I played all my games on Earth. Now when I venture into the realm of youth sports, it sometimes feels like I’ve wandered onto another planet.
My youth sports career…
No, let’s not call it a career. Sports are not a kid’s job, they’re a life experience.
My youth sports journey followed several distinct phases.
Phase 1: The That Doesn’t Count, I Called Time Out Phase
a.k.a. Neighborhood Ball
In my opinion, a bunch of kids running around the backyard with hand-me-down equipment, using trees and tossed-aside jackets as boundary markers, is the best foundation a young person can get. Experts call it “free play”. I call it being a kid. It saddens me that I don’t see much of this nowadays.
I was outside with the neighborhood kids each day after school playing every sport under the sun. We picked the teams, we laid out the fields, we kept score, we called our own plays, we debated the rules, and settled our own arguments. No adults swooping in to control things. We were in charge. We were learning how to function in society.
It was like Lord of The Flies, only we had to go home for dinner when our moms blinked the porch light.
Phase 2: The Herding Cats Phase
a.k.a. Organized Rec League
Kids who skip Phase 1 and go straight into Phase 2 at age five don’t have any advantage over those who start later. Well, maybe one. Their parents already know the correct dosage of over-the-counter medications they need to take to avoid an aneurysm while herding 20 kids wielding orange slices.
This is the first phase where adults are involved, and thus the first stage where potential for “well-intentioned over-involvement” looms.
I didn’t start organized sports until I was 11. My first team was drama-free. Sponsored by a local garbage company, whose name we proudly wore across our chests, our coach required us to chew gum to relax and have fun. My love of the left side of the infield started here simply because I was the only girl who could throw the ball all the way across the field.
Skills Check: Rec League. Hitting stance isn’t too bad for a girl on her first organized team. My knees are locked, but thankfully nobody in the stands was shouting that at my 11-year-old brain.
Phase 3: The Let’s Devote Our Entire Lives To Sports Phase
a.k.a. Select Sports
Select sports is the phase where normal, mild-mannered adults can somehow morph into aliens from the planet Tooinvested. Locked in a three-way battle against their arch nemesis, The Officials, and the opposing team, the aliens are the linchpin in a game that will decide the fate of humanity. Or so they act. Unfortunately, if this alien takeover happens, the kids are often collateral damage.
Thankfully my parents remained supportive Earthlings on my journey.
I started select teams when I was 15. By this time I still loved the game, but the big draw for me was hanging out with my teammates. We were heading toward cars, independence, and strong friendships. This is the phase where I met Heidi. More on her later.
Skills Check: Select Ball. I can tell this is me at bat by how clearly I’m about to pop the ball up.
Yep. That’s me alright. There goes another pop fly.
Phase 4: The Win Or Lose I’m Hanging Out With My Teammates Not My Parents After The Game Phase
a.k.a. High School Sports
You’re playing for school pride in High School and it’s a lot of fun. Plus, with the team and events run by the schools, not the parents, there are fewer alien invasions.
Skills Check: High School. I took pride in nothing getting past me at shortstop on defense, but much like Select Ball, my hitting was just okay.
Still, at the end of my senior year I got my name on a Hall of Fame plaque in the trophy case. It certainly wasn’t for my Batting Average. It was a leadership award that meant a lot to me because it was voted on by my teammates.
Phase 5: The I Am Learning The True Meaning Of Time Management As A Student-Athlete Phase
a.k.a. College Athletics
I was lucky enough to be a student-athlete in college. Between classes, games, practices, traveling, tests, and papers that are due, it’s a huge adjustment, but a great experience.
Speaking of huge adjustments, this is the phase where I went from being a big fish in a tiny pond, to being a tiny fish on a big ol’ pine bench. My team was good. We played for a National Championship. I had my moments on the field, but they were few and far between.
Skills Check: College. I have uncovered 20-year-old video tape evidence for your amusement. Coach still trying to correct my mechanics. Me still trying and failing and popping up and getting frustrated.
Parents, please use me as your case study. In nine years of playing organized ball, and umpteen people trying to correct my swing…
I. Never. Got. It.
Your kid is either going to get it or they won’t. No amount of your exasperation is going to finally make it click.
But no matter how many times I popped up in my youth sports journey, I’m still a success story.
In college I learned how to be a role player. I learned you don’t always get to be a starter but you’re still an important part of the team. I worked harder in practice on that team than I ever had in the past.
I still have a stack of index cards from a team-building exercise. We wrote three sentences for each teammate telling them what we admired, valued, and respected about them. The cards I received from my teammates said nothing about my batting average.
My teammates all told me virtually the same three things: That they admired how hard I worked. They valued what a good friend and teammate I was. And they respected my never-give-up, positive attitude.
That is what youth sports should be about. Turning young girls and boys into well-rounded adults who have an advantage in life, not because they can hit a ball or catch a pass or shoot a basket well, but because they have learned invaluable life skills from playing a game that they love.
Youth sports is also about building friendships. Some of which can last a lifetime.
Heidi and I met playing select level softball together. We clicked right away and are still great friends all these years later.
Back then there was plenty of this.
We did manage to make it to 18-U Nationals.
But there was a lot more of this.
Having fun goofing around and being teenagers.
These days when we hang out there’s a lot of us watching her kids play sports and wondering how the kids of today are going to look back on their journey. Today we hear horrible things yelled from the stands at umpires, coaches, and even at the young players on the field. We’ve heard kids berated by their parents on the walk to the car after a bad game. This isn’t every adult by any means, but the invasion from planet Tooinvested is becoming disturbing.
Heidi decided to do something about it. When she first told me her idea for Give The Game Back I could not have been more excited or more proud of her.
GiveTheGameBack.com is spreading a movement to remind adults to keep things in perspective and give the game back to the kids where it belongs.
She is compiling a resource to help you find great articles on what’s going right and what’s going wrong in youth sports culture.
She has t-shirts available to order for parents and promoters of the movement to wear at youth sports activities as a reminder to keep perspective and spread the word to others.
Heidi also does what she does best and writes about her own experiences with her husband raising their three young children in the world of youth sports today.
One of my favorite things she’s written recalls the moment she realized she needed to change. I think it’s a great reminder to all parents.
One last thing. Heidi didn’t ask me to write this. I wrote it because I believe in this movement and I believe in her. I believe she can make a difference. I believe we all can make a difference.
Youth sports can be a journey of great experiences, great lessons, great friends, and great fun. I hope Heidi’s kids look back on their sports journey with as much happiness as their mom and I look back on ours.