Circulating the internet are several articles deriding parents who put a staggering amount of time and expense into their child’s little league sports ambition. They argue such efforts are unreasonable because, among other things, your kids aren’t going pro, they probably aren’t getting scholarships, repeated impact from the same sport will deteriorate their joints sooner, and excessive specialization in a particular sport won’t give them the chance to explore other interests so in the end, they’ll move out of state and hate you for it.
This little league arms race, as it has become titled, is the pejorative for overzealous parents who, when coming to grips with their own unflattering lives, seek to live vicariously through their children’s on field successes. As a result, this increased structure and competitiveness of little league sports is the marker for a parent that has lost their mind.
What They Get Wrong, Very Wrong
While we’ve all seen parents at the ball park or field that appear to care a little too much, it may be unfair to assume the intensity of their involvement is motivated by Division I scholarships and professional sport aspirations. Clearly there are parents who live like this but, despite what many viral blog posts claim, these people are the exception to the vast majority of parents spending significant portions of their lives chasing little league sports.
In defense of little league, my observation is parents who are overly involved in their child’s sporting lives should be commended. These parents are not ignoring the potential health of their child’s knees or ankles or elbows in hopes of a future payday, nor are these over-committed soccer moms and football dads looking for an early retirement. On the whole, these parents invest a significant amount of their time and money for several great reasons, not a single one of which is because they have lost their minds. As three examples:
1. De-Emphasizing Organized Sports is the Wrong Approach
Today, our children need structured little league sports more than ever.
How can you watch The Sandlot and not be envious of that time and place? A handful of neighborhood kids getting together on a whim and playing baseball on a dusty field. No American can watch that show without wishing they or their child could experience such unstructured happiness.
But what that 1960’s plot couldn’t account for was Xbox and Playstation. It couldn’t account for how easy life is to live in a basement with WiFi. Boys still get together on summer days when school is out, but instead of a game of pickup basketball they sit in basements and text each other across the room. Any homeruns hit or balls lost are via MLB 2015.
The reality of today is that parents don’t want their children walking alone to their friend’s house or playing in the woods far away from cell service, and with how entertaining it is to sit, sedentary, in a bean bag chair in an dark basement on a perfectly sunny summer afternoon, kids aren’t even asking for that freedom.
Consider these facts:
- In the last 7 years 5% fewer children play organized sports.
- In the last 24 hours, over 50% of children have played a video game but only 33% have done some sort of exercise.
- 7% more of our children in the last dozen years are now clinically obese.
- Rates of childhood diabetes in the last decade are up by 30%.
The list of data points highlighting the epidemic of inactive children go on and on. De-emphasizing and criticizing the increased structure and involvement little league sports can require undermines a great solution to some of our kids’ greatest needs. Parents involved in making activity and sports a significant portion of their children’s lives should be given awards, not preachy viral blog posts about being too involved. Society is dying from heart disease and blocked arteries—not ACL injuries, broken arms and Tommy John surgery.
2. Generational Connection
Another defense for little league sports is the quantity and quality of communication it produces. While parents and kids don’t have similar taste in TV shows, music, books, political affiliations, friends or even what they hope to find on the table at dinner time, little league sports are different. Not only are parent and child interests suddenly united, we are compelled by that interest to actually talk about it. And these parent/child conversations, often on long trips to far away places, have a tempo and intensity that are lacking in most “how was your day at school?” exchanges. In these conversations, principles of determination, reaction and effort are forged and taught so naturally we, as parents, fail to realize it’s even happening.
So the next time you hear some gray hair telling little Jimmy through the fence how to stay back on a curve ball, pause before you assume Grandpa has scholarship dollar signs in his eyes. Instead, see for the first time, a 50 year inter-generational gap being closed naturally by a conversation about their common interest in something as simple as hitting a curve ball. This Hallmark moment, brought to you by little league sports, will add to a collection of conversations that Jimmy will someday recall to his grandchildren as they stand in the box and try to hit an off speed pitch — the advice now spanning a hundred years and 5 generations.
Our mutual interest in little league sports connects grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren in a way that few events can. Deriding serious involvement in little league by assuming some vocal parents care only for scholarships and popularity contests, is a disservice to our children and their children.
There is an oft quoted Vince Lombardi quip that says, “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.” This is what dedicated parents understand, but exactly what gets misconstrued as a “win at all cost” mentality by critics who then assume money spent on little league is some return on investment scheme waiting for signing day 2025.
Parents who review with their 2nd grader for a spelling test, or give their 9 month old a walking toy, are commended for giving their child the best chance at success. Yet no success on a second grade spelling test or of walking a month or two early has any real influence on a person’s future. How is effort encouraging your child in sports different?
Teaching your child the type of care and attention it requires to be successful at something is as reasonable an approach to being a parent as I can imagine. And where better to do that than in an environment where things really don’t matter? Little league organized sport is war without death. Disappointment without any real consequences. Fabricated conflict but real emotion. All served in a weekend event with high, yet ironically inconsequential, stakes for a fee where the whole family can experience and, win or lose, go out to ice cream afterwards to relive the moments.
The fact is all but one team ends the season in a loss and the lessons we learn in disappointment and failure prepare us for future moments in life when it actually does matter. We don’t commit a serious amount of our time to organized little league sports because it is our life, we do so because sports mimic what life is. Those who learn early and often the type of effort and journey it requires to improve in sports will toast the day the lessons were learned on the day they finally find success when it does matter. And when they lose, as they undoubtedly will, over-zealous little league parents will take comfort in knowing their child figured how to deal with loss a long time ago.
None of the above means a high level of involvement in little league sports is for everyone. In fact, I’d be confident in saying it probably isn’t even for most. The needs of families and children differ so greatly that making a one size fits all approach for little league sports impossible. As well, intense interest in children’s music, math, spelling, chess and so on shouldn’t be discounted either for many of the same reasons above.
But as you think about the value of your involvement in little league sports, please recognize that your family’s emphasis leads to activity, independence and confidence for kids in a society plagued with entitlement and isolating sedentary lives. Please also pay close attention to the inter-generational connections forged on drives to and from practices, games and far away tournaments. Notice, as well, the genuine opportunity your child is given nearly every season (if not every game) to recover from loss and disappointment.
If that life isn’t for you and your family, great. But don’t belittle the immense value parents bring to their children and society when they chose to be highly involved in their child’s sporting lives. For the vast majority who choose that life, it really has nothing to do with collegiate scholarships or signing bonuses. Instead, we look for chances to improve our children’s health, increase the connection to their parents and forge in them an ability to deal with failure in preparation for when life actually matters.
In the mean time, long live little league.