December 30, 2012

The Hockey Mom: When did I become THAT hockey mom?

By April Bowling

I always have had a special distaste for rabid sports parents. They rank right up there with spiders, crowded elevators and runny eggs in my “Book of Yuck.” 

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

Yes, I have a “Book of Yuck.” But I digress …

Rabid sports parents — you know the ones — they scream at their kids while they play, browbeat them with “advice” when they come off the playing field, and they coach from the stands. They also say things like, “I wouldn’t push him so hard if he wasn’t so talented and driven himself,” while their kid is quietly crying because he doesn’t want to practice today.

These parents, it seems to me, displace their own competitive natures onto their kids. Maybe they are good athletes themselves and are embarrassed by having average athletic offspring. Or maybe they aren’t so good and subconsciously see their child’s athletic career as their own sort of sports redemption.

Given my acute distaste, imagine my surprise when my inner “anti-rabid sports parent” alarm went off recently … because of me! You got it — I was that obnoxious parent at one of Sam’s games.

Because I am so competitive myself, I am a big cheerleader at my kids’ games. I don’t claim to be a quiet observer. But usually I’m nothing but positive, and the first thing I always say to my kids as they come off the ice or the field or the track is, “I love to watch you play. You’re the highlight of my day.” I’ve been especially careful about what I say after games after reading an article by Steven Hensen of Yahoo Sports titled “What Makes A Nightmare Sports Parent — And What Makes A Great One.” The takeaway from that article was that 75 percent of kids walk away from sports by high school … mostly because of overbearing parents.

But on this particular day I’d battled with Sam to get him to the rink for his game. It was still soccer season, so I knew a lot of kids had conflicts and wouldn’t be there. Sam is one of their regular defensemen when he’s not in goal, so it was important that he play. I’ve always said all that matters is that you work hard and be a good teammate. Not showing up for no good reason does not make you a good teammate.

But in his defense, he was getting over a cold and had just wrapped up a long, overscheduled week of school and sports. Did I mention he’s only 7?

Anyway, I wrestled him to the rink as my 9-year-old hung on me and complained endlessly. The rink was too cold. She wanted a snack. She hated hockey. My husband stuck his earbuds in and listened to the Patriots game (their blown fourth-quarter lead might have contributed to my loss of control), while Sam skated like his socks were filled with concrete.

Time and time again, he turned over the puck. The goalie got assaulted with multiple breakaways. My daughter kept whining. And then I started to boil over.

“Skate, Sam! SKATE!” I found myself practically screaming at him. “He’s playing like crap,” I muttered loud enough to make sure my friends heard me. “This is like the Bad News Bears!” I exclaimed at one point after Sam ended up in the penalty box for tripping. Finally, my friend leaned over to me and said, “I think you’re being a little hard on poor Sam!”

“Apparently he needs someone to be hard on him,” I retorted defensively. “He’s certainly not hard enough on himself.”

I instantly knew I’d just taken it too far because what I’d said was utterly untrue. Sam is nothing if not hard on himself. But he also keeps things in perspective, which is part of what I really admire in him. And besides, how did I know how hard he was really trying? Maybe the team they were playing was just really good.

So you’d think I would have stopped right there, acknowledged my poor attitude and rectified it.

And you would be wrong.

It was like a train wreck where you want to look away but you just can’t control yourself. The game ended, and we trudged silently to the car. My husband ruffled Sam’s hair, and Morgan busied herself picking a radio station. I pressed my lips tightly together to keep from saying anything.

“Good game, Sam. You tried your best and that’s what matters.” Pete smiled at him in the rearview mirror, and Sam gave him a thumbs-up. And that’s the moment I earned the Worst Mother of the Year Award.

“He didn’t try his best! He was barely skating out there! What happened, Sam?”

He started to cry. Yes, I made my 7-year-old cry over a hockey game.

“I did try, Mom. I was just tired and then I got that penalty and then I just wanted to go home. But I kept trying.” He snuffled over his water bottle, and Pete glared at me. So I did what any self-respecting mom would do: I got out of the car, went around to the back seat and gave him a big hug while I apologized, deeply and sincerely.

I laid awake in bed that night, unable to get the incident out of my head. Why had I done it? How had I turned into that kind of hockey mom? I got up, went the computer and searched out that article by Hensen again and read through his list of what makes a nightmare sports parent vs. what makes an ideal sports parent. Do yourself a favor and read it yourself (

The good news? Even at my worst, I didn’t make the nightmare list. The bad news? I had committed the cardinal sin of a sports parent — making him feel badly about his performance.

My takeaway from the whole experience was that bad parenting moments can happen to anyone, but when they do, it’s your duty to parent-up, apologize and use it as a teachable moment. A little self-reflection can go a long way for both parents and young athletes.

Bruce Brown, an expert in coaching techniques, is quoted in the article: “Good athletes learn better when they seek their own answers.” He goes on to say, “Athletics is one of the best ways for young people to take risks and deal with failure because the consequences aren’t fatal, they aren’t permanent. We’re talking about a game. So they usually don’t want or need a parent to rescue them when something goes wrong.”

And they also probably don’t want or need a parent yelling at them from the stands, so I’ll stick to cheering from now on.

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal