Even though I’ve had my hands full for the last 26 years following the careers of every player on every team in every sport, I’ve always felt like something was missing from my sports experience. Fortunately for me, ESPN helped me figure out what exactly that was. The big emptiness that I’ve felt for all those years was due to a lack of overexposed 12-year old baseball players on my TV. Thanks to ESPN, I now have the option of watching 100’s of hours of coverage of games played by kids who may or may not still believe in Santa Claus. Don’t get me wrong, Little League was one of the more enjoyable experiences of my life. The key word in that sentence being my. If my baseball team was particularly good, we might have gotten 20-30 people to show up to watch us play. Even our own parents were more concerned with how long the game lasted than the outcome. Nobody in the neighborhood cared. Nobody in the city cared. Heck, half of the guys on the team didn’t care. Yet, kids just like me are now the “it” phenomenon for the ratings vulchers who will stop at nothing to attract the highly coveted male 18-49 demographic.
Part of what made playing sports fun as a kid was the fact that I could practice for an hour twice a week and then play in two games. Now, the ratio is more like two hours of practice for five days to play one game. Parents are more demanding. Kids are gently nudged into signing up for two or three teams in two or three sports whether they like it or not. One of the great freedoms of being a kid is the ability to do nothing or anything whenever you feel like it. The way it used to work was that kids would start playing sports in the 6th grade or thereabouts. Each year, the quality of play would get better until certain kids stood out above the rest. Those kids would inevitably catch the eye of coaches who then spent more time with those kids in an attempt to help them reach their potential. By high school, the kids that were able to combine skills with generous physical attributes would have a chance to play their sport beyond high school.
Youth sports have come a long, long way since what I just described was the norm. Now, to even have a chance to play sports in middle school, many kids have to sign up by the 2nd and 3rd grade. Any parent out there who thinks they’ll start their kids in sports at the middle school level is in for a rude awakening. Sure, great athletes will be able to play their way into the starting lineup regardless of when they start, but “average” kids will be permanent benchwarmers.
The exploitation of the Little League World Series is the perfect example of this phenomenon. The LLWS itself is great. I think it’s awesome that the best youth baseball teams get rewarded by the opportunity to play in a World Series in a global setting. However, the stress and pressure that these kids are put under by overzealous ratings people is not awesome. There happens to be a book on the subject called “Little League, Big Dreams” . The book is written by professional sports fanatic/researcher Charles Euchner. He explores in-depth the LLWS in all of its exploitation and glory. Without the overhyped parents/coaches and the millions of dollars on the line, the LLWS is what sports is all about. At least from the players, there isn't even the slightest amount of greed or selfishness. They play hard, have fun, and do it all for nothing but the joy of playing baseball. The book highlights every conceviable aspect of the LLWS which is a microcosm of the intensity level by parents and coaches in even the smallest Little Leagues around the country. The unfortunate thing about Euchner’s book is that it’s more a statement of fact rather than a glimmer of hope that the problem can be solved. The exploitation of the LLWS is like opening Pandora’s Box. Once opened, there is no turning back. Sure, parents can be educated about not demanding too much of their children. Grass roots campaigns can pop up exclaiming the importance of family time and child autonomy. The sorry truth is that none of that will change. Really the only thing that can turn back the clock is if people don’t watch. Nothing will cause the networks to jump ship like a bad rating.
I, for one, am ecstatic that my childhood memories are not monopolized by trips to three practices a day with a coach screaming in my ear. High School is the place for that kind of stuff. Kids can make up their own mind at that time. I can pretty much guarantee that the last thing even the most athletic kids want to do is waste their time at practice. Unfortunately, the change in the culture of youth sports forces parents to make a decision early on whether their kids will be successful at sports or not. If they don’t get their kids in at the right time, they’ll be “out of the loop” when they do decide. I find myself trying to negotiate this situation even today and my son is only 19 months old. I certainly don’t want him stressing out at seven years old because an overbearing coach or parent can’t stand losing. The more parents invest time and money into their kids’ endeavors, the more emotionally invested they get in the result. Now, parents want their kids to win for intrinsic reasons as much as for their child’s happiness. Junior’s well-being isn’t the only thing in play anymore. Not only is this environment unfairly stressful for kids, but it also overwhelms kids with time and effort. By the time kids get to high school, many of them are sick of playing sports all together; not because they don’t like the sport but the amount of time and effort necessary just to play one game isn’t worth it. Sports used to be fun. Now, it’s work.
The only solution that I have come up with that I can use when the time comes is to teach my son how to play sports myself. I can monitor his interest and devotion without sending him off to the sports version of boot camp. If he shows interest, then I have all the confidence that I can get him up to par in the skills department. This certainly won’t solve the problem of being “out of the loop” but at least he will get to enjoy being a kid for as long as he’s supposed to be. I’m not saying that every league in America is like this. In fact, there are plenty of non-competitive leagues that parents can sign their kids up in like the YMCA. However, a child who only plays youth soccer at the Y will likely not be prepared to play at the high school level. That’s why parents have to think carefully about what leagues they choose to sign their kids up in. A wrong decision could thwart their child’s chances of advancing in that sport in the coming years. If you find a league that effectively balances preparation for the next level, time, teaching and fun without sucking the innocence out of your child, then quit reading this and sign them up. The rest of you are just going to have to come to a decision that best benefits your kid. Remember, just because a seven year old says he likes basketball doesn’t mean he wants to spend every minute of every day practicing the game of basketball. I like pizza but I only eat it once every two weeks. An excess of even the most desirable things will inevitably cause a burn-out. That is why Dre Day went from being my favorite song to least favorite song in a matter of days. That is also why eating nine chicken sandwiches at the Mary Markley dining hall ruined chicken sandwiches for me for the rest of my life.
Whereas sports used to be a fun way for kids to pass the time, greed and the newfound need for parents to have the “best” has dramatically altered the landscape of youth sports. The amount of time and effort required to compete with the Jones’ these days doesn’t come close to the payoff especially when childhoods are being sacrificed in the process. I’m sure most of you remember how things were when you were kids. If you don’t remember, ask your dad, grandpa or uncle to let you know what the sports situation was like. The past pales in comparison to what is expected of kids today. Just be prepared to make the right decision without being caught up in the glam of having the “best” at your child’s expense.