Home Plate: Reflections of a Sports Parent
When SportsDad calls home from work with a certain sheepish (but excited) tone, I can tell that he has some kind of sports bee in his bonnet. I call it a Joga Bonito Call (like a booty call, but for sports), after the Brazilian term (literally, “the beautiful game”) for when soccer is played with beauty and spirit, like dancing. When SportsDad places a Joga Bonito Call, a possible road trip is in the air. He never tells me what it is at first, especially if there is an expensive ticket that needs to be considered. He tells me that he read or heard about something, and it sounds like so much fun for the kids to see . . . He lays the groundwork, and then at some point, he lays it on me. Sometimes these things sound like a hassle, like a late night for the kids, like possibly more trouble than they they’re worth. But they are never any of these things–SportsDad is almost always right on the money, and whatever he has in mind turns out to be an unforgettable experience. Or at least a really great time.
Last month, it was the “friendly” soccer match between the Brazilian and Venezuelan national teams. Our whole family loves international soccer, but LittleMan is a rabid fan, and Brazil is one of his favorite teams. And this match was nearby, at Gillette Stadium! When SportsDad called me back in April, when he found out about this event, his major selling point was the fact that LittleMan was going to lose his mind when he heard about it–and LittleMan delivered as predicted.
What we thought would be a fun, and potentially wild, evening (or late night, actually, as game time was 9:00 p.m.) was a much larger-than-life experience that went far beyond cheering at a soccer game. The game was sold out. The approximately 60,000 Brazilians (I’m not kidding) and a handful of Venezuelans had traveled from all over New England, New York, and New Jersey to cheer on their team, but also to hold one of the largest ethnic celebrations that I’ve seen on American soil. The endless Gillette parking lots–the ones that make up the long and painful walk on Patriots game days and concert nights–were a sea of bright yellow and blue, of flags hanging from trees and from fences, of grilling and drinking and dancing and intermittent cheering and singing. It was one hell of a tailgater.
The match was announced in Portuguese, Spanish, and English–and then after a while, the announcer just dropped the English. The kids were in awe of the number of Brazil fans, and of the event’s incredible spirit and sportsmanship. Stretch loved hearing so little English the entire evening and trying to figure out what was being said. LittleMan quickly scored a large Brazilian flag at the merchandise booth and remained draped in it for the duration. I received more than one beaming glance (“Told ya!”) from SportsDad.
The soccer match was an extreme spectator experience. But our family must average one spectator sport per week, most of them less grandiose, but still fun and valuable for the kids as players. The week of the soccer game, we had already been to a Pawtucket Red Sox game and to see Bishop Hendricken vs. Cranston East in a high school baseball championship series game. This week, it was the Campbell’s Tennis Tournament at the Hall of Fame in Newport (free kids clinics on the grass court!); an East Greenwich vs. Warwick American Little League All-Star game, where our friends’ son (go Ben!) was playing; an under-eight, All-Star girls’ softball tournament (where our friend’s daughter played her best for Westerly) at Slater Park in Pawtucket; and a Stingrays soccer game (just LittleMan on that one, with a friend’s family).
I realize, as I write this, that this sounds completely nuts. Who in the sane world attends their own kids’ games and practices, and then attends the games of other people’s children? Who attends high school games in which they don’t know a single player? Who goes to track meets, just to see if that one fabulous girl from Westerly High will break the state record? The short answer is . . . that’s how we roll.
I think it started when Stretch was very young. SportsDad felt that it was important for her to see girls and women playing sports–and she wasn’t going to see much of that on TV. So he took her to the Brown Stadium to see high school girls compete in a state-level track meet. Stretch loved seeing the girls sprint (it’s quick and easy to follow, for a younger child), and most of the action was at her eye level. Soon after that, we took her to a few women’s basketball games at Brown. Like virtually all sports events at Brown, it was perfect for a family with small children. The ticket is reasonably priced, seating is hassle-free and close to the action, the Bruno mascot is always up for some toddler meet-and-greet–and the bathrooms are right where you need them. It quickly became a regular outing.
The more sports events we attended with Stretch (and later, as LittleMan came along, even more), the more we became aware of the value of being a spectator for the kids. Young athletes learn so much from watching others play. The lessons are not obvious or overt. They become internalized, and the child takes what he or she has learned into his or her own sports experiences.
From professional or higher level athletes, they get to see the sport the way it’s supposed to be played–and often develop dreams of their own, in some LittleMen’s cases, of someday playing in the World Cup (or the World Series or the Olympic Games). They see the sports played by the rules (most of the time–we’ll leave the occasional thuggery of professional athletes out of it), and how the rules make sense.
From watching high school and younger players, they get to see kids who are not all that far off in age from themselves, doing what they love to do, and doing it well. They see up close that being good at a sport is really hard work–but they see the steps between where they are and the real big-time. They see athletes experiencing difficulty and failure–and how it is handled. They see that perseverance pays off. They can aspire to something that is within their reach. And they get the experience of unselfishly cheering for their friends, when they themselves are not a part of the action.
Most of all, young athletes gain an understanding of the “bigger picture” of a sport by watching it played live. They go into their own sports experiences with a better frame of reference for what they are being taught, and what coaches are asking them to do. I am struck by how easily even very young children take what they see and apply it to their own level (think of the concept of spreading out and passing the ball in soccer vs. a pack of kids chasing the ball all over the field).
Here in Rhode Island, where nothing is more than the ubiquitous “twenty minutes away,” opportunities to catch live sports are everywhere–and they happen every day.
Here’s just a few things on deck for our family in the upcoming weeks: the International Tennis Hall of Fame Tournament of Champions on August 15 at the Hall of Fame in Newport (with free clinics for kids–our kids did this last tournament and they were excellent); and several local road races, where the kids can participate at their age level and also get to see the runners cross the finish line (the top ten AND the ones who are gutting it out near the end);.
And for some Joga Bonito of your own, make sure you turn up the sound, and enjoy.
In Home Plate: Reflections of a Sportsparent, Melissa Brusso shares her wit, wisdom, and experience regarding the world of sports with her husband, “SportsDad”, their daughter “Stretch”, age 10 and their son, “LittleMan”, age 7.