He’d turn back to the game.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to cop to being a Mr. Advice in my past. With soccer, no less, the sport about which I know the least. I had all kinds of tips for the kids, and I didn’t hesitate to share them during game time. Then one season, my son Nick’s coach had a fun idea for a practice: kids versus parents. I jogged out on the field, confident in my ability to carry out the very obvious instructions I’d been shouting every Saturday morning (Get there! Kick the ball! Stay with him!). Ten minutes and two handball calls against me later, I’d fallen to the ground twice (once while trying to Kick the ball!), been completely unable to keep up with kids a third my size, and suffered a simultaneous attack of vertigo and hyperventilation that I was convinced was a mild stroke.
From that point to precisely the present, my sideline comments have been nothing but enthusiastic support.
It should be noted, however, that people might not share your conception of “support.” For example, I discovered the hard way that shouting “RELEASE THE KRAKKEN!” is not universally seen as a rallying cry.