A few months ago my dad and stepmom came down to Chicago from rural Michigan for a half-day to watch our 13 year-old daughter play volleyball. It was a weekend tournament and the only chance they would get to see her play that year. Amazingly, it actually worked out that not only did they get to see our 13 year-old play volleyball, but also got to see our 9 year-old son play baseball, and our 7 year-old daughter play soccer.
The schedule went something like this: My wife and oldest daughter left early Saturday morning for the second day of a 3-day volleyball tournament about a half-hour away. At 9AM the rest of us left the house and dropped my son off for the warm up before his 10AM baseball game. We then took our youngest daughter to her 9:30 soccer game, which we watched in its entirety. After that game ended we grabbed her off the field and scrambled over to see the second half of my son's baseball game. As soon as the winner was declared there, we piled back into the minivan for the half-hour trip to the volleyball facility, where we caught the last two games of my oldest daughter's three game match – just one of four matches that day and one of 8 for the weekend. By 3PM we had covered three kids, three sports, and much of the western suburbs of Chicago.
My wife and I were quite pleased that we managed to expose my parents to each child's sport. My parents, however, just gazed at us with looks that asked, “Is it like this everyweekend?” “No,” we replied, “Sometimes it's worse.”
We have become a sports family. I'm not exactly sure how it happened, given my dismal personal record with athletic activities. (After two weeks of daily practices for 7 th grade football, I turned in my uniform, boldly declaring, “No game is worth this!” Thus began and ended my athletic career in a single steamy August fortnight.) I guess it rather snuck up on us – like a cat that follows you home.
Our oldest daughter has always loved baseball. We have a picture of her at age 4, bat in hand, swinging mightily at a small plastic ball. She looks sublimely happy. So of course, park district softball was natural. After a few years of pleasantly casual park district softball, it was clear that she was a solid player. Maybe not a “star,” but definitely solid. Then in her 4 th or 5 th year, as she started middle school, something strange happened. Suddenly, she was a star. Easily one of the best players in the league. What happened? As we looked around, we noticed that many of the girls that had been the league's “stars,” were, well… missing. They'd vanished. “Where'd they go?” we asked. “Oh, they're playing ‘travel.'” “Travel? What's ‘travel?'”
Heaven only knows the number of parents who have lived to regret asking that question: “What's ‘travel?'” “Travel” softball or baseball is, we learned, a whole separate league. A whole separate world , may be more appropriate. “Travel” is where the kids that mean business go. The kids that are serious. The kids that will play in high school – in college – and maybe…? The informant eyed our daughter. “Oh, yeah. She's solid. If she's serious about softball, she should play travel next year.”
Well. Of course , she was serious about softball. And we certainly didn't want to hold her back – to have her someday complain to a therapist, “I could've been someone. I could've been a contender… If only my parents had let me play ‘travel.'”
Where do we sign?
Five hundred bucks later, we had a serious uniform, serious equipment, serious coaches, and a serious schedule. Our daughter's team practiced throughout the winter, playing Sunday games in a big, inflatable dome. (How did the early settlers play softball in the winter? We can only wonder…) Once the actual softball season started, she played 7-10 games every weekend, often 3 games per day. Jeepers, I thought, suddenly the Cubs looked like slackers.
Oh yeah. Did I mention? Our daughter was a pitcher. “Do you have a pitching coach?” A what? “A pitching coach. If she's serious…” Several hundred dollars later we had a weekly slot with a local “pitching coach,” and our daughter had a schedule that looked more and more like that of a presidential hopeful during primary season.
Then we found volleyball. She went out for the girls' volleyball team in 7 th grade, and by golly, not only did she have a knack for the game, she loved it! Other parents noticed her aptitude. “Is she going to play ‘club?'” Club? “Oh yeah. She's good. If she's serious, she should play ‘club.'” I'm thinking I've heard this song before. It didn't take long to deduce that “club” is to volleyball what “travel” is to softball. In short -– lunacy.
A year later and at least a thousand dollars poorer, I'm standing in a cavernous hall at McCormick Place (Chicago's huge convention center), watching my daughter's team compete in a regional “club” volleyball tournament that left me speechless. As I stood and gazed across the hall, there were no less than 63 volleyball matches being played simultaneously. In the same room. That's 126 teams competing at the same time. And other teams were sitting out, waiting their turn! The sight reminded me of historical photos I've seen of immense assembly plants during World War II – acres and acres of tanks and warplanes moving through cavernous halls – “a new tank every 3 minutes!” the caption read. I was dumbstruck. It was as if I had stuck a spade into my backyard garden, only to discover another world right under my azaleas that I had never imagined existing. “Who are these people?” I pondered. “Where did they all come from? And how long has this been going on?”
Sociologist and author Neil Postman writes about visiting a huge youth soccer tournament in Canada involving more than 100 teams and nearly 3000 kids. As he stood staring across the vast plain dotted with flocks of tiny, jerseyed combatants, he found himself asking one simple question over and over: “What are these children being trained for?” It's certainly a valid question. From the look of it, one might suspect our governments have decided the outcome of the next world war will be determined entirely by soccer skills.
