Batter Up

I am taking a solemn pledge here today. Never, ever, EVER again will my children play team sports. Or at least not through city teams and leagues–and I mean it.  Go ahead and call me the Scrooge of little league but after what I’ve been through the past month even a beating with a baseball bat would be welcome relief.

Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit but I can’t count how many times Andrew and I have shaken our heads this past month and said, “How do parents do it? Are they all completely insane? And why was it we joined their ranks?”

Oh yes, it was because we wanted to be good parents, wanted to bring joy into the life of our little Little Leaguer but all it’s done is beleaguer the whole family. I think it started when David, years ago, decided he liked baseball and since we’re all about physical fitness, fun times and the enjoyment of a good game I signed David up with the local team. I remember how he had a lot of games and a lot of practices, and I vaguely remember thinking, “Wow, it’s really, really cold sitting here on these fanny-freezing aluminum bleachers in the Alaskan rain” but somehow I figured it was all worth it. Starting with childbirth itself we’re conditioned to make sacrifices for our kids and if sacrificing means sitting at the park every night for six weeks during our few precious days of summer, maybe missing a date or two or seven with my husband, and forking out enough money to purchase a small tropical island then dogone it I was going to do it because I loved my kid and I was going to be a great mom.

Now, two years later, we signed him up again. Partly because he wanted to play again but mostly because I haven’t got a full-sized brain, having forgot how it was before, and I have been regretting it ever since. He’s old enough now to be on the major league team which means even more practices and more games and a louder, more aggressive coach who sends me exactly 275 emails each day, listing times and events and fundraisers and carnivals and cleanups and practices and then–oops–new times because the previous email was accidentally, completely wrong and you need to be at the field half an hour earlier than what has been drilled into your skull in the last 274 emails.

It’s all got me rethinking why we do it. Why do we even put up with the system of kids sports? Not to eulogize the golden age of the pick-up game at the neighborhood sandlot but, seriously, what kind of a monster have we created??

Kids have so few ways to express their independence and getting together to play a game of ball was one of the few ways they could get out from the world of adult rules and set their own boundaries.  They decided what to play, they decided who was on which team, they decided on the equipment (if they had any at all), and on the team name and play schedule.

But now? It’s completely taken over by adults who sign them up, coach them, drive them, and then attend each game more religiously than anything connected with church.  We’ve taken every bit of the decision-making process away from them and I’m not seeing any significant improvements except maybe some very snappy (and very expensive) uniforms. A while ago I watched a group of boys get together to play a game–they stood around, looking rather lost, not knowing what to play or how to start. Each suggested playing whatever sport it was they played at night but because there was no adult to be umpire/ref they couldn’t really come to a decision and eventually they kind of wandered away and gave up–they had forgotten how to play by themselves. It was truly pathetic.

Instead of kids getting together to run the show and enjoy the game on their own we let them know how and when they’re going to play, what the rules are, how they’ll dress and there has to be a trophy at the end. Sometimes we’ll even yell and scream from the sidelines, showing shocking displays of unsportsmanlike conduct in case the crucial point of having them play brilliantly, bringing honor to our names, is somehow overlooked.

And then there’s the other lesson it teaches children: that they’re the most important thing in the world. David’s baseball schedule has completely and irrevocably controlled our family’s life this past month. Family dinners? Gone–David has to be at practice early. Family nights together? Postponed until after baseball season ends. Date nights with my husband? Let’s just say the highest form of romance we’ve experienced lately is a space blanket and pocketful of Skittles while praying that the inning goes quickly. It’s a constant measuring of priorities: which is more important? Baseball or scouts? Baseball or his sister’s birthday? Baseball or the church service project? And it’s too easy to let baseball always win.

It’s just not good for one person in a family to absorb that much of the time and resources of the rest of the group.  Not good for the individual who becomes the sole consumer and not good for the others who spend all their energy on the one, often neglecting the needs of the group.  All it does is reinforce the idea of winning at any cost–which may be part of the reason doping and game-rage parenting are popping up all over.

And the sad reality is, that the whole thing has become a zero-sum game. You have to act like some Soviet-era official, entering your child in a sport as soon as they can walk, if you’re going to do sports at all. Gone are the days when a child can, in high school, decide to try a new sport and go out for the team. If they haven’t been doing the clinics and seasons all along, chances are they won’t be able to make it against those who have–you know, the kids living with the odd phenomenon of juvenile sports injuries and end up needing hip replacements by the time they’re forty.

So what’s the answer? Well we’ve taken the approach of discouraging our kids’ participation in team sports, period. Starting right now. Individual sports such as cross-country running or skiing, swimming, etc. are much easier to deal with as a family, don’t require years and years of childhood training for participation and are usually more helpful in promoting a lifetime of good physical fitness.

But still . . . it bothers me that instead of giving our children good experiences and opportunities from sports, we’ve succeeded in producing a system that puts the individual before the group, teaches kids to leave life up to the adults, and gives a whole generation of kids the idea that success in life is found on the court or field. If we took all the money we flood into the kiddy-sports league industry and instead got together to bring back the neighborhood sandlots–then had the guts to walk away and say, “There’s your field–now go outside and play” I wonder what the consequences would be? I don’t know for sure but I have the sneaky suspicion that it would be a lot easier for me to teach responsibility, independence and teamwork if we adults weren’t constantly standing at the sidelines, calling every shot.

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