Last Saturday morning, as I sat in a folding chair on the sidelines of my 6-year-old’s softball game, I began to wonder where all of this is headed.
In our city, like most moderately sized cities, the athletic competition will only grow fiercer as she gets older. Which is scary because it has already started. Last fall she played on a CYC soccer league that markets itself as strictly “non-competitive.” I thought that was funny, because she spent the majority of her time riding the pine because she was the weakest player on the “non-competitive” team. She was five. Even at this age parents are already sending their kids to camps and clinics and paying for private lessons. Select leagues will start forming in a couple of years.
And I’m not saying that hardcore youth sports stuff is bad … I just don’t want to do it. At all. Because really — where does all that time and money spent get you? A minuscule percentage of kids go on to play college sports, and an even smaller percentage go on to play professional sports. And I can tell you without a doubt that genetics has promised those rare athletic prodigies will not be my children.
As I thought about it more, I realized that no matter how much money and effort we spend on sports, we all ultimately end up at the same place — the company beer league. So what I’m wondering is if there’s a way to just fast track it there. You know, skip all of the other crap that comes with youth sports and just show up and play. Sort of like a B team. Beer league bound, baby.
No spending every weekend in a different hotel for some stupid tournament. No parents waiting until 2 a.m. in high school parking lots for the freshman football bus to pull in. No clinics, no camps, no hours and hours of grueling practice every week. Nobody yelling at the referees. No fancy uniforms — just print up some t-shirts and call it a day. You show up, play, and have fun.
I’m thinking long-term here. Develop enough coordination to not blow out your knee in 20 years when your friend asks you to sub on her YMCA volleyball league. Break 100 when you go bowling with your book club. Swim well enough to not drown. Learn some basic go-to dance moves you can pull out at parties. The kids still make friends and learn about teamwork, and the parents keep their sanity by not spending five million hours a week at practice.
I loved sports as a kid. Despite my melon-like physique and general lack of athleticism, I started softball at age five, basketball and volleyball shortly thereafter. And I loved all of them … until high school. At any moment during the two-hour practice our basketball coach was approximately four seconds away from stroking out as he screamed at us to run lines until we nearly barfed because someone made a bad play. The back of the camp t-shirts said “Sweat ‘Til We Bleed.”
Fuck that noise. I lasted less than a week and then spent my evenings shooting baskets against the rotting goal in our cul-de-sac praying another kid would come along so we could play one-on-one. Same with volleyball. I preferred stringing a badminton net between a couple of trees in our backyard and rounding up some neighborhood kids to spending hours in a gym every night learning how to dive.
The only reason I stuck with softball through high school was that my coach was equally apathetic about winning, and we played to have fun. Not that he didn’t care when we lost – he just appreciated what it meant in the grand scheme of life. Little to nothing. I thought he was the only coach at our school that wasn’t completely insane, but it really bothered a couple of my teammates and their parents. Hence, the need for an A team.
You might be thinking, “No, I have great memories from my years of running basketball drills for hours after school and my parents loved desperately fighting sleep as they sat through my swim meets.” And that’s fine. You and your family belong on the A team.
What I needed as a kid was a B team. And I know I’m not the only one. The Wall Street Journal reported that the number of kids who play youth sports is on a steady decline. Why? “It takes too much time.” Kids get burned out and lose interest before they even hit middle school.
Enter the B Team. A court with a ball and a bunch of kids (and parents) who don’t care if they suck because playing sports is fun. Something in between today’s definition of youth sporting events and a neighborhood pick up game. Organized enough to have a time and a place and people you could count on to show up and obviously snacks, but there would be no taking someone out of the game because they made a mistake. No pep talks afterward if you lose. You might not even keep score. Because you know what? It doesn’t matter.
Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the value of competition. But I would argue that kids will have plenty of opportunities to learn about competition before they hit adulthood. Sometimes I’ll just put out a tray with two cookies and let my three kids fight to the death to teach them a life lesson. But even so, I believe that what made me successful in my career wasn’t that I was overly competitive; it was that I had learned and appreciated teamwork.
That and I was a great leadoff batter for our company softball team.