Thursday, June 02, 2011

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.


Kayris said...

My son plays softball. And it has been an awesome experience for all of us. His league also has older kids, and I've seen the same sort of positive experience with those kids too.

An Ordinary Mom said...

Amen. I hear your woes.

I long for the simple and carefree things in life, not only for me, but also for the kids. I think your final couple of sentences sums it all up:

"'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."

That is what we need to be teaching our children.

An Almost Unschooling Mom said...

Maybe for families with only one child, that sort of thing is okay. But, the more children you have, the more ridiculous it becomes. My children discovered ladybug eggs - little tiny, itty-bitty, ladybug eggs, in the backyard the other day. I have to admit if we were running from sport to sport, they'd never have the time to explore even our own backyard well enough to make such a find - and that would be sad. For everything you gain with an organized activity, you loose something, too.

Kayris said...

Let me describe the league here: the man who runs it has done so for decades. His children are grown, but he continues to do it year after year. Local businesses sponsor teams to make up the costs. It costs 15 dollars per child (or 25 for two kids) and they get a t-shirt, hat and trophy.

They have 2 practices a week for a month, then 2 games a week for a month. The coaches are all volunteers. The people who run the concessions do it for free and donate all the money back to the program.

The younger groups do not keep score; the older groups do. The response from the parents has been amazing. All the parents cheer for all the kids. We've loved it. This is our second year and both kids will play next year. Since we live in a big, dangerous city, there are far too few opportunities for kids to just go outside and play.

Lucy (aka rharper) said...

I can't begin to explain how much I agree with you. I hated Little League. It's pure politics in action over which kids gets to play and who gets to sit the bench. It's supposed to teach kids sportmanship and working with others. In fact, it teaches that winning is everything.

Sportsmanship needs to start with the parents. I heard them call other kids who were not so great at baseball names if they fumbled a play. I saw one who was a bishop at the time kicked out because of his unruly behavior.

The first thing they need to do to reform Little League is not let the parents in for any reason. It should be about the kids and kids only.

Patricia L said...

We've had similar issues with cub scouts this year. the adults make it less about the boys and their experience. I felt blindsided because a friend LOVES the cub scout pack and has done nothing but rave about it for the last 4 years while her older son participated. Then again, she tends to go to the cub scout events to squeeze in some adult social time so maybe that should've clued me in...

LibraryGirl62 said...

I have to take the opposite approach. My son has played travel baseball since he was 9 (now 17). He LOVES it and yes, I sacrificed. His sister (who graduates tomorrow!) was consumed by band. I sacrificed. Maybe it is different because I am a single mom, but I never minded a minute of it.
My kids had plenty of "get out and play time", our family time was spent at ball parks and football fields, but the drives gave us such great time to connect and they loved all the travel-a hotel pool is the best! I have friend whose daughter swims-and she is at the pool as much as we were at baseball-and the practices are at 5 am!
BUT...what works for your family is the thing to do. Period.

Mom24 said...

So. well. said.

Thank you.

Flea said...

My kids don't play sports and that's intentional. Just like y'all. It's too rough on everyone. Maybe that's why my middle child jumps off of rooftops with his friends and runs up walls. Or the youngest plays in the retention pond. Maybe it's why dad is building chicken coops with his boys. Who knows? You're playing it well, though, mom.

Scribbit said...

One of the things that's so hard about it is that I refuse to let baseball take priority over church/scout activities. He goes to those, period. So that means that he doesn't get to play as much as the others and the coach often benches him. I can't argue with the coach for doing that as he's not practicing as much as the others, it seems only fair, but it's a vicious cycle. He doesn't get to the extra practice time, he doesn't play, he isn't as good, he doesn't get to play as much and will only slip farther behind.

It wasn't like this when he was in younger leagues so I think this happens the older they get.

At least we're not in hockey. I know families who spend thousands and thousands on equipment, skate time, travel and who knows what else.

The Petersen Family said...


Anonymous said...

Yeah! We just moved back to the US and I was appalled that my kids couldn't play sports because a. they are inexperienced and too old to start(at 13 and 15) and b. we can't afford it--it's $200 minimum to play sports at THEIR SCHOOL. It's all wrong.
PS Same with school band. My son couldn't join the band cuz he hasn't been playing an instrument for years and years already.

