Play Ball

Once I had a job where people occasionally screamed in my face and told me I should climb under a rock and die.   I’m not referring to my career in broadcast journalism.  I’m talking about the 15 years I spent refereeing youth sports.

During the years when I ran up and down with a whistle around my neck I refereed both soccer and basketball.  From kindergartners with their shoes untied to high schoolers trying to catch the eye of college scouts, I’ve been there.  Through it all I’ve had a good look at what happens to kids and grownups when you create an environment of competition.

I’ve seen young kids built up and torn down by youth sports.  Parents often see the games as a way of introducing junior to the realities of life—helping them to toughen up and prepare for the real battles just around life’s corner.

I’m not knocking it.  Sometimes it works.

But sometimes things can get just a little carried away.  I presided over a game once involving eight-year-olds, where one parent in particular spent nearly the entire game screaming about the team, his son’s performance, the cheaters on the other team, and of course about my talent as a referee. (Hint:  he wasn’t impressed.)  As the game wore on I jogged by the man’s son and heard him say to a teammate, “I wish he would just SHUT UP!”

It seems to me that most of us never see what’s really going on in youth sports, because we’re too busy watching the games.

When we sign up our kids to play in sports we’re asking them to risk failure in front of the people who mean the most to them; their parents, their coach and their friends.  Even the star players mess up occasionally, and the mediocre players sometimes mess up a lot.  I think these young boys and girls are often braver than we give them credit for.

I’ve seen parents and coaches reduce good young players to tears with their high volume criticism for missing a winning shot, striking out at the end of the game, or dropping the obvious touchdown pass.  When I’ve asked, the coaches defend their criticism by saying they’re sharpening the player’s focus and building his or her character.  I have no idea what parents think they are accomplishing.

In the days before concussion awareness I knew a pee wee football coach in another state.  I asked him once what he did with the kids who are only playing because Mom and Dad are convinced they have the next Tom Brady on their hands.  “Oh, you mean the ones who aren’t really focused on football?” he asked.  “We just run ‘em through the Circle.”

He explained that the Circle is when you put the kid without pads in the middle on the field, and surround him with his padded teammates.  They take turns knocking him down.  “After a kids been through the Circle a few times,” said the coach, “we find he gets a lot more focused.”

Once when I told that story I was accused of making it up.  I’m not.  However, I’m sure that kind of activity is no longer found on the pee wee football fields of America.

Personally, I think that we may sometimes carry the sports-as-a-preparation-for-life thing a bit too far.  Yes, there are winners and losers in life, and in the adult world you don’t get a ribbon for participating.  But there’s also the quaint idea of playing because you enjoy the game, whether you win or not.  And I’m not sure a six-year-old really needs to internalize the full psychological impact of the survival-of-the-fittest mentality before he can even do simple math.

There’s plenty of time to fight like hell and pulverize the other guy as you get older.  The high school games I’ve refereed were rarely Sunday cotillions.   But the kids under ten?  Let ‘em play.  Let ‘em screw up.  Let ‘em laugh.  To them, it really is just a game.  Why should we turn it into a parental contest to see how early we can beat it out of them?

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