- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005

It starts with a nod of recognition from one parent to the other on the first day of practice. After a few dozen car pool rides and cups of coffee, those strangers become friends. After hours spent in the stands at a few weekend-long tournaments, some families are bonded for life.

For parents with children on sports teams, the longer the athletes play, the deeper those ties go. Sure, the players are learning about camaraderie and sportsmanship, but the parents are learning about those concepts too, along with who is the most organized, who can be counted on in an emergency, who makes the best postgame snacks and who prefers to be left alone.

“My husband and I joke that if it weren’t for sports, we’d have no social life,” says Shawn Harrison of Vienna.

In the past, Mrs. Harrison has been, among other things, a soccer mom, a swim team mom and a track team mom. Her daughters, Alisa, 14, and Nicole, 15, have played a variety of sports since they were very young.

Now the sports are more specialized. Nicole is a standout basketball player, playing with a national-level Amateur Athletic Union team as well as on the Marshall High School team in Falls Church. Alisa plays ice hockey with the Montgomery Blue Devils, a girls’ team that travels to tournaments in icy places such as Boston and Wisconsin nearly every weekend this time of year.

During the heart of the season, there is some sort of practice or game for someone in the Harrison household nearly every day. A typical week this time of year includes two basketball games and three basketball practices. There are two hockey practices at the Cabin John Rink in Bethesda — a good half-hour drive from the Harrisons’ home — and, of course, the out-of-town tournament trips.

Mrs. Harrison’s husband, Keith, a lawyer, helps as a scorekeeper at the basketball games. Mrs. Harrison, a stay-at-home mom, is the team manager for the Blue Devils.

“I end up spending as many hours on team business as a full-time job,” she says.

So it’s no wonder Mrs. Harrison — and the countless other mothers of serious young athletes — count on sports friends the same way one would a longtime co-worker or neighbor, says Steven Danish, professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Mr. Danish’s special area of study is the life skills learned from playing sports.

“People on the outside looking in may wonder why the heck you are encouraging your children to play these time-consuming sports,” says Mr. Danish. “So it ends up that your sports friends understand.”

Mrs. Harrison agrees. Her hockey friends commiserate when she is upset over a penalty call. Her basketball friends can talk about rebounds and steals.

“It is somewhat similar to the way you would have neighborhood friends,” she says. “The men might get together, but they don’t bond the way the women do. The moms bond. I still have lunch once a month with the moms from my daughter’s former team. We’ve gone to New York City together.

“A group of us from the current team went to Bethany Beach together last Mother’s Day,” says Mrs. Harrison. “No kids and no hockey. We still talked hockey, though. It’s what we have in common.”

Trusting teammates

Here is something else the hockey team moms have in common: They almost all have more than 100,000 miles on their cars as a result of schlepping from places such as Anne Arundel, Fairfax and Howard counties to get to practice at Cabin John.

In addition to considerable mileage, they also have invested serious time and money in hockey. Team fees, equipment and travel can easily add up to about $8,000 a year.

“It is important to have supportive parents,” says Jill George, a Gaithersburg woman whose daughter, Sara, plays on the Blue Devils and whose son is also an elite hockey player. “But we also share the same values. The kids are first. There have been good friendships on every team. This ends up being your true daily social life.”

Parents of players on travel teams must be able to trust the other parents, says Kathie Reich, whose daughter, Amy, plays on the Blue Devils. Now that the girls on the hockey team are teens, not every parent goes on every road trip. Parents need to know that the players are in good hands as they fly or drive to different cities.

“All you have to do is say ‘Keep an eye on my kid,’” says Mrs. Reich, who lives in Woodstock, Md. “There is an unspoken trust between the parents.”

Sometimes that trust may take years to build, though. Just as in any social situation, there may be a standoffish parent, a pushy parent or a shy parent.

“There have been situations,” says Mrs. Reich. “But honestly, I have never come across a parent I didn’t like.”

Says Mrs. George: “Some people are just quiet. That’s OK.”

Playing fair

Jane Kehler of Nokesville, Va., is just starting to navigate the social strata of sports parents. Her son, Griffin, 6, spends about eight hours a week practicing with the boy’s team at Karon’s Gymnastics in Manassas.

