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In my inbox was an email from a league administrator reminding all youth football fans, a collective group of which I am part, of the following “sportsmanship reminders”:

1) Be thoughtful of others.
2) Be careful what you say…you never know who’s around you.
3) Referees are human…they make mistakes at ALL levels of football.
4) Social Media is not a sounding board for your frustrations.
5) We are in this together…do your part to make sure we succeed.
6) Winning is important, but it’s far from the most important.

I appreciate that this piece of communication went out. I would like to believe that reading it caused a few parents or other supporters of youth athletes to look at themselves a little harder in the mirror and question their own behavior.

Or, if they are able to personally keep their cool, maybe it convinced some to not remain silent on the sidelines if they are seated within close proximity to a mom or dad whose blood pressure is boiling over because of what they’re witnessing on the field. That’s what the GiveTheGameBack movement is all about after all!

I, myself, have fallen victim more times than I care to admit to the mindset of “what can my kids do for me (and their teams)?” Because, let’s be totally honest, we see our children as a direct reflection of ourselves, so it feels REALLY good when they succeed, doesn’t it?

How many tackles can they make? How many yards can they gain? How many blocks can they unleash?

I think all these thoughts and more every single game and, frankly, I don’t even understand half of what’s going on. Nor do I enjoy seeing kids, in general, compete in football because not everyone knows how to make or absorb a tackle at their age. (Sorry to any football coaches reading this right now.) On the flip side, both of my boys love playing the game and my husband played college ball so I am outnumbered in our household.

What I DO understand is that all sports, including football, give my kids experiences and memories that will live on far after their final game is played. They’re learning what it’s like to win graciously and lose humbly. They’ve met a band of brothers outside of their normal school friends who they can talk to and laugh with. They have adult mentors who are teaching them not only about how to play the sport, but how to deal with success and adversity in life as well.

I’ve discovered that football is unique because the best teams are a mash-up of several body types and abilities. Big, small, tall, fast, methodical, good hands, powerful legs, loud and boisterous, strong but silent…there’s a little bit of everything. All 11 guys on the field must be on the same page in order to win. Timing, precision, coverage: If one guy is off by a mere half second, the entire team suffers as a result.

Can you think of 10 other people who you must consistently gel with in order to succeed? Seriously, picture them in your head right now. Of those 10, does everyone approach each “game day” with the same mindset and focus? Or are there at least one or two who have their minds up in the clouds or who are persistently angry at life or who are dealing with a personal crisis that doesn’t even involve you but impacts your own chances for success?

I think we forget as adults that our kids are just mini-adults growing into the next generation of leaders and followers – Those who will want to naturally take charge and those who will be more comfortable receiving guidance.

And even though they will rarely (if ever) admit it, they are watching us and how we act towards one another.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer up these additional “sportsmanship reminders” to compliment those that our league administrator has already communicated. Here’s a list of things that we can do for our youth athletes:

1) Remember that the athletes you are watching and the adults who are cheering them on are just kids wanting to succeed like your own and parents wishing the best for their own.
2) If you don’t have anything positive to say, then get a hot dog or popcorn from the concession stand and insert it into your mouth. Even if you believe you are 100% right in your negative opinions, the bigger person won’t drag others through the mud with verbal assaults.
3) Referees are in short supply. You are fortunate that the men in stripes have volunteered (or are getting paid minimally) to help teach your boy the game of football. If you think the refs aren’t doing a good enough job, then find out what it takes to become a ref yourself.
4) Social Media posts are permanent. Before you rant or rave, ask yourself one thing: Would I feel comfortable saying everything I want to share online out loud to someone I admire? Would I feel good declaring it in front of my own kids and their friends?
5) We ARE all in this together. Someday all of our kids will be hanging up their cleats. Sports will only take them so far. Disclaimer: It’s not as far as many adults think! What other life lessons are we bestowing upon them to help them navigate through life? What are we showing them we value that can’t be measured in wins and losses?
6) Academics are more important than athletics. Will you approach your child’s parent/teacher conference with the same passion you approach their games? Will you praise them for what they achieve in the classroom as voraciously as you congratulate them for their output on the field?

Parenting an athlete is hard. Parenting a child through adulthood is harder.

We ARE all in this together.

If you have thoughts you’d like to share on this topic, please comment below or reach out to me here.

Written by Heidi Woodard

Let me be the first to admit, I’ve learned to tame my competitive nature over the years and make the sporting experience more about my kids than myself. I like to say I’m a work in progress.

I’ve recounted My Moment on GiveTheGameBack. I remember that critical point in time when I realized I need to reevaluate why I was at the ball field supporting my child and have subsequently changed my mentality and approach to the GAME.

However, prior to that moment, there was an episode when I behaved less than ideally in front of my children. I think it’s important to explain (not justify) my past behavior to let you know that I, like everyone, learn from my mistakes. For those who refuse to admit ever crossing the line at a youth sporting competition in the name of your budding athlete, I counter with two thoughts: 1. I bow down to you and your self-control and 2. I don’t believe you. (not even for a second)

There we were, the Woodard family, back in fall ball several years ago: me, my husband, and our three children.

Allow me to set the stage. The “regular season” for baseball in the Midwest runs from late April to early July. Fall ball, in terms of scheduled games, lasts half the total duration but feels like an eternity to suffer through. The number of teams competing is less, the quality of competition isn’t always as great, and the double-headers that typically round off an otherwise restful weekend are grueling.

OK, I fully admit I am already making excuses, but bear with me.

