Sports moms personify victory, defeat

Courtesy of Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has been a sports writer for 25 years, but when she watches her son Matt play sports, her stomach churns because she's his mother.

On the first day that my 16-year-old son walked out to the pitcher's mound this season, I got up and walked out of the stands.

I told the other parents I had to use the restroom, and I stood under the bleachers and waited for his first inning as a varsity pitcher to be over. I heard the ping of the bat and the cheers from the other dugout as one of their guys hit a solo home run. And I stood there until the half-inning ended and he had regrouped, getting the next two guys out to finish the inning -- not that I saw any of it.

Then I went back to my seat, able to breathe a little bit while his team was at bat.

When the next half-inning started and he was headed back out, I stood up. My fellow moms called me out. They cajoled me to sit down and watch my kid. One mom, a good friend, summed it up in terms I could understand, "Suck it up, Buttercup."

So I stayed and watched the next three innings, and it was pretty close to torture.

Not because he didn't pitch well -- he did that day -- but because that's my son out there, standing by himself on the mound, being judged -- by the umpire, the coaches, the opposing players, the fans in the stands -- on whether he can perform. To me, he looks like a young man and my little boy at the same time.

When he succeeds, it's as stressful as it is joyous. When he struggles -- even though I know in my right mind these are the experiences that shape him as a person and an athlete -- it's excruciating.

AP Photo/Young Kwak

Sports is a big part of the Tinkle family. Lisa Tinkle says running the video camera can calm her nerves while watching her children play sports. On top of that, Lisa's husband, Wayne, is the men's basketball coach at Montana.

I have been a sports writer for 25 years. I have watched hundreds of games, often dispassionately, sometimes absent-mindedly, frequently more worried about making deadline and getting a flight home the next morning than the outcome. But watching my child compete makes my insides churn like nothing else because I am his mom.

Raising an athlete is, without a doubt, a distinct experience in the adventure of parenting. You regularly bear witness to successes and failures. You get to watch growth, maturity and, in the rockier moments, the places where your kid still needs to find his or her way. You get to teach lessons about friendship, sportsmanship and moving past adversity and learn them in a way that no other experience as a mother can quite replicate.

"Sports have been an integral part of our lives," said Lisa Tinkle, the wife of Montana men's basketball coach Wayne Tinkle. Her three children, Joslyn, Elle and Tres, grew up with the game. Joslyn just finished her college career at Stanford. Elle will be a sophomore next year playing at Gonzaga. Tres is finishing up his sophomore season as an all-state star, his high school team in Missoula winning the state championship. "There have been so many lessons. We used to talk about them all the time, and we still do. You want them to be good players, good athletes, but mostly good people."

We start out, when our kids are young, as the mother of a child who "plays sports." We sign them up for softball or volleyball or soccer or whatever opportunity is offered through Little League, CYO or the local recreation department. We sign up to bring snacks (orange slices and juice boxes are always a hit), cut shapes out of felt and glue them on the team banner and organize the end-of-season pizza party.

But somewhere along the line, as your child gets older and becomes more committed, he or she becomes an "athlete" and the "mom" role changes.

Instead of salving a tough loss with a bag of fruit snacks, you ponder on the car ride home whether you should talk about what just happened, wondering if this is the best time for a teachable moment about picking yourself up and dusting off. You worry with them -- maybe more than them -- as the doctor examines the sore shoulder or the injured knee. Your knees buckle a little when they go down on the court or the field, followed by immeasurable relief when they get back up.

You have dinner ready when they get home from practice, replace outgrown cleats and gloves, pay fees, schedule vacations around games and tournaments and turn games and tournaments into your vacations.

You watch, advise and try to be as impartial as possible as they make the big decisions -- picking a college, leaving home to train full time or even deciding whether they still want to play.

Sandi Leroux and her daughter Sydney reached their big decision together a decade or so ago. Sydney was going to leave her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the age of 14 to train in the United States in the hopes of making the U.S. national soccer team. She would ultimately reach her goal as part of the U.S. team that won gold in London.

"I thought we were making the right decision because it was a dream of hers," Sandi Leroux said. "A lot of people said, 'How could you let your daughter go?' But they didn't know the things that Sydney and I had discussed. It was the right choice."

There is a reason the TV camera loves to zero in to find the moms during big sporting events. We are the personification of the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.

The sight of U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman's mother, Lynn, twisting and turning in her seat last summer in London, living and dying with every move, lives on YouTube. There are basketball moms like Ify Ogwumike, mother of Stanford All-American sisters Nneka and Chiney, who walks the concourse until the game is over because she just can't bear to watch, and images of Michael Phelps' mother, Debbie, holding on to her daughters for dear life as her boy comes down the final lap with another gold medal in his sights.

These moments are endearing, sometimes funny and unfailingly relatable.

Because as moms, we've all be there.

Lisa Tinkle confesses that running the video camera during games seems to calm her nerves. Sandi Leroux would really prefer to sit by herself during games if she can.

"When she gets the ball, I'm kicking it right along with her," Sandi Leroux said.

The lessons, we find out, are not only for our children, our athletes, to learn.

I'm sitting and watching more now as the season goes on. When he goes out to pitch, I stay put. And it's hard. I still hold my breath through all three outs, shaking my leg nervously. But this is my lesson, as the mom of an athlete. When the going gets tough, mom isn't going to be hiding under the bleachers.

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