Res said...

THANK YOU!!! We had a NIGHTMARE Club volleyball experience for the first time this year and I thought I was the WORST mother in the world! You stated it beautifully! Bring back the sand lots - I am in!!!

Suzi said...

My children played both organized sports and "that's your field, go play" sandlot sports. Completely on their own they opted to drop out of the organized sports and stayed with the sandlot games. The best part is they have good social skills thanks to the lack of adult shouting from the sidelines.

gretchen from lifenut said...

I am with you 100%.

Youth sports leagues are literally a billion dollar industry and I'm not about to make my kids cogs in the machine. Anything they can get out of team sports they can get out of daily living.

Teamwork? We have a family of 10 and that's a minute by minute lesson.

Athleticism? What's more athletic than gracefully climbing a tree or hiking a Rocky Mountain trail?

Dedication? They are a part of clubs/activities. They do well in school.

All the money we would have spent on youth sports gets funneled into memberships at the zoo, museums, botanic gardens, national park entrance fees, our own pockets.

The best part? We actually have time to enjoy these things because there aren't games and practices and dinners and fundraisers and photos and physicals and fast food dinners because there's no time for real food. It makes me tired just thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

Michelle, thank you for writing this. We do have some city league sports that are far more relaxed , but I know that most of the kids in our neighborhood deeply involved in competitive sports teams that practice/play daily have no time for music lessons, no time for friends, service projects, youth activities, and no down time with family.

They also don't have time to learn life skills like money management, cooking, cleaning, home repair, communication skills, and working to pay for toys, clothes, and future college classes and service opportunities.

I don't know any kid athletes that have time to earn money and later get a part time job. Considering that 99% of kids who do sports won't go into professional sports, all kids need to have some work experience before they leave the nest.

One of the moms at church complained that her boys had a meltdown when she wouldn't buy them the athletic shoes they wanted -- they had a fit right in the store. Maybe some kids develop an entitlement/ego mentality playing sports.

I want my kids to look outward to serve the world, and most sports seem fairly self-serving.

Please don't throw tomatoes. I know some kids manage to do sports, have a balanced life, and turn out great. But many sports leagues don't foster that at all.


Feral said...

I played baseball as a kid, and volleyball and basketball in high school. I played intramural in college, and I still play soccer, roller derby, anything that keeps me rolling or running or whatever. I stoll go into the mountains by myself, and hike and climb and peek under rocks.

I'm closer to 50 than 40, and though I get scratched and bruised, I haven't had a serious injury yet -- unless you count wrist pain from typing and back pain from sitting in an office.

I spent my youth outside in the fields, riding my bike, kicking the dust, playing pick-up ball, churning up stories and mischief. My kids do the same. Their world is different, but they do the same.

Here's what I know about sports: The habit of play developed in sports often extends from childhood into adulthood. Kids who play sports often run and bike and kick a ball around when they get older.

I think we all know why that's a good thing.

Like music and art and community involvement, sports build a sense of individual power and action. They allow kids to enact and expand their abilities. They give kids the feeling of doing hard work and seeing the results. They allow kids to test themselves, learn to work through peer issues, and experience the value of sportsmanship, integrity, and accomplishment.

Does smack talk dominate pro ball and some youth sports? Sure. We don't watch pro ball and we don't do smack talk. Does immaturity and manipulation feed through sports institutions? Of course. No different than any other area of activity.

But these days, my seventh-grader rides his bike to practice, and he doesn't expect or need all his parents and family members to come to every game, because he knows its his thing. We do like to watch him, though, and when someone on the other team goes down, he helps them up. Through sport, he learns how to lose, make mistakes, see someone bloom, communicate, deal with bad scenes in a wise way.

My younger boy has grown more confident in his sport of choice, and in moments of physical challenge in general. He has become more patient with kids who don't pick up concepts as quickly as he does, and eager to learn from those who progress faster.

It's pretty simple really. Some organized teams ramp up the attitude, demonize mistakes and cost too much, and others nurture a kid into a well-rounded human being at a price well worth the investment.

