By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
A few years ago I was umpiring a high school baseball game in Nashville. The home team’s catcher was really good — strong arm, could hit with power. He had the tools to play college baseball and perhaps even professionally.
Between innings we engaged in a brief conversation and I asked where he was going to play college ball. His answer stunned me. He said he was done with baseball after high school. Even though he had God-given talent and ability, he basically was burned out on the game.
Unfortunately, that’s not an uncommon story. Years of travel baseball apparently had taken its toll on this young man.
When I was a kid, we played baseball in leagues during the summer as soon as school was out for the summer. In a few weeks the season was over until the next year.
Now, high school baseball games begin in early March and even recreation and travel teams start playing in March. Most of them play through June and into July before taking a break. Then fall ball begins in late August or early September. The same holds true for basketball and soccer. Games are played almost year round, depending on where you live.
As a kid, I would have loved that schedule. Baseball was my sport. I loved it.
God gave me a lot of gifts and abilities, for which I am extremely grateful. Unfortunately, athletic ability was not among them.
When I played decades ago, not everyone made the team. You could actually get cut (or not chosen for the team). I remember the first time it happened. It still hurts. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was probably the best thing that could have happened. I learned early on that there will be disappointments in life. I also learned to persevere. I bugged the coach until he agreed to let me be the team’s batboy. I didn’t have a uniform. I made my own shirt, using a magic marker. On reflection, I looked “dorky” but it didn’t matter. The coach let me practice with the team. I took batting practice and caught (or tried to catch) fly balls in the outfield. The next year I made the team. I never played a lot, but I had improved enough to make the team. I was happy as a lark.
I’m not sure youth sports today prepares kids for life. Life offers rewards and disappointments, but we live in a society today with an “everybody gets a trophy” mentality.
At the same time, a tremendous amount of pressure is placed on children at an early age. Parents want the best for their kids and that’s understandable. Yet, parents sometimes don’t want to admit the obvious. Their child may not be a good ballplayer. I coached kids’ teams and a constant source of frustration was dealing with parents whose child didn’t pitch or catch or play shortstop or first base. Parents seem to think those are the most important positions on the team and anything else is not good enough for their child. It’s amazing, however, how many games are lost because kids can’t catch a simple fly ball. Youth sports is a great place to teach children that every position is important.
In recent years, travel teams have become increasingly popular. (See story from this issue.)
In reality, however, many travel teams are glorified recreation teams. There is nothing wrong with recreation leagues. Some kids actually want to play for the “fun of it.” What’s more, many of them have parents who are content with that philosophy. May their tribe increase.
But I have seen kids on travel teams who could care less. They played because their parents paid the fees (often exorbitant) and put them on the team. Then, the parents became frustrated because their child didn’t play much. Pressure builds on the kids to perform well and when they don’t, they get frustrated.
When kept in perspective, travel baseball (or other sports) can be beneficial. There are kids who thrive on the competition and love to play. Go for it. Sports can teach a lot of life’s important lessons. Make sure it’s what the child wants, and not what the parent wants. Keep youth sports in perspective and, above all, keep God first in your life and your child’s life.