It was a brutal game, one of those disheartening affairs when one team is clearly outgunned and overmatched. The other team’s pitcher was throwing bullets. Their batters were ripping shots to all fields — whenever they could find a pitch to hit among all the errant offerings that begat a procession of runners advancing one walk at a time. Any chance at redemption — to actually get an out — was most often squandered by ineptitude. Fielders were simply drained of spirit by miscues, boredom and an oppressive, blood-sapping sun.
But this was tournament-play, all-star baseball, and there would be another game later that hot July day. Meet back in 90 minutes, an hour before game time. At which time I was asked to round up a half-dozen or more missing players.
I spied them on a distant field on the far edge of the vast athletic complex — one of those grand suburban facilities with multiple diamonds and an ocean of green-grass soccer fields with armies of brightly jerseyed children racing, chasing and kicking.
When I neared the stray ballplayers, I felt like an anthropologist who had stumbled upon an undiscovered tribe or a biologist who has spotted a species thought extinct. Here is what I saw. A happy-go-lucky band of 11-year-olds playing a pickup baseball game. Having fun. Capless, shirttails out. Left to the game’s essential purity: Hit the ball far away and race around the bases — until someone tags you out before you get back home. An elaborate game of chase, with the same ground rules I knew as a kid to keep it loosely competitive when you have only four or five guys to a side. Things like ghost runners, and balls hit to the right side counting as an out. And no walks; just put it in play.
In play. With no adult in sight.
My memory of this island of carefree fun in a sea of hyper-organized, keenly competitive athletic events has persisted. The contrast unsettled me. These boys seemed to have forgotten they had just been embarrassingly clobbered in a real game. They seemed oblivious to the surrounding pageant of athletic prowess and the serious business of kids’ sports. “Come on, you guys,” I wanted to say. “Stop fooling around. You’ve got a game to play.”
But as I stood there in my coach’s shirt, worried how this childish dereliction may look to those striving for professional competencies, the boys caught a base-stealer in a rundown, chased him down, put the tag on and collapsed onto the ground in laughter. It made me smile, too. They were acting their age, being kids — and not striving to perform like mini-adults in a grown-up, constructed world.
The scene evoked dreamy childhood memories of playing sandlot ball all day long throughout the best summers of my life. We’d break only for lunch, then hustle home for dinner before maybe pulling on a uniform and playing church-league games at night. Or reconvene after practice and play until dark. And not just baseball. The sport of the season. We had school teams, sure, but plenty of pickup football games, winter hours shooting hoops with friends, on driveways, under streetlamps, at the Y. Kids at play.
It is a common lament among parents these days that kids do not just go out and play, do not gather for playground pickup games, do not do sports without adult overseers. Unstructured play has been supplanted by video games, cellphone inertia and the rigid regimentation of organized leagues, club sports, travel teams, sports camps and bureaucratic associations — enough choreographed participation that families need spreadsheets to map out their days and weeks.
The massive scheme has also inverted parent-child relationships as moms and dads now spend much of their time getting their kids onto the right travel team, chauffeuring them to practice, carting them to tournaments, grabbing fast food between softball and soccer, sacrificing weekend leisure, standing around during rain delays or in that empty, obligatory hour between arrival time and game time. Or during winter workouts for summer sports. Or at hockey tryouts (in the belief that tryouts matter). Or purchasing equipment, washing uniforms, locating ballfields in distant towns, reserving motel rooms, monitoring the dispatches coming through smartphone apps that tell you where to be and when — along with live-action updates and postgame summaries.
It is not just time spent shepherding children through this regimen of workouts and games, commitments and demands. There are the financial costs of registration and equipment, tournament fees and travel expenses, memberships to year-round facilities, private coaching, numerous fundraisers, and sundry incidentals like admission charges, granola bars and power drinks. A high school travel team can cost a family as much as $3,000 per season. The average American family with children age 8 to 18 who play organized sports will spend more than $7,000 annually on lacrosse or hockey, $4,000 on baseball or softball, and $1,500 on soccer.
The demands, costs and promises that accompany the professionalization of youth sports have not just turned family life upside down. It is a tidal wave of national proportions, an inescapable societal sea change and a $17.5 billion enterprise — the NFL, by comparison, is a $15 billion industry. The business of kids’ sports has grown 55 percent since 2010, and market experts predict the movement is in its early stages, the outlook for future earnings rich. “This is a nascent market,” reports a WinterGreen Research study of youth-league sports released last fall. “There is no end to growth in sight. Markets are expected to reach $57.8 billion by 2024.”
Many communities have invested substantial resources into creating sprawling sports venues as economic drivers. Other business ventures from equipment manufacturers to software companies to producers of instructional videos see kids’ sports as open land to exploit for profit. “The professional teams,” WinterGreen explained, “have begun to recognize that they need to invest in team development programs targeting children starting at age 3. This is when you can get the attention of the child and build skills incrementally that are providing a steady stream of youth available later for the professional teams.”
