Water polo teaches a parent to stay quiet—and landlocked

The author (right) and her dashingly handsome husband didn't last long in the H2O

The author (right) and her dashingly handsome husband didn’t last long in the H2O

Catherine Pearlman runs The Family Coach, a business that advises mothers and fathers on all sorts of parenting issues. You can follow her on Twitter here and read her syndicated parenting column here. Here, she shares the lessons from a water polo match-up with her 12-year-old daughter.

Today’s parents are not just parents. They are coaches and referees and umpires. I don’t mean the kindhearted people who volunteer their time. I’m talking about the parents on the sidelines. As parents, we don’t just watch our children play sports any more. We are in the game.

Lately I have been focusing on how parents behave at my kids’ games. I have seen some ugly behavior. So many moms and dads have no qualms about yelling at umpires who are only behind the plate because no one else volunteered. I recently saw a parent scream at his kid, “Come on! You can do better!” The child was 8.

I never viewed myself as that kind of mother. For the first few years of parenting my husband and I avoided organized sports. Our kids weren’t competitive killers chomping at the bit to play on a team, and we were plenty psyched to keep our weekends together as a family.

Inevitably, though, our kids decided they wanted to get in the game. My son played baseball and basketball. My daughter, who never cared much for sports, was strongly encouraged (by us) to find a healthy physical activity. She chose water polo—a game we knew nothing about.

Three times a week I watch my daughter in the pool and twice per week my son is on the field. After seeing the craziness many parents bring to youth sports, I was determined not to join the insanity. I wasn’t going to yell or advise. I wasn’t going to praise every minute play or action. My plan was to simply enjoy watching them enjoy themselves.

Only I couldn’t. As much as I tried, I still found myself shouting. I wanted my daughter to swim more aggressively. I wanted my son to put his hand behind his back while catching. He should swing through the ball more. She should call for the ball more. Blah blah blah. I became so disgusted with myself that I became determined to sit at a game and say not utter word of advice. But, well, I couldn’t do it. I failed. Repeatedly.

And then, in eight minutes, I was cured.

My daughter’s water polo team had a family polo game, kids against parents, yesterday morning. My husband and I suited up, put on the ridiculous headgear and eagerly jumped in. The old folks warmed up for a minute and tried to stay afloat. Everyone was laughing, giggling, having a fun ol’ time. Then, one second after the initial whistle from the coach, it became clear this was no laughing matter. We had to swim back and forth and back and forth. I could barely keep my head above water while trying to throw the ball. Another player nearly drowned me, appropriately, trying to get the ball (She’s 9). After three minutes I was tempted to tap out.

I didn’t, and wound up playing a whole eight minutes. I didn’t do the team’s requisite 20 laps as a warm up, and I didn’t practice for another hour after that. Eight minutes total. As I clumsily slogged out of the pool, deprived of breath and barely able to pull my own body weight, I realized I had no business telling my daughter what to do in the water (and there is no added benefit to nitpicking my son’s game, either).

My kids are not playing sports for the scholarship potential. There is absolutely no justified reason I need to coach them from the sidelines. The only outcome I can see is that they get so sick of hearing my commentary that they stop playing. I read in a recent survey that 70 percent of kids stop playing sports by 13. I can see why. There is so much pressure even without comments from the bystanders. From now on I am a spectator. I am not there to help my kids get better or stronger or more adept at the game. I am not there to teach the coach or the umpire how to do their jobs. I am simply going to enjoy the game, keep my big mouth shut …

… and stay dry.

5 thoughts on “Water polo teaches a parent to stay quiet—and landlocked”

  1. Part of the fun of sports, any sports, is being engaged in the game. I agree that any level of verbal abuse is inappropriate, but your conclusions are faulty. Just because you, or I for that matter, can’t do what the athletes do in a given sport is irrelevant. They condition for their sport…none of us should be able to jump in the water and play water polo. It doesn’t work that way.

    1. Being engaged in the game is totally different from the incessant calls of “Drive!”, “Swim!”, “Pass!” and “Shoot!” that come from the stands at almost every water polo game I attend. You can be engaged in the game by cheering on and encouraging the players but when it crosses the line into actively coaching the players then that’s wrong.

  2. I have coached my son in rec league soccer and baseball since he was four. The kids are always challenging, but that’s to be expected. By far the most difficult thing to deal with is over-involved parents who don’t realize that yelling directions at their children is distracting at best, embarrassing at worst. My favorite was the woman who consistently screamed at her child from 30 feet away to “pay attention to the coaches”…something made increasingly difficult by the fact that he was trying to listen to her as well.

    Actually, check that: my favorite might be the guy who yells instructions at everyone on the team, ventures over to the sideline at least twice a game to talk to the coaches (it appears to be lost on him that no other parent does this), and corrals the teenage referees as soon as each game ends (he’s a referee for older kids, apparently). It’s a toss-up as to who is more irritated by his behavior: my wife, who serves as team mom and attends pretty much all practices and games, or his daughter, who generally responds to his loud instruction with a blank stare.

    My general rule: If you want to coach your child, volunteer to do so. If you don’t have the time or knowledge, show up when you can at games and practices and be encouraging. If you don’t like what the coach is teaching, make a mental note of it and talk to your child later, when they can actually process the information and make some use of it.

    (I…I think this post might’ve touched a nerve.)

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