As a suburban dad, I'm perfect in practically every way. OK, so my basement floods. And don't ask about my backyard, that ignoble patch of dirt. The point is: I coach. I coach Little League—two teams. I coach CYO basketball, also two teams. And, because five practices and games a week are not enough, I coach recreation department basketball, too. When they ask for volunteers and others step back, there I am.
Which is precisely where my troubles begin.
I'd never yell at a kid. Not close. Like any card-carrying member of the progressive parent generation, I empathize to the hilt. I validate every player's last passing feeling. No, it's the referees and umpires who aren't safe around me.
I've never met a call—at least against my team—that I agree with. I hoot. I holler. I huff. I stomp my feet, I beg for clarification and, in one particularly weak moment, I twirled around twice before plopping down on a chair, which nearly gave way.
As a rule, it is not pretty.
To make matters worse, my wife is a class act—not to mention a mental health professional. And she attends the games. In the beginning, Lori would make 'cool it' motions from the sidelines. Soon she started making 'cut it' motions across her neck. It worked to settle me, until the next bad call. Most recently, she threatened to text me mid-eruption.
I'm not going to analyze why, as an otherwise progressive dad, I carry on like some frothing throwback when it comes to balls and strikes, fouls and travels called against my knee-high Derek Jeters.
In fact, I'll leave the analysis to others, like Jim Thompson. Thompson is essentially the cleric, the conscience of youth sports— he founded The Positive Coaching Alliance, a well regarded non-profit that works to improve the tenor of youth sports.
Even Thompson, however, had to learn how to cool it on the field. As a high school girl's basketball coach, he couldn't stop flapping his gums to the referees. At one point, he was given two technical fouls -- handed out by referees to the lippy and altogether disrespectful -- in one week. Worse, this was after he had written a book preaching good behavior in youth sports.
I figured if Thompson could evolve from coach with a match-light temper to, this year, one the Institute for International Sport's 20 living Americans who have contributed the most to fair play, he might be able to help me. I gave him a call.
Thompson started by telling me that everyone wants validation in life and, in sports, winning is the clearest path. Sports are filled with teaching moments, he said, and one of the best is that in life we face unfairness that we can surmount.
Easy for him to say. Intellectually, I know the argument for civil behavior on the sideline. It's the emotional side of the ledger I can't master. Lori, that mental health professional who does double duty as my wife, says it might have do with my competitive nature, without the physical outlet that actually playing the sport offers. As a player, I never argued. As a coach just standing there, it's not pretty.
Thompson agreed, proscribing constant pacing along the sidelines and even 10 pushups if I get upset—really any kind of physical self-control routine that might sublimate the angry, antsy athletic energy within.
"Just don't make threatening gestures to the umpire," he noted.
I'm going to try (the push-ups, not the threatening gestures.) I love coaching, but don't like being a cheap suburban spectacle on the sidelines. Thompson said willingness is the essential element.
It's like the old joke about how many psychologists does it take to screw in a light bulb," he sad. "Just one, but the light bulb has to want to change." I'll keep you updated on my progress...or lack thereof.
Marek Fuchs is the author of "A Cold-Blooded Business," called "riveting" by Kirkus Reviews. He wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column about life in Westchester for six years and teaches non-fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. When not writing or teaching, he serves as a volunteer firefighter. You can contact Marek through his website: www.marekfuchs.com or on Twitter: @MarekFuchs.