America At Large: Pressure weighing heavily on the young

Middle ground needed between the extremes used to teach children on how to view sport

The Great Lakes team of Bowling Green, Kentucky, and the Southeast team from Northwood, South Carolina, compete at Lamade Stadium, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, during the ESPN-televised Little League World Series this month. Photograph: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images.

The Great Lakes team of Bowling Green, Kentucky, and the Southeast team from Northwood, South Carolina, compete at Lamade Stadium, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, during the ESPN-televised Little League World Series this month. Photograph: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images.

 

After the goal that made it 8-0, a few of our boys slumped to their knees, heads in their hands. It was an oppressively hot August afternoon, they were being outplayed, and, suddenly, the beautiful game didn’t seem so attractive anymore. That’s when the chant went up. From the opposing parents. “Whoooo wants it?” they chorused gleefully. “Whoooo wants it?” For these mothers and fathers, eight was obviously not going to be enough. They demanded and soon got more from their little gladiators.

A disconcerting scene during an under-9 soccer match on Long Island earlier this month, the type of tableau unfortunately played out on fields, diamonds and courts across this country every weekend. America has a serious problem with children’s sports. Simply put, it doesn’t quite know how to handle them properly. The facilities are the best in the world, the equipment is often the most expensive money can buy. But, the values, well, they are skewed in all different directions.

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!” wrote James Harrison, a Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker recently. “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.

“I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best . . . ”

Personal manifesto

Harrison’s sons are six and eight. His personal manifesto prompted an overdue debate that was equal parts a discussion about sport, a referendum on modern parenting and a reminder that this nation seriously needs to figure out a better way for children to learn to play. Right now, too many games seem to be hostage to extremist attitudes that, in their own way, are both seriously flawed.

In the approach reviled by Harrison and many others, kids are excessively cosseted and indulged. Everyone is a winner, nobody keeps score and adults often go to ludicrous lengths to insulate them from subversive concepts like the vagaries of competition, the joy of victory, and the despair of defeat. With nearly every outing yielding some sort of prize, the average 10-year-old amasses more baubles than Henry Shefflin and, critics contend, comes of age with a distorted sense of entitlement.

The alternative to the so-called “participation trophy” generation is the insane spectacle of kids of five and six trying out to make teams, nine-year-olds already specialising in one sport in order to improve their chances of university scholarships, and too many games taking place against a dystopian backdrop of feral parents, demented coaches and constant referee-baiting. No margin of victory is too large because the winners must be conditioned to always go for the kill and the losers need to learn from the ignominy of being crushed. Where else could they possibly learn these life lessons?

Most rational folk might hope for some sort of happy medium, halfway between the Utopian world where all kids are considered equally talented (which of course they’re not), and the hyper-competitive culture where the beatings must continue until morale improves or the weaker kids give up the sport. It’s difficult to imagine such a place exists though, especially when this current dialogue is taking place as ESPN is broadcasting the Little League World Series live.

For 10 days every August, the network provides wall to wall, occasionally bizarre coverage of 11- to 13-year-olds playing baseball at a mini-stadium in Pennsylvania. Psychologists might tut-tut about covering kids’ matches like they are major league affairs but concerns about the specious morality of the entire enterprise are always trumped by the size of the audience it garners.

Last summer’s edition turned Mo’ne Davis, a then 13-year-old girl from Philadelphia, into a national celebrity. Notwithstanding what a dubious gift that might eventually prove for any adolescent, Davis (her memoir recently hit book shelves, no seriously) was the biggest break-out star since Danny Almonte back in 2001. Initially celebrated for his extraordinary pitching on a team from the Bronx, Almonte was subsequently pilloried when it emerged he was two years overage.

In between those two fables, there are dozens of other kids whose enduring contribution to the tournament was giving up a home run, failing to make a catch, misplacing a crucial throw or striking out at the plate. Live on national television. The vital lesson they all learned is that, for producers, a child in tears is ratings gold.

Baying parents

At various points in the event, cameras will pan to baying parents in the crowd, attempting to live vicariously through their children, trying to revisit, or, in some cases, we suspect, rewrite the glory days of their own youth. For many of them, the sight of their sons and daughters on ESPN is not in the least bit questionable. In fact it’s the fulfilment of a dream, the culmination of years of investment in their charges. All that pushing them to try out for better teams at ridiculously young ages. All those private lessons from overpriced coaches. All now somehow justified.

Whooo wants it? They do.

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