Has little league baseball become overly competitive? Do kids and coaches need to just chill and have fun?
by Rebecca Edwards
When I first started attending my nephews’ little league games I was charmed by the sight of tiny boys in baseball uniforms, the smell of freshly mown grass on a warm, summer breeze and the shouts of proud moms and dads encouraging their aspiring Babe Ruths to “keep their eye on the ball” and “Run! Run!”
Then I had to break up a fist fight in the dugout between two boys somewhere in the neighborhood of six years old. The scales fell from my eyes, and I saw a whole new dimension to the seemingly innocent world where the seeds of love for America’s pastime are sown.
In addition to building skills, self-esteem and team spirit, some little league coaches, parents—and even entire programs—seem to be more focused on demolishing the competition than learning the value of good sportsmanship.
“We had a game the other night,” one Farmington mother of an eight year-old player shared, “and in the last inning (where runs are unlimited) we scored ten runs. After the final out, the other coach just walked over to us and, with a lot of attitude, said they weren’t even going to finish the inning. He didn’t even let the kids get the practice or the fun of getting up to bat. What example is that setting?”
Although it is typical in little league games to allow for a “mercy rule” that ends the game in the last inning if one team leads by ten runs, this mom—and several other parents—felt that the coach’s decision was petty, mean-spirited and lost sight of the real reason they were all there: for the kids to have fun. “It’s not like they couldn’t have also gotten ten runs and even beat us,” the baseball mom continued, “up to that point it was a pretty close game. We were evenly matched.”
Many of the parents I spoke to had similar stories to share—especially with one or two coaches who regularly demonstrate poor sportsmanship. I have even seen coaches get into heated exchanges about calls—and sometimes the kids jump right in as well. Last season one little boy was ejected from a game after becoming so frustrated with getting out that he hauled off and punched a coach.
Another common trap that both parents and coaches fall into is pushing their hopes, aspirations and competitive spirit onto the kids. I know of coaches who regularly get berated by their significant others for only playing their best kids in the most coveted positions, rather than giving all the kids a chance at each position. The view from the sidelines seems to be much clearer than that on the field.
One mother, of an 11 year-old player in a Salt Lake City league, told me that she and her ex-husband accidentally signed their son up for a more advanced team than they realized. After the first couple of games it was obvious that their boy just wasn’t at the same level as the rest of the team.
“He hadn’t had a lot of experience with baseball before this year,” she explained. “I could tell pretty early on that we might have made a mistake with the league or team that he was on. After doing some research, my suspicions were confirmed—this was a league that prepares kids to go on to high school ball or more. He’d had a couple injuries, and I just thought we were throwing him into a situation that was out of his depth. My ex and I both believe that it’s important to teach our kids that if you make a commitment, you have to see it through. But after seeing how he was struggling due to the choice that we had made, I thought that maybe this time it would be okay to quit while we were ahead.”
Dad however, didn’t agree. He wanted to give it one more shot and see if they couldn’t turn this baseball thing around. Mom agreed, but only on the condition that it was really what their son wanted to do—not something he felt he was stuck with.
“We agreed to meet at the field at 6 p.m. if the talk went well and he was ready to play,” she said. Dad and son showed up at 6:15 p.m. and he took the field with his team. “I was really surprised.”
Later in that game, while the son was in the outfield, he had his moment to shine. A beautiful hit was headed straight his way and he seemed poised to catch the ball and make an out. They watched, waiting to exhale, as they witnessed their boy’s victory. Then he fell to the ground.
“I was sure that he had fallen because he missed the catch, but he didn’t get up. After a few moments, the other players went over to see what was going on. I heard the word blood and headed out to the field,” the mother shared. The aftermath that ensued involved copious amounts of blood, several panic-stricken kids (and a few adults) and the parent of the kid who’d hit the ball rooting around in the grass to recover the tooth that had been knocked out.
“I told someone to put it in milk, and someone else to call the dentist. My ex was pretty freaked out, and after we knew our son was all right, he told me that he felt awful because before they decided to come to the game he had told our son, ‘I’ll be very disappointed in you if you quit.’ And I thought, how do you feel now?”
While all sports represent risk and have the potential to send otherwise normal adults over the edge of reason in the lust for victory, little league’s fall from grace (and tarnished nostalgia patina) has left me feeling a little bid sad–although it has whetted my appetite for hockey.
Photos taken of the Cal Ripkin baseball All Star Team (not to be confused with “Little League”).
Little league baseball is not overly competitive.
Certainly some kids are going to play more than others and there will always be the kids who play in right field and don’t see a lot action or maybe even get hurt. Tough. In a world where Nintendo rules the lives of so many youth, kids should learn toughness from real sports. Kids can practice and improve, work on skills. I was very pleased to see kids diving for balls and working so hard to learn to play well (for the photos I took for this story).
Kids precious little egos can hold up to a little criticism or the shame of bench warming. A lot of what we do in this world is geared towards competition. Most kids and adults alike thrive in a competitive environment and suffer when their is a lack of competition. I played little league and sucked my first year, but it motivated me to get better. I practiced and was rewarded the next year with more playtime. a good life lesson: you want to be a player in the world then get good at something.
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