It’s the summer of 1985 and I’m in Roseland Little League in the heart of Chicago, a 9-year-old kid just having a little fun playing baseball. My team is the OJays and we’re ahead by one run in the bottom of the final inning. I’m the catcher and my good friend Wayne is the pitcher.
He walks two batters right away, so there are runners on first and second with no outs. I know the runner on second is going to steal, and I’m ready. Here comes the pitch. It’s a double steal. The runners on first and second take off. I fire down to third base only to over throw it all the way into left field. Both runners score. Game over.
I was devastated. I just lost us the game. I can still picture that throw right now and can remember feeling the disappointment from my team. I knew I let them down. I felt horrible. I remember walking to the car with my dad and all I could think about was how he must be disappointed in me, too.
Once we got inside the car he said, “You know, Champ, I really love watching you play. You do such a good job out there. I can’t wait for the next game.”
Mike Salk from “Brock and Salk” got me to thinking recently. One morning on his show he told me he didn’t like what was going on with youth sports. He mentioned that sometimes he feels guilty talking about high school players. For about a week I’ve been thinking long and hard about what he was saying. More importantly, why he said it.
Here it is: There’s a problem with youth sports, and I’m part of the problem.
Ya see, it seems today we value excellence over participation. We keep score when there’s no scoreboard. We pay more attention to the talented kids. It’s all about the elite teams, and the players that aren’t elite, or the players that are less talented get the message right away that they aren’t good enough. What happened? Remember when we all played sports on the neighborhood teams? Well, those same neighborhood teams are called “rec-ball” now, which basically means, “You’re not that good.” It seems as if youth sports are catering to the more talented kids, and if you’re not talented yet, then let’s talk when you are.
According to a 2014 survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, there has been a major drop in sports participation among American youth. The number of kids ages 6 to 17 that play team sports was down 4 percent that year from 2009. So dig this, participation is down, but it’s now an estimated $7 billion industry. Why is that? I’ll get to that in a minute.
I think kids more and more are feeling like if they aren’t the very best, then they don’t need to play. That’s where I’m guilty of a few things. When my sons were young, I took score when there was no scoreboard. In the car after games, I would tell them about the kids on their team that weren’t very good. I even took a picture of the winning score once and posted it on Facebook. If you have never done any of those three things, then pat yourself on the back. You’re pretty awesome.
Let’s go back to that $7 billion figure. It’s travel teams, private coaching, expensive equipment, airfare and more elite training. Remember when basketball was only $45 for 15 games? You played that sport, and then moved on to the next sport after that. It just seemed the focus was more around fun then.
Now, to play on that travel team is anywhere from $600 to $3,500. That’s just to be on the team. Is there fun? Yes, there’s still fun, but there’s way more pressure. Pressure to win. Pressure to impress your parents. Pressure to be called the best among your peers. Pressure to get playing time.
The parents drive up the price. Oh how we love to one-up other parents. One will say, “Well, we’re driving to Portland next weekend for a tournament.” The next parent will say, “Yeah, looks like we’re going to Houston this spring.” Then the third parent will have to top that with, “Well, Johnny trains three days a week, and will travel to seven cities this spring and summer.” See how it happens? Now imagine that happening everywhere around the country. That $7 billion price tag adds up, huh?
So, why am I the problem? I’ve always learned that it isn’t polite to point, and I recognize that there is a problem in youth sports. So no better way than to look at myself in the mirror.
As some of you might know, my oldest son, Gee Scott Jr., is a very talented athlete. As a father, I couldn’t be more proud of what he does. What you don’t know is that I can’t ever remember asking him after a game if he had fun. I can’t remember the last time that we had a laugh together while tossing a football around. Ninety-five percent of our relationship is centered around sports. I never once asked him when he was younger what he would like to do. Instead, I made the decision for him.
After every game I would break down his performance and let him know what he did right and wrong. Could you imagine coming home from work every day and instead of somebody asking how your day was, they tell you they want to evaluate how you did?
As I write this with tears running down my face, I realize how opposite I’ve been from the way that my father did things. I’m guilty of looking at my son’s performance and feeling like it’s a reflection on me. When I lost that game for my little league team, my father told me how much he loved watching me play. Looking back, he didn’t care what anybody thought of me. He didn’t care that I lost the game for the team. He didn’t take it as an embarrassment, but rather an opportunity to remind me that he couldn’t wait until my next game.
Well, from this day forward, I’m choosing to do things different. I will value how my son feels after a game over how he performed.
I hope that by looking at myself first and recognizing my mistakes as a youth sports parent that others will see this and do the same.
Appreciate you for reading. Love ya for that. Until next time.
– Gee Scott