Gotta love it. In this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal there was a column by Robert Wheelan; it was titled, “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You.”
No better time for this column – for the avalanche of graduation speeches is upon us.
I know commencement speeches. I have delivered one, and I have advised on others.
Mr. Wheelan's column contains wonderful and helpful wisdom. Then again that is a lot of what makes wisdom wisdom – it is wonderful and it is helpful.
And here I share with you Number 5 on Mr. Wheelan’s list:
5. Help stop the Little League arms race. Kids' sports are becoming ridiculously structured and competitive. What happened to playing baseball because it's fun? We are systematically creating races out of things that ought to be a journey. We know that success isn't about simply running faster than everyone else in some predetermined direction. Yet the message we are sending from birth is that if you don't make the traveling soccer team or get into the "right" school, then you will somehow finish life with fewer points than everyone else. That's not right. You'll never read the following obituary: "Bob Smith died yesterday at the age of 74. He finished life in 186th place."
And figure this – among the 10 items of important advice that Mr. Wheelan, a gifted writer who has written many commencement addresses, recommends to young people graduating, was this message on youth sports.
Boy does Mr. Wheelan have it right. America is becoming like the old time Eastern Europe and Soviet sports machine in which kids with potential in athletics were identified and selected at a young age – and then placed in a state run development system that would mold, craft, and develop champions.
Except today, in the U.S., it is Mom and Dad providing much of the resources early on to develop what they hope will be champions.
And Mom and Dad, or another form of guardian, continue to pay for strength and development programs, skills assessment, sports camps … and all sorts of other types of support to put their children into best position to win a scholarship.
Then again, there are some parents – those of the deluded variety – who think they are preparing their kids to play in the pros.
Too young – that is what the kids are today when they are pushed into the maelstrom of competitive sports and travel teams and AAU squads, and all that.
Sure, I think sports, recreation, and physical exercise is all good – but we need to maintain, at least early on, an environment that is not tightly controlled or regimented or monitored.
Let kids be kids. Allow them to revel, luxuriate, become immersed, and become wholesomely intoxicated with free form play.
Before a child ever fields a groundball, drives to the hoop, swings a golf club, or sprints at the report of a starter’s gun, a child should hang around with his friends and structure play themselves.
Many forms of play are far too important for children to allow adults to get involved in it.
Also, Mom and Dad, let me provide you some helpful advice that will render benefits for your children. If this advice helps out you, Mom and Dad, then that is all right too.
Before you sign your kid up for his or her first soccer or hoops or hockey or baseball team, resolve that you are going into it – all of you – with the default that your kid may have next to no ability, may not even ever sniff the outside galaxy of a scholarship, but will also have trouble ever getting off the bench.
When you do that then you are entering into organized sports for the right reason.
For then you understand that the objective of sport – at least for your family – is to learn teamwork, discipline, deferred gratification, sacrifice, and even the value of enduring hurt and suffering in pursuit of a goal.
Any kid can reap these benefits from sport – no matter if he or she is an all star, or he or she is buried way down on the depth chart.
It semi amazes me how many parents are totally clueless – or just refuse to face reality – as to the talent and abilities of their kids in sports. They just are not tethered to the truth.
What is also precious are the parents who knew little to no success in sports themselves, but they are going to live – or at least try to live – through their kids, a thrill in the arena with which they themselves are unfamiliar.
Young people need adult guidance and direction – but they also need to have space to find their own way.
Mom and Dad might have it figured out that Junior is going to be a lacrosse phenom – and they will make sure he practices several hours a day in pursuit of phenom status – but maybe Junior doesn’t have an affection for lacrosse, or for any sport.
Maybe Junior loves the piano or painting or writing – and if his parents redirect the emotion and love they expend in getting him to the lacrosse mountaintop, to his passion for the arts, then we have a transition from a so-so and uninspired lacrosse player to the next Thelonius Monk on the keys, or Norman Rockwell at the canvas, or John Updike penning prose.
We need to put it this way – sports are good for all kids. And all kids should be expected if they start out with a team to give a commitment and stay with it – at least for the season. I know … I know … there are exceptions to everything. I quit a team in junior high – but I’m not sure it was a good thing.
Calm it down, America – especially us grownups.
Let our kids be kids.