My oldest was only 10 at the time. Ten-year-old boys can best be described as fourth grade, 4-ft somethings, with less than laser-like focus. While they all generally have an interest in winning, the majority of them compete in fall ball to hang out with their buddies. (Coaches will tell you it’s because the boys want to stay active and improve their game in the off season.)

My son’s team was down by at least a half dozen runs and, in 10-year old baseball…especially fall ball, that’s a deep valley out of which to climb. It was late in the game so they ran the risk of losing by the “mercy rule” (which they might as well rename the “parental sanity rule”). Definition of the “mercy rule”: Once a team is up by 8 runs after 5 complete innings over their competition, the game is automatically over.

My son’s teammate managed to make it to second base…probably on a wild pitch, or just a normal pitch since few 10-year old catchers are strong enough to throw out a runner stealing second base.

It was very late in the game and the chances of my kid’s team mounting a comeback were slimmer than Kim Kardashian going a full day without snapping a selfie. Not high. You get the picture.

Low and behold, I hear the opposing team’s coach yell out instructions and then see the pitcher throw to the short stop at second base in an attempted pickoff play. When the pickoff attempt didn’t work, instead of tossing the ball back to the pitcher, the short stop walks it to the mound.

I instantly knew what was happening. The ol’ hidden ball trick. I knew what was going down because I’ve pulled that same play in my college alumni game against the current players.

If you’ve never seen the hidden ball trick, watch the YouTube clip below.

My son’s teammate assumes the pitcher has the ball, takes his normal leadoff, and falls for the play (because he’s 10!) as the opposing team’s short stop tags him out, much to the amusement of their coach.

Here’s a confession: If I was that kid at shortstop (or anyone else on that opposing team), I would have thought that was the greatest trick play ever.

Because I was not that 10-year old shortstop and was instead the mom of one of the boys getting their butts kicked by a team coached by a dad who cared more about trick plays than teachable moments, I didn’t find it quite as amusing. And I let him know about it. I think my exact less-than-mature-and-not-very-thought-out words were something like this:

GOOD JOB, COACH! WAY TO PERFECT THE HIDDEN BALL TRICK! YOU MUST BE SO PROUD!

(Lame, I know. But I’ve never been the best at articulating anger.)

If your team is only winning by one or two runs and it’s the championship game, you could probably make me understand your rationale (even if I don’t agree with it). When you are about to run-rule another team, I don’t buy your excuse.

Not to be outdone by a loud-mouthed mom, the coach in turn had one of his players steal home in mid-pitch when they were up to bat next.

I just shook my head and thought to myself, “What a (insert male body part) move.”

But here’s the thing, I was no better than that coach that day. I ran my mouth from the stands and it didn’t make the situation any better. Luckily, my son never heard what I yelled, but that didn’t make me feel any less foolish in hindsight

Their team still lost. My son wouldn’t have cared that much about the game’s outcome because he’d already been competing in sports (even at the age of 10) for a few years and he learned that, in sports and life, you win some and you lose some.

If I ran into that same coach today, I would freely admit to being as crazy competitive as he is, and I would hope we would share a laugh together. I’d tell him that he should check out what I’m trying to do on GiveTheGameBack.

And when he’d be pulling up the website on his phone, I’d sucker punch him when he wasn’t looking and yell out TRICK PLAY! as he was attempting to regain his breath. Kidding…I would only contemplate doing that. I am working on thinking before I act these days.

Written by Heidi Woodard

Derek Jeter

An upfront disclaimer: I am by no means a Yankees fan. Never have followed them that closely. And, yes, I realize their organization spends more money than the Kardashians. But if you’re a fan of baseball in general, it’s hard to turn a deaf ear to names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Mariano Rivera. They demand respect for what they’ve meant to the game.

Read that graphic above again. Many people in my generation (but not my husband, DEFINITELY not him) would argue that Derek Jeter was, quite possibly, the best on the diamond.

I find it amazing and inspiring that a scrawny kid from Kalamazoo, Michigan, not only made his way to the Big Leagues, but also earned the spot of starting shortstop for the NY Yankees for 20 seasons.

According to The Life You Imagine: Life Lessons for Achieving Your Dreams, Derek grew up competing on teams that played on average a couple dozen games per year. The pitchers he faced in high school maxed out on fast balls clocking in at 85 MPH. His adjustment to the Big Leagues, subsequently, was understandably rocky at first.

Yet he learned how to set personal goals early in life (age 8 to be exact). And he was determined to reach them despite any odds stacked against him.

As I’m spreading the word about my movement to GiveTheGameBack to youth athletes in my community and beyond, I am reminded that persistence and allies fuel my determination to make a difference. Setbacks are just that…in sports and in life. They are not insurmountable unless you allow them to be.

Since January, I’ve met amazing people whom I otherwise would have never met. I’ve shared my own stories as well as those from the coaching community, my fellow parents in the stands, and even players themselves about what can be done to improve the state of youth athletics. I’ve even transformed those people who rally against fandumb into walking billboards by having them wear GiveTheGameBack t-shirts.

I want to personally thank everyone who has helped on this journey to get out of the way and let the kids play. I don’t see an immediate finish line in sight and believe it will be quite some time before we reverse some of the more disturbing trends of parental over-involvement (visit your local ball park or gym this weekend if you don’t believe me), but we’re at least taking strides in the right direction.

We can easily hang our heads and call  it quits. But we won’t.

For the record, we’re Atlanta Braves fans here in the Woodard household and I’d argue that Chipper Jones in as close to perfection as they come. 🙂

Written by Heidi Woodard