The other parents were aghast. “Just let her go home. She can try again later.” We were insistent. We were not giving in to her temper tantrum. No matter how much she protested, she would get out on that field and play in that first softball game. After a brief battle, we prevailed and sent a five-year-old girl, tears streaming down her cheeks, out to play in the season opener.
Soon, the tears subsided and she started having fun. Turns out it wasn’t pressure or fear that lead to the meltdown, but one small detail we’d missed in practice. She’d covered hitting and catching and throwing. She’d run bases. She had studied everything—except what the purpose of the game was. So when she took the pitcher’s mound and everyone started yelling, she didn’t know what was going on and freaked out. Of course, we didn’t discover this until after the game, but the important thing is we did discover it and she came to love the game.
Our middle daughter is also a big fan of team sports, except she prefers soccer, as softball is a little low-energy for her. She’s also experienced an on-field meltdown, but in her case it was because a teammate scored a goal instead of her. She’s since improved with regard to team spirit, although she will still occasionally steal the ball from a teammate if that teammate isn’t driving toward the goal with enough urgency.
Let Them Learn By Having Fun
We’re talking about girls who are still young, years away from travel leagues and the super-expensive outlets we want to avoid. The youngest hasn’t even started sports yet. We’re not trying to raise little Tigers or Serenas, either. We just like the values that playing organized sports imparts. There is no taking your ball and going home. There are winners and losers.
But not all parents share our focus, especially parents of older kids. Whether looking for scholarships or to keep up with the Joneses, some are ruining sports for kids.
“The adults have won,” sports management professor Mark Hyman told The Washington Post for an article discussing the decline in young people playing team sports. “If we wiped the slate clean and reinvented youth sports from scratch by putting the physical and emotional needs of kids first, how different would it look? Nothing would be recognizable.”
Our soccer player lends credence to these statements. Soccer’s popularity is still new enough that today’s parents didn’t grow up as stars. No one at the soccer field is attempting to vicariously relive past glory through a bunch of five-year-olds. The coaches are enthusiastic college kids who encourage the children and refuse to let them quit, but the kids never realize they’re learning and not just having fun. Softball, on the other hand, can be a tad more intense.
With softball, the coaches and fans can be a little too focused on wins. There are too many former players on the field and in the stands. They mean well, but the focus often shifts from whether the kids are learning and having fun to the numbers on the scoreboard. It’s not that the kids don’t care, but that’s not what gets them off the couch.
Amanda Visek, an exercise science professor at George Washington University, recently surveyed nearly 150 children about what they found fun about sports. (Her sample included kids who play travel and recreational sports.) The kids identified 81 factors contributing to their happiness.
Number 48: winning.
Also low on the list: playing in tournaments, cool uniforms and expensive equipment. High on the list: positive team dynamics, trying hard, positive coaching and learning. Whenever Visek presents her findings to win-hungry parents and coaches, there is a lot of pushback.
‘They don’t want to believe it,’ she said.
Yet the No. 1 reason why kids quit sports is that it’s no longer fun.
Go for Sweat, Not Sweatshop
Winning and fun are not mutually exclusive. Our daughters definitely want to win, and it’s not just because we only feed them dinner if they win. I kid, I kid. We don’t hold them responsible if their teammates blow it. We only withhold meals if they personally don’t perform at the level we require. Despite this, they still champ at the bit to get out on those fields and compete, to score a run or a kick in a goal.
But they also don’t care about their uniforms or if the equipment is new and fancy. As long as they can play, that’s what matters. It’s fun. It’s recreation. It isn’t a practice job that eats every minute of their free time.
We all know that family who travels every weekend, whose children go to school and play ball and do nothing else. The Post attributes this to a variety of motives, such as a desire for bragging rights or travel, but another factor bears consideration: risk aversion. Kids who don’t have free time are kids who theoretically don’t have time to get into trouble. Busy parents might as well be a little busier if it means their darlings not only have that college application material but also no free time to besmirch their permanent records.
Rub Some Dirt on It
Alas, that misses the point of team sports altogether. Team sports are not about the game itself and its value for the permanent record, but about those aforementioned values. They’re about instilling character and work ethic. They’re about inculcating those values across class lines and giving kids tools they will use throughout their lives and in a variety of different ways wholly unrelated to sports.
When we stood just outside the fence and refused to give in to that little girl and her pleas to go home, it had nothing to do with a game of softball. It was about teaching her that you can’t just quit on your commitments because you’re scared. It was about showing her that with perseverance, she could overcome her fear, and that source of fear could become a source of joy. So we stood our ground.
Later that season, she took a ball to the face during warmups, and got a bloody nose. By the time I returned from the concession stand with a baggie of ice, she had her helmet on and was about to go in. She had gone from tears to wiping blood off with her sleeve and jumping back in without compunction. That’s why she plays, and why we need to get back to a world in which all the kids play, whether pick-up or league.
Just as it doesn’t matter whether that little girl is on a path to college or a fancy tournament, it doesn’t matter whether any of them are. What does matter is that they learn about determination and loyalty, about rubbing some dirt on it and forging ahead. They need to learn that, while life may award participation trophies, those are not anything anyone wants.