June 24, 2019

Emotional Labor and Leisure

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I recently had the opportunity to attend my nephews’ Little League and soccer games. Since we live in different states and I am seldom in town when they play, this was a treat for all of us.

As is automatic for a sociologist in a new setting, I couldn’t help but make some basic observations about the participants in both games. While I played softball as a child, I have never been an adult onlooker of a child’s sporting event before (hard to believe, I know). In my brief time observing, I found myself observing the parents and coaches as much as the children who were playing.

First, contrary to many news stories and complaints about rude, over-invested “helicopter parents,” I noticed that the parents mainly stayed out of the way, occasionally clapping or providing supportive cheers (“great defense!” “good swing!” “good effort!”). Of course my observations were very brief (a few hours) and limited to two games, so this certainly does not lead me to conclude that these parents never get overly critical or into conflicts with one and other over their children’s participation sports.

What I did conclude was that the games were as much about managing emotions as playing.

The coaches in both games appeared to work hard to keep the kids’ spirits up as they made mistakes and the other teams scored. At the start of the soccer match, the coach called all of the kids over and said, “What’s our goal?” to which the kids replied, “To have fun!” This had clearly been an established practice, and was a reminder to the team that winning wasn’t the main purpose of playing.

During the Little League game, my nephew’s team had a particularly difficult inning, as the other team scored nine runs. The coaches worked to manage the kids’ disappointment, as each play seemed to get away from them. “That’s okay, we’ll get the next out,” the coach yelled as he clapped his hands. When a player from the other team stole a base, some of the kids seemed flustered; “Don’t worry about that, our out’s at first base,” the coach reminded the team.

The players also had to work to manage their emotions too. When the child who had been pitching the during the high-scoring inning came up to bat, he struck out swinging on three pitches. He was clearly upset and worked to contain his disappointment. His face tightened, as if to choke back tears.

Among the onlookers, there was a palpable feeling of concern, but I didn’t hear any criticism of the kids, the coaches, or the umpire. “It’s their first of fifteen games,” one parent said. “They’ll have better games.” A parent approached another parent to express concern about some trash talking she heard between the players. “I tell my kids that some people aren’t always nice, and that’s just something that they will have to learn. People don’t always say the right things.” She seemed to be reassuring herself in telling this to the other parent.

One of the coaches approached his wife, clearly rattled, and confided that he wasn’t sure what to tell the kids, that they seemed so down after the bad inning they had. The concern seemed to be more about how to comfort and inspire rather than about simply winning the game.

These very limited observations highlight the importance of how much effort goes into managing our emotions—and those of others. I have blogged about emotional labor many times in the past, as something that we learn to perform in school, across cultural contexts, and that it is a major part of work-related stress for many people.

These brief observations reminded me that emotional labor can be a major part of leisure activities too. In fact, one of my family members felt so stressed by watching the kids struggle that he left the game early.

The older boy’s game was a bit more stressful to watch because they seemed more emotionally invested in doing well than the younger kids playing soccer. Sure, some of the soccer team members got annoyed when one child scored three times—in the wrong goal. But mostly they seemed happy to run around and kick the ball. They were going for ice cream after, so that was something they looked forward to. The challenge of managing their emotions appeared less difficult for the parents and coaches.

How else might emotional “labor” be part of everyday leisure activities?

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