My son played baseball for the first time last spring. Given that he was only 7 years old, the atmosphere was low pressure: coach pitch; no strikes; no outs; 3 innings – short and sweet. My son walked away with a new appreciation for this age-old american pastime.
Jump ahead 1 year and it’s a whole different ball game. After registering my son for another season of baseball, I learned that, given his age, he’d moved from coach pitch to a more competitive style of baseball. We would therefore need to attend a skills assessment. or, as they were known in my day, the dreaded “try-outs.”
So on a chilly Saturday morning last month, I woke both of my sleeping children up from a sound sleep, ran them through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru, and drove to the local high school for 8AM skills assessment. I was relieved to see that the trials were indoors, as it was snowing outside. Once we checked in, my son found some familiar faces and soon got ready to display his skills (or lack thereof).
First up: pitching and catching. I can tell you without an ounce of guilt that my son probably has not thrown or caught a baseball since the season ended last June. (I’m not actually convinced he’s ever caught a baseball with his glove, though not for lack of trying.) We did not attend any of the skills clinics the League offered earlier in the month, nor did I give an ounce of thought to having him practice for this event. Needless to say, he did not shine in front of his peers. To the contrary, the boys (who were his age or slightly older) seemed annoyed that he constantly missed each ball thrown his way. The other kids were so damn good…like they should be heading to Cooperstown for the Nationals. They didn’t look anything like the gaggle of goofy little boys from last year’s team. What happened in one short year? I then remembered that most of these kids have probably been playing t-ball since the age of 3 and welcomed the chance to move up to “real” baseball. My son, on the other hand, was new to the game and had zero desire to compete. Luckily he didn’t seem too fazed…that is until he saw the batting cage.
The League had set up a make-shift batting cage, surrounded by netting and replete with a robot arm that threw only fast pitches. While the other boys pulled out their helmets and bats, my son looked at me, filled with terror and dread. I thought at first he was embarrassed because we didn’t have our own gear. Have you seen the price of a baseball bat these days??? Other moms scurried to and fro to help me get him some gear to borrow, while he tugged on my arm telling me he wanted to go home. When I finally had a chance to pull him out into the hallway, he admitted his fear and told me he was done with baseball.
Having read that Tiger Mom book and trying to balance the pursuit of excellence with my own personality (which focuses more on the pursuit of pleasure), I wrestled with what to do. Should I force him to at least try? I quickly realized that doing so goes against everything I hold near and dear. We left swiftly and quietly. On the way out I stopped by the welcome table and told the volunteer about our dilemma. She informed me that he could do another year of coach pitch, to which he assented. “This should be fun, not stressful!” she assured me, which is something I’d been feeling all morning, despite the fact that nothing we were doing felt even the slightest bit fun. My son seemed pleased that he’d be able to do another year of baseball, and I was happy to get out of that testosterone filled hellhole.
I then wondered: why weren’t we given the option to stick with coach pitch in the first place? My son was slightly traumatized by the whole experience and was ready to give up baseball completely. We could have avoided all of this (and I could have slept in) if they’d just give us an alternative. Was it that controversial and/or weak to not even try for big-kid baseball? Were we the only ones?
When we got home I immediately signed my younger son (age 5) up for t-ball. I didn’t want him to be at the same disadvantage as my 8 year old. I almost felt guilty that I’d waited until age 7 to get him involved in the sport. Even though I knew this train of thought to be ridiculous, it’s the sad state of reality for 21st century kids and athletics.
I didn’t grow up in a sports family. At age 11, I tried my first team sport: softball. My friend Karen and I got on the same team (Crest Painting), and we loved our bright red t-shirts and ugly hats. I played terribly and was terrified any time a ball came my way in the outfield. That said, I enjoyed the experience, probably because I wasn’t the only one who sucked. There were many of us and we bonded over our mutual terror of “Team F.O.P.”, with their stark gray and black uniforms and heavy hitters who’d knock your head off with one blow. They were the anomaly; we (the unskilled and fearful) were the norm.
Nowadays, by age 11 our kids don’t have the opportunity to try something new. Their peers have been at it since they can walk and they’re good. They’ve gone to summer and school vacation camps to build their skills; they’ve attended clinics with professional athletes and practiced for hours on end. By age 11, the “just for fun” leagues are gone.
My friend’s husband saw the writing on the wall at an early age. She wanted their son to be exposed to a variety of sports. “Let him try something new each year” she suggested. Her husband, on the other hand, suggested their son pick one and stick with it. He chose lacrosse and it’s now what he plays year-round. He’s recently wanted to try gymnastics and was dissuaded because he would be so far behind. His peers are already fierce competitors, priming for an eating disorder and vying for olympic gold…at age 7.
Another friend’s 12 year old daughter has expressed an interest in playing soccer for the first time. Sorry kid – that ship has sailed. And forget hockey. If you’re not on skates by a young age, you’re not playing on a hockey team…ever.
What are we doing to childhood? Aside from stealing our kids’ independence and pressuring them to start reading in kindergarten, we’ve also sealed their athletic future at a very young age. We all say we want team sports to be fun, but they’re only fun for a few years. And for those unfortunate not to begin their athletic career early enough, athletics are never fun.
We don’t really want them just to have “fun.” We want them to be healthy, and garner skills, and possibly get an athletic scholarship someday. We want them to learn the value of healthy competition and become passionate about something. If they have fun along the way, great…but it’s not the ultimate goal. I recognize that we all want what’s best for our kids, but is there NO aspect of their lives where we can just let them do something because it’s fun…and for no other reason?
Like many aspects of modern-day parenting, we could learn a thing or two from our ’70s counterparts when it comes to sports. I’m not suggesting we dress our kids in terry cloth headbands and short-shorts, but could we scale back a bit? Can we develop leagues and/or teams for kids who want to try sports at an older age? Can we put a reasonable age limit to travel teams and weekend tournaments that take place over Father’s Day? Can my 8 year old just show up at the ball field with a cheap glove and try his hand at baseball, or is he truly already washed up?
I know this article won’t resonate with everyone, and I hope you sports enthusiasts will indulge me for a moment and remember that not everyone can be on Team FOP. Many of us are on Crest Painting, possessing no real athletic ability but trying our best . We’re making friends along the way, and learning what we like and who we are. We’re having fun and enjoying ourselves, with no pressure to excel or succeed. Isn’t that what childhood is all about?