I have traveled deeper into the youth-sports universe since that day several years ago when I corralled those kids playing without adult supervision, coaches, umpires, bleachers full of watchful family; without trophies, championships or promises of advancing to sectionals or state. Or to nationals, to college or Major League Baseball. I, too, have roused kids at 5 a.m. for tournament road games; spent six hours of a Sunday (happily) watching volleyball; hung out at an indoor practice facility in the cold, dark nights of winter while adolescent boys and 8-year-old girls honed their baseball and softball skills.
Like most parents, I have internalized the highs and lows of athletic drama while watching my sons and daughter succeed and fail. I have ambivalently mourned a loss while internally relieved that elimination from a tournament meant not having to drive back the next morning. And I have talked at length about finding the right mix of fun and competition as kids outgrow rec leagues and confront the pressures and politics of travel ball. I have encountered the predicament that if your children want to pursue a sport beyond age 12, then you have little choice but to sign up for this highly competitive, year-round, expensive, adult-driven approach. Otherwise, they will get left behind, sit on the bench, not make the team and stop playing the game they love.
Six in 10 children ages 6 to 12 participate in team sports in the United States. Seventy percent of these children will stop playing by age 13. Those who continue will face further challenges posed by a system that discourages kid stuff. A growing literature is addressing the rise in sports injuries and the psychology of anxiety, stress, mental exhaustion and burnout.
I am a devout believer in the value of sports. The rewards of exercise and physical activity are abundant and clear, and participation can lead to a lifetime of healthy habits. Sports is linked to longer life expectancies and better grades in school. But I am a proponent of sports for more reasons than that. Organized sports is life in microcosm, a laboratory to learn about yourself and how to make your way in the world.
You learn that practice and persistence pay off. You learn to try again. With guidance, you learn how to handle adversity, what to do with failure. You learn to be responsible — to get there on time, to do your job, to show up when you’d rather not, to remember your knee pads and not leave your water bottle behind. You learn to manage emotions, that the mental and physical work as one. You learn how to deal with people — teammates and coaches. You learn how to get along with them, even when it’s not easy, when things aren’t right or fair. You learn the hard lessons that a team sometimes needs sacrifice, sometimes needs you to step up and everyone to pull together for the common good. And maybe you’ll learn how much sweeter a collective triumph feels than your own personal achievements.
Of course, having good adults around can help them learn these things. But sports helps with that, too. It can provide a shared currency between parent and child. As wearying and time-consuming as travel teams can be, they get you in a car together for long rides. I relish that time. One thing I repeat on these drives is that playing sports is more about learning how to live than about scoring or striking out. But, I add, any game is more fun when you’re good at it, and that’s the point of practice — to play well enough to enjoy the game, against other kids like you, who aren’t the enemy.
Everything can be a lesson, if you take the time to think about it, talk about it. “What did you learn today?” I always ask. Maybe not to stand and watch. There’s a base to cover, a teammate who needs a lift. And yeah, that called third strike; gotta protect the plate. Umpires make mistakes, too; you learn to move on, put it behind you, be ready next time. Postgame replays read as allegory. Sport as an instruction manual in real-life parables.
He calls it the 'pay to play' syndrome. Sports has become the exclusive domain of the affluent. Those kids play whose parents can afford the rapidly mounting costs.
The toughest part is knowing how hard to push. How much practice, how many more shots, how many more swings in the batting cage? How do you settle into that sweet spot amid fun and work and way too much? Where’s the line between helpful dad and overbearing father — the guy whose ego rides on the performances of his children? How do you know if they love the game or strive to make you happy? To meet expectations. Or chase their own dream. And at what price? Like the two 10-year-olds who are driven two hours to Indianapolis twice a week to practice with an elite travel team that is flying to a tournament in California next weekend.
Most of the parents I know grapple with these things. They see what’s happening. They know that youth sports today are no longer like recess in the schoolyard or playtime when the grown-up world existed far away. They have some misgivings about a system that carries them sooner into pro-inspired practices and processes, into the Darwinian competitions established to reward winning and to segregate the achievers from the average, that dangle athletic scholarships as a solution to exorbitant college costs.
Most parents try to keep it all in perspective. They put up with the inconveniences, are grateful for good coaches, and hope their kids find the right team with the right approach to experiencing the joy of play, the pride of achievement and the loyalty of teammates without suffering from harmful stresses and pressures. Because everyone eventually finds a league they can’t play in, and it’s what you take with you when the games are over that really matters in the long run.
Clark Power and I are talking about all these things one afternoon at the Duncan Student Center. We’ve known each other a long time, mostly because we played noontime basketball together for years, enjoying the rewards of playtime in the middle of a work day. Some years back Power saw things in his kids’ sporting lives he didn’t like. Too much emphasis on winning. Which led to stacking teams. And altercations between coaches and parents, between coaches and umpires, between parents and referees. League policies about participation and playing time were ignored. Coaches were screaming at kids.
Power is a professor in Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies with a concurrent appointment in psychology. His field is character development, how kids acquire a sense of right and wrong — morality. So he saw, more clearly than most, dangers in the system. Because the singular goal was to win games, he says, many coaches were mostly playing their best kids. Others “overcoached in many ways,” moving kids around “like chess pieces.” Kids do well, he says, through “discovery learning,” when they “experiment with different things.”
