Last week’s column discussed the sandlot play that thrived in the United States until the late 1960s, and contrasted it with the adult-organized youth leagues that dominate today. I concluded that because children used to play sports without adult involvement most of the time, today’s children “do not need the adults to conduct their games unless the adults have something positive to offer.”
This column concerns the “positives” that adults indeed can offer the millions of boys and girls who participate in organized sports programs each year. When parents and coaches actually place the children’s emotional needs first, organized programs offer important advantages that sandlot games usually did not.
Last week’s column described suburbanization and the other societal forces that moved the nation away from sandlot sports toward organized sports. These forces show no signs of reversal. For parents and coaches concerned about the welfare of young athletes today, the central challenge is not to pine for lost sandlots, but to administer sports programs that work better for all kids. Adults can meet this challenge by combining the best of sandlot play with the best of adult-organized play.
The Best of Sandlot Play
In 1938, Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga described the importance of spontaneous, unstructured play to the general health and vitality of societies and their citizenry throughout the ages. “The essence of play,” he wrote in Homo Ludens (“Man the Player”), is fun. “Nature . . . could just as easily have given her children . . . purely mechanical exercises and reactions. But no, she gave us play, with its tension, its mirth, its fun.”
Huizinga distinguished unstructured free play from the organized youth sports that had begun to surface in Europe and North America even before World War II. “Children’s games, football, and chess,” he wrote, “are played in profound seriousness; the players have not the slightest inclination to laugh.”
Ever since organized sports eclipsed children’s sandlot games by the late 1960s, many psychologists and educators have echoed Huizinga’s embrace of free play and his skepticism about organized sports. So too have many professional athletes who recall the fun of free play when they were kids.
In the early 1970s, for example, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton told an interviewer that he still favored sandlot play for youngsters under thirteen. “When I was ten years old I played on Saturdays with a Boys’ Club team,” he said, “and that wasn’t nearly as much fun as playing pickup games in the park.” “You just couldn’t be yourself. . . You had to do this, and do that. . . . I think [kids] would prefer to go out on the sandlots. . . . Out there they can play any position, they can devise their own strategy, the can be innovative, they can be creative. . . . But when they go into organized football, they’re no longer on their own, they’ve got to answer to a coach.”
Today’s psychologists and educators who stress the fun of sandlot play also make other solid points that warrant serious attention from adults who seek the best for today’s young athletes. These professionals argue that, as Tarkenton suggested, children learned self-confidence when they organized and conducted their own sandlot games, without adult coaches on the scene making all the important decisions. Without adult referees and umpires, sandlot play let the children officiate their own games, manage their own teams, and resolve their own disputes. What kids learned about social skills and individual autonomy lasted longer than the score, which would reset to 0-0 for the next game anyway, typically with different team rosters and never with league standings.
Amid today’s pediatric obesity epidemic, psychologists and educators also find that children tend to get more vigorous exercise from free play than from adult-designed practice sessions, which normally include much standing around and “down time” as coaches overstress team strategies.
These psychologists and educators also charge that today’s adult-organized play often leads to over-structuring of children’s weekly schedules until free time – opportunities for kids to be kids – virtually disappears. Fun is often the first casualty as the “youth sports arms race” ratchets up the pressure and produces longer and longer seasons. Family vacations and other special household events take a backseat, and the nightly family dinner becomes a relic of the past. Adult domination of kids’ sports can also encourage “helicopter parenting” by adults who may not be able to let go, even when their children reach early adulthood.
The Best of Adult-Organized Play
When adults today conduct an organized youth-league sports program that actually serves the players’ emotional needs, the program provides at least four advantages that informal sandlot play did not. Leagues organized by adults are better for safety, supervision, instruction and role modeling.
Organized leagues today are much safer than sandlot games ever were. When my friends and I bicycled to the local schoolyard and chose up a baseball game in the 1960s, much of what passed for safety now seems laughable. We played hardball without batting helmets. Catchers wore no shin guards, chest protectors, or sometimes even masks. Some of us probably did not know what a cup was, and the rest of us did not care. My friends and I never thought beforehand about getting hurt, and nobody knew what to do when injury did happen.
We played schoolyard tackle football with the flimsiest helmets, or none at all; nobody wore mouth guards or shoulder pads. In our pickup 3-on-3 hockey games, players without adequate protective equipment skated on ponds that sometimes were not as frozen solid as safety would have advised.
National youth sports governing bodies, and parents and coaches who organize local games, tend to pay much closer attention to safety than we kids did when we were left to our own devices. In my own sport, USA Hockey’s steady march toward more protective safety standards since I first laced on skates nearly fifty years ago has undoubtedly spared many youngsters avoidable injury. Despite the idyllic images on Currier and Ives lithographs, pond hockey unsupervised by adults never met these standards.
Aside from greater safety during games themselves, we might debate whether pedophiles and other perceived neighborhood risks to children pose any greater threats today than they did generation or two ago. But the numbers of single-parent and two-wage-earner households have increased dramatically in recent decades, leaving many parents unable to fully supervise their own children outside the home, particularly between the final afternoon school bell and dinner time. We can understand why parents today want responsible adults to supervise their children’s athletic and non-athletic extracurricular activities, and we can appreciate the contributions that these responsible adults can make.
Years ago, our sandlot games helped develop endurance and various important skills of the game. But these choose-up games also encouraged us to practice our mistakes, and they provided little opportunity to work on skills that we had not learned in the first place. As a squirt hockey coach in recent years, I believed that I could make the game fun yet also teach skills better than the players’ 10-year-old friends could teach one another in choose-up games.
By my teen years, most of my skills learning came from my youth-league and high school coaches. Free play surely fosters important social skills and provides plenty of practice, but children approaching their teen years who seek to master their sport also need to learn from an adult coach who values fun but also knows more about the game than they and their friends do.
Children’s most influential role models are their own parents, and most of what children learn about values and outlook should come from the home. Children, however, can also learn these intangibles from other adults in their lives, including teachers and coaches. A thoughtful teacher or youth-league coach can leave a more positive impression on players than their 10-year-old friends can.
Conclusion: Back to the Future
“[I]t becomes increasingly easy, as you get older, to drown in nostalgia,” says broadcast journalist Ted Koppel, the former ABC Nightline host. Nostalgia is indeed one of the great faculties of the human mind, but we cannot easily turn back the clock to a bygone era when youth sports seemed simpler on the sandlots. For most young players, conventional organized sports programs will continue to define their athletic lives.
In today’s organized programs, however, thoughtful youth-league coaches can combine the fun, spontaneity and individual autonomy of sandlot play with the safety, supervision, instruction and role modeling of organized play. For an imaginative coach with the will to simulate sandlot play in an organized setting, returning youth sports to the rightful owners — the youth — is both challenging and rewarding. The return need not affect the scores, but it will affect the players’ upbringing.
In a recent column, “Teaching Leadership in Youth Sports” (April 25), for example, I suggested that youth-league coaches should let the players themselves make important team decisions that they are perfectly capable of making. Decisionmaking that the kids accomplished on sandlots without adults around in past generations, they can accomplish with the adults in charge today – if the adults would only let them.
Yogi Berra says that “the future ain’t what it used to be.” Maybe so sometimes, but it can be if parents and coaches conduct youth sports programs in the best interests of the children who play.
[Sources: Martin Ralbovsky, Lords of the Locker Room: The American Way of Coaching and its Effect on Youth, pp. 84-85 (1974) (interview with Fran Tarkenton); Bob Bigelow et al., Just Let the Kids Play, pp. 157-163 (2001); http://www.byardsports.com/index.html]