The Shortest Yard
Looking back on our childhoods, we often reflect on the happiest moments of our upbringings, from memorable events surrounded by loved ones to moments of achieving our own personal victories. Reveling in the memories that put a smile on our face and fill our hearts with joy. But not all memories are cherished, as we also recall moments of great embarrassment or events where we feel fear inducing dread. Looking back and reliving the moments that left us feeling paralyzed with anxiety, making us shudder to this day.
In the world of Youth Sports, both instances can happen, where memories are either sweet or bitter. In Jessica Statsky’s essay, “Children Need to Play, Not Compete,” she argues that “Highly organized competitive sports such as Peewee Football and Little League Baseball are too often played to adult standards…” (Statsky 367). Statsky believes that this has not only a detrimental impact on the development of the child, but it also can discourage children from playing again as well as make playing in general not fun. And with young children playing in a competitive environment, you must be on the lookout for some of the common injuries that not only occur physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.
As a child grows up, they not only develop physically, but emotionally as well as mentally. During this time, their development is key to shaping who they are as adults later in life. To sustain an injury, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, could have severe repercussions that could lead to life-long complications. Statsky touches base on one potential repercussion in her essay:
Moreover, a new Boston University School of Medicine study found that any head injury—whether a concussion or something less (often called a subconcussive, or a micro--injury that builds up over a time)—can result in degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) (Boren). For young people especially, the cumulative effect of small hits (what has been called “the bobble head effect”) appears to do the lasting damage (Statsky 369).
There’s also the fear of pain and injury that can leave an impact on children mentally, giving them anxiety just thinking about playing. As Statsky puts it, “Even when children are not injured, Tutko points out, fear of being hurt detracts their enjoyment of the sport. The Little League Web site ranks fear of injury as the seventh of seven reasons children quit (‘What about My Child?’)” (Statsky 369).
Having played little league baseball myself, I can attest that one of my greatest fears was getting hit by the ball. Not only that, but some of the other things that exacerbated my anxiety didn’t even come from the playing on the field, but from the adults who watched us play.
Children have one thing in mind when playing any game, and that’s to have fun. Winning can be fun true, but nothing beats just having a good time. Statsky brings this up when she states, “Several studies have shown that when children are asked whether they would rather be warming the bench on a winning team or playing regularly on a losing team, about 90 percent choose the latter (Smith, Smith, and Smoll 11)” (Statsky 370). So, what is it that can cause anxiety to be so severe for these young players? The adults who coach them and watch them play the sport. Placing a high demand on performance, adults can sometimes forget that the athletes that are playing are young, still learning, and still developing as they play. An adult standard being placed on them which results in psychological harm, disheartening them to want to continue to play the game. Statsky mentions this in her essay by saying the following:
Besides physical hazards and anxieties, competitive sports pose psychological dangers for children. Martin Rablovsky, a former sports editor for the New York Times, says that in all his years of watching young children play organized sports, he has noticed very few of them smiling. “I’ve seen children enjoying a spontaneous pre-practice scrimmage become somber and serious when the coach’s whistle blows,” Rablovsky says. “The spirit of play suddenly disappears, and sport becomes job-like” [qtd. In Coakley 94] (Statsky 370).
Not just the coaches, but some of the parents can also pile on to what can be an already stressful situation. Statsky even mentions how some fights have broken out between parents that ended up being covered in local news. Statsky writes, “Newspaper articles on children’s sports contains plenty of horror stories. Los Angeles Times reporter Rich Tosches, for example, tells the story of a brawl among seventy-five parents following a Peewee Football game (A33)” (Statsky 371). I recall times when I went up to bat, parents were yelling all kinds of things out onto the field, which did nothing to help my focus or maintain composure. In fact, the only thing I really wanted to do was be anywhere but within earshot or sight of the adults who watched us play. Combine all the things that could happen on the field, whether it be injury or anxiety related, and you suddenly have a child that no longer wants anything to do with the sport.
Nothing is worse than when someone loses heart for something they once enjoyed. A hobby that really brought passion to someone or a certain activity that an individual was looking forward to. Once the thing that sparks joy begins to be the thing that incites feelings of dread or depression, then all passion for what was once loved goes out the window. Statsky highlights this by writing, “Like adults, children fear failure, and so even those with good physical skills may stay away because they lack self-confidence…. The problem is that many parent-sponsored, out-of-school programs give more importance to having a winning team than to developing children’s physical skills and self-esteem” (Statsky 371). And it’s true, as my experience with little league kept me from wanting to continue playing as all I could think about was how I saw it as a job rather than a game to enjoy. And it wasn’t just little league that made me not want to compete, middle school track and field was the same. I recall that some of the coaches provided some of the “track stars” special treatment due to their natural abilities while everyone else was treated the same. These experiences replayed in my head as I attempted to take on new team-based sports, and it became the reason I was always anxious to play in front of people. It also became the reason I stopped playing sports altogether in middle school.
Which leads the question, “how do we mend this? How do we make playing sports a positive experience for young developing children?” Statsky believes that workshops for coaches can make all the difference for these young athletes. No matter what we do, there will never be a “100 percent guaranteed” solution for any problem. But that doesn’t mean we still can’t try to work on a solution that reduces the likelihood of the problem from occurring. Statsky explains one method in the following:
In a three-and-one-half-hour Sunday morning workshop, coaches learn how to make practices more fun, treat injuries, deal with irate parents, and be “more sensitive to their young players' fears, emotional failures, and need for recognition.” Little League is to be credited with recognizing the need for such workshops (Statsky 371-72).
Statsky also believes that by taking the focus away from winning and shifting it towards more positive concepts like sportsmanship and fitness, you can make the sport more fun. By making some adjustments, you can alleviate some of the pressures young athletes feel when playing these sports. Statsky writes, “As one coach explains, significant improvements can result from a few simple rule changes, such as including every player in the batting order and giving every player, regardless of age or ability, the opportunity to play at least four innings a game” (Statsky 372). A world of difference can be made be making a slight change for the wellbeing of the young athlete. Encouraging them to keep going, allowing them to develop their skills more and more as they grow older. Had I had these techniques employed when I was playing little league, receiving positive reinforcement, feeling like I was part of the team, and being reminded that the important thing to do is to have fun, my time in team-based sports probably would not have been so brief.
There’s nothing wrong with youth sports in my opinion, as it can teach children not only how to cooperate with others but also can help place emphasis in fitness and help keep them active to provide health benefits (both physical and mental). It can also teach them about good sportsmanship and what it means to do your best and give it your all, which can carry over to whatever else they may wish to pursue in life as they grow older.
However, to help them succeed you must nurture these young impressionable athletes by providing them the positive reinforcement that can not only encourage them to try their best, provide them with confidence that can help them in reaching their potential, but also taking the preventative measures to reduce the chances of sustaining an injury. Failing to do this could have severe consequences which could lead them down a path of not only physical issues from rigorous activity but also depression and anxiety from enduring moments of emotional and mental distress.
My experience in little league baseball made me want to never play the game again, and to this day have grown to have no interest whatsoever for the game of baseball. Which leads me to wonder, “had things played out differently, from the coaching, to how the adults behaved during the games, to the idea of what really mattered when we played…would I have continued on playing into my adolescence?” Now I’m stuck with “what if?” and that is nothing a child should ever have to live with wondering.
About the Artist
A first-semester student at Mission College, Francisco Ramirez enjoys lifting weights and working out in general. He believes in a "Healthy body for a healthy mind!" He also enjoys all things considered nerdy and geeky, like videogames, sci-fi stuff, fantasy things (anyone looking to play DnD?), and learning about the sciences.