I first realized I was one of them—a freaky, crazed, over-involved sports cheerleader parent, the kind other people want to kill—when I took my daughter to play indoor Nerf soccer a few years ago. I didn’t become one of them over a season of sideline or bleacher coaching, though; I just instantly was.
This is surprising because I generally don’t like to watch sports at all—not unless I actually know some of the athletes. I tend to think of watching a televised game, in particular, as the biggest possible waste of my time. Pick up a newspaper or check television later for the score—that’s what I say, if the score even matters at all in the greater scheme of life.
I really do not care about pro sports. I know some people will vehemently disagree with me, but that’s how I feel. Sorry.
Maybe this is because I am just the artsy type, or maybe it’s because my childhood seemed to be segmented by my father’s near-constant game-viewing. “Watching the game” seemed to take hours every weekend (and he drank beer and ate those Wise waffle sandwich crackers with the stiff bright orange cheese whiz in between. I always tried some of his bar snacks and never liked them; I prefer arugula, and almost always have—though I did enjoy the occasional sip of beer). When a game was on, as one always seemed to be, my dad hogged the television; he couldn’t stop watching to drive me anywhere, and I resented all of it.
I always knew I would never grow up to watch sports. I would never marry a man who did (at least not one who watched sports religiously). Now, my husband watches some of the Open, maybe the Superbowl, maybe the World Series. That’s ok; I can deal with that (i.e., special occasion sports viewing).
I will not even park myself on the couch for more than a few minutes, however, even if it is the Superbowl. I can’t do it. I just can’t sit there.
But suddenly, I am into standing there—watching sports. Actual, live games. Ideally, they will feature my daughter, and I am always, I am somewhat embarrassed to report, one of the most obnoxious sideline fans in a crowd of hovering, hyper, over-caffeinated parents.
My daughter is tall, muscular, a natural athlete, so strong and tough I have never been able to forcibly put her in her room when she misbehaves. She was also one of the only girls on the five-year-olds’ soccer team. Every other child was male, and—I am not exaggerating—the son of Brazilians, probably former soccer players, possibly even semi-pro.
I could tell: the fathers’ calves were still visibly thick through the bottoms of their jeans, and they walked like soccer players, sort of tippy-toed in Sambas. (Ubiquitous Futbol Brasilia t-shirts were also a give-away.) Their kids were unbelievable players. Clearly, they’d been juggling soccer balls since they could walk.
My daughter, who would be awesome at soccer if she weren’t being kicked in the shins every two seconds by these speedy, hyper-aggressive others, did not stand a chance. I think she saw the ball once. And the kids on the teams never seemed to understand that some should stay in defense, some in offense. Co-ed, intramural Nerf soccer, which wasn’t coached at all (it was, rather, a free-for-all), wasn’t going to work, no matter how much I yelled and cursed and cajoled from the side of the gym. I needed to get her on a girls’ team.
Now, my daughter plays basketball, and forgive my gloating, but she is a star. Sure, other girls make baskets, too. Other girls get the ball sometimes. But who gets the most baskets every game she plays? My kid. Two weeks ago, she made seven. Last night, four. Pretty good for a third grader.
When my daughter makes a basket, I cheer. I call her name. I clap longer and louder than anyone. She always looks at me from across the court, proud but also a little worried that I may actually run over and give her a hug. I think I can control myself. I think.
When the other team scores, I try not to groan. I try to clap politely, but it’s hard. I don’t want to do it. I have to be loyal, right? Then again, these teams, at this age, are more self-esteem-building than serious. I should keep that in mind. I should model good sportsmanship.
In private, though, we really tell our daughter how great she is, how much better than everyone else. Full scholarship, baby, we say after the game when we’re hoarse from cheering and we’re happily driving back home. No pressure, but seriously—full scholarship.
I wouldn’t say anything, but I’m scared: if college is $200,000 now, how much could it possibly cost in 2018? I can barely pay some of my bills now—how am I going to send my children to college? I can’t even think about it; it’s too daunting. So I was especially gratified to hear my daughter say, the other night,“My team needs me to win. And when I graduate from high school, I’m going to have a full scholarship.” I pray she keeps up this line of thinking, as long as playing still makes her happy. But why wouldn’t it? Sports is work, but it’s also fun. I am starting to realize that more and more.
The other day, I stayed late at school to watch some of my teenage students play their most important basketball game of the year. What I saw was impressive, but it was also mostly a blizzard of passing. Clearly, the team has spent a lot of drill time passing the ball quickly, counter-clockwise, over and over. It’s like ballet on steroids. But shoot the dang ball, I thought to myself. The words may have even left my mouth.
“Oh, they’re just trying to confuse the other team,” someone next to me on the bleachers said. Well, I think, they’re confusing me. Why don’t they shoot??? I feel slightly aggravated at the memory. Maybe I should be the coach, not that I want to be, not that I have time for this, but…shut up, control freak, I tell myself. Stop it. Don’t take a high school game so seriously. Enjoy it.
While I watched the ball spin around and around in its seemingly-endless cycle of passes, someone on my school’s team finally dared to shoot. The ball went in with a swish. Exciting. Then there was a brief tussle. Our star player hit the ground, clutching her knee. This kid—who has a full ride looming (who, in fact, won several potential full scholarships but took the one I personally thought was least impressive—she passed up Stanford. Who could do that?) spent most or all of last year recuperating from knee surgery. She bounced back, finally, and now this?
I remember how this girl looked in my classroom last year, sort of miserable, blank-faced, her leg encased, for many months, in a tall black brace; I remember which knee had the surgery, and how it looked, purple and sad. I remember that she pulled out her stitches because she “was bored,” and that, of course, made it worse.
“This is her other knee, the left knee, the good one,” I said to the kids next to me. “She twisted it on the way down—did you see it?” It happened so fast. Breathless, we all watched the star player writhing on the floor of the gym, clearly mortified, yet unable to stand. It was a horrible few minutes. So unfair. No way could she have busted her good knee—no way, right? Not like that, after something so fast and so dumb (and yet, that’s exactly how I recently shattered my ankle. One misstep, whoops, and nothing is ever the same.)
Everything is so fragile, I think, later—bones and ligaments, life plans, hope. How did this girl’s mom feel? She couldn’t run onto the court; her daughter would have died of shame. What was she thinking, though? Was she worried about her daughter, and about the college plans? Is it all over? And how will I ever feel if this happens to my kid, my own (hopefully) star basketball player?
My school lost the game. The season ended inauspiciously. I felt bad for the team, and the students and parents who watched, and I still do, but I don’t want to let it get to me.
Maybe this is why I never got into sports before, and maybe this is why I scream so loudly at my daughter’s games. Maybe I just want to know that, despite whatever happens, I did what I could to cheer her on to success.