Lessons learned

When my son decided to return to Little League, he asked, “Dad, you’re not going to obsess about baseball again, are you?” I promised that I wouldn’t. This is because in the time my son was away from baseball, I had the chance to reassess my feelings about children and sports.

There are lots of reasons why parents get our children involved in organized sports. If we’re wise, we do it because we know the benefits that kids get from sports. They learn how to work with others, take direction from adults besides their parents, follow rules, develop physical skills, set goals, enjoy and appreciate achievement, and accept defeat graciously and grow from what it teaches. Also, in today’s world, organized sports may be the only way we can pry our children away from the PlayStation and get them to exercise.

Unfortunately, parents also get involved in sports for unhealthy reasons. We may find ourselves taking the competition a lot more seriously than the kids who are playing the sport. Bill Engvall once joked about “being judged on our biological output,” but that’s the way parents can feel when they watch their kids. It’s especially tough when the family name is on the back of their uniform. We see our self-esteem rise and fall with our children’s performance on the field – or the classroom, or the stage, or even in how many friends they have.

Sports also become a way for parents to determine their place in the pecking order with other parents. When we see other parents ship their kids to an expensive basketball or soccer camp or put them in an elite traveling softball team, we somehow feel inadequate because we let our kids play with their friends instead. It’s not enough that we compete with other parents on who has the biggest SUV or who gets to volunteer as a playground supervisor. It’s worse when we use our children as proxies for our sense of self-worth.

I would like to think that I’m not that type of parent. But there were times when I did get frustrated when other kids were playing better or when I felt that some teams had better coaches than others.

But I realized that if my children are to become active in sports or anything else, it has to be about them. It can’t be about me. I can encourage them, I can cheer them on, and I can participate in their league when needed. But sports has to be something that kids enjoy. If it becomes a chore, if they are burdened with unrealistic expectations, if they feel they will be verbally disemboweled for making the smallest mistake – they won’t do it.

Perhaps a reason why kids like video games is that parents don’t judge them on how well they play. I haven’t seen a parent nag kids that they haven’t defeated Courtney Gears yet in “Ratchet & Clank.” (Although with the growing number of professional video game players, that could change.)

The lesson became clear to me when I was playing baseball with my son the other day. We made a game where we saw if we could throw the ball to each other and catch it five times in a row. It was good practice, but it didn’t feel like that.

When we left, another family with a boy my son’s age took over the field. While my son was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, this boy wore baseball pants, socks, and a cap. They drilled him on a variety of defensive plays. There was a time when it would have bothered me that I didn’t drill my son as hard as that other family. But I was impressed how strong and accurate my son’s arm has become. In our play time, my son did work hard – but it didn’t seem like work because we both enjoyed it. This was time we enjoyed together, and it didn’t matter than other families were more structured about it.

In this Barry Bonds age, we forget that sports are just games. It’s not about getting on the high school team, winning the scholarship, or showing that your child is a better athlete than the family down the street. In the long run, it’s not even about winning or losing, although they make sports fun and challenging. It’s all about them taking part, getting exercise, and learning to do something that they in turn can teach their children. It’s an appointment for parents and children to do something together. With the pressures of modern society, this is valuable time.

So, let the children play.