Suzanne Tobias

Cheers from the sidelines recognize athletes for hard work

United States' Michael Phelps cheers on his teammates as they win gold in Beijing. What's wrong with parents doing the same?
United States' Michael Phelps cheers on his teammates as they win gold in Beijing. What's wrong with parents doing the same? AP

After snapping on his swim cap and adjusting his goggles, my son turned to me for our traditional fist-bump before his recent race in the 100-yard backstroke.

“I’ll be cheering,” I told him.

“You know I can’t hear you,” Jack said.

“I know,” I said, then shrugged and winked. “I don’t do it for you.”

Jack has been playing youth sports – a little baseball, then soccer, and finally swimming – for several years now, and I’ve finally learned to own and embrace my sideline personality.

I’m a pacer. A fidgeter. A nail-biter. And despite my best efforts, a yeller.

I come by it honestly. My drill-sergeant father screamed from the third-base coach’s box when my brothers played youth-league baseball, shouted from the stands during football season, flailed nervously beside the mat while one of them wrestled, and spent a collective 30 years or so screaming at the television during North Carolina State basketball games.

I was a sports fan and a cheerleader in junior high and high school and learned to project my voice across fields and gymnasiums. Then I had kids and resurrected that skill to call them to dinner or in from the playground.

My daughter chose quiet pursuits, ballet and violin, where audiences applaud politely and only when the music stops.

My son, meanwhile, selected a sport that lets him focus and meditate, lap after lap, flip turn after flip turn, nothing but splashing water and white noise while Mom screams her brains out from the pool deck. It’s a pretty sweet deal, actually. Smart kid. It’s almost like he knows me.

For years I fought the inclination to cheer from the sidelines, in part because my husband’s not much of a yeller (surprisingly, this never came up during Marriage Encounter) and in part because I didn’t want to be “that parent,” the one everyone stares at or points to or, worst of all, pats on the shoulder to lean in and whisper, “Come on, now. It’s just a game.

To be fair, I’m not obnoxious. I don’t harass coaches or swear at officials or heckle opponents or even badger my own children.

I cheer encouragements, and mostly to fill the void, because screaming “Go, Jack!” repeatedly while he sprints down the length of the pool seems to make more sense than standing there silently, hands clutched, arms folded.

I know my voice doesn’t propel him through the water. Though sometimes, when the guy in the next lane is inching closer and the wall is seven strokes away, it’s hard to imagine there’s not some crucial physics principle at work: stroke + kick + applause = velocity?

I cheer because I’m passionate. I cheer because I’m proud. I cheer to urge my son and his teammates on, to show them that all that practice means something. I cheer because it’s a maternal instinct. I cheer to demonstrate my respect for athletes’ hard work, all those mornings spent struggling through one more drill, wincing through a dozen more push-ups.

At a recent meet I watched relay teams gather at the ends of their lanes. They screamed and pumped their fists, waved caps and goggles and called out names – “Go, Claire! … Go, Sydney!” – as each member swam her leg of the relay. That level of teamwork and camaraderie seemed magical, almost primal. You couldn’t watch without smiling and cheering along.

Jack finished his second race, climbed out of the pool and strolled over to my husband and me. I congratulated him and pulled him close, his wet skin soaking the side of my shirt.

“Nice swim,” I said. “I’m proud of you.”

He smiled, then added a quiet “Thanks.”