The children have returned to the fields but sadly, the parents have, too

Editorial by

CHAD HOBBS

Messenger Staff 


A thicket, maybe a couple of football fields deep, is all that separates my house from Flaherty Community Park. As sporting events came to a screeching halt last spring due to COVID, a silence fell over my backyard. The usual sounds of coaches instructing, fans cheering and metal bats “pinging” disappeared. The lights that usually shine through the trees at night from their poles high above the park went dark, and grass sprouted up in the infields for the first time ever, as children were forced to spend all spring and summer locked down at home.

It was a beautiful thing when we were able to open the park back up this season for baseball and softball. Walking around the fields at night, I see kids smiling again. The masks are gone, the silence is over and their cleated feet “till” the dirt and sand once more as they sprint around the bases.

Sadly, however, as the weeks have passed and spring has turned into summer, some of the adults in the stands have grown out of their pacification of just being happy at having their kids back on the field and have started slipping back into their old, often toxic, ways.

I recently spoke with a parent from one of the other parks that plays in the Tri-County League with Flaherty. I have coached against her son for years, as he is the same age as my son, and he is a great little infielder and pitcher for his team. Recently, after pitching three strong innings with his team in the lead, he was taken off the mound before the final inning. His replacement had an off night and allowed the opposing team to come back and win the game. Afterwards she was venting her frustration about him being taken out, when he informed her that it wasn’t the coach but himself that had asked to be removed from the mound. He inaccurately thought he was doing a terrible job and didn’t want to lose the game for his team—an explanation that she struggled to understand.

I totally understood, though. Early in this season, I had one of my best athletes on the mound for the first time. He came into the game with his team holding a one run lead over a big rival. Two walks and a hit batter later, I found myself at the mound trying to calm a twelve year old down that was well on his way to a full blown panic attack. Three wild pitches after that, I had to pull him when he had a complete emotional meltdown on the mound.

As I explained to the aforementioned mother about this incident on my team, I have spent more time working on what is going on between my pitchers’ ears than on their mechanics since that incident. Regardless of talent or fundamentals, eighty percent of what separates good pitchers from bad ones is what happens in their head right before they start their windup.

It’s hard enough to get a young pitcher to block out everything and focus on a normal year, but this year has added a new element—the emotional fragility that many of these kids are struggling with after being locked away in solitude for a year. A lot of weight goes on a pitcher’s shoulders to begin with. All eyes are on them, as no action begins until they make a pitch, and they feel it, regardless of age.  

 Then when they throw a bad pitch, a chorus of “You’ve got this Little Johnny; just throw strikes” echoes across the field from their teammates, the stands from the parents and the dugout from the coaches. Even with the best of intentions, everyone at the game in that moment has put a huge mountain of pressure on a child, and it is often repeated 20 to 40 times just in one game, or until the kid buckles under the stress. This isn’t necessarily something new, but this year more kids than ever seem to be struggling to deal with that kind of pressure.

On top of this, there is the bad behavior of some parents that stands to ruin it all. Back before COVID, a referee making $20 a game at an AAU middle school basketball tournament in Paducah was hospitalized for nine days after being assaulted by a coach after one of the games. The 60 year old official suffered a broken collarbone, a cracked sinus cavity and concussion from the incident all because the coach thought a foul should have been called at the end of the game. Just recently, a T-ball championship in Eastern Kentucky was ended after coaches and parents started fighting on the field over a disputed call. Here in Meade County, the youth football program has to pay for a police officer to come to each game after an adult altercation on the field several years ago. The MCHS baseball team’s season started with a parent making waves because their child and his hair were more important than the integrity and success of the program. The MCHS softball season ended in the resignation of the winningest fast pitch coach in Kentucky history because a contingency of parents couldn’t deal with their children losing starting positions to underclassmen and claimed she was too tough on some of the girls. In fact, I get more calls from disgruntled parents wanting stories written about what they deem as bad coaches who have failed to see their little Johnnie or Susie in the same shining light as the parent does than any other thing pertaining to Meade County.

It is long past time that parents realize their role in the stands is to be seen and not heard, unless it’s a time to cheer. Their constant screaming and coaching from the stands only confuses, distracts, and embarrasses a child at best. At worst, it whittles away from the officiating and coaching pool to the point everyone from youth sports leagues to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association are struggling to find enough officials to officiate sporting events. It’s harder and harder to find coaches, as well. They are all getting tired of putting up with parents’ verbal and physical abuse.  

 Toxic parents have become a cancer that threatens to kill youth sports once and for all, and for what? Meade County hasn’t produced a career professional ball player since PeeWee Reese, almost a century ago. Just let them have fun.

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