On a rare visit with my Grandfather, just recently turned 90 years young, I sat down with a piece of pie and listened to stories of the way things used to be. I asked him what he did when he was my daughters age, when he was around 13. Surely it wasn’t Snapchat, texting, shopping malls, and travel teams. And that’s when he told me the greatest youth sports story I ever heard.
We’ve over-organized, insured, structured, and interfered with our kids sports to the point where I’m not even sure we can call them “youth” sports anymore. They are either youth professional leagues, or they are adult-parent leagues where the youth players are our pawns. It stopped being about our youth years ago. We’ve forgotten just how much kids are capable of doing because we don’t allow free play the way we used too.
In 1939, my grandfather moved to a new neighborhood where his yard backed up against a field and park area. As he met new friends and discovered a mutual love of sports, they began a tradition of running home from school to play football. They would quickly do homework and then grab any football equipment they had and play pick up games in the field. As the word got out, more kids joined in the fun. Eventually they had several teams of players so they assigned captains to organize who would play with what team and when. The captain would be in charge of gathering the players and getting communication out.
Anything to get a competitive edge, the boys started asking high school players and former players in the area to help coach them (kids, not adults). Surrounding neighborhoods heard about the fun, so these kids made a schedule. They dug bleachers into the side of a hill facing the field. They chalked lines, they started playing the other neighborhoods and other kids came to watch. These kids, my grandfather and his new friends had formed a full football league at the age of 13 without a single parent involved in the process.
Ever wonder if this sandlot football league was any good? Without parents guiding them, no high paid coaches or experts, they couldn’t have been very competitive, right? Surely they wouldn’t be able to go on and play in college, the golden ticket we all can’t wait to grab onto.
My grandfather never played a minute of high school football with his school. He played sandlot ball every day after school all through his middle school and high school years. Those skills he built playing with his friends earned him a spot to play football at the Naval Academy- making the team out of hundreds of yound Mids trying out for their new sprint team. Their sandlot league was as good or better organized than anything we offer today. Many of these kids went on to be very successful because of the life skills they learned putting this league together – including my grandfather, who went on to be a professor and later director of Computer Science at the Naval Academy.
How do we put the kids back into the kids’ sports? Is it time we back out- even just a little bit? Can our kids once again learn to create, lead, organize and play without our over involvement?