Growing the game

article submitted by Josh Raymond-Castro, Old Dominion University

There’s almost nothing like it; the crack of a bat on a warm summer evening, the bright phosphorescence of the stadium lights. If you think hard enough, you can almost smell the fresh cut grass as you run to the concession stand with a few more dollars from your dad, a handful of teammates trailing behind you. Baseball is, and always will be, a beautiful memory in the timeline of our lives. There is rarely something we can look back on with such yearning and happiness, the thoughts filled with the thrill of competition and the closeness of friends.

Now, 20 years to the day, I walk my own son into the press box of a minor league game for the first time. I may not be running out to the bullpen to warm up for the big game, but a lifelong love affair with the sport has ensured I will always be close to it, nurtured through the same love my dad and coaches had for one of the greatest games ever played.

With both coaching and parenting, nurturing a true passion for the game should always be our first priority when introducing young athletes to baseball. By building that foundation, we allow our kids to have endless opportunities within the realm of sports, while at the same time handing down to them the same fond memories and love that we feel when we reminisce on our youth.

Pete Michaud, a world renowned sports broadcaster and fan in his own right, harnessed this exact type of passion while building his own career in the world of baseball. His voice has stood as a fond memory for those who have attended a Minor League game in Virginia during the last decade, although his affinity to the sport predates his time as a radio personality by many years. “I recall quite vividly how my father let me get out of bed on an April night in 1974 to sit in front of the TV to watch Henry Aaron break Babe Ruth’s MLB home run record,” he says wistfully. “As a youngster, some of my earliest baseball memories involve not only going to games at the old Met Park out by the airport, but also listening to the games on the radio. I also remember using an old, transistor radio to find far-away broadcasts from places like St. Louis and Pittsburgh and New York late at night,” he says. Like many others, he adamantly believes in introducing children to the sport at a young age.

“I think the best way to nurture a love for the game among children is to expose them to the game. Play it. Watch it. Talk about it. I remember how much fun it was to check the box scores in the morning paper to see how my favorite players had done the night before,” he says. “The point, however, is that a child who is exposed to anything that he or she falls in love with will probably maintain their affection for it throughout their lives. Whether it be music, science, reading, writing, art or sports, learning to enjoy and appreciate these things as a child usually makes for an adult who maintains that love.”

Pete, of course, is not alone in this line of thought. Dr. Jim Taylor, a prominent sports psychologist and author of Train Your Mind For Athletic Success, has worked with everyone from Olympic teams to young, aspiring athletes. Too often, he says, he has observed children pushed too hard and too fast by overbearing parents and coaches. “This is a very popular statistic these days, but between the ages of 8 and 13, 70% of kids drop out of youth sports. The top reasons for that is a mix of it just not being fun and being stressful.” He pauses for a moment to let those numbers sink in. “The reality is that youth sports are no longer about kids. We live in what’s called the youth sport industrial complex, in which it’s now about preparing kids for college scholarships, the pros, the Olympics. Everything is beginning to revolve around early specialization, private coaches, private camps, all these other things that we think give our kids an edge. Even if a kid is unbelievably gifted, even if they are unbelievably good both technically and physically, if they want to become a great athlete, and I really mean becoming as great as a player can be, you have to love it. Striving for greatness is hard!”

So, how can you nurture a love of baseball for your kids? Dr. Taylor has the answer for that too. “Well, first off, it helps if you as a parent have a passion for it. If you get super excited about it, then they are going to feel that excitement and they are going to be excited as well. Second, in the early stages you need to make it about fun. Don’t talk about results at all! Early success is entirely non predictive of later success. Think about this statistic, out of all the players in the history of the MLB, only 30 played in the Little League World Series! Just because they are a stud player at 10 or 11 doesn’t matter. The statistics show that even if they play at the top of their level in those formative years, they will most likely not be playing a few years later or will have sustained an egregious overuse injury from early specialization.”

Even the players tend to agree that teaching children to fall in love with the game and allowing them to explore their own natural and fluid style of movement can greatly impact future success. Taylor Davis, a catcher for the Chicago Cubs organization, believes that kids can have fun and learn the basics at the same time without overdoing it. “My own dad taught me to love the game and to learn the game. In fact, I plan to introduce it to my own kids right out of the womb! But the key is to let kids play and have fun. It’s important that they understand how their body functions and moves and to just have a good time.”

At the end of the day, while success is never a guarantee to our children or players, sharing a similar cherished memory of the game can be. So relax, grab a lawn chair, and hand the kids a few bucks for a hot dog. You never know, one day they just might appreciate it as much as you did.

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