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Killer Coach
I was a sweet sensitive dad... until little league brought out my demons!

By Harry Maurer

So it's the bottom of the sixth, last inning of this Little League game, one out, and my son Luke is up with men on first and third. Tie score, 10-10. I'm not an official coach, but I've wangled my way into coaching first base so I can be more involved. Right now I'm wishing I were less involved. I'm so nervous I could scream. The pitching machine spits a ball at Luke, who takes a mighty cut and misses. I wince. "Good swing!" I shout, more to console myself than Luke. Another pitch, another strike. But on the next one, Luke grounds the ball smartly towards the third baseman. And despite the fact that the likelihood of an 8-year-old infielder making the throw to first (or home) is approximately that of my hitting Randy Johnson's fastball, I'm suddenly shouting at Luke as if his life depended on it, "Run! Run! Don't look at the ball! Just run like hell!"

And there it is. Another glimpse of ol' Demon Dad, who has a nasty tendency to surface at sporting events involving his sons. The Dad who doesn't just want them to have fun, to enjoy some fresh air and open space, to learn some skills and make some friends and enjoy the experience of teamwork, no-this is the Dad who also wants them to succeed, to star, to win, dammit! The Dad who deeply confuses the other, more easygoing Dad inside me about what he thinks is important in the world, and what values to pass on. The Dad who triumphantly told Luke, "You batted in the winning run!", which Luke thought was cool even though until then, he had no idea what batting in the winning run meant.

Don't get me wrong-I don't live in one of those towns in Texas or New Jersey where the Little League team goes on to the World Series and where out-of-control parents are arrested for assaulting umpires. I live in downtown Manhattan, and my sons Jonah, 11, and Luke, 8, play soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring in TriBeCa, an artsy neighborhood well-salted with graying '60s veterans living in lofts. Still, on the Playing Fields of TriBeCa I've seen levels of competitive rage that make my skin crawl-and worse, I've seen that same rage rise in myself.

It wasn't too bad at first. In fact, when Jonah and Luke started playing, I was angry with all their coaches for wanting to win too much. They regularly kept the worst players on the bench except for the minimum time necessary to satisfy the rules or to placate parents. They refused to let kids try out new positions, especially key ones such as pitcher. They yelled at players or pulled them out of the game when they made a mistake, instead of patiently explaining and encouraging.

So last fall, when I showed up for Luke's first soccer practice and discovered I was the only parent who knew much about the game, I agreed to take over as head coach. I could do better, I figured. None of this ugly fixation on winning. Oh, sure.

Our team lost its first game 5-0, and while the 8-year-olds forgot about it as soon as they hit the doughnuts, I was crushed. I felt as though I had lost personally. At the next practice I noticed my flashes of temper at the kids who were more interested in chasing each other than in running drills. Our second game was another lopsided loss. I promptly went out and bought two books on coaching youth soccer. I found myself lying awake at 1 a.m. replaying the game as if I were watching videotape. At odd moments I started fiddling with different lineups, making Xs on a sheet of paper and imagining: "Now, if I start Ariana at center forward and put Travis on right wing, and I trade off Harrison and Emma at right halfback...."

But the real lesson came at the games. Having assigned two other dads to patrol the sidelines, I stationed myself behind the goal to keep a close eye on the defense. I grew so tense that during an early game, when my wife Heather innocently thought she'd hang out with me, I snapped, "I can't talk to you now! I have to concentrate!" I kept the less-proficient players out as long as I could, often "forgetting" to put them back in. And worst of all, when one of my defenders-including my own sweet, bright-eyed, but not terribly aggressive Luke--would miss an assignment and give up a goal, I felt a stab of fury so painful that I wanted to double over and howl at the ground.

Usually, I didn't. And the tale has a happy ending, of sorts: The kids won most of their remaining games, and over the weeks they turned into a real team. I'll even indulge in some self-congratulation: At the season-ending pizza party, another dad told Heather he thought I had struck a good balance-"Harry likes the kids to have fun, but he's got some fire in his belly, too."

Well, that makes me proud. But I'm haunted by those moments when I yelled too loud, when I couldn't keep the dismay out of my voice, when Luke looked at me and knew I was disappointed in him. And now that Little League is in swing, and I'm co-coaching Jonah's team, it's happening again: When he takes a called third strike, he glances over quickly and knows my heart is sinking. What he's not old enough to understand is that despite all my best ideas and best efforts, despite all my talk about the pleasure of the game being the point, there's a little boy inside of me who wants him to be perfect, to be ever victorious, to be something I have never forgiven myself-and never will--for not being.

Harry Maurer is a writer and editor at Business Week, where
he enjoys a reputation for being calm and easygoing.

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