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They learn by playing; they want to have fun. Power points to major studies that show kids consistently saying that having fun is the most important reason to play sports — more than winning. Studies also show that, when asked if they’d prefer to sit on the bench for a good team or play on a bad team, the clear majority choose to play.
The emphasis, he says, should be on development more than on winning. And the kids can do all right on their own. “We know kids can play all these games, or at least they can pick it up pretty quickly,” says Power. “By 7 or 8, they can play without any adult help at all.” In fact, he questions whether “there was much value added by having adults there.”
“By the way,” Power notes, “the research that shows that play teaches you fairness and all that — that was only when the kids have control. It’s not play if you don’t control it. We call it nonplay. It has the structure of work, the same structure as school. It’s under the direction of an adult who controls all the conditions of the game.”
Yet this essential element of human nature — free play — is both so valuable and so endangered these days that the American Academy of Pediatrics saw the need to advocate for the power and virtue of play in a 2018 clinical report. They advised doctors to write out a prescription for play — outlining what play looks like, how to play with a child, and warning about the harm done to the child who doesn’t have free play. It will affect the brain, will do harm psychologically.
“One thing that would really help,” says Power, “is if the coaches understood a little bit about developmental psychology, and that these kids are children, and there are certain ways to motivate them without threatening them. It really doesn’t help anyone in any situation to scream at them. It’s got to be about those kids, and their fun, and their fun is not getting you to state. They want to play and they don’t want to play under your pressure.”
So Power came up with an alternate game plan that he called Play Like a Champion Today. Launched in three cities in 2004, the youth-sports program is now in 152 cities in 42 states. Over one million kids have participated. More than 63,000 coaches have completed workshops required for them to lead those children in efforts designed to develop them athletically and personally. The title encompasses its twin goals. Play. Like a Champion. The program has two fundamental, nonnegotiable conditions. Volunteers cannot coach if they haven’t received the proper training, and equal playing time is diligently enforced “at least through sixth grade,” he says. “After that, it’s got to be 25 percent.”
Learning to win is important, he says. “Everybody understands that. But while you’re supposed to win, it is not just to win, but also to play with certain qualities of character — that you should look after your teammates and be respectful.”
He continues, “As a developmental psychologist, I see that the one thing you learn with a team sport — that I’m not sure you learn in the classroom — is that there is no I in team. You understand the importance of not being selfish, for the good of the common goal. That’s your reality on a good team.” And research indicates, he says, that “by being on a team, you’re much more likely to agree with statements that we give when talking about social responsibility — about being your brother’s keeper, standing up to people, looking after the kid alone in the lunch room. So in a broader context, kids who are playing youth sports are more likely to have an ethic of being a brother’s or sister’s keeper.” Play Like a Champion, he says, is “culture-building, it’s ethos-building.” And that, he says, “is a pretty good investment.”
While spreading the gospel of play and personal development, warning against the emphasis on winning and the professionalization of athletic competition, Power has confronted another culprit in the system. He calls it the “pay to play” syndrome. Sports has become the exclusive domain of the affluent. Those kids play whose parents can afford the rapidly mounting costs.
As public schools eliminate sports because of budget cuts, community recreation centers struggle financially, after-school programs lose funding and kids so rarely initiate their own pickup games, those from lower-income families get shut out — especially in neighborhoods where parks and playgrounds are danger zones. That means they’re shut out, too, from the physical and psychological and developmental benefits of play, of sports, of teamwork, of coaches and community leaders who care. And this, more than anything, ignites Power’s passion — the injustice of opportunity based on income.
“The system is totally rigged against poor people,” he says. “The way we’re funding these sports today, if you’re in the bottom half economically, you’re going to struggle, and if you’re in the bottom 20 percent, you’re pretty much out of the game. So that’s where we go, that’s our priority right now.”
Power points to North Lawndale, a “poor, violent, exploited” neighborhood in Chicago. Three years ago community leaders there asked him to help. The streets were ruled by drugs and crime. Kids were being shot, recruited into gangs, picked up as delinquents by youth services. Very high-risk kids, the kids who most needed the escape, freedom and fun that play provides. Play Like a Champion Today got involved; the North Lawndale Athletic and Recreation Association was established. Play Like a Champion’s principles and programs were implemented.
The coaches there now, says Power, are “Mother Teresa-like people.” They talk about their work with kids as love and kinship. They become mentors — caring people who talk to kids about things, whose presence, counseling and example change lives. They learn how to deal with trauma, how to recognize it, what to do and not do.
“If you’re in North Lawndale,” says Power, “you’re experiencing trauma because your friend was shot or your brother’s in jail, and when this happens all these children . . . get traumatized. Your basic reaction is to either shut down — just shut down to become almost comatose, or just be angry. And you have to maintain a very high alertness range, and that brings stress.”
Having “a play group where you’re there to have fun,” says Power, “becomes almost a kind of therapy.” He recalls our noontime games, our temporary deliverance from our work world. “That was my little taste of heaven for the day,” he says, “and when you do that for those kids, you see it on their faces.”
And that’s what we all should be playing for.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.