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November 14, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 150




Tom Roberts Sports fascinate me

Tom Roberts NCR editor

When our youngest child stopped playing organized baseball after eighth grade, my wife Sally and I calculated that through the careers of four children we had gone to little league games -- including basketball and football -- for 19 consecutive years.

I recalled that calculation recently when The New York Times ran a long and detailed piece on the current fears about youth sports excesses.

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Having dispatched my duty to little league sports of all sorts, I feel a certain detachment now, and I would find it easy to tell young parents contemplating the issue to let 'em play. I really feel the lessons and skills that I and my children learned from participation in sports far outweigh the negatives. And there have been some very negative moments.

The negatives often have little to do with winning and losing. I had a son who was on a winning baseball team. They won all the time. He didn't play much. One year we were routinely running out for spring signup, when he stopped at the door. "I don't think I want to do this," he said.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because the coach acts as if we're all going to play baseball for the rest of our lives. And I'm not. It's no fun anymore." I had a very simple rule. Sports are games. If they aren't fun, then they aren't games, and kids shouldn't be made to play them.

That was that. He never played organized sports again, but he went on to play the leads in almost all of his high school musicals and plays and to sing in his high school and state choruses. He still enjoys a game of pickup basketball.

A younger son just got a scholarship to play basketball at a junior college. He wants to be a teacher and a coach. He's had some wonderful men mentoring him along the way, and he sees sports as a powerful way to touch the lives of others. For him, basketball is a passion as well as a metaphor for larger things. Even the occasional bad coach was tolerable because he simply enjoyed the game far more than any coach could make him miserable or disinterested.

And therein, I think, lies one of the important lessons. Sports fascinate me. For all of the downside to college and professional sports and all the excesses in youth sports, there is something in the pursuit of excellence in sports that I think is ennobling and good for the human spirit. In the confined arenas of field or court or diamond, one places it, in that sports cliché, all on the line. No excuses, no escape.

And it is in that understanding that parents have to get out of the way. Beyond the most elemental exposure to sports, such a pursuit of excellence has to come from a desire deep within, it has to be as deep as the desire of the youngster who wants to excel in drama or music or science.

If that is the case, then it becomes something beautiful, something to celebrate.

I subscribe to Greg Pierce's idea that it's far too stingy a notion to confine spirituality to overtly religious matters. We should be able to find God in our homes and workplaces and other ordinary circumstances of everyday life. And that surely goes for the playing fields.

Can kids get too busy? Certainly. And coaches can be crazy and parents can want to live vicariously through their kids, making unreasonable demands and setting unrealistic expectations. But most of that falls squarely at the feet of the parents. They need to be parents.

Other Today's Takes by Tom Roberts
Nov. 12, 2003 The tsunami of patriotism
Nov. 10, 2003 Visible symptoms of deeper troubles
Sept. 5, 2003 Horses, a child and a fancy recently revived
Sept. 4, 2003 'Not what I thought it was going to be'
Sept. 3, 2003 Reporters on the religion beat
Sept. 2, 2003 Questions that won't go away
The kids? If it's fun I believe they'll thrive.

I can mourn the loss of the sandlot experience, as some do every time the topic of youth sports comes up, but it's not going to return. On the other hand, I've seen some pretty healthy, well-adjusted kids come through organized sports systems, with a deeper understanding than others of what it means to work together, to commit to a common goal, to interact with people of all backgrounds and ages, to compete, to both win and lose with grace.

It can be a valuable time for our kids.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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