Michael Kasdan wonders if we are molding our boys into well-rounded strong men—-or pushing them too hard, too fast, too young, into a win-at-all costs Hunger Games arena.
The Games Will Change Everyone
The recently popular Hunger Games takes the spectacle of kids’ sports to a grotesque extreme. In case you have been living under a rock, this book-turned-movie series pits children ages 12-18 against other children in a literally life-or-death “game.” The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where a defeated, powerless population is controlled by being forced to watch children fight to the death until a single victor emerges. Their exploits are followed, televised, and commentated upon by a freakishly obsessed and materialistic and consumerist elite class in the nation’s capital. And there are eerie parallels to our current youth sports picture.
Now, no one has yet lowered little Johnny into a gladiator pit, but let’s put it this way: As I walked out of the movie theater last weekend after watching Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I had three distinct thoughts. First, I would love to be as much of a badass with a bow as Katniss Everdeen. Second, there is now no doubt—none—that I must be Caesar Flickerman for Halloween next year. And finally, I thought of Little League baseball. OK, to be honest, that thought came first.
I’ve been coaching summer Little League baseball for the past four years. Every summer since my 12-year-old son was eight, I madly scrambled from work in the afternoon and caught the train from the city to the ’burbs. There I would quickly change out of my suit and into baseball clothes (complete with spiffy town-insignia baseball cap), like a phone-booth-less Superman in broad daylight next to my car at the train station. Then I’d furiously MapQuest my way to some baseball field in a “nearby town.”
There, on the sun-dappled grass are young ballplayers—eight years old, then morphing to nine years old, and growing into young men through the years to ten, eleven and twelve. They are dressed in sharp red and white uniforms, and they are stretching out their arms, playing catch. I remember many times, I would let out a decompressing breath and think to myself: throwing around a baseball with my kid and his friends in the early evening light—there’s pretty much nowhere else on earth I’d rather be.
But as with all things, moments of perfection are unsustainable. Even in Little League, the ideal frays at the edges.
The Wonder Years
I was never an elite Little League ballplayer. I started playing baseball when I was quite a bit older, which was more common when I was growing up. Now competitive youth sports starts at a much younger age. My position was “outfield”—usually right field, a place where the ball was rarely hit, where my coaches could hide my relative lack of defensive prowess.
By contrast, my son took to baseball from a young age. My love of the Yankees and passion for the game itself, if not its many subtle facets, trickled down and right into him. Competitive out of the womb, he has always loved sports.
His ability to throw the ball accurately and on a line dazzled me. And his quiet Manny Ramirez-esque stance that uncoiled into prodigious (for a seven-year-old) gap power was a joy to behold.
So riding my son’s coat tails as a coach, as he “played up” in rec, tried out for, made and played well in summer travel baseball—perhaps this was my shot at redemption in the sport that I love to follow but could never really play.
Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer
It started with T-Ball. A bunch of six-year-olds with their daddy-coaches drawing circles in the sand to prevent team-wide flocking to every infield ground ball. Then the town league, “rec baseball,” a frustrating game where half of the seven and eight-year-old kids eat-drink-sleep the sport while the other half play in the dirt.
Though not universally true, in rec, winning or losing was less important. (Win-at-all-costs rec coaches, you know who you are). At the same time, the first signs of things being a bit over the top showed in the pre-season rec “draft” for the nine-year olds. It felt distinctly like a fantasy baseball draft, but one in which the players are your own kids.
The tryout-based summer travel league is a big step up both in terms of intensity and pressure. Given the level of competition, the serious time commitment, the accompanying expectations, and the fact that every player is, in his parents’ eyes, the best of the best, things can get challenging quickly. What begins with a team-as-family vibe can sometimes evolve into fractured groups, troubling “politics,” and hurt feelings.
Before long, the sabremetric iPad apps, providing running batting statistics, hit spray charts, and pitch type and location charts make their appearance. Coaches start to understand and take to heart the familiar Leo Durocher quote, “The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.”
Increasingly, Little League baseball has become a race fueled by parents, town programs, and the training-industrial complex that caters to them. But whether we are racing to the top, the bottom, or some hinter region in between, remains unclear.
