Helping your athlete deal with poor sportsmanship

Q: My daughter pitches on the Little League (LL) softball team. Last night, the coach of the traveling team, who is also the father of another pitcher, stood a yard from my daughter when she was doing her pitching warm-up. He then stood at the fence next to her dugout during the game and tried to intimidate her by staring fiercely at her.

I didn't say anything to him, but am really angry. My daughter said that it bothered her having him stand there, but that she finally was able to ignore him. However, she played worse than I have ever seen her play. It was so frustrating.

What should I do, if anything?

- Her Number One Fan
(note from karen: this question was edited for brevity)

A: Yuck. No wonder you are frustrated! Bullying is hard enough to deal with when it comes from another kid, but from an adult? And a coach, no less? That's out of line!

Kudos to you for keeping your cool and not saying anything to him while you were fuming. You are setting a powerful example for your daughter. Rarely does anything productive result from actions taken while angry. We can't see clearly until we stop seeing red.

I love that she was finally able to ignore him. That ability to focus will serve her so well in many areas of life! It's understandable that her play was affected this time - no doubt it took a lot of her energy just to maintain her composure. But the fact that she was able to tune him out at all is quite impressive, and she will surely build on that success. Eventually, she'll become a real pro at maintaining her focus in spite of distractions.

If I was you, my first intervention in this situation would be to calm myself down. An incident like this naturally triggers a mamma-bear sized surge of adrenaline, and that will need to be released before you can think clearly and act calmly. You'll most likely need to do more than just talk about it ... perhaps a good cry or a long run or some kickboxing will clear those fight-flight neurochemicals out of your system.

Once you have calmed down, talk to your daughter. Congratulate her on keeping her cool and figuring out how to ignore his childish behavior. Give her tons of empathy about how challenging that kind of silent attack can be to deal with, and tell her how proud you are of her. Give her lots of time and space to tell you about her experience of it. If she's still feeling angry, you might do some vigorous physical activity together to help release those fight-flight chemicals in her system, too. Then offer to brainstorm together to come up with other strategies she might be able to use in the future if it happens again. (Unfortunately, chances are that it will.)

Suggestions to consider putting on the table:

- Can she talk to her own coach about it? I'm sure he or she would want to know what is going on, and would be happy to take action to protect his or her players from stunts like this. Perhaps her coach would be willing to ask folks not to stand within 10 feet of her while she's warming up. The two coaches may even know each other, and this could be dealt with by the adults.

- Can she come up with a phrase that she can repeat internally to help her focus, like Just do your best and let go of the rest or something like that? Best if it's in her own words.

- Can the two of you come up with a hand or eye signal that you flash each other which means "Get a load of this guy! Here he goes pulling his childish stunts again! How ridiculous is that!" This way she can draw some silent support from your validation of her experience.

After talking to my daughter, my next step would be to clue her coach in to what is going on. That's not instead of my daughter doing so, it's in addition to. He or she needs to know about things like this that impact his or her players.

I'm hoping that the coach will step up and you won't feel any need to confront this guy directly. But if you are standing out there next week and it happens again, and you feel compelled to say something to him, at the very least give yourself time to take five deep slow breaths and wait until your heart stops racing.

Remember that saying Keep your friends close and your enemies closer? Recruit a friend to come with you for moral support, and go stand near the bully and engage him in idle chit chat - Hey, think we're gonna get some rain anytime soon? This is a non-confrontational way to let him know you are onto him without backing him into a corner. Since you mentioned this is a small rural town where everyone knows everyone else, it will be important not to stoop to his level and to hold your higher ground. Whatever you say or do could impact your daughter, so you gotta be careful.

Chances are he'll get sick of your mindless chatter and just slink quietly away. Since all you really care about is your daughter, it's not necessary to hammer your point home with him. Nobody wins when we corner an animal. It's best to leave him a graceful way out.

Then get back to the stands and cheer your daughter with extra enthusiasm, knowing that she's fine-tuning a lot more than her pitching style. Good sportsmanship is a priceless life skill!

My daughter's soccer league sent us a a website that had lots of great info for parents and coaches about encouraging good sportsmanship. I found it to be really practical and useful. You may want to pass it along to your daughter's coach, as well.

I hope this helps. Your concern for your daughter's well being is evident, which means she's already a lucky girl to have you on her team.

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