How I Found Joy in the Pain and Agony of Youth Sports

Janell Burley Hofmann, April 19, 2012

Since the last time I coached my son’s youth sports team, I have given birth to three daughters, his foot has grown larger than mine and now, not everybody wins. It has been six years, but it could have been yesterday, it could have been a lifetime ago. The days move slowly, the years have flown by. I have watched him from the sidelines as I nursed babies, chased toddlers, kept track of them on the playground and dragged them all away from the snack bar one million times over. This season I was ready, if he’d have me, to be a part of this world with him again. I had been invited to coach his middle school basketball team, twelve boys that survived several hours of tryouts this fall to be there. I hesitated. At my core, I had mixed emotions about so much intensity, all the evaluation and money and time and direction.

I have repeatedly watched adults become fools during competition, children crumble under expectations and overheard parents rave about elite leagues and potential college scholarships. I see families pack up each weekend and travel all over the state — the region, even — to watch their children play, all while our fields and neighborhoods and lawns right here ache for a pick-up game, for wild little feet to run across them. I have been sick over it. I wasn’t sure if I could support and endorse a leadership role here with a clear conscience.

Despite my fears and concerns, I showed up anyway. I needed this time with my son. I want to be part of this journey. I believe I can teach them the game and preserve the value of their boyhood at the same time. I only know a few of the boys, with the exception of my own child, they look at me sideways, thinking A Mom coach? I jump in, demonstrate, instruct and their response is instant. I am enthusiastic by nature and a lover of children, but it isn’t until I scrimmage with them one afternoon that they swallow me up as a part of their team and we never look back.

It has not been easy. There were days when my blood would boil because I believed a child was embarrassed by another coach and I held my ground. There were times when I had to assert that we have a role in raising these boys into citizens during a fragile life transition. That what we model and how we speak are lessons they will carry into the world. I have swallowed my rage at screaming, hysterical mothers from opposing teams shouting insults across the gym. I stomped my foot demanding that children get better by playing on their own, because they want to, not by joining sophisticated and expensive leagues. I want to assure parents that investing in the illusion of college scholarships does not serve the child. The game does. I have been left wondering why we do this to ourselves and to our children.

I was worried that all the ways we have tainted youth sports made me lose my taste, my joy for competition; my first true love, my first lesson in mindfulness, my first meditation. Despite whatever chaos was upon me, I could show up, sweat it out, push myself and forget the rest. There was a healthy sense of belonging to something bigger than myself — a team with a goal, people with purpose. I could be fierce and ferocious, intense and powerful. I could be all the things that were hard to be outside the lines.That every sacrifice I made to play taught me and brought me a little closer to knowing the fire and focus that lived inside me. This permanent imprint on my essence is a place I still call on when I need to dig in, when I need to rise.

But there were wild moments this winter when that purity came flooding back. When I found myself jumping out of my chair, cheering, fist pumping, totally lost in every play. I picked up the sons of other women, on more than one occasion, and spun them through the air after a thrilling moment. I have sat on the bench, connected to these boys, caring for them like they were my own. Pushing them when I knew they could do better. Pulling for them when the overcame. I found myself questioning my total immersion. I would hear the urgency in my own voice during a time out and wonder how I came to this commitment so deeply, so truly. I was left shocked, embarrassed at times, by how much I really did care. How what we were creating together really did matter.

There was the game when my child hit a three point shot at the buzzer to win it and put us in first place. And I am shy to admit it, but time slowed. I watched as the bench cleared to tackle him. I wanted to cry. I wanted to run to him. I didn’t do either. I just watched. I knew that instant would be etched forever into his childhood. Gratitude rained down on me. I felt blessed to be such an intimate part of it. He came to me later, after the hugs and high fives, when the frantic gym was clearing out and wrapped his arms around me. I kissed his sweaty forehead. We said nothing. We didn’t need to. Between us was the truth.

Late in the season, they lost unexpectedly in the playoffs by one point. He took a shot in the last seconds and missed. He cried hard. He is competitive and he is emotional. Defeat stings. On the ride home, I told him all of the ways I was proud to be his mother, how I was honored to share this slice of life with him. I told him how he’d improved his game, emerged as a leader, made new friends, gained a lot of experience in close game situations. We went back and forth a bit, had a few laughs and then on the dark ride home, along the highway, we fell quiet. He put his headphones in, reclined in the passengers seat and closed his eyes.

As we approached our home, he reached out and put his hand across my shoulder, “Thanks for being there, Mom. Thanks for everything. I love you.”

I am still. I do not know if I will get this chance again. The ground under us is shaky. He is straddling two worlds and when he stands firmly on the other side, I do not know how he will want me. I tuck this season close to my heart. Partly because of the quality hours logged with my son and mostly because I was reminded of the delicate beauty in childhood. And our responsibility as adults, despite the score, to protect it.

I suddenly see the value here, a chance at glory, a chance at heartbreak, each requiring the art of grace. I find that truth tucked tightly behind the flashy uniforms, fees and expensive equipment, hidden under skill, preparation and performance. A truth that is timeless, children will always be at play, with or without us. It is beyond natural, it is eternal. Step away, step back and you’ll find a child — my child, your child — learning a game, practicing life. All we can do, all we must do, is honor that.

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