Sports aren't the problem. Sports just provide yet another realm in which people can make a buck or play out their own bunch of BS.

Just because some leagues or teams lose perspective doesn't mean kids or parents have to; some of us will ditch organized sports altogether because of a bad experience, but others will veer to those groups that share the love of the game without rending it from its roots: The desire to play. To test. To interplay. To compete.

And just what does my family give up so my boys and I can play sports? Television (don't have one, don't want one), cellphones (they don't need them), a little money (affordable options exist; I know, I'm a single mom), and maybe a little warmth on cool days.

The trade-off works for us. We all get to decide our own way.

Carina said...

This is exactly why we don't do T-ball and never have. My kids don't particularly care about it anyway, so why on earth should I put us all through that torture? No way!

Chris said...

My father....a real coach, would never let my brothers play Little League. He hated the way it was run, coached and the over involvement of the parents. He let my oldest brother do it once, and he quit and went back to community based baseball where kids had fun, no pressure was involved, and the kids weren't left sitting in the dugout waiting for the adults to argue the was sad! Kids want to have fun...not be stars in their parents eyes!! Thanks for this post!!!!!!!!!!!!

J at said...

I guess I'm lucky, because our local city league is very laid back. If they can make it to practice or a meet, great. If not, no big deal. But we didn't let her participate in other sports for years for this very reason. The result is that we've had more time together as a family, and that she isn't as advanced as the kids who've been doing this since they were 8. So it's give and take. Oh, and we don't stay and watch them practice. There's a beautiful hill and fields across the street from the pool (swim team), and I go for a walk there. Sometimes my husband comes with me. It's awesome. Yes, I'll watch some of her meets when they start, but I'll miss the first one next week because I'm going to visit my Grandma. I agree, no one in the family has the right to expect to be the center of the universe.

Holly said...

I wanted to read your take on kids in team sports because my husband and I are are kind of against them. I say kind of because we don't have any firm rules, but in general, we dislike organized team sports. I like your reasons, and your whole last paragraph should be printed and posted on people's refrigerators. My husband and I, who both played in team sports, feel that coaches are not about actually teaching kids to be better. Coaches would rather find the stars of the team and make them shine, for various reasons that might include having an easier job and making themselves look good. If you like playing ball, for example, but aren't the best, then being on a team is an exercise in frustration. You may improve your game, but not without a lot of disappointment. Whatever happened to playing for the love of doing something rather than just winning?

Inkling said...

Please, oh please, get this published in newspapers and parenting magazines across North America.

We have friends who took a weekend away last year when we volunteered to take care of their three kiddos. Between soccer practice, three games, piano practice for all three, and the list of other requirements in their schedule, there was no time for any of the playing or fun things we'd planned to do with them when they came to stay. And when I asked how much it costs for a soccer season (it was $25 for a t-shirt, socks, and group pic in my day), I realized there is no way it would ever be even possible for our family at over $300 for one season for one child. And don't even get me started about missing out on church life for a game.

You are soooo right. We need to regain the sandlot. The days when Olympic athletes were normal people with a lot of determination, and not professional athletes on a leave of absence during the Olympic year. And the days when an awkward teenager such as myself could still try out for the tennis team or the volleyball team and actually have a fighting chance.

Seriously, get thee to a publisher. You are right on! =)

Lara said...

Amen, amen, amen! We have recently come to an almost identical solution for our over-scheduled family and it has been life-changing for us. We've never looked back at our hectic soccer/football/baseball days and very much appreciate the new found family time we enjoy and our less-stressed lifestyle as our children now participate in tennis, after-school running programs, and swimming instead.

I'm always surprised at the very polar reactions I get when I share with people our decision to simplify in this way. Some people applaud and are intrigued with the idea and others are horrified that we would deprive our children the experiences of participating in team sports. Of course, after remembering how we used to rarely eat dinner together and spent every evening in the car going to and from practices in rush hour traffic and watched while incompetent coaches yelled at my kids... somehow I always feel even more sorry for their kids than they ever could for me and my "deprived" kids.

Lisa C said...

My close friend and I debate this all the time - just today, in fact! Thank you for writing this post, I'm going to send a link to my friend.

Maman A Droit said...

