I never thought football could cause an existential parenting crisis, but last spring, that is exactly what it did. My almost-10-year-old son, Sam, wanted to play flag football for the first time ever, and since he’d had no interest in playing a team sport since he quit baseball a year ago, we jumped on the idea. Sam had played pick-up football games with boys in the neighborhood and at school recess, but he’d never played formally before. Unfortunately, the start of football coincided with a very busy time for my husband, Todd, so it fell to me to take Sam to every practice.
Believe me when I say I’m a total football ignoramus, so I wasn’t sure I was assessing things correctly, but it seemed to me that the coach wasn’t teaching the team much. He would bark plays at the players he deemed offense-worthy, and shove the boys he didn’t know from previous seasons onto defense, letting them stand there doing nothing for the whole practice. And I’m not exaggerating – they were standing there doing nothing while the coach and his assistant worked with offense the whole time.
Is this the way it’s supposed to work? I wondered to myself as I watched Sam’s excitement fade and boredom and frustration take over. Maybe he works with offense one practice, and works with defense the next? Minutes ticked until an hour went by, and still Sam stood there stone-still with the other defense players, totally ignored. The coach called the end of practice, gathering the kids around to say, “We really played like a team today, guys!”
I wanted to punch him in the pigskin. How could they have played like a team, when half of them never interacted with the coach or each other? Half of them played, and half of them didn’t! I was baffled and pissed but let nothing show to Sam.
On the way home, Sam said he didn’t think the coach was interested in working with the new kids, the ones he didn’t know from prior seasons. He said he didn’t get the impression the coach liked him. I told him maybe the coach was just trying to figure things out. Next practice would be different, I promised. I knew that if Sam, a kid who battles anxiety every day, got it into his mind that this situation was going to be a negative one, he would try to get himself out of it, any way he could.
There is a fine line to dance around when you have a child with anxiety, at least there is in our family’s case. We don’t want to get over-dramatic about anything that could cause Sam anxiety, because we don’t want to fan the flames, but we also can’t minimize the things that make him worry. Even if we don’t always understand it, we try to empathize. It’s an intricate dance—one that we sometimes execute gracefully and sometimes screw up so disastrously that there are bodies strewn all over the dance floor.
The next practice was the last one before the first game. I thought for sure the coach would take this time to focus on his chosen defensive players, but instead, he called over a team of 12- and 13-year-olds, who were practicing on another field, and asked them to scrimmage with our 9- and 10-year-olds! So the whole practice, five of our players were forced to stand on the sidelines at a time—not playing, not learning by doing, not receiving any instruction, just watching a game in which their teammates got pulverized by kids 3 and 4 years older than them. How inspiring. How encouraging. HOW INFURIATING.
For an hour and 20 minutes, I saw Sam’s confidence plummet as his shoulders slumped lower and lower, and his eyes glazed over in detachment. My own agitation grew, because I knew I was going to have to drag Sam to the first football game unprepared, uninspired, uninvolved, and unmotivated. What was this coach doing? Didn’t he want the kids who weren’t as experienced to learn? Was he just there to watch a game, instead of coaching a practice?
As if in answer to this internal debate, the coach suddenly plucked Sam out of obscurity, calling him over by pointing at him because he hadn’t learned his name. Because he’d never spoken to him before that moment! After three practices, and without any play time, any instructional time, any word, nod, or acknowledgment, the coach was barking at Sam to run a play. A play he didn’t know.
Sam ran awkwardly down the field, his tall, gangly form zig-zagging confusedly, and dropped the ball when it was thrown to him.
“Don’t you know the play?” the coach yelled.
“No,” Sam admitted in a low voice.
“What did you say?” the coach bellowed.
“NO,” Sam answered, louder.
“Well, what play do you know?” he answered, exasperated. “John, show him how it’s done!”
John, another player, showed Sam how the play was supposed to work, and I could see Sam’s lips moving. He was talking to himself. This scenario was an anxious child’s living nightmare: being unprepared, being criticized, being made to look a fool, being exposed, being inadequate. I saw my child, who tries so hard to hide his anxiety, about to break.
I was facing a tough decision. Do I sit and watch him suffer through this dilemma without intervening, because he needs to learn how to deal with jerks? Do I potentially embarrass or emasculate him by jumping in and dealing with this jerk for him? Do I just wait silently until it all plays out, then comfort and counsel him later?
My own mother pounced all over contentious authority figures, all throughout my childhood. Some would call this protective alter ego “Mama Bear,” but I always likened my mom to a lioness. If any teacher, coach, principal, secretary, priest, nun, parent, or other adult in authority treated any one of her six cubs unkindly or unfairly, the Lioness would shred them into a stuttering pulp. Hackles raised and eyes blazing, she was a fierce sight to behold.
