Did you hear that woman screeching in the stands?" my girlfriend asks. We're lingering on the bleachers after a basketball game in which our sons and their teammates' valiant effort couldn't overcome a 15-point deficit.
"Yeah," I said. "You have to wonder what she's thinking."
"I don't think we have to wonder," my friend said. "She didn't seem to let any of her thoughts go unexpressed."
I crack up, because no matter how fervently I deny that I'm a hypercompetitive sports mom, the truth is, when it comes to basketball, I have to be careful. I don't want to be known as a parent with a problem.
Actually, though my friend and I are avid fans, even we would never yell at our boys the way this woman yells at hers: "Get in his face. C'mon. Get in his face and get the ball."
Ouch. Apparently, she wants to see her son's best rendition of a thug. Did I mention her son's team is up by 15 points?
If bellowing from the bleachers is an obvious no-no, a more subtle parental error is the new trend toward overzealous praise.
I figure I have attended more than 350 youth basketball games, but in all honestly, there's only one game that I'm certain I'll never forget: Amy's last game in the fourth-grade community recreation league.
To be clear, rec league instructional basketball for 9-year-olds doesn't look much like basketball. In fact, it looks a lot like soccer, which is to say a bunch of kids run in a pack chasing after a ball. Sometimes they dribble the thing, sometimes they just pick it up and start moving. Traveling calls are appropriately few and far between.
Given that this is beginner basketball — and as well that it is played at an ungodly hour on Saturday mornings — I tended to sit with a friend on the sidelines drinking coffee and occasionally shouting out encouragingly to my daughter.
Most folks yell, "Good job" and "Way to hustle." I usually shouted things like, "Amy, honey, you're on offense now" and "Sweetie, tie your shoe." The parents on my daughter's team — all friends from her school — exhibited a similar level of enthusiasm, which is to say, enough to prove we were watching the game while chatting among ourselves. This is what I expected to be doing at my most memorable game of youth basketball. But right from the tip-off, the screaming began.
It was the screaming that seared this game into my consciousness; the overwhelming and unrelenting volume projected by the voices of about 30 adults on the sidelines. No matter what happened on the basketball court, this group of parents went stark raving wild.
Jump ball? Shrieks of "Jump. Jump. Get it. Get it."
Inbound the ball? Roars of "Way to go. All the way."
Pass to a teammate? "That's it. You did it. Great pass."
The praise for simple execution of elementary skills was ridiculous. Could the girls really believe they were doing something so extraordinary?
As you can imagine, whenever one of their daughters tossed the ball anywhere in the vicinity of the basket, these parents reacted as if they'd just been told they had won the Mega Million lottery. They actually made yipping sounds as they slapped high-fives and jumped up and down. I'm not even kidding — grown adults, both men and women, jumped up and down at a rec league basketball game for fourth-grade girls.
The more they squealed and yelled and carried on, the more I felt I had been transported to some distant, oddball planet: the planet of lunatic parents.
Their team won the game, which mattered deeply to them. Afterward, they hurried onto the court to make a human, parental "spirit tunnel," through which their players gleefully walked before collecting more hugs and hollers from their parents. Then their team had a meeting with the coach while the parents stood around the huddle.
Amy's team ate doughnuts.
It turns out all this enthusiasm on the part of parents may have an ironic consequence. According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, 70 percent of children quit organized sports by age 13 and never play again.
The reason? It's just not fun anymore.