Great points. My son's not quite there yet (he's not quite 2 lol) but it's interesting to consider for the future. I definitely lean more towards your perspective. I think team sports are one of the biggest contributors to overscheduling kids and I really want to avoid that!

Stephanie said...

Well-stated, Michelle (as always). Our girls are still young so I don't have strong opinions on this yet, but I tend to agree with you.

That being said, I do want to be sure to encourage my kids' I guess I'll just take one year at a time to determine what is best for our family in each season of our lives. :)

Stephanie said...

Although I won't be pushy about it, I'd love for my girls to eventually be in track & field - at least for one year. It's a sport that encourages lifelong fitness and that they can continue for many years.

jenny said...

I think it's a matter of finding what works for your family and going with it. Reading your post and some of your comments, people have had some terrible experiences...what a shame. I do agree, there is definitely the over scheduling aspect to be wary of.

My son has played hockey for the past 7 years and we've been lucky to experience the best of what team sports has to offer. He's made great friends, learned a new way of holding himself accountable to a team/coach and just has had a really good time playing. He pretty much always comes out of the dressing room laughing with his friends. I'll consider us blessed.

But for all the years of playing he and his friends (some teammates, some schoolmates - all athletes) never seem to have trouble playing a pick up game of ANYTHING. Sure, sometimes we get caught up in the rat race of practices and games but a little planning for meals, packing for the rink and it's all good.

I understand the need to make other things a priority (scouts and church, etc) but generally you are made aware of practice/game commitments before the season starts. Some sports don't have a more casual option (we're in the least competitive hockey league, only local traveling and he plays 8 months a year)- which is unfortunate but such is life.

My husband has coached a few times and spent a lot of time preparing practices and plays and skills based on the makeup of his team. Say if the two players who need the most work don't show up at practice...he didn't have the option of sitting them (fair playing time) so they go into the game without a clue. It impacts the whole team.

We've sent many emails to people about practice times, changes, fundraisers...everything that it takes to make a volunteer organization successful in a community. It's my husband's least favorite part of being a coach - he just wants to be on the ice teaching a sport he and my son love.

Maybe it's all too organized, too's not a fit for everyone - which is fine. But I'm not sure I get the judgmental aspect of this whole thing...about those of us who actually encourage their kids to participate in team sports. To each his own, no?

nicole said...

Obviously everyone has a different experience. I think it is too bad that things didn't go well for your family and baseball. It is hard to choose what commitments to make and keep. So far sports has not interfered with our church activities and when that day comes church will come first. What works for some families doesn't work for others. I would be sad to see the experience of Little League taken away from our kids though.

Anonymous said...

Yes! I think one of your best points is that sports puts the kid-athlete in charge of the whole family and teaches him that mom and dad are his fans.

I think the notion that sports are character buliding is an overblown myth. I've known several kids who had major problems traceable to the attitudes, lifestyle and associations of sports. Thanks for a great article.

Arlene Marie said...

Hmm... If your kid is thoroughly enjoying himself with the game and is meeting new friends or already has good friends there, I think all the hardships and sacrifices will be worth it. Sports can play a big role in his development. And your support will mean the world to him. It says so in this book [] :)

Scribbit said...

Thanks for your comments, though I think some of you may misunderstand me-my point isn't that sports are bad for children (quite the opposite, sports can be very good on a number of levels--though some sports are better than others). My point is that the parental involvement is bad.

You can't convince me that any sport for children under the age of 12 wouldn't be hugely improved with parents and adults taken out of the equation. And I'd probably extend the ban on adults into middle school under many circumstances.

Anonymous said...

My 38-year old son is the Athletic Director for a 6-year old high school with 2500+ students. He spends nearly 30 extra hours over and beyond his normal work-week seeing that all sports programs are run efficiently, which includes on-campus and off-campus coach recruiting and background checks. His love in life has always been to help educate the student athlete through physical education. Having said that, it does take a village/community to make all programs successful. I am wondering if the time it took you to rant and rave about your child's program in your blog posting could have been used to HELP your son's program?

Ms. Yingling said...

Cross country. The meets are only an hour long, and I refuse to drive anyone a mile to practice when they are going to run four milked when they get there!