Now, the fact of the matter is, losing isn’t fun. Kids hate it. The parents constantly shuttling their kids to practice and to games in local (and not-so-local) towns and tournaments and giving up their weekends and often weeknights, hate it even more. As the amount of training, practice, and travel and skill level of select teams has been ratcheted up at increasingly younger ages, the competition has stiffened.
Every parent or coach can regale you with the tale of that team from the archrival town. Teams with gargantuan ten-year-olds buzzing fastballs that paint the outside corner at blistering speeds. Teams with middle of the lineup thunder provided by kids who literally look like they ate some of our kids for breakfast and then took a shave. Teams led by coaches who are not just some random dads but paid professionals from the ranks of professional coaching organizations.
The travel-sports oeuvre was captured wonderfully in this ESPN article, which got passed around our local coaching ranks a few summers back:
“Judging by the direction we’re taking preteen youth sports, it appears we have completely lost our minds. Gone crazy—collectively and individually . . . . The days of simply playing ball with your friends are over . . . . ‘Travel ball,’ in this world, is meant as a synonym for ‘better ball.’ Parents say, ‘Oh, he plays travel ball’ as a means of separating their kids from the riffraff who don’t see fit to spend thousands of dollars to travel all over the place with their 9-year-olds . . . . These are 9- and 10-year-olds, which raises a question: What the hell are we doing?”
From the inside, it’s increasingly hard to take a step back and say, “This is just Little League.” Instead, the more familiar and serious “This is travel Little League” refrain takes root.
As former NFL coach, Herm Edwards, now famously said with a steely sing-song tenacity, “We play. To win. The game.” Yes, that is the NFL and this is Little League, but, the pressure is real. We play to win the game.
It’s a fine line between preparing well enough to field a winning competitive team and pushing too hard and too far. As recent controversies over coaches’ actions and styles demonstrate, it’s an issue that pervades sports today at all levels.
Little League in particular is deserving of serious attention. Different kids react differently to pressure, to being pushed, especially at this tender age. But most kids this age aren’t mentally and emotionally equipped to deal with it very well. For example, when you’re riding your ace, a dominating lanky right-handed fire-baller, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he is not Mariano Rivera. It often can feel like that from the dugout. But, when a mound visit to settle him down reveals a goofy sensitive kid, you recognize that he is not a Terminator. He is a nine-year-old or ten-year-old boy.
It’s altogether too easy to miss those fissures and cracks that develop, the nervous glance over to his dad, as the count goes from 0-2 to 3-2 and then he walks the batter with the bases loaded. And its easy to miss that our constant cries to “move your arm all the way” or “finish your throws” or “load up,” makes many kids nervous and can suck away the joy of a game they love.
Our American Game
None of this means that youth baseball is “bad.” It’s not.
Nor does it detract from the value of good coaching and teaching. The baseball field is a wonderful place to mold boys into men, to teach and learn friendship and teamwork and the stuff of Life: Work hard. Play hard. Support your teammates. Keep plugging away. Pick yourself up after bad breaks. Because tomorrow is another day, and the score will again be 0-0. As fire-baller Bob Feller once said: “Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.”
And of course, there’s the pizza and ice cream.
But the way we go about this is not all good, either. And we owe it to ourselves and our children to reflect on where we are on this, both as parents and as a society. It’s a conversation that we should be having.
After last season ended, my son told me he thought he didn’t want to play summer baseball anymore. It made me a bit sad, but it was also a relief. As wonderful as coaching him had been, it was also, increasingly, a pressure cooker. Also, since he’s twelve, he’s likely to change his mind five or six times before next summer.
It’s a puzzle that’s hard to figure. Recently, I opted not to coach him in his youth rec basketball league, where I had coached the past couple of years. When he asked me why not, I said in a joking way (but not joking), “Because you always yell at me!” He cocked his head and said, “Aww. I love when you’re my coach.” Goes to show that coaching your son, or even being a parent to your son in this game, is a complex dynamic.
This past fall, on a number of occasions, I had the opportunity to play some backyard catch with my son. A few times, we went together to an empty field in town where we alternated pitching each other balls and taking batting practice. I didn’t critique his throwing motion or his batting stance.
We were just two boys tossing a ball.
Feature photo: Ron Cogswell/Flickr