By Scott Rosberg
By the time this is published, our high school teams will be competing in contests, and the middle school teams will be gearing up for their first contests, too. So, I thought a good topic for today would be about being a fan. My focus in this column will be on fans in general, not parents watching their own kids compete. At some point in the future (maybe quite soon), I will talk about parents watching contests, as there are quite a few important elements that parents need to deal with that the average fan does not.
A big portion of today's topic is on how to watch an athletic contest. I am amazed at how often supposedly long-time knowledgeable fans struggle to know how to watch a contest or how many of them continue to focus on the wrong things. Let’s look at a few situations to help clear this up.
First, look at the big picture. When you watch a game involving a ball of some sort, watch things other than the ball. Watch how the offense moves; watch their spacing, their communication with each other, and the flow that they create. Watch the defense work together, the communication, and the person making the extra effort to step over and help a teammate who has missed an assignment. These areas are where the beauty of team sports starts to be appreciated.
Also, watch the bench. How are those kids supporting their team? Are they into the game, or are they pouting, just sitting there upset about their playing time? How about the coaches and their staffs? What adjustments do they make in certain situations? Are they screamers, or are they quiet leaders? Do their players look at them and listen? Is there communication between them?
How about the referees? Watch how hard they work. Watch their positioning and their teamwork with each other. Watch how well they communicate with the coaches and the players. Too often we just focus on officials' mistakes. Watch and appreciate the job they do. These are all parts of the big picture to watch on the floor.
Fans should also keep in mind that there are only four roles at any sporting contest—players, coaches, officials, and spectators. Fans fall into the spectator category. They are there to watch and to cheer for their team. While fans are sometimes called the 6th man or 12th man, that is not to be taken literally. The real 6th man or 12th man is on the team and he or she plays in the game. Unfortunately, over the last few years, fans have taken their role to a different level, trying to truly be the “sixth man.” They need to leave that job for one of the players.
I love watching college basketball, but I’m a little concerned about the way things have become in terms of fan behavior at games. The Duke vs. North Carolina game has long been one of the great games to watch, and I have loved watching how each team’s fans get into it and cheer for their team, occasionally ripping on the opponent for some type of mistake or blunder. Now, it’s almost like that’s all many of them are there to do. I met two North Carolina alums a few years back, and they even admitted that their fans are out of control with inappropriate behavior. I’m worried that we are starting to adopt some of European soccer’s traits when it comes to fan behavior, and we know how ugly that can get.
Also, how fans cheer at games has changed. Their attitude seems to be, “I paid my money, so I can say and do anything I want.” Why is that? What gives fans the right to act that way and ruin many other people’s experience? This is especially upsetting to me at high school games. These are 15, 16, and 17-year old boys and girls that we are watching. Fans need to quit yelling at them and criticizing them for everything they do wrong. What the teams need is for their fans to be positive supporters. Should they be loud? You bet. Scream like raving lunatics. But do it in a positive fashion instead of this negative, cynical, constantly critical method that has permeated athletics today.
Speaking of coaches, lay off them, too. I know you’re probably thinking right now, “Well, of course he’s going to say that. He’s a coach.” True, but think about it. While many of us think we know what we’re talking about with respect to certain things in this world, we really don’t. Sports is a biggie. Many people often think, “I played the game. I know how it’s supposed to be done.” Playing sports and coaching sports are two totally different things.
I have been coaching for 40 years, so I have a certain level of understanding and expertise when it comes to coaches and coaching. However, I try not to criticize coaches too much. I try hard to give the coach the benefit of the doubt. I haven’t been there for all of the hours of practice, meetings, chalk talks, etc. Have you? Also, try being evaluated by hundreds or thousands of people based on them viewing your work for one-and-a-half hours. Most people in the stands doing this evaluating don’t understand what goes on with teams preparing for and then competing in athletic contests, yet they still feel they can yell and criticize the coaches for whatever is happening. That would be like me walking around with a surgeon for a couple of hours of his day at the hospital and then telling him, “You know, I really think you should be handling the heart surgeries a little differently. Oh, and by the way, I’m going to criticize you and yell out what you should be doing about them over your shoulder the whole time you’re doing them.” As far-fetched as that would be, it's not too far off of what coaches deal with. So please, let the players play and the coaches coach, OK?
Finally, leave the officials alone. I’m not saying they are perfect and never make mistakes and don't sometimes affect the contests they officiate. As a coach I know that they play a large role in the game. However, we need to keep in mind that they are human, and they do make mistakes. It is part of the coach’s right to talk to officials about calls. That’s for the coach to do, not the players or fans. For the last 15-20 years, we have been losing officials at a faster rate than we are gaining new ones, and it is having a negative effect on the contests that our kids are playing in. Why are we losing so many officials so quickly? Because of fan and coach behavior, especially at the younger levels where new officials are learning how to officiate. Young officials who are trying to learn how to officiate are being attacked so much that they are deciding it's not worth it to continue, so we are not building a large enough and sustainable group of officials to cover all of the contests in all of our towns. Rather than go into too much more on officials, I will make them a topic to devote some more time to in the future.
Hopefully, this short column will help people understand how and why they should be better fans in the future. Maybe some people will at least think about how they act at games. I know I’m probably being way too idealistic, but if we all focus a little bit more on being the best spectators we can be, I believe we can make a positive difference in the experience for all of us.