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Kids These Days

Love of the Game

In youth sports, it’s getting harder to find

In 1954, when I was nine, I fell in love. It was on a cloudy day in Baltimore, when Bob Turley threw the first pitch for the Orioles. After that, the Orioles and I became “we.” I followed them at bedtime with the lights off and the radio turned low. I complained to God about the unfairness of their losing so often, and defended the general manager, Paul Richards, with letters to the editor of the Baltimore Sun.

My love for the Orioles fueled my own development as a player. Late afternoons I would stand in our driveway holding two gloves, waiting for my father to return from work, and on weekends, I wandered the neighborhood with my friends in search of pickup games. My involvement in baseball was driven not by coaches or organized leagues but by my passion for the game. It was a passion nurtured by satisfying relationships: with my father, who told wonderful stories—like the one about how Ty Cobb outsmarted “Shoeless” Joe Jackson to win the American League batting crown—and with my friends.

Children today fall in love with sports just as I did, but I fear it is harder for them to do so than it was for me. For one thing, there are fewer opportunities for kid-run backyard sports. For another, organized youth sports are often driven more by the passions of parents and coaches than by those of the players.

It is not that organized youth sports are bad for children or that children today are dissatisfied. Sensational news stories notwithstanding, research suggests that children and parents are usually satisfied with organized youth sports. They just don’t report being “in love.”

If we are saddled with a system (as we seem to be), we might as well improve it and not waste time wishing it would disappear. And the way to improve organized youth sports is to make them easier to love. A simple step in that direction would be to prohibit parents from coaching from the sidelines, something no kid enjoys. Another is to give the children a hand in drafting the teams; on their own, coaches draft players solely according to ability, neglecting the more important question of who is friends with whom. In fact, the whole concept of elite teams should be deemphasized, at least at the town level, where it is likeliest to fuel the achievement demons (Bob Bigelow, the former Boston Celtics player, has advocated this for years).

There is yet another way to make organized sports more enjoyable: help volunteer coaches become better teachers. For children to love the games as they are played today, they need to develop their skills. If you doubt this, the next time you attend a Little League baseball game, check how many children are stepping toward their target when throwing, how many are taking small and “quiet” strides with their front foot when batting, and how many are reaching a proper balance point when pitching. Prepare to be dismayed. Simply understanding the mechanics of any sport is not easy. Teaching those mechanics so children learn and develop a love for the games is even harder—and something that few adults are trained to do.

Today, the aim of youth sports is supposed to be to have fun. There’s nothing wrong with fun, of course, but fun is something shallow and ephemeral. Love, on the other hand, is something deep and eternal. It is because I fell in love at age nine that I can still smell the oil I used on my first glove, still see that low, outside pitch I hit for a double in a crucial game at age twelve, and still hear my father’s evening stories about Cobb, Hornsby, Ruth, and the rest. These memories make past events palpable and render the relationships of long ago as meaningful today as they were back then. But that should come as no surprise. Such memories are, after all, what love stories always provide.

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and lead author of the book Children’s Play (Sage Publications). He and three former Tufts varsity baseball players are writing a book on teaching baseball to children.

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