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Friday, March 23, 2012

Retiring at 15

It was a single post on a message board about a month back, a lamenting dad regretting his daughter's "retirement" from softball and offering a wide variety of gear for sale -- two bats that each had a retail value of $300, catching equipment, other things. A list of gear so vast that it evidenced the girl's one-time commitment to a sport, a dad's commitment, and, perhaps an overextension in terms of time and emphasis. In layman's terms, perhaps the girl just burned out, and perhaps the dad was overexuberant (to put it mildly) about his daughter's potential.

I know of the girl, don't know the dad, and perhaps she's focusing on another sport, academics, friendships, wood carving, Scottish folk dancing, what have you. She's a bright, enthusiastic kid by reputation who has a lot of life ahead of her. But it is curious that she gave up something she cared so deeply about at the age of 15. Sadly, her experience is not unique.

And I've witnessed it first-hand -- parents who think that this is a ticket to a full college scholarship, parents who somehow think that having one talent (such as speed) will make a kid a college player even if the girl doesn't have a batting eye or an arm, divorced dads who get to spend huge amounts of time with their kids when the travel teams they coach play every weekend from mid-April through early August, rec leagues getting cannibalized by travel programs when kids are as young at 10, travel programs who require three days a week in the off-season and then almost every day during it, parents who spend thousands on trips, lessons, equipment, all in the name of something I do have trouble to fathom.

And this phenomenon begs some questions:

1. Do the parents think that they are acting in their kids' best interests? Yes, I would argue in almost every case they do.

2. Are the parents acting in the best interests of their kids? That's hard to say. You can tell by how happy the kids look -- on the bench, during the games and after the games -- as to whether this intense an activity is good for the kids. Many won't play in high school (although travel zealots will argue that travel ball is better), let alone college. Whether they develop "life skills" will depend on the quality of their coaches, with whom they will spend more time than teachers or parents (at times). My view is that the commitment requires way too much of families and kids, to the point where it doesn't let families be "whole" families, causes other kids to get neglected, and takes away from the player's ability to have a life outside softball. That's a big commitment and a big price to pay. As well as a commitment to eating salty, greasy hot dogs cooked in a crowded, usually not-so-clean snack stand repeatedly for about three months. If you make the commitment, pack the celery and carrots.

3. Are the coaches acting in the best interests of their kids? No, I would argue that in many cases they are not. The coaches end up coaching primarily because they have political juice in the organization to get a team or, at a young age, are the first or only parent to step up. Whether they have the ability to organize a team, communicate well with parents, relate to kids and teach the game can be a whole other story. What many who get involved want to do is get a preferred spot for their kid, who, in the brutal meritocracy we sometimes live in, might not always measure up. Hang around travel softball tryouts or tournaments and you will hear the term "Daddyball" mentioned more frequently than you would have guessed if you went in among the uninitiated.

4. Do the coaches think that they are acting in the best interests of their organizations and the kids they coach? I believe that they do.

5 Do the parents and kids really care about the organizations for which they are playing? Hell no, I would argue, most of them care about putting their kid on the best team possible, getting them the most playing time and getting them at preferred positions and spots in the order. Heck, they don't always care about how poorly other girls on the team fare, especially if that slump cements a situation for their kid or gives their kid a chance. Bottom line is that kids can move frequently from organization to organization year after year because the parents believe that there always is a better situation out there for their daugther to showcase her unique skills.

6. Do the coaches run a meritocracy? Only if the coaches don't have kids on the team or coach the best players. Otherwise, accountability is a problem, as kids get spots because their dads coach or because their parents are friends with the coach. That happens too frequently, and it can cause real problems in terms of how a team performs. Somehow, if a kid knows that she is protected, she might not bust her rear end in practice to stay ahead of the competition or keep up. I've seen this happen, and it's detrimental to a team's chance at success.

7. Is the required commitment too much? Absolutely. Three days a week in the off-season, atop school work and perhaps playing another sport, and then a huge commitment during the season. I've sat on sun-baked fields for two full days for an entire season, and while I made some good friends among the parents, I didn't spend time with the rest of my family and my daughter had trouble getting together with friends outside softball. Atop that, unfortunately her particular team did not have good chemistry, so she didn't make good buddies on the team (even if she was well-liked herself, which was the case). A tournament every weekend for 12 weeks? Can't there be a weekend or two off? A full commitment in the fall of practice 2-3 days a week and 4-6 tournaments, depending? At the age of 12? 14?

As the kids get older, there is a natural attrition. Some kids do lose interest, some kids do not improve, some parents cannot make the commitment -- time or financial or emotional. In any sport there is a pyramid that results from natural selection -- the talent rises to the top and keeps on playing, while the kids with lesser skills attrite because there is nowhere for them to go. That's a sad reality that puts too many kids on the side lines and robs them of the enjoyment of playing competitively for the sake of enjoying a good, local experience. In the age of green initiatives, rising gas prices and complicated lives, having robust local leagues is something to strive for, not to avoid. Yet, read any travel forum, and you'll see the rec league referred to only in derogatory terms.

So back to the impetus for this post, a 15 year-old girl who is a good athlete and was known to be a good teammate, with a good bat, a good arm and a good sense of humor. Retiring for reasons that are unknown. Was it the commitment? Was it parental pressure? How quickly did the joy vanish?

And why?

It's a sad story.

Kids shouldn't be retiring at 15.


Blogger Roy said...

This is speculation unless you know more. Maybe she wants to try HS track & field? Or perhaps she wants to concentrate on school; sophomore year of HS is when kids often start thinking about college. Moreover, based on the details you do provide, her decision to move on seems very sensible.

10:09 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Roy, you're right about the speculation, and perhaps the move does seem sensible. That said, it's a shame that sometimes it has to come to this, that extracurriculars become so intense because of matters beyond the control of the kid that the kid ends up giving up something she truly enjoyed (this I know to be the case -- the joy once was there). My lament is that the kids should be able to pursue things in moderation where the good aspects of any game matter the most.

7:46 AM  

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