A few years ago I had the privilege of meeting sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn. He had spoken at our staff meeting on a couple occasions, and he had given us each one of the books he had written as a parting gift. One of those books was entitled Let 'em Play, which was written to parents of kids who play youth sports.
Being a dad of two boys who play baseball and basketball, I was very interested to read the book. In a nutshell, Dr. Jack claims that having kids participate in ultra-competitive sports at a very young age is likely a bad thing. First, it can put too much pressure on them. Second, it can burn them out. Third, they don't have as much time to participate in other sports or activities. Fourth, it often turns sensible parents into monsters. And, fifth, you as a parent leave less margin in your own life.
I enjoyed the book so much, and believed in what he shared to the point that I asked him if he would get me an additional ten copies of the book. I gave each family on my baseball team a copy of the book to read for themselves.
That was part of the reason that we waited until age 12 for my oldest to participate in travel baseball. I knew the time commitment involved - both for him and for me (as well as my wife). I also had heard and read about so many young athletes who quit playing before high school because they just wanted some of their life back. They spent ten months non-stop playing 100+ games with no time for anything - friends, family gatherings, church, other hobbies. I didn't want that to become my family.
I think back to when I was a kid. I was one of the better baseball players and basketball players during my time. On average, I would play 12 regular season baseball games, and maybe another 6-8 All-Star games, from age 10 up to age 14. So, that was less than 20 games total! For basketball, I played eight regular season games, and a tournament at the end of the year. So, maybe 11-12 games total. In all, I played in 30 contests in a given year for two sports!
Today, some kids are playing in excess of 120 games if they are playing travel baseball and competitive basketball. That doesn't take into consideration the practices. This leaves little time for anything else. Further, it truly can get them exhausted before they ever enter high school - the years that TRULY matter most when preparing to play at a competitive level (if you hope to play in college).
Most of all, I want my kids to have fun. As a parent, I want them to excel and I push them to do their very best. But, I can get carried away.
Recently, I was playing basketball with my two sons in the driveway. I was wanting them to work on dribbling properly, squaring their shoulders up to the basket when they shoot, pivoting and bounce-passing to their teammate. What I was instructing them to do was absolutely correct. But, sometimes my timing couldn't be worse. My kids just wanted to have fun with dad in the driveway. And, I almost missed it.
I remember taking the ball out and "checking it" with my older son. I was harping on his younger brother for not doing something the correct way, and his older brother says, "It's OK, dad. We're just playing for fun." His words pierced my heart and about knocked me over. I felt so ashamed of myself for spending these 15-20 minutes I had with them pointing out everything they were doing wrong instead of just enjoying our time together on the "court."
In the end, Dr. Jack is right. We just need to "let 'em play." There's a time for hard work - but it doesn't have to happen in the driveway with dad all the time.