Even though she was defending us, and I was glad to be on the safe side of those claws, it was also embarrassing and awkward for me. After the fur flew, I was the one who had to face the carnage. I dreaded seeing those adults again. I dreaded their diminutive, dismissive treatment of me, their eye rolls and head shakes, their whispers about my mom being crazy, their gossip, their open resentment. The teacher never calling on me; the principal singling me out; the parent refusing to let me play with their kid again. I just wanted it all to go away, and most of the time, I thought it would’ve been better if Mom had never interfered at all.
Having borne those experiences in childhood and after making plenty of my own parenting mistakes in adulthood, I try not to judge my mom for making the decisions she did. She was doing her best and following her heart. I know I’m not a perfect mom. I don’t know if I ever make the right decisions, honestly, and I still don’t know if I made the right one that day . . . .
After more barking from the coach and catching a pass to the stomach that knocked the wind out of him, Sam burst into tears in front of his peers as well as the crowd of adults watching. I knew that it was the last thing he wanted to do. I knew if he had a shovel, he’d dig a hole and jump into it rather than face everyone with tears streaming down his face. Crying is a much-needed stress release for adults and children, and it should not be shameful.
But unfortunately for boys this age, and especially this boy, my boy, to cry is to wear a stigma of weakness, of defeat, of helplessness, of worthlessness. No matter how much reassuring and comforting I might offer later, I knew he would never stop punishing himself for this day—the day he lost to the worst of his demons.
I watched, twisted with my own emotions, as Sam turned his back to the coach in an effort to gain composure. Coach ignored the fact that Sam was crying and just continued to bark plays at him. Suddenly, without thinking, not knowing if I walked or ran, I was beside the coach.
“COULD YOU MAYBE JUST GIVE HIM ONE MINUTE TO COLLECT HIMSELF? WHY DON’T YOU TEACH HIM THE PLAYS INSTEAD OF HUMILIATING HIM? TEACH THESE KIDS, PLEASE! DO YOUR JOB! TEACH THEM,” I boomed.
My heart was pounding, and it was like the world went into slow-motion. I looked around and saw the kids’ mouths agape, Sam’s tear-stained, horror-stricken eyes, the parents looking embarrassedly down at their shoes, and the coach shaking his head. His mouth was moving. He was saying something.
“I am teaching them!”
“When? When? The first 15 minutes of the first practice? Because since then, you haven’t exchanged a single word with some of these players! The second practice you worked only with offense! Today, you scrimmaged a team twice as experienced and let half of your players twist in the breeze! Sam, just go on to the car. We’re done here,” I said, as I walked toward the parking lot with what I am convinced was LITERAL, scalding steam pouring from my ears.
“Why did you do that?” Sam shouted, still in earshot of all the kids, parents, and the coach. “If he hated me before, he’s really going to hate me now!”
And, just like that, I was transported back to elementary school, to middle school, to high school. History was repeating itself, except now I was the embarrassing, crazy one, and my kid was the one who, after the smoke cleared, would be left to navigate the scarred terrain alone.
After Sam was calmed, fed, immersed in mindless TV, and tucked in bed that night, I let myself wallow for a long while. I drank a good bit of wine. I went over and talked my neighbor’s ear off. I came home and drank more wine. I beat myself up. I let all those shameful old memories from childhood wash over me. I relived that moment on the field when it felt like the whole world was staring at me, judging me, including my own son. I faced the Shadow of my own insecurity, the one who followed me everywhere. The one who was constantly telling me I was doing a crap job, that I was screwing my kids up. And finally, I let it all go.
I never dreamed of being that mom who fought her kids’ battles for them, embarrassing them, and taking away their options of fighting for themselves, but I was that mom. I am that mom. At least for now. At least until Sam has a hold on his anxiety, until he is old enough and confident enough to express himself and stand up to people 4 times his age. At 10, he still has a long way to go, and his 7-year-old brothers have even longer. In the meantime, I’m going to do my job. I’m going to protect them, to stand up for them, and yes, fight for them, because in doing so, I am teaching them how to do all of these things for themselves. Just like my mom taught me.
The next day, my husband and I made the decision to move Sam to a different football team within the same league. We didn’t want to convey the lesson to Sam that when things get hard, he gets to quit. But we also didn’t want to teach him that he has to suffer needlessly through situations that are going to create unhealthy emotional land mines for him.
Sam wasn’t happy about having to keep playing football, because combined with his bad coaching experience, he now felt inferior. The sport overall was tainted and fraught with negativity, stress, his own feelings of incompetence, humiliation, and the promise of his own ever-hovering shadow, “anxiety.” Todd and I held firm, knowing we would have our work cut out for us. Knowing we would be dragging him to every game, giving him constant pep talks, taking hard lines alternating with encouraging words, and enduring his anxiety attacks about impending, certain failure.
At Sam’s second game on his new team, which was coached by two kind and supportive high school boys, Sam took away four flags from the other team, made three blocks, caught a pass, and did 100 fist pumps, whether he was standing on the sidelines cheering for his teammates, or celebrating from his place on the field. At least for that hour, I saw my kid change before my eyes from a slumping, meek, insecure football player into a towering, assertive, confident one.
And this time, I was the one who was crying.