The biggest loser

I coached my first year of Little League baseball when my daughter was 9. Our team was a motley band of pipsqueaks who barely knew how to put their mitts on. We were like the Bad News Bears – without the News.

One day, we were waiting to get on the field, and the game before us was running late. Since the schedule was tight, the games were supposed to end on time. The official rule was that any incomplete inning would be erased, and the score at the end of the last full inning would stand.

We waited 15 minutes past our start time, and then my co-coach Mauricio walked up to the umpire and asked him to end the game, which he did. Unfortunately, the team that was currently at bat had just taken the lead, so their go-ahead rally was suddenly erased. Their coach, who was six-foot-five and apparently drunk, charged out of the dugout like an angry water buffalo.

Mauricio, who was almost a foot shorter than him, didn't flinch. Mauricio was a calm and reasonable man, but he split his youth between a Latino street gang in Philadelphia and a guerilla war in Nicaragua. Backing down wasn't really part of his repertoire. As the drunken coach screamed in his face, spraying him with spittle, Mauricio just stared, but a little vein popped out on the side of his forehead. I'd seen that vein before.

I ran toward them, and everything seemed to shift into slow motion. The parents from the losing team cursed and rattled the backstop fence, like something out of Thunderdome. The umpire stepped between the two men, clinging to his chest protector like a shield. Our kids watched from the sideline, their eyes wide and confused.

I grabbed Mauricio and pulled him away. The umpire blocked the drunken coach from following us. The angry mob of parents cursed and jeered. It took another 15 minutes just to clear the stands and the dugouts. Finally, our kids were able to take the field.

Time to teach them all about sportsmanship.

I'm not here to criticize youth sports or sports parents – I'm a big believer in both. Sports teach our kids all kinds of skills they might not get anywhere else, and it's a place where kids and dads often form a natural bond. But let's face it: competition brings out the best and the worst in us, especially in men. It gets under our skin in a way that most women don't understand. And along with all the dads out there who carry the spirit of sportsmanship like bearers of the Olympic flame, there are a few who toss it around like Bobby Knight heaving a metal chair.

The thing we often forget is that being a sports dad is not the same as being a regular fan. Regular fans just want to win. They don't long for their players to learn dedication and resilience. They don't insist on humility in victory and grace in defeat. They don't celebrate effort, and joy, and improvement when their team is getting shellacked. But parents do – or at least we should.

So for all you sports dads out there, here are a few things to remember in the heat of battle, just in case you lose your head:

  1. You are a fan. Fans only have only one job: they cheer. You are not a coach, or a referee, or a player – those jobs are taken. Just do your job.
  2. When your kid loses, or screws up, they know it. They know it better than you do. They feel it in the pit of their stomach and the marrow of their bones. You don't have to remind them, especially on the way home from the game. Just shut up and drive to Dairy Queen.
  3. Little known fact: in any sport, 50 percent of kids are below average. Get used to it. At the right level of competition, everything good about sports is available to every child, even if they aren't very good. That's a blessing.
  4. When you act disappointed, they think you're disappointed in them. Always.

Playing sports is serious business for a kid. It's where they learn about competition, and disappointment, and pushing themselves to be their best. That's enough pressure for anyone. Don't be the dad who just adds more.

You know the guy I'm talking about. The one who cusses out the ref after a close call. The one who browbeats the coach for taking his kid out of the game. The one who cheers when the other team makes an error. The one who lectures his kid all the way home after a tough loss.

Don't be that guy. He's the biggest loser of them all. Your kids deserve better. And so do you.