Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dollars & Sense - Little League World Series

Every year in the middle of August the baseball world removes its collective gaze from the Major League Baseball pennant races and places it on the small town of Williamsport, PA.  As many know, Williamsport is the home of the Little League World Series, the home of 12 year olds just being 12 year olds, and the home of feel-good stories (like Uganda making it farther than ever before).  Williamsport is also home of the now over-hyped, over-covered, and over-exaggerated Little League World Series. 

To many that may come as a slap in the face, but the bad must come with the good.  Living in the inevitable middle ground is simply a way of life that many people choose to ignore.  People like to live in extremes good or bad, which we have seen come to screeching halts time and time again.  

Uganda made it, but was a bit over-matched
The Little League World Series is no different.  Every year people tune in to see different regions and different countries come together to play in what seems to be a friendly yet intensely competitive series of baseball games.  Whether the kids are smiling or crying, the emotions are always raw.  There are ESPN Top 10 plays and there are boneheaded plays that every little leaguer makes.  Some parents cheer obnoxiously for their child and some can’t even make it to Williamsport due of financial restrictions (but the media always finds a way to turn those into feel-good, underdog stories). 

In life there is always good and bad living in harmony, living in the dreaded middle ground that we all want to ignore.  As humans, we see Little League baseball for its image of purity and childhood innocence.  But just like all the rest of us, Little League baseball has its share of demons.  No matter how hard the organization tries to hide them, they are there.  The demons are there in the overbearing parents, coaches, and media.  The demons are there in the parents and coaches that often lose sight of the ultimate goal of parenting and coaching all for the short term satisfaction of a win. 
Are parents teaching kids the right way to win?
Winning is the ever-present dark cloud that has, is, and will follow around every single competition in human history.  That same cloud looms more ominously than ever over the Little League World Series.  A win may produce another game to play in Williamsport, but does it produce anything more than a memory once there are no longer games left to play?  For some it may, but for many it probably does not.

I’ve been a part of the inner workings of a Little League organization.  I was in charge of 160 kids in Morrisville’s tee ball program for two years after playing for over a dozen years.  My dad was president of the league for four or five years and has coached another handful.  My brother played for over a dozen years.  My mom got involved with the concession stand for a couple.  My family has lived inside of a Little League organization.  We’ve seen how it works.  There is a lot of good that comes of it all, but you have to take some bad with the good.  Nothing is totally innocent.  There has to be a middle ground.

After sitting through countless meetings and being close with many of the parents of the league, I saw how much winning got to their heads.  It’s honestly disturbing.  We always hear about parents that are living out their dreams vicariously through their children in youth sports, and Little Leagues are a good place to start when looking for these types of parents.  You know the parents that take wanting the best for their child to an extent that their motives have to be questioned.  That’s not a healthy situation for kids to grow and develop under, and I’m talking athletically and in all other aspects of life. 

The problems all arise from the winning mentality.  We all want to win no matter our gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation; it’s naturally in the human blood and bones.  And although we all want to win, we don’t all know how to win.  On the surface it’s easy to lie, cheat, cut corners, and make enemies all in the name of winning, but is that truly a win?  There is something much deeper to winning than there seems to be just on the surface. 
Is the post-game handshake genuine sportsmanship or mere formality?
There is winning the right way.  We know it’s there, but not many of us can wrap our minds around a firm answer to what kind of integrity, transparency, and honesty goes into the “right way.”  To me it all starts with fundamentals.  Many times when we are faced with a problem in life, we look to fix the immediate problem in front of us with as little time, effort, and steps as possible.  However, most of the time, the solution lies in the building blocks of it all.  Fixing the fundamentals takes time, effort, precision, and patience, but often goes undiagnosed or flat out ignored.

The fundamentals are how my whole roundabout point comes back to the Little League World Series.  At the Little League World Series (and in youth sports baseball in general), the parents and coaches call the shots.  When the minds of the parents and coaches are stuck in the murky, muddy waters of winning, the “right way” gets lost in translation.  The 12 year old kids at the mercy of the parents and coaches take on the winning attitude.  There are lies, shortcuts, and lessons gone unheard which causes underdevelopment and eventually problems in all parts of life.  A reevaluation and improvement of the fundamentals are the only way to make a meaningful, lasting change.  By then it's too late because the kids learned that the only thing that matters is winning the game.  Now they are stuck lacking the proper tools needed to make the fundamental changes.  The kids grow up with their newfound skewed view of winning and the vicious cycle continues when they pass it along to their kids (unless they catch it in time). 

I don’t blame Little League specifically for this problem.  The winning mentality can be found in all youth sports.  That’s just where we are as a society (and only one big societal change can fix it).  The Little League World Series just happens to be the pinnacle, the most visible part of the problem.  As you continue watching the Little League World Series, try to keep your mind in the middle.  Don’t get too high and don’t get too low. Enjoy the Little League World Series for what it is.  It isn't about which team won and which team lost.  It is about the excitement, energy, and emotions that these kids bring to the diamond.  That’s surely something that we don’t see every day.    

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this article Kevin. You bring up some great points about the negatives behind youth sports, specifically the little league world series. I do see your article as extremely realistic, but a bit pessimistic. I personally enjoy watching the LLWS, knowing fully about all the negatives behind it. As far as the societal changes that you talk about, I agree that changing the fundamentals of winning would be ideal, yet I do not see it happening (maybe a bit pessimistic on my part). I think the negatives come with the positives, but the positives are too positive to allow the negatives to get in the way. Hope that makes some sense... great article.