Why Johnny Hates Sports

The other night I witnessed a spectacle of absolute lunacy, one that goes against everything I’ve been preaching since 1981. I attended my grandson’s T-ball championship game.

The “game” was absolute chaos from the get-go. In fact, if I had a video camera, and replayed it for the folks in the stands, half of them would be crimson-faced with embarrassment. Unbelievably, the other half would think there was nothing wrong with their behavior.

How can we as recreation professionals allow this to go on as if it’s a natural part of youth sports?

The answer is we can’t and we won’t.

The first step is to understand the problem. As you know, here in the United States, those of us with the most youth sports training, the ones with parks and recreation behind the titles on our business cards, don’t normally run the leagues. Sports associations and other like-minded (and often well-meaning) organizations do. We simply lease and maintain the fields/facilities these kids play on.

The problem, at least in my opinion, lies in large part with the sport association or other organization running the league. This group of volunteers (oftentimes untrained in recreation or child-development basics) simply maintains the status quo--following in the footsteps of those who came before. The ones who decided their program should mirror professional sports in every capacity.

Somebody needs to step in and say, “I don’t think so!” That somebody should be you.

View From The Fan Cam

Anyway, back to the game. I went at the urging of my wife, who felt that I needed to support my grandson. Since she’s the one with the master’s degree in social work, I listened.

I arrived at the field in the middle of the first inning. The score (yes, they kept score) was already 5-0, the maximum score in any one inning. (This rule is designed to keep the contest from looking like an NBA playoff game and to keep the kids from falling asleep in the dugouts.)

OK--that’s a bit harsh, I must admit. I went to a few regular season games, and things were cute in that typical T-ball way. Kids ran around trying to catch fly balls without actually looking at them and trying to run from first to second without giving into the temptation to stop and pick up a stone along the way. I really enjoyed it.

But this night was different and I do mean different. A few examples:

· The opposing team had signs all made up proclaiming they were the champions before the game even began.

· Parents were screaming as if someone had shouted a tsunami was on its way.

· One father was there with a clipboard making notes of every single thing his kid did.

· Three guys stood coyly trying to pretend that no one knew they had beer in their plastic cups as they yelled at their kids to pay attention.

· One mother was spewing venom with another mother, who had complained that the batter (her son) was definitely going to be the third out.

And that was only on one side of the field.

I walked back to my grandson’s side and things weren’t much better.

· Parents were booing the 16-year-old umpire because they didn’t like a call.

· One parent ran to the dugout and demonstrated how her son needed to swing the bat or else he would cost his team the championship.

· All three kids who came up in the inning popped out, and all three came off the field crying.

I know crying isn’t part of baseball, at least according to Tom Hanks, and it’s definitely not part of T-ball. As I wondered at the absurdity of it all, I was further educated. A father of one of the criers made it perfectly clear to his son that crying was not acceptable. He said, “That’s what babies do when they spill their milk. Don’t ever let me see you do that.”

The Kids’ Perspective

To get the kids’ impression of all this nonsense, I stood by the dugout to hear their conversation. Three kids were discussing how their Webkin (a teddy bear hooked to a Web site that is all the rage now) was fun. A couple of players sat there, looking off into space, saying absolutely nothing, which is what six-year-old kids tend to do. The bottom line is, not one of them cared about the game.

Which circles me back to my original question: Why do those of us in the recreation profession put up with such craziness on our publicly owned fields?

Why Do We Put Up With This?

Because it’s so hard to fight pop culture.

The people who organize the leagues have been doing so for years. They’re entrenched, ready and willing to fight you and your changes at the drop of a hat--all in the name of youth sports, which they’re fast ruining.

Perhaps the answer is to show these parents and volunteers how detrimental their behavior is to their kids in the long run.

To get my mind wrapped around the answer to this question, I talked with one of the most respected child psychiatrists in the country, Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of Hyper-Parenting and The Over-Scheduled Child, and frequent expert on child psychology issues for numerous TV shows, such as Good Morning America, Larry King Live, CBS Morning News, CBS Sunday Morning News, NBC Evening News, Today Show, Merv Griffin Show, Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Day New York and CNN News

Here’s what he had to say:

“What is so detrimental to the kids is that they get the impression that their parents care more about their accomplishments than about them as unique individuals. It makes them anxious rather than setting them at ease. This happens because parenting has become America’s most competitive adult sport. So, parents often forget that what their six-year-old needs from them is warmth, caring and support to help develop good character and friendships. Instead, young children are expected to perform in everything--including sports--at professional, not kid, levels. That expectation, the tension that goes with it and the hyper-parenting atmosphere harms their character, diminishes their ability to feel at ease on the ball field, and stunts their ability to develop their personalities fully. It also denies them that unconditional love every professional alive insists is essential for their mental health.”

No wonder Johnny hates sports.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has been advocating positive and safe sports for children since 1981. He is also the author of “Why Johnny Hates Sports,” which is available on Amazon.com.