Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Competitive Sports

     I grew up pushed into competitive sports, had great fun with them early on, and took for granted their benefits and inevitability in nearly every boy's life until twelve years ago when my college buddy Norm said he was agonizing over which extracurricular activities to sign his kids up for.  I suggested baseball, soccer—.
     He said, “Ehhh.  I'm trying to avoid organized competitive sports.”
     Stupefied, I asked, “Why?”
     He said, “The sports themselves aren't the problem.  It's the everything else that goes along with them that are bad.”
     I thought a moment.  “Like bad coaching?”  I had had baseball coaches in Pony League that made it a point at times to ridicule my ineptitude and awkwardness.  I was a pitcher used only once or twice a season against Panaewa—the worst team in the league.  At a practice once, we held a scrimmage with me pitching and they bluffed steals while I was in the stretch.  (“Stretch” means the pitcher is standing sideways to the batter with his back foot on or immediately in front of the white rubber board (called a “rubbber”) on the pitcher's mound.  While in the stretch, if there are runners on base, any sort of jerky movements of shoulders by the pitcher without a throw to either home or to one of the bases is considered a balk—allowing each base runner to advance freely to the next base.  Pitchers may make all the jerky movements they want or chase after runners if they first “step off the mound” by stepping their rearward foot backwards a few inches to a position behind the rubber.)  As I peered over at Coach A or B at first or second base, he'd suddenly bound off in a mad dash toward the next base.  Alarmed over the eminent steal (whereby the base runner moves to the next base before getting tagged out with a gloved ball), I jerked around to get a better look to see what I should do next—throw to my teammate on first, second, or third base, or give chase on foot.  I balked every time.  Kyle shouted, “When you're in trouble, step off the mound!”  I nodded and yet, whenever it happened, I jerked.  “Balk!” Kyle shouted while his sidekick Doug shook his head with disdain.  “What are you supposed to do when you're in trouble?”
     “Step off the mound,” I mumbled.
     “Step off the mound!”
     “OK.  Try again.”
     Jumpy, I went back into the stretch and peered over only to see him jerk right in a feint, then take off like the Road Runner.  I was so jumpy by then that all my movements appeared jerky.  Balk!
     Kyle had me spend the rest of the afternoon in the dugout shouting, “When I'm in trouble I will step off the mound.”  Humiliated, I eventually mumbled the mindless phrase, only to have Kyle shout, “I can't hear you!”
     Decades later, I realized this was awful coaching.  (They also insisted that everyone hit off their front foot—the foot nearest the pitcher—with a pronounced weight shift that way—bad advice.  And they never let me pitch submarines—low deliveries—or knuckle balls—my best pitches.) 
     The reason I kept balking is I had never before stepped off the mound.  No one had taught me how or why I should do it or when or had me even attempt it.  Virtually all sports involve calling upon “muscle memory”—skills ingrained through repetition, until they become so familiar, they're second nature.  A good free throw shooter in basketball concentrates only on the basket and executing set ritual—everything else comes automatically via muscle memory.  What Kyle should have done was take me out of the scrimmage (and its attendant pressures to win or not embarrass myself) and have Doug tutor me on the side lines.  Doug should have had me step off an imaginary rubber dozens of times from the stretch until it felt sooo comfortable, I practically enjoyed it.  Except for the rare blessed few, all new sports skills feel awkward and uncomfortable at first.  I never, ever got over that discomfort and never, ever stepped off a mound during a real game or practice.  (Thank God no one ever bluffed or attempted a steal while I was in the stretch again.) 
     Getting back to my conversation with Norm, he responded, “The bad coaching; the must-win, beat-the-opponent-to-a-pulp at all costs mentality; the star-worship; the bad actors; the bad parents; the bad attitudes; the only-the-best-get-to-play priorities; the politics; the favoritism; the bullying, put-downs, and hazing; the conceitedness;... need more?”
     I saw his point.  Even though I had witnessed all these first-hand as a player, I had never before thought of them as faults.  They had all just seemed part of the game and culture and therefore inevitable for anyone who played.
     Reflecting back, I remembered my years post-Little League when due to my ineptitude I rarely got to play, and even the Little League year when I was assigned to the second-rate team that consisted of all the lousy players, unable to make the first-rate team that eventually had all of my most talented classmates.
     And I also remembered witnessing during games some of the most disgraceful parental behavior ever—fortunately in games in which I wasn't playing (because I was too lousy to be in championship games the really mattered—one of the few benefits of being less talented).  The Little League championship game (which featured the first-rate team I was too lousy to make) was temporarily suspended over a near riot precipitated by an umpire's errant call in the last inning.  It took minutes for most in the stands to quit hooting and hollering and even then, a team manager had to step out of the dug out onto the playing field and point out and shout down the most demonstrative of his player's parents, shaming him and others to finally sit and settle down.  Although play resumed, the atmosphere was charged with an uncomfortable tension—rare in sleepy, laid back Hilo.  As a side-note, my dad recently told me that a lot of the stars from that game have not done so well as adults—some were in and out of prison, some battled addictions, one died in a tragic accident, others were unemployed, divorced, or had other legal problems.  His point was that although they seemed so all-together back then, there may have been hidden problems that we only found out about later.  I said I doubt their problems related to their playing. He said no, but we held them in such high esteem, unaware of what would eventually befall them.
     And I remembered getting tormented by an older teammate in Colt League who even mocked me repeatedly during a game allowing fans in the stands to hear.  After that season, I quit.  It's amazing I lasted as long as I had.  In my last few years I averaged about zero hits and two strike-outs per game and all season I got on base twice, both on walks, and played in less than half the games.  As a second base in-fielder, I averaged about an error per game.
     At our Big Island high school championship basketball game, which Hilo High won, the awards ceremony was canceled over fear of riot.  One delusional parent taunted Hilo High supporters by gesturing dismissal of Hilo High's win and repeatedly signaled St. Joseph's number one status, shaking her head to their boos, shouts, finger points toward the score board, and jeers.
     In hindsight, I don't believe I gained any of the reputed benefits ascribed to team sports:  confidence, leadership ability, teamwork, work ethic, sense of belonging, or discipline.  Well, to be fair, there may have been times when baseball did help build my character, but, in general, there were far more avoidable negatives than there were only-available-through-competitive-organized-sports positives.
     Regarding our children’s participation, today's youth competitive sports teams can be very time-consuming—for both them and us, what with practices, games, travel times, pot lucks, snacks, refreshments, and set-ups and take-downs.  Since none of them have expressed interest or shown unmistakable natural athletic talent, we have yet to enroll them.  Sure, they (and we) miss out on some of the fun and excitement of doing well and maybe winning an award or two, but then again, they also “miss out” on the early disillusionment and ego issues and exposure to all-too-frequent bad behaviors and attitudes, including excessive pressures and unrealistic expectations.  Though they do lead lives less activity-filled than others, they’re fine with it and so are we.

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