Friday, October 07, 2011

There Are More Important Things in Life Than Softball

The impetus for this post is once again my daughter’s softball. She is currently playing in what is called “travel,” as opposed to “recreational,” ball and the seemingly endless string of practices and games almost every weekend tempt me to recite the title of this post to other parents.

Not that I want to take anything away from my daughter’s talent and desire to excel in a fun sport, nor the same of the other parents’ daughters, but a sense of perspective may be in order, especially considering the low odds of winning an athletic scholarship to college, the risks of injury (1, 2, 3) and burnout before even getting to that point, and the studies that now show multiple sports experiences and deliberate (unorganized) play develop better perception and decision making than the single, year-round specialization many young athletes today endure.

Sports, of course, are not the only activity of youth in which a nearly 24/7 pressure-cooker atmosphere exists. Music, dance, and drama teachers, and the children’s parents, not to mention the academic teachers, can also lay it on thick; the term “stage mom” (1, 2) that comes to us from the theatre keeps coming to mind.

Part of the obsession many coaches, teachers, and parents have about sports, or the arts and academics, stems from a misunderstanding of the differences between the less accomplished and the more accomplished, or between “amateur” and “professional.”

By “professional” here I mean only a greater degree of skill and dedication, not “paid professional,” though the young persons may be aiming for professional careers in sports or the arts or science and the coaches and teachers may be grooming them for that goal. In softball the difference is between “recreational” and “travel” ball and in the arts it may be the difference between performing in the local community and attending a select arts high school.

The assumed differences between these two levels, as stated by one youth baseball organization, include the possibility of failure and rejection in travel ball, but not in recreational; the alleged life lesson to sacrifice leisure to hard work so success will follow; and the supposed lack of need for instruction at this “nearly professional” level. There are kernels of truth in all three of these differences, but these kernels get distorted when coaches, teachers, and parents lose perspective, forgetting about the whole of life.

Take the difference about the possibility of failure. Even at a lower level of skill, such as in a marching band or softball, not everyone participates one-hundred percent of the time. Only some band members may perform in the pep band at basketball games and even fewer in the swing band. Soloists at the spring concert may be fewer than a handful. The same is true for softball; not everyone can be pitcher.

More important, not achieving an initial goal need not be viewed as failure. A clarinetist, for example, who transfers from a small-town marching band to an arts high school orchestra may not earn one of the top four positions in the orchestra. This eye-opening awareness of the greater skill of others should be experienced as motivator, not a threat to success or happiness. There is no more important attitude to cultivate than seeing others’ achievements as an inspiration.

To say that youth should sacrifice leisure to hard work so success will follow is misleading, especially if it is presented as “we expect you to give up your vacation” for the sake of softball, or music, etc. Paid professionals do not do this, except on occasion, mainly because they know their schedules well in advance. The problem with youth sports is that communication, advance or otherwise, is often lacking, leading to surprises in the schedule.

Hard work, yes; and all children who enjoy an activity, whether it be sports, the arts, or a business or science club will, if not hampered by authoritarian adults, devote long hours of concentrated attention to improving their knowledge and skill. This concentrated attention is sometimes, unfortunately, interpreted by adults as “sacrifice” in the sense of giving up a higher value for the sake of a lower one. “Dedication” and “self-motivation” would be better descriptors.

The notion that higher levels of skill do not need instruction stems from the term “director,” such as the director of a play or conductor of an orchestra. Some coaches claim the same prerogative for their advanced teams. But direction means guiding the skills of others to produce the effect the director envisions.

That in itself is teaching, and all directors, including conductors and coaches, provide a variety of instructions to their performers to accomplish what they want. That coaches at the highest level of professional sports are teachers became obvious during the 1987 National Football League strike when secondary players were hired as substitutes to play games while the stars were walking picket lines. Much commentary was made about the expert teaching abilities of various coaches.

When a coach, or conductor or director, says that he or she assumes a certain skill level and is not there to teach, I would beware that blind obedience is what is wanted, as in “I expect you to have the discipline to do what I say.” “Discipline,” however, means acting in accordance with one’s own self-imposed guidelines. It is the mark of an advanced skill. Even at an advanced level, coaches, teachers, and conductors should aim to help turn caterpillars into butterflies.

Total commitment at the expense of everything else—spending every weekend and a few week nights on one’s sport or art, because “that’s the way we do it here” or because “that’s the only way to get a scholarship”—is obsession of the stage parent type. When the commitment does not originate in the child, injury or burnout or even parental estrangement can result. Perspective on why an activity is being pursued needs always to be kept in the forefront of parents’ minds.

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