He came off the court upset, face smeared in blood, dripping red down his arm, wet falling from his eyes. He was frustrated by the indignation—certain of the intention, to hurt him. I helped him remove the shirt under his jersey to sop up the gushing from his nose. “We won’t miss the end of the game if we can get it under control here,” I reassured him, as I gave his nose a gentle but strong squeeze and tilted his head back. With two minutes left, he doesn’t want to move toward the locker room. I can’t blame him, it’s been a game hard-won and he wants to see it through.
I check his nose again, still gushing. I’m grateful he doesn’t care about his tears mixed in with the blood. His anger is righteous. His tears are just a sign—pain and passion mixed together. His words are with him. He’s not ashamed that his wet eyes are seen. They’re not a sign of anything to him, just what happens when you get hurt. “Why would he do that?,” he asks incredulously, “I thought we were friends,” he adds. The bleeding finally slows as a bruise starts to show on his nose. I ask him to scrunch his nose just a bit see if he can still move it, assessing the damage. Thankfully it doesn’t appear broken, but I can see his trust in his ability to read others is bruised.
Having endured many bloodied noses, even at the elbows of my own teammates, I offer another option, maybe it really was an accident. Basketball can be brutal, even a rec league game I think. Although I remind myself I’m talking to the fourth of my five boys, who will call himself out before anyone else, almost to a fault. This is the son who will wake up in the night to tell me something he forgot he did to just to clear his mind so he can go back to sleep. Still, I can see he considers it and doesn’t want to believe it wasn’t done maliciously. He starts to come around to the thought.
As we stand against the bleachers, we see the player try to slam his head back again into another unsuspecting face, alarming us both. He times it when the refs are caught up in another play, distracted. His team was losing. He was angry. And this is how he makes himself feel better. He clearly wants someone to pay and someone to hurt. My son’s teammates confirm it as they come off the court and ask if he’s okay.
I understand why he struggles to comprehend the malice, but I am also curious.
Why would he think this is the way to respond to losing?
And why would he think no one would notice?
The only thought I can settle on is that he’s done it and gotten away with it before.
Anger unchecked, breeds reaction unhinged.
The game ends and our boys gather with their friends from both teams as they replay the highlights. They chide each other a bit, but it’s reciprocal and good-natured. As we talk, a friend and her parents have nice words to say about my husband’s coaching about the way the boys are with one another—he is steady and calm and they truly play as a team, lifting up one another. When emotions run high they stay grounded. My husband is not one for attention, but grateful they note his care and commitment to the team. Their words are a kind gift.
They also couldn’t have known that sometimes I have wanted my husband to react more strongly to things. Sometimes I have thought he doesn’t care enough. Sometimes I have measured his reaction as his love for me. It’s a discussion we had back in our first days together during college. I am passionate. I show emotion. I am a highly empathetic. He is reserved. He responds more slowly. He takes time to let others in. But over twenty plus years of marriage, I have come to understand that my way isn’t the only way. It’s just the way I was made and the way I learned to respond. And the same goes for him. Still, in raising a crew of sons, I have learned to appreciate the calm and reassuring ways of my guy:
When I hit a curb and it messes up our front bumper and he chooses to respond with humor and grace.
When I’m going nonstop and forget to plan for dinner and he starts making something from what he finds in the fridge.
When another coach gets worked up and my husband just laughs instead of being goaded into the drama.
For every time I wanted him to react more strongly, I am grateful he didn’t. Let me reassure you, he does not keep his cool all the time, but it’s a gift to be married to a man who sees more than red when he’s angry. I have come to appreciate and value his emotional maturity. And no that doesn’t mean he can’t cry and he’ll be the first to assure you emotional maturity is not a male/female thing. He’ll readily admit he wishes he was more passionate and empathetic at times. But I now more fully understand that my husband’s choice to not respond, not fight, not engage is often even a harder one. It’s easy to get pulled into the emotion of a crowd, it’s harder to stand rooted and grounded in those moments.
Later that afternoon at home, I hear my husband say while watching the day’s college game highlights, “you’re not going to believe this—Michigan’s coach punched Wisconsin’s.” The Big Ten is our conference, Purdue our alma mater, and there is just an initial disbelief at the whole thing. Sure games get heated, but at that level, a punch thrown? It’s pretty shocking. Our boys witness the replay of the altercation. They are taken back at the open fist to a face and what comes next—more coaches and then players clearing the bench and getting involved.
Anger unchecked, breeds reaction unhinged.
We ask them what they think about it all. Their responses vary, but center around it being wrong. They don’t think it matters why the coach felt the need to do it. It’s clear to them. But we know clarity can come with distance. So I relate the situation back to their game earlier. “Did you want to hurt the kid that head checked you?”, I ask our son, nose still swollen and red. “I was more upset that he thought it was okay to do it to me just because he was losing“ he replies and adds, “it’s just a game, it’s not worth it.”
Michigan’s coach defends himself initially and as expected there are many feelings about it, both supporting what he did and calling for him to be fired. There will be consequences the statements stay. The next day another statement comes from the coach, it seems he changes course. We will likely never know the catalyst for that change—perhaps the suspension and fines, perhaps it was mandatory to publicly apologize to keep his job, perhaps he really did have a change of heart after reflecting. Unfortunately, the act itself reinforces the option to throw a fit and punch someone when you lose.
But the thing we can all agree on is that no one enjoys losing. Still, how can we expect our kids to check their anger when they see it spilling out everywhere? Both on and off the court? It’s no excuse for a head slammed back into a face and hopefully for his behavior, the player from the opposing team had consequences too. There should be consequences. Yet it’s evidence of a bigger problem, the mighty emphasis on winning at all costs and the lack of emotionally maturity in getting there. The value we place on others showing their commitment to us, to their goal, to their belief, by their willingness to engage their anger. The bravado, the chest puffing, the constant need to put someone else down to feel better. The way we favor dramatic, flashy, controversial, divisive over steady, solid, balanced and mature.
Unfortunately, these incidents happen and then they’re forgotten about. We continue on without addressing the root cause and the problem just keeps growing. It wasn’t a coincidence that what played out on the court that day in my son’s game played out on a larger scale too. It’s not a sin to want to win a game, especially through solid individual effort and the strength of a team, but the way we win always matters. As does the way we lose. Losing isn’t fun. But when our kids mess up, when they inflict pain, we need to hold them accountable while allowing them the grace of a second chance. We need to circle back and address the behavior instead of looking away. Without the harmony of both grace and accountability, we stunt their emotional growth instead of nurturing it. When we don’t help them check their anger in healthy ways, it too grows.
Our kids are watching. They’re taking notes. They’re choosing role models, mimicking behavior, trying to understand their place in the world of sports and the world in general. They’re getting the message that they can do and be anything, but they’re not fully grasping how they do so matters. This is where we come in. We can help them understand that the ones to look up to are the people who can be big enough to stay small. And that they too are the strongest when they can own their weakness and work on it. Their emotional maturity starts with our own.