The youth softball player cuts the shape of a young pro, strutting to the on-deck circle with quiet confidence, twirling her bat for fun with the ease and dexterity of a baton artist. She unleashes a series of fierce and fluid practice swings.
Sporting a muddied red and white jersey with black pants, glistening from a day of sweaty game action, she sprints around the sun-soaked bases with studied precision, skillfully nicking the corner of each bag, hustling around the diamond with the intensity of an inmate running a jailbreak dash. Patrolling centerfield, knees bent in perfect ready position, she glides to flyballs in the gap, comfortably catching the yellow orb rocketed her way. All familiar sights.
What made this spring of 2021 softball afternoon different, however, was what I saw that day when studying the lithe, athletic beauty flashing her on-field skills at her final Fox Lane Middle school softball game. I saw a young adult who was done with life dominated and defined by softball. She just didn’t know it yet.
Call it a father’s intuition, call it a subtle look I saw in her eyes, but I knew it was an issue that needed to be addressed, despite positive outward appearances. Sometimes you love someone so much that you know something about them that they don’t yet consciously know about themselves.
Here in Westchester County, we’re all too familiar with parents who lovingly but misguidedly apply all manner of unnecessary pressure on their kids, in the classroom and out on the ball field. Highly competitive youth sports deliver uniquely wonderful benefits to kids, especially team sports. Those benefits are sometimes counteracted by well-intentioned parents who lose sight of what matters and begin to rely on the athletic achievements of their kids to fulfill their egos and social lives. It is also true that feeling a sense of pride and generating a sense of community through youth sports can and usually is achieved in healthy doses, despite what naysayers might insist. But, in my case, I started to wonder whether my daughter Maddie was still playing because she loved it or because she assumed it was the expectation to make our lives feel whole.
We had always bonded over baseball and softball. I helped coach her teams. Our family weekends were all about her tournaments. We had catches together, visited Cooperstown together, cheered for the Mets together. She saw how much my wife Alyson and I and our younger daughter Mia cared about her team and her teammates and the entire extended community of parents, player siblings, coaches, and beyond. How could she not feel a sense of obligation?
And hey, the data supported my hunch. A study showed around 70 percent of U.S. kids quit sports at age 13 because the fun factor fizzles due to overbearing parents and wild-eyed coaches. Thankfully, Maddie’s recent experiences had been exceptionally positive, absent the extreme histrionics of bad behaving adults. Her private club team through Elmsford’s GameOn13/Lady Fury and her middle school team were nothing but great and enriching in every way you hope, with wonderful parents, fantastic coaches, and kind teammates. But she was 13 and had been going nonstop for years. And there was that look in her eyes.
In today’s fast-paced, angst-filled world, it was worth stopping, taking a beat, and confirming whether a professionalized youth sports culture and all of its demands remained her priority. She had gained so much already from her participation in this local softball universe. Her impeccable work ethic, her supportive friends, and many wonderful childhood memories were earned through her involvement in softball, from the Katonah-based KLBS rec ball to the exclusive USSSA All American games in Jupiter, Florida.
I mean, listen, it’s become popular and cliched to bemoan the perils of today’s (admittedly crazed) professionalized, big business youth sports culture, largely a 21st-century phenomenon. But the commitment required also delivers participants a lifetime of valuable lessons. Maddie benefited immeasurably from her years of dedication. Was broaching the idea of opting out even good parenting? A teenage girl involved in a healthy activity. Was it wise to mess with that?…
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