My son Josh signed up to play Pony League baseball in fourth grade. His best friend from church, Sammy, talked him into it. Sammy, a very athletic child, had already been playing baseball for a few seasons. Josh, on the other hand, was brand new to the game. It quickly became apparent that at age 9, it was much too late to start a new sport.
As immigrant children, neither David nor I were familiar with this all-American subculture of baseball. We naively signed him up and showed up at the first practice at the nearby field, Josh dressed in his everyday shorts, t-shirt, and sneakers from Target. We immediately realized that he was completely in the wrong attire. All the kids were wearing baseball pants, jock straps (we presume), and cleats.
The coaches called for the practice to begin. The kids all seemed to know what to do and where to go for each drill, whether it was catching, throwing, or batting. Josh stood in the middle of the crowd looking bewildered. If it wasn't for his buddy Sammy, he would have been completely lost.
Josh kept getting singled out to go off to the side with an assistant coach to work on his basic skills, none of which he had developed prior to joining the team. I think he even had to show Josh how to drink from the sports bottle and to spit. Josh knew nothing. Although some kids would be spurred on to work harder through such individual attention, Josh only felt embarrassed and discouraged.
As parents, we were also lacking in experience. We realized quickly that we were as much of a novice as our son. All the parents were sitting comfortably in their deluxe folding chairs outfitted with cup holders, umbrellas, magazine racks, and clip boards for keeping stats. I think some models even came with a barbecue grill. Meanwhile, David and I sat on the unforgiving bleacher bench, roasting in the sun, fanning ourselves with the rule book -- rules, mind you, for parental behavior during games.
When I was a 9-year old in New York, I walked to the nearby ice skating rink and fell in love with figure skating. My parents signed me up and watched me for the first few lessons, but thereafter sent me and my sister off on our own. I kept taking my classes, working hard and advancing to the next level every few months, and was just beginning to compete when we moved to California. The nearest ice skating rink was then a 30-minute drive away, so when Mother got tired of that drive, I was done with my sport. It was fun while it lasted, and it taught me valuable life lessons in setting goals and achieving results, but I was always aware that I was not Olympic material. And that was totally okay.
Recently, my friends tried to sign up their two kids, ages 10 and 13, with a private tennis coach. To their dismay, they were told that there was "nothing he could do" with the older child. "But there is still a chance I could train your 10-year old at this point." The coach was assuming that my friends were thinking Wimbledon, but they were only hoping that their kids would get some exercise outdoors instead of playing video games all day.
What kind of a society is this when we cannot start a new sport mid-childhood?
Whatever happened to playing a sport for fun, exercise, and camaraderie?
Josh finished off that baseball season and didn't pursue that sport any further. Some of the best players in the league continued on to the All-Stars then to the travel league, never taking a break year-round. Some of them are probably playing on their high school teams now, eyeing college scholarships and perhaps even major league contracts. Josh now takes casual tennis lessons and resists joining the competitive league, perhaps due to his less-than-stellar experience with team baseball. His dad and I wish that he were a little more competitive, but we are certain that tennis will serve him well throughout his life for good fun and exercise.
I just wish that society looked at organized sports that way.
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