So what IS happening here? Is it the kids? Are they begging for more and more sports leagues? I imagine some particularly driven kids may be, but I remember being pretty happy as a lad just playing in my backyard. Seems like most of the other kids in my neighborhood were, too. The issue seems to fall more into the laps of us parents. We want our kids to have opportunities. We want our kids to have fun. We want our kids to feel just like all the other kids. And by the way, all the other kids can't come out right now. They're at soccer. Or at baseball. Or tennis. Or golf. Or hockey. Or figure skating. Or…. You get the picture. And of course, with each offered opportunity comes the haunting mental image of our child in therapy someday, bitterly muttering, “If only my parents had started me in lacrosse a few years earlier – it would have made all the difference.” Who knew you had the next – um, insert big, global lacrosse star – living under your roof? Don't be a fool! Sign ‘em up!
But that's not all. My wife picked up an interesting insight while waiting in line at 6am to register our son for golf lessons. (Wait… 6am? Yes, 6am. You see, there are a limited number of slots for youth golf lessons in our area. They're made available one morning per year, and by 8am they're gone. You may have the next Tiger Woods on your hands. Sleep past 6am, and… cue the therapy scene.) So she's standing with a bunch of bleary-eyed parents, and the conversation of course turns to talk of “what are we doing here at 6am?” One mother makes an interesting confession. Her primary motive in “booking” her kids into so many activities is her fear of child abduction. In an adult-supervised activity, they'll be safe. Let them out to play by themselves and surely they'll be grabbed in a flash. The press is full of reports of child abductions. Police are urging parents to prepare their kids for the inevitable abduction attempt. Five year-olds across America are rehearsing the “kick-to-the-groin” and the “twist-drop-and-run” as they prepare for a world awash in abductors. Never mind that statistics show no noticeable increase in the frequency of child abductions in recent years. Never mind that our kids, statistically speaking, are no more likely to be abducted than we were when we were their ages. The news business makes every incident a national headline, elevating the perceived risk to the point where allowing your child to play outside unsupervised seems tantamount to child abuse.
And besides, send your son next door to play with Sammy and he'll only come back disappointed. Sammy's at soccer.
Fear of missed opportunities, fear of “falling behind” the other kids, safety concerns, peer pressure. Regardless of the cause, the fact is that more and more kids are spending more and more time in adult-supervised activities.
So what's the impact? As I see it in my own family, it's the decline of one particular activity: Play. “But wait,” you say, “They're playing soccer! They're playing softball! They're playing their brains out!” Not that kind of play. There's a kind of play that never happens when kids are being supervised and directed by adults. It's what kids will do with a tree full of acorns. Or two sticks and a garden hose. Or a big, giant cardboard box. And what's so important about THIS kind of play? Lot's of things, I imagine. But the biggest one may be simply the fact that kids are figuring it out on their own. Inventing games. Inventing worlds. Directing themselves , rather than waiting for an adult to tell them what to do next.
I've noticed my kids are very good at being directed by adults in sports activities and summer camp-type programs, and they're very good at watching TV and playing video games (which, to a certain extent, are also adult-directed activities). But they seem to get a little confused when no one (or no thing) is telling them what to do next. When the TV isn't feeding them the next show, the video game isn't feeding them the next level, or the coach isn't feeding them the next drill. Those are the awkward moments in which creativity and self-discovery are born. And they seem to be rapidly vanishing from suburban America.
“So you think sports are lousy, don't you?!?” No, I really don't. I think kids can learn a lot about discipline, teamwork, self-respect and numerous other relevant values. Research shows that girls involved in team sports have higher self-esteem and are less likely to become sexually active than other girls. But I admit, I find myself asking Neil Postman's question when watching 1000 kids play volleyball in one room: “What are these children being trained for?” The easy answer is, life! They're learning important lessons about life! Yes, I think they are learning lessons about life. But it seems to me that the number one lesson they're learning from all this organized athletic competition is just that: Life is a competition. When 8 year-old baseball players are fed their stats and team rankings weekly, how can they not grow up believing life is all about how you rank? Where you fall in the “batting order?” How you compare to those around you? “I'm an all-star!” “I'm a bench warmer.” “I'm on top!” “I'm at the bottom.”
For those of us wishing to raise our kids according to Christian principles, the implications should be troubling, I think. Yes, Paul exhorts us to “run the good race,” but the race we're called to isn't against our neighbors. It isn't about sales goals, or even ministry objectives. It can't be charted, measured and printed up in the newspaper or the church bulletin. The race we're called to isn't measured against anyone. It is unique to each Christian, measured only by God. It is a race for holiness and obedience, not performance and success. It is a race that can't be “won,” but must be strived for every day. It makes absolutely no sense, and will never get us anywhere near the cover of Sports Illustrated, Time, Fortune or any other publication devoted to the ranking of human performance. But it's the pursuit of these entirely intangible objectives that will largely determine the quality of our kid's lives.
My kids and I are out here on the limb of competitive sports-mania, and I'm trying to figure out how we can back down a little. Maybe become a little more old-fashioned. A little more Amish. Yes, competitive sports teach discipline. But so do chores. So should we move to the country? Raise alpacas? Chuck the TV into a lake? I'm seriously considering all these options (except the alpacas – that was my dad's idea), but my fear is that in the end I'll probably wimp out and stay right here in my suburban bubble. I do know this, though: I want my kids to play more. I want to see them engaged in more activities that come from their own minds, not from Hollywood or our local park district.
And how exactly am I going to make that happen? I'm not exactly sure yet. But I'll keep you posted.