When I went to see team handball at the Rio Olympics (a sport I knew next to nothing about), I expected I’d learn something about the sport. I expected I would feel the Olympic spirit. I did not expect to get a lesson in sports parenting.
I wasn’t new to being a spectator. I had sat in my fair share of bleachers in the last several years as my kids swam and played through the ranks of various sports. This was different.
It wasn’t that this was the biggest sporting event in the world or that these were adults. It wasn’t that these were the best in the world at their sport. It wasn’t that the pressure on the athletes was more intense or that the arena was louder.
What was different was how I felt.
I felt free. I felt relaxed. I loved watching these athletes give everything and play their best. I was in awe of their skills. It was fun and exciting. I felt zero pressure.
Maybe that’s what being a spectator is supposed to be like! Why was it so different from watching my own kids compete?
Here’s what I learned from watching a sport I knew little about, between teams I didn’t particularly care about, with players I didn’t know:
1. When you don’t know the sport… you don’t get upset by questionable referee calls or second-guess coaching decisions.
When I watched Olympic handball, some spectators around me were loudly complaining about the refereeing and some of the choices on the court. Luckily for me, because I didn’t know the game, I was blissfully oblivious to it all.
If we’re familiar with a sport, whether we’ve played it, or just seen it on TV, we think we know the “right” way of doing things. We think we know what the refs and coaches should be doing- therefore it must be our responsibility to tell them when they make mistakes, right? Uh, no!
Pretending this is a completely random sport we know nothing about takes the pressure off and we can watch with curiosity and appreciation for the nuances of the game.
2. When you don’t know the teams or care who wins… you cheer for plays from both teams and enjoy watching the game unfold.
I really didn’t have a preference whether Sweden or South Korea won that Olympic handball match. I also don’t mind whether my kids win or lose when they compete. Of course, I’ll support their team and hope they do their best, but their lives are not going to be radically different. They will learn something important either way. Plus, I have no control whatsoever in the outcome.
When we’re invested in a particular team, whether it’s little league or our favorite pro team, we can get caught on an emotional rollercoaster as momentum shifts from one team to the other. If we don’t have a dog in the fight, we can just celebrate great plays from both teams and appreciate the flow of the game. It's exciting, instead of stressful.
3. When you don’t know the players… you can be impressed by their skills and have empathy for their disappointments, without trying to fix anything.
When I watched Olympic handball, I wasn’t concerned with how any particular player was performing. I wasn’t judging whether they were playing up to their usual standard, or whether they were putting in enough effort. I was just amazed to see what these athletes were doing.
It can be the same watching our kids, too. It’s pretty cool to observe the learning process (which includes all their missteps) and incredible to see what some of them are capable of at such a young age.
It’s not our job to “fix” them. There’s no need to scrutinize every play or keep a running tally of errors to deconstruct in the car on the way home. We get to sit back and be in awe of these young people doing what they love.
Our kids are playing their sport for their own reasons. We’re along for the ride and get the privilege of witnessing it. If we remove the pressure of worrying about how they play or whether they win, we can relax and enjoy watching. We can celebrate their successes and marvel at their learning and empathize when they have a rough experience.
It can be hard to detach and leave their sport to them, but thinking of Olympic handball can help. Now, when I go to my kid’s sporting events, I pretend I’m watching a high level of an unfamiliar sport, with teams I have no investment in and athletes I don’t know. I’m back in those Olympic stands, savoring every moment.
At the end of the day, we are just spectators who love watching our kids play.