Watching my kids play team sports as they were growing up didn’t always bring out the best in me. I liked watching them develop their athletic skills and learn the value of teamwork, and I enjoyed sitting on the sidelines during their games, chatting with the other parents. But I also took it to heart when I thought a coach or umpire wasn’t being fair, and was just a little too quick to listen to the gossip and drama that are an inevitable part of youth sports. Which explains, but doesn’t at all excuse, why I was so surprised one night when I was watching a softball game and saw a player on the opposing team performing a simple act of kindness for one of the players on my daughter’s team.
For years, I had heard that this particular team was the arch-rival of my daughter’s team, and that they cheated every chance they got, trash-talked my daughter’s team throughout every game, and that all of them–the players, the coaches and the parents—were just plain mean and nasty people. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I basically believed it, especially after watching a few games that weren’t exactly what you’d call friendly competition.
So there I was one muggy summer night, sitting on the bleachers behind first base, watching my daughter’s softball game against their “arch rivals” and really hoping we (the good guys) would beat them (the bad guys.) But then one of our players lost her helmet as she ran to first base, and it landed in the dust, out of her reach. She couldn’t retrieve it without risking getting picked off the base. The first-base player from the other team leaned over, picked up the helmet and handed it back to her. And just like that, all my preconceived notions about the girls on this team went down the drain.
I had to leave before the game was over, and I passed by the opposing team’s bench and bleachers on my way out. The parents were complaining about the mosquitoes, and remembering the actions of their first-base player, I stopped and offered them my bottle of bug spray to use. Since their girls were on the field at the time, I told them to hang on to it spray their girls when they came back to the bench and to give the bottle to my husband after the game. They wanted to know who my husband was, and I said the coach of the team they were playing. Which I could tell surprised them, a lot.
My husband came home late from that game, because not only did they return the bug spray to him, but their coach also offered him a cold beverage from the team cooler. The two of them stood on the parking lot for a while after the game, chatting about the challenges of coaching kids’ sports teams and generally getting to know each other. “They were really nice people,” my husband told me, “Who knew?”
My daughter’s team played against that team several more times, and both teams still played to win. But they no longer felt like arch rivals, and more often than not, my husband and their coach lingered after the game for a friendly chat. The people we had viewed as “the enemy” became just another group of girls playing a game, and just another group of parents cheering them on and occasionally forgetting not to take it all so seriously. They were ordinary people, just like us.
And all it took for me to finally see that was one girl picking up another girl’s batting helmet and giving it back to her.