Eight Years Old and All Washed Up

Kim Kinzieathletics, the '70s18 Comments

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?

Me and my BFF Karen on our first softball team.   We weren't good...but we had fun.

Me and my BFF Karen on our first softball team. We weren’t good…but we had fun.

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18 Comments on “Eight Years Old and All Washed Up”

  1. Jen

    Thank you for this. My eight year just started baseball this year and I have often felt guilty that I didn’t start him sooner. Truth is he has autism, and has never wanted to until now so I never pushed it. Love that I found your blog!

    1. Kim Kinzie

      Thanks for your comment. Forget guilt; as hard as that is to do, just remember that the number of decisions we’re required to make for our kids on a daily basis make motherhood impossible. We’re so glad you found us!

  2. Becca

    Oh, my gosh yes. I worry so much about this – watching my son at rugby and ballet and wondering whether to take him out of the class because he’s not enjoying it, or encourage him to take part because he needs to develop grit, or just sit back and wait because he’s just feeling shy. I guess the key is to do more sports that involve the entire family rather than a team of peers – tennis, golf, and such. That way, he can see that everyone is having fun, whether they’re skilful (like Daddy) or hopelessly unco-ordinated (like me).

    I recently watched a “This Girl Can” video set at my old secondary school and was consumed with bitterness at how very, very different my experience had been. Those of us who didn’t show immediate skill were just screamed at, punished or ignored completely. I’m delighted to see that now I can join all manner of “no experience required” adult classes in my area, but they take up so much time, and that’s when the mummy guilt sets in… Bring on retirement, I say!

    1. Kim Kinzie

      Definitely wasn’t like this for our moms, was it! Glad you’re finding some time for your “uncoordinated” self – you deserve it. Screw the guilt! You’re a better mom for making your needs a priority.

  3. Cheryl

    I’m right there with you, and I have one son who who came out of the womb with a baseball bat in his hand and hockey skates on his feet.

  4. Dawn

    We were talking about this just the other. Around here if you didn’t dedicate your life to baseball at 5 forget it.

  5. Lisa

    This is a wonderful post, and boy have I been there. I had the kid who loved baseball until they separated players into “majors” and losers, and the daughter who loved dance until you had to try out for competition teams. Both happening around third grade. Anyway, with one in college and another about to graduate from high school, let me assure you that as time goes by the imperative to do sports lessens. And there’s always that great haven for the soccer drop outs in high school: track and cross country. But most of all, having observed my kids’ friends who went the distance in sports, the ones who got recruited to colleges, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. They’re riddled with injuries and neuroses, and their sport is their job in college.- not their pastime. I’m convinced their college experience is diminished.

    1. Kim Kinzie

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It’s great to get the perspective of someone who’s been there. It’s even better when that perspective helps validate my instinct to chill out and let my kids be kids. 🙂

  6. mary

    Well you have said what many many parents are feeling . What you are experiencing is 100% true. I had the same realization when my daughter was only 7 and wanted to try soccer. I couldn’t believe how good the kids in her team were in a rec league! Every game it was hard watching her “mess up” opportunities for the team. I felt like the team didn’t even want her on it because her learning the game held them back from winning. Ridiculous! So after that we decided we had to “get with the program” of parenting today in order to give our kids the a shot at playing sports at all, so we enrolled her in summer clinics and such and now she’s able to play and contribute. But dangit if I don’t hate the fact that it requires much more time and money than I ever wanted for our family just so they can hack it in a rec league!

    1. Kim Kinzie

      I’ve been hearing through the grapevine that as the kids get older, many towns offer chances to play in non-competitive leagues, so perhaps there’s hope. It’s hard, though, when our 6, 7 and 8 year olds feel inadequate because they’re new to a sport. I mentioned a friend in my article whose son wants to try gymnastics but was dissuaded. I recently learned that the gym encouraged her to pay for a bunch of private lessons to get him caught up. I guess that’s the new business model…ugh! thanks for sharing.

      1. Colin

        Yes, it’s too bad that many youth leagues don’t divide the kids up by skill level at earlier ages. I have two soccer players, one who took 4-5 years of playing before he really got the hang of it, and the other a natural already as a 5 year old. I felt sorry for both boys when playing in the standard recreational soccer league as 5-10 year olds. One was very tentative and felt hopelessly out-skillled during games, even letting kids go in front of him in line during practice, so his turn would come up less often (he stuck with it only because he enjoyed the social aspects). The other was constantly frustrated that no teammates were ever in the right position and couldn’t receive his passes. He ended up being a one man show, running like a madman all around the field playing both offense and trying to back up a failing defense. The league refused to let anyone play up an age group and didn’t divide the kids by skill until 11-12 years old. This model certainly didn’t work for either of my boys, and I’m sure wouldn’t work for a newcomer to the sport as a 7 or 8 year old, as they need some time to get familiar with the ball and gain a general awareness of the game without some extremely skilled opponent blowing right by them or easily swooping the ball away from them.

        1. Kim Kinzie

          It would be nice. I think that’s actually what my town was trying to accomplish with its skills assessment (though a few cynical friends believe it was the coaches chance to scoop up all the good players..probably more realistic). I just didn’t understand why they didn’t offer the option to stay with coach pitch. My son is 8 and played baseball for 1 season. No way he’d be ready for their version of the major leagues. And he’s too young to be thrown into try-outs with kids much older, and larger, than he is. It soured his experience. I’m not sure what the ultimate solution should be…just an interesting conversation to start. thanks for writing!

  7. Gurukarm

    Here because of your comment on the NYTimes article about “passion” – thanks! Your story puts me in mind of my now 20something daughter’s experience. When she was about 4, she really really wanted to play soccer. She thought. So we signed her up for the tiny-kids team through the town recreation department. They had one “practice” at which she seemed to have some fun. Then, at the first game, she spent the first few minutes sort of trailing the other kids up and down the field, then finally sat down in the grass and started picking at it. Oh my! 🙂 That was the end of her “early soccer passion”, for sure.

    Interestingly, in high school, she not only went back to it, but became co-captain of the team, and recently, while teaching at her same high school, spent a year and a half as the girl’s soccer coach as well. It became a passion for her in many ways “later” in life.

    1. Kim Kinzie

      Oh, I love seeing the little ones on the soccer field stopping mid-game to pick a flower or try a cartwheel. Too cute! What I don’t love is watching the parents try to “fix” that behavior or get frustrated b/c their 4 year old child isn’t playing the game. Who cares? They’re outside and having fun. It’s nice to see that an early rejection of a sport or activity doesn’t translate into a lifetime ban, meaning there’s no rush to get them to become experts. Thanks for writing!

  8. Jen

    I’m so happy to find your site! My daughters are 7 and 11 and are in competitive dance. Between the money and the time commitment, I know it is not the best thing for our family, but joining in any other activity at this stage seems almost impossible since every single sport is so hard core these days. I want my girls to stay busy and have fun, but I don’t want their extracurriculars to feel like a job and I feel like that’s what these competitive sports leagues do. I’m just praying I can be brave enough to cut the cord and give my daughters a less stressful childhood.

    1. Kim Kinzie

      It seems one of the biggest challenges for parents today is extracurricular activities and maintaining family balance. On the one hand we’re being told the importance of family dinners and “quality time” with our kids; on the other hand we know our kids need to be active to avoid obesity and well-rounded to get into college. We can’t win. Keep plugging along…just don’t become a “Dance Mom!” 🙂 thanks for reading.

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