Just let 'em play

August 25, 2002

THE FINAL GAME of the 56th Little League World Series, televised tonight, likely will offer compelling moments and charming touches evoking the organization's idyllic origins when three teams, with $30 worth of uniforms, began play on a Pennsylvania sandlot in 1939.

But in recent years, the tournament has been dogged by cheating questions -- and, new this year, showboating 12-year-olds. In parallel, national TV coverage, for decades limited to the championship game, now embraces 28 games that include regional playoffs.

Unfortunately, the heightened pressures are all too typical of youth sports today. In 2000, when a Boston ice-hockey dad beat another father to death in a rinkside dispute, many hoped sanity would return. It hasn't. Every week brings more reports of sideline rage; rare is the community that hasn't had to contend with it.

Sports are great for children, imparting tremendous lessons; the kids are rarely the problem. It's adults -- living through children, pushing them, and putting winning above all else. Youth leagues everywhere, even at the least competitive levels, have to issue guidelines for parent behavior. Several New Jersey towns just built baseball fields with no seats behind the backstops; parents are in outfield bleachers, separated from their kids by moats. Think about that.

The more talented the kids, the worse it gets. Select travel teams -- skilled players as young as 8, competing regionally and nationally -- often focus only on winning. In Tennessee this summer, teams of 6-year-old boys from across the Southeast gathered for a coach-pitch baseball tournament. In Florida, some fast-pitch softball teams of 12-year-old girls play 170 games a year.

As a result, top players increasingly are urged to focus on one sport by 10 or younger, often leading to burnout by 15. Travel team coaches often court top kids and their parents, who jump from team to team. Then they're directed to the growing industry of for-profit clinics, camps and private trainers.

What are the kids learning? Often, not a love of the games. Some handle it well, but why do you think many teens opt for the refreshingly unorganized freedom of skateboards and rollerblades?

In this, parents deserve sympathy. The pride of seeing kids succeed in sports is terribly seductive -- easily leading to a vicious cycle of investment and escalating expectations. No one's evil here.

But the divide is winning vs. teaching, and the solution's simple, say experts like Rick Wolff, a former minor league baseball player and chairman of the Center for Sports Parenting at the University of Rhode Island. Stop using the kids. Lower expectations. Emphasize instruction, let all kids play and back off. As Mr. Wolff says: "Somebody has got to act the role of grown-up."

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