“I stay at practice the entire time,” says Mrs. Kehler. “You could see that there were friendships already formed when we started the team. Not that we were distant, but we sat in the back of the cafeteria.”

That was nearly two years ago. Things have loosened up a bit. Mrs. Kehler says she is getting used to life as a team mom. Between practices and meets — some of which have been out of town — she and her son have made some good friends.

There is a different dynamic in individual sports such as gymnastics, golf and ice skating. While the players train together as a team, they often compete against one another, says Mr. Danish.

“The other parents on the team are not necessarily your support system in that case,” says Mr. Danish. “There ends up being a lot of competition. But I have also seen that happen in team sports, too. Parents need to remember, it is not about them. It is about your child.”

In fact, a toxic parent can make for a nasty atmosphere. Debbie Walk, owner and a coach at Karon’s Gymnastics, says she recently asked a gymnast to leave because the girl’s mother “was very destructive to our program.”

“She sat in the waiting room and told people what she thought was right,” says Mrs. Walk. “She convinced people to leave the gym. She was a manipulator. She would buy treats for the girls and leave one girl out because she didn’t like the mom.

“I always tell the parents, ‘Don’t listen to rumors,’” says Mrs. Walk. “I will tell them the truth.”

As team manager in a program that has roster changes each year, Mrs. Harrison says she tries to set a positive tone. That includes everything from making sure the girls are listening to the coach to rallying meals and support when a parent is ill.

“As team manager, part of the feeling of the team comes from me,” says Mrs. Harrison. “I’ve seen cases where the manager is kind of the instigator. But I know you are not going to be able to keep some people happy. I’m pretty easygoing, though. I try to avoid conflict.

“We’ve been lucky,” she says. “But every once in a while you might get someone you don’t like. You have to make the best of it. That happens in every sport. In this one, you sometimes have a parent who thinks their kid is the next Wayne Gretzky, which, of course, they’re not.”

The Harrisons laugh when they talk about the holiday season — that their main party invitations came from their basketball and hockey friends.

“I love that my daughters are involved in sports,” says Mr. Harrison. “It has brought some really smart, cool people into our lives who we like to hang out with. That is not always the case for some families.”

Sports friendships, like any worthy relationship, sometimes take work. Rosters change from year to year, so the team parents you cheered with during the undefeated run of 2003 might be the people you owed an e-mail to for all of 2004.

Mrs. Harrison says she tries to maintain ties. A look at her Palm Pilot shows phone lists of parents from previous teams. Some of her best friends are the mothers of Alisa’s teammates when she played on a boy’s hockey team a few years ago.

Then there is the situation of a player who wants to quit. That can leave a surprising hole in the lives of the parents. This happened on the Blue Devils this year. A player left the team; the mom was devastated.

“The kid quit and the mom was in tears,” says Mrs. Harrison. “The mom didn’t want to leave. We cried together.”

More info:

Books —

• “101 Ways to be a Terrific Sports Parent: Making Athletics a Positive Experience for Your Child,” by Joel Fish, Simon & Schuster, 2003. This book, by a sports psychologist, offers many tips on how to make playing on a sports team a positive experience for players and their parents.

• “Fair Play: Making Organized Sports a Great Experience for Your Kids,” by Scott B. Lancaster, Prentice Hall, 2002. This book features a chapter on eliminating poor behavior by coaches and parents.

• “The Cheers and the Tears: A Healthy Alternative to the Dark Side of Youth Sports Today,” by Shane Murphy, Jossey-Bass, 1999. This books has several sections on the role of the family in nurturing young athletes.

Associations —

• Positive Coaching Alliance, Department of Athletics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. Phone: 866/725-0024. Web site: www.positivecoach.org. The positive coaching alliance is a nonprofit group based at Stanford University that is focused on making playing sports a positive, character-building experience for players and parents. There is a section on the group’s Web site about sports parenting resources.

Online —

• Mom’s team (www.momsteam.com) is a Web site founded by sports parent Brooke de Lench. It has information about many different sports, health and safety, equipment buying, and how to be a good sports parent. There are articles by experts, message boards and links to other useful Web sites.

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