It’s Just a Game: Lessons On And Off The Field

The big game is upon us and I’m a tad distracted. Most people who live in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan — who can fog a mirror and have a pulse — are aware of a little “border bash” battle between two fine universities. I have been told countless times, especially from those who witness my reactions while watching Big 10 sports, that, “It’s just a game,” but for me it is so much more.

Growing up, the night before a big game day was a few notches under waiting for Santa to arrive. My grandparents would show up at our doorstep dressed in ridiculous attire, holding a jar of bacon grease for making popcorn (those were the days!), assorted beverages and noise makers. We would make a fire, homemade pizza and cheer on our common enemy. As Gram’s eyesight worsened, we would wheel her up to the TV for a closer view. She would look back at us when a foul was called and say sternly, “Our boys would never do that!”

Bill Shankly, a Scottish professional soccer player born in 1913 once said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” His words ring true today. How did such fun turn into a student flipping off the camera on national television, (what a proud moment for his mom), post-celebratory broken bones and death threats of today’s sports world?

Get Them While They’re Young
It has often been said to “get them while they’re young.” I believe the same holds true in the sporting world. I am the mother of former soccer, softball, basketball, and lacrosse players. I have witnessed parents at their finest and ugliest through sporting venues and coaches who omitted the word “recreational” from noncompetitive leagues.

Mary Helen and Maria
Me and Maria

My little soccer player Maria was known for stopping in her tracks as she moved the ball down the field to wave to her grandparents. She was also known for stealing the ball. After one of her sneakiest filches, a father from the opposing team yelled, “TAKE HER OUT!” referring to my eight year old. I had to ask him, “Do you mean to lunch or out of life?”

My daughter Helena was the only female member on an all-male lacrosse team. In addition to having to educate her that being “swacked” on the head by the coach was a good thing, I had to put up with comments from other mothers. My toned-down response to, “That poor kid not only has legs like a girl but runs like one,” is not suitable for print.

I will be the first to admit that my family is not totally innocent in this regard. Many times my mom would have to tell my dad at one of his granddaughter’s tennis matches to “Go to the car” when he got too “enthusiastic.” He once told a tennis ref during a district match that he wasn’t “coaching” his granddaughter through the fence, he was “consulting.” That being said, there is a fine line between my dad’s passionate verbal support and another father I witnessed telling his child that she would not be going home with him if she missed the shot.

Simmer Down
Parents and sports lovers, I urge you to — as my children would say — “TAB,” or take a breath, and calm down. I can say with great certainty that there are no college scouts at your eight year old’s game. Let’s set the example. Sports offer important, if not vital, life lessons. Vince Lombardi, best known as coach of the Green Bay Packers, once said, “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses or the problems of modern society.”

Mom Dad Maria Helena
My parents with Maria and Helena

Participating in sports also offers opportunities to motivate and inspire others. I have had two tennis captains. Although both had athletic abilities, I believe they were chosen for their ability to support their teammates. Ironically, Helena was captain when her younger sister and other like-minded and ADD-inflicted students were on the team. Today she is a special education teacher and intervention specialist. Lauren, although not on a high school team, learned teamwork through recreational leagues. Today she works in the medical ICU at ProMedica Toledo Hospital. Hopefully, you will never meet her there, but if you and your family cross her path you will witness what working together as a team is all about.

In the game of life on and off the field, nothing can stop the time ticking away on the scoreboard. Whether you are a ten year old on a little league mound or a player for the Big 10, in the end, what really matters is how you played the game. Did you respect others, play fair and tackle your problems head on?

My youngest, who played varsity tennis for four years, still has her intense competitive edge. She plays to win, yet thankfully, the lesson of losing with dignity also stuck with her. Maria is in the college of business and plans on conquering the world with the same determination and assertiveness she displayed on the court. However, at the end of the day, she will look her opponent in the eye and say, “Nice game.”