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A Lesson From The Bad News Bears

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Last year, my daughter, then 12, played on a town softball team that had less than a stellar season on paper that is still being talked about a year later - by the girls on the team and the parents involved. This experience embodied everything good and bad about youth sports today. Luckily, there was just enough good to out weight the bad for the girls, although there were some very close calls.

Her team was what you want on a middle school youth sports team. A bunch of kids around the same age and skill who were all there because they wanted to play and learn the game. Coaches, all dads, with experience coaching as well as playing who understood the developmental aspects of the game and were able to put parameters in place to reel in the girls who became too intense and gently nudge the girls who needed a bit of a push. The coaching and developmental issues of the game are the make and break aspects of youth sports today.

The mission of our town baseball and softball league is simple. According to their handbook, they strive to teach kids of all abilities; teach fundamentals and rules; emphasize sportsmanship, teamwork and safety. I have to say, they do a good job meeting this mission.

The district league, on the other hand, is a different story. The league consists of two neighboring towns whose softball programs are a bit older and more organized than ours. On paper, the programs seem to be similar in philosophy but a couple weeks into the season we were clearly outmatched. The teams are very slanted to the 8th graders while the 6th and 7th graders sit on the bench. The 8th graders are allowed to also play for their school teams while our 8th graders have play for one or the other. And, the other town's kids have been together for years at the same positions, while for our kids this is their first season together. So, while our kids were still figuring out how to make a play, these kids had the plays internalized and had the muscle memory already. And, they were 2 years older.

Of note, during the few games where the away 8th graders were missing due to conflicts, our girls had great experiences. Those games were very well matched and every one had fun - on both teams. The scores were also more even.

There were also some rules that were hard to interpret which our coaches had issues with. I'll leave this alone for now except to say that these are kids learning a game. The rules should be simple and fair. And, the should be structured in a way that allows a game...not just balls to be hit and bases to be run.

I've talked a great deal in the past about the black box of puberty. What we saw played out during this season was just that. Our girls team alone represented that black box. Similarly, on the other teams, there were kids past puberty whose bodies had caught up and could not build muscle. It is well documented that there is no correlation between prepubertal and postpubertal sports success. So, parents, stop pushing your young athletes. The goal is fun early on! Plus, kids can really get hurt while puberty is progressing is pushed too hard the wrong way.

As for my daughter's team, fun and individual goals was what we had to go for given the score card. It would have been fantastic if our girls had won a game but it was not meant to be. But, you know, in the end it didn't matter. These girls became a team and developed a spark that honestly was missing from the other teams whose only mission was to win. Here's an example:

One player, a very cute girl who had never played softball before, kept striking out. She was very petite and just holding the bat took all her strength. About 6 games into the 8 game season, she went to the plate, swung at the first pitch, and POW! That ball when flying over the head of the pitcher. The entire bench of girls was on their feet in a second with cheers, chaps and whoops! You would have thought she had just drove in the winning won for the World Series! You know, in a sense she had...for herself - and her teammates and coaches, and us moms on the sideline holding our breathe as she came to the plate, knew it. That girl even told her mother later on she now dreamed of being the world's best softball player!

Many would tell her to give up that dream. Some would say "you're too small". But, she hasn't gone through puberty, or high school, or college! Her body has time to grow and during that time if she still loves the game of softball this much, I have no doubt she will achieve her goals. She's way too young for anyone to crush her dreams or indict her future sports career.

Interestingly, the only people upset about our girls' team sports card were some of the parents - back then and to this day. Our girls didn't seem to care that they didn't win a game and that is not what they recall from that season. The coaches helped them understand the mismatches between the teams and worked hard to get them to embrace the many accomplishments they did have individually and as a team. That is the sign of a good youth sports program!

By the way, the American Academy of Pediatrics has new sports guidelines that are likely very different than what your kids are doing. Let me give you a simple rule of thumb: 1 sport and 1 "nonsport" per season and avoid the same sport all year long. If you can accomplish this, while your kids are under your roof, you'll be doing them a favor for their entire lives.

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(Post republished from Dr. Gwenn Is In