Sunday, December 6, 2009

Poppies in the Stands

Last week, for the first time in many years, I got to actually sit in the stands and watch an entire age-group meet.  I watched every heat of every race, jotted down times, chatted with a couple of mom friends, dealt with the Loudest Family on the Planet, suffered a mild case of heat prostration, and fought to get my heat sheet back from some free-loading loser who parked herself near me and asked to look at my program and then didn’t give it back until I demanded it back.  It was all wonderful.

See, for the last eight years, I’ve had to spend most of my time at these meets “in camp,” where the kids wait to get summoned for their races.  As I explained to one of my mom friends who wanted to know why it took me so long to get out of camp, it’s partially because I grew up near New York City.  I assume the worst of everyone when it comes to my children’s safety.  I also don’t have very high expectations of their ability to get to the bullpen or blocks by themselves.  We used to get rid of our daughter for hours inside the house by sending her off with instructions to bring back a (fill in the blank).  That didn’t work with our son.  Even if you gave him a list of 14 things to fetch, he would fetch them all in about five minutes flat.  But Little Mr. Coach would and has consciously chosen a Pokemon-card trading battle over an A-final.  So in camp I stayed.

But now our youngest child has arrived at the 11-12 age group and he is showing signs of, well, some would say maturity, but I would say it’s just a Machiavellian feel for what he’s got to do if he’s going to get what he wants (either more games for his Nintendo DS or a later bed time).  So at his first indoor meet this year, I decided I was ready to sit in the stands. 

And I have to give myself props for how it went.  I have come a long way in my ability to tolerate loud swim-parent behavior.  It’s been an issue because I’m not a screamer.  I find that if I yell during my kids’ races it short-circuits something between my eyeballs and my brain, and I end up not really seeing or remembering their races.  So, you say, just videotape them.  Not really a videotaper either.  So I watch pretty quietly and that way I can absorb what I’m seeing.  And I’m not alone in this regard, though I have to cross the Equator to find other parents like me.

A few years ago, when we lived in Australia during one of Mr. Coach’s sabbaticals, our kids swam for a club there.  I’ll never forget the meet where I was sitting on the edge of the pool as my daughter swam by in the backstroke.  Because I was right there and she could see me, I figured I better say something so I leaned over and, at a volume that would be considered conversational at an American age-group swim meet, I said, “Go, honey!” 

About a dozen Australian parent heads slowly turned as one to look at me.  Then they all slowly swiveled back to reaffix their gazes on the pool. 

“What did I do?” I whispered to one of my new Australian friends.

“You cheered for your own child,” she whispered back.

“OK?” I said.

“You don’t do that,” she replied. “TPS.”

There are many things I love about the Australian nation -- their desserts and dairy products probably foremost -- but their swim parents rank way high up there, too.  TPS, as I found out, is what they call “Tall Poppy Syndrome.”  Tall poppies are “made to be cut down.”  In other words, you and your swollen pride are just asking for trouble if you publicly express a desire to see your child do well at something.  You can – and should – cheer for other people’s children, but you don’t cheer out loud for your own.

Call it superstition, call it unrealistic, call it a bit too much humility, but I think it’s a great concept.  And you can’t criticize a nation of swim parents who, when their children make the Australian Olympic team, don t-shirts with the acronym POOS printed on them (which stands for Parents Of Our Swimmers).

So, ever since I got back from Australia, I haven’t felt bad about being a non-screamer.  And this time, my first time back in the stands for an entire meet, I sat there, cheered a little bit at a conversational volume for my son, and I didn’t get riled up about other people screaming.  It felt good to be a short poppy.


  1. Great insight, Jane. I think the Japanese used to call those "nails that stand up." You know, the ones just crying out to be hammered down. :)

    Hey - have you ever written about swim parent-turned volunteer the first time? I had one working with me (timing) at a masters' meet before the Thanksgiving holiday. Entertaining, I dare say.

  2. I always yell "Swim like the wind" to my 9 year old as she gets up on the blocks and then nervously watch my stopwatch the rest of the time. To pass time waiting between events, my daughter and I laugh at the coaches and parents who yell to kids who are mostly submerged swimming. I've asked and can assure you that unless their ears are oversized (thus creating too much drag to be fast anyway) they CANNOT hear us anyway.

  3. Oh, I like that, Michael -- "nails that stand up." Very zen!

    And EVK4, we're gonna have to wean you from the stopwatch if you want to get zen, too! (but I'm with you on that "they can't hear us anyway" argument -- very true)

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  5. Often times, as a coach, there is so much yelling you can do. My most favorite occurances at meets is when a kid is in the end lane. I just open my mouth and shake my hands, its gives the appearance.

    We have a deaf swimmer on our team. When she swims, sometimes I yell and remember about half way through my cheering she can't hear. I wait until I am next to a coach and yell a bit, then say "I don't even know why I bother" and wait for their reaction before I tell them she's deaf. It never fails to get them or amuse me.

  6. Oh, I'll bet your swimmer enjoys you forgetting her disability! At my high school, we had one of the first groups of main-streamed deaf students in the state and they had a lot of fun with us "silence-challenged" kids! :-)


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