Coming Soon: Prenatal Sports!


This past Saturday morning, I spent a little over an hour at a tee ball game for 4-6 yr olds.  The league is run by volunteers in a small, eastern North Carolina town and I was there because my grandson was playing his third game of his two month long season.  Though he is only five years old he is, remarkably enough, one of the “seasoned tee ball veterans” on his team having served his rookie year as a four yr. old.

For the past season and a half, I have found it interesting to watch as the adults, coaches, parents and even grandparents, encouraged, cajoled, and bribed a significant portion of the kids to stay on or go back on the field so the game could be played.  For some reason, this past Saturday I became deeply impressed with how tee ball, a sport created by adults to serve as a bridge into the world of organized baseball and softball, was of little interest to so many of the kids.  Isn’t tee ball supposed to be fun and for the kids?  The league’s website says it is in their mission statement.  If so, then why was it that the adults had to do so much to encourage so many of the kids to go out on the field and play a game that they are supposed to be having fun playing? 

I suspect the reason I was impacted so much this past Saturday was that my grandson was one of the kids who truly did not want to be on the field and I was one of the adults trying everything I could to get him back on the field.  It is not what I wanted to do.  He has told me repeatedly that he finds tee ball “boring” and instead, loves running.  I know that to be true because he wants to race or chase me or his friends all the time no matter where he is.  He chases shore birds when we go to the beach until the shore birds get tired.  He runs around our large yard endlessly and even wants me to race while I am driving our lawn mower (without the blade operating of course).  The boy really loves to run.  But, it was not my decision to make last season when he was signed up at age 4 or this season as one of the 5 yr old veterans.  Consequently, there I was with the other adults spending more time trying to get him to play than he spent actually playing.

So why is tee ball not fun to so many of these kids?  Why can’t they pay attention for such a relatively short period of time?  The league my grandson plays in is not a bad league.  They enforce their own code of ethics for parents and coaches.  Background checks are run on their coaches.   No score is kept and everyone gets to bat each inning.   The coaches I have met are good guys who really want the kids to learn something and have fun.  And, though their age range is too big, they at least divide it into two age groups.  In fact, this particular league has made huge strides since the 1990’s when they kept score, allowed 9 yr olds to play, had a tournament and chose all- stars (tee ball all-stars is an oxymoron in my opinion).

In order to answer the two questions I posed in the preceding paragraphs, I don’t think we can point to any one reason but rather several.  First, I think adults often make rules that are well-intended, but actually end up taking some of the fun out of the game.  With this particular league, the coaches pitch three pitches to every batter, essentially making this a coach pitch league.  If they don’t hit the ball, then they are allowed to put the ball on the tee.   I could understand this for older kids in the 6-7 yr old range, but coach pitch for 4 and 5 yr olds?  Guess how many bad pitches are thrown by the coaches and how many bad pitches are swung at by the kids?  Guess how many kids hit the pitched balls that are in the strike zone?  Guess how many fielding opportunities the kids in the field have?  The result is that you have a whole team on the field, standing around for too long waiting for a ball to be hit their way.  You also have kids on the team at bat sitting (at least theoretically) on the bench, waiting longer than needed for their turn at bat or to return to the field.  Guess how well they stay focused on the game?

The only rationale I can come up with for this rule is that at some point in time, an adult thought it important that pre-schoolers needed to learn to hit pitched balls so they wouldn’t miss out on that MLB opportunity down the road.  I wonder how many other leagues have such rules that the adults think are necessary but end up hurting the game and taking away the fun?  My experience leads me to believe there are a lot.

Second, I think the attention span of kids these days is much shorter than even a few years ago.  Back in the 1990’s, I saw where a study showed that TV sitcoms never had a camera angle last for more than seven seconds.  I didn’t believe it so I decided to do a test of my own.  Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find a camera angle in my favorite sitcom that lasted even seven seconds.  Most were three-five seconds.  The point of the study was to prove that such factors played a huge role in the shortening of people’s – and especially children’s – attention spans.  I think they were on to something. Three and four year olds already have attention spans measured in nano seconds so just imagine how much worse the media available today makes things.

Third, adults rarely ask their kids what they would like to do as far as sports goes.  How many kids, like my grandson, would just like to run?  His tee ball coach last week was having trouble with keeping his kids focused on the drills they were running.  Part of the problem was he only had one assistant coach to help him so his drill lines were too long.  He came over to ask if I had any suggestions.   I volunteered to help him run a line but then thought about what my grandson had said about running.  I suggested he just have them run.  And so he did.  He spent the last twenty minutes of practice letting the kids run races with each other and him.  They learned nothing about baseball but they had a blast, they paid attention and they also got physical conditioning.  That’s pretty good I’d say, and it even accomplished one of the objectives in the league’s mission statement which is to get kids physically active.

Last and probably most important, parents are pushing organized sports at an earlier and earlier age for their children.  Based on my 40+ years of youth sports experience as both a volunteer and professional, 99.9% of 4 yr. olds don’t need to be playing organized team sports.  They are not ready for it in a multitude of ways.  Add in the first two factors and their lack of attention and maturity becomes painfully evident.  We run the Start Smart sport development program here with 2012 being our 11th year.   Yet even with such a great program as Start Smart, I have found that most of the three year olds and even some of the four year olds just aren’t really ready for it and don’t have the attention spans.

About 12 years ago, I had a parent call me and ask about organized soccer leagues for her four year old.  Her only reason for wanting her child on a team was because her neighbor’s child played on a team.  We did not have Start Smart where I worked at that time so I could not offer that to her.  I suggested to her that she should just take her child to a park or out in the backyard and play with them.  That doing so would be the best thing she could do for her child.  She actually sounded relieved to find that organized sports at age four were not necessary for her child to develop normally in athletics. 

Fast forward to 2012.  It was just last month that a lady called me to ask about organized baseball leagues for her three year old.  A three year old!  I explained to her that we don’t run organized leagues for three year olds for a variety of reasons, with a major one being that they don’t have the attention span to play organized sports.  My suggestion for her was to put her child in our Start Smart Soccer program.  However, she was not listening. You see, I had insulted her by telling her that three year olds don’t have the attention span to play team sports.  She closed me out and then proceeded to submit a negative evaluation of our interaction to my bosses, which is how I know I insulted her.
What has gone wrong with parents? (I know, loaded question)  Why the push to make kids into adults or at least look like them?  Yes, I know the kids look cute in their uniforms but at what cost down the road?  With the lady I “insulted,” I so badly wanted to respond to her and say that I know she believes her child to be the next Albert Pujols, but that most parents don’t find that out until the child is at least six or seven.  

So what is the solution?  Perhaps it is time for us, as youth sports professionals, to stop caving to the pressure, stand up and refuse to offer programs for kids under age five.  Perhaps we need to stop making the excuse that, regardless of what we do, parents will still put their “too young” child in some sports league or program and it will be better for the child if it is one we run.  Perhaps even Start Smart ought to start at age four versus age three.  After all, once a three year old goes through a Start Smart sport, the only further step in many parents’ minds is an organized team for their child.  If not an age increase, then at the least, we need to emphasize to parents the need to spend time with their kids at home teaching them sports.  We should also emphasize the fact they don’t need to start their kids in organized league play so early and their kids won’t fall behind other kids by not playing on a team at age four.

In 1998, I heard Lisa Licata from NAYS speak at NC Athletics Directors Workshop.  In an illustration, she spoke about how we all get questions about sports or leagues for even toddlers.  Tongue in cheek, she then said she expected to one day get a call asking for a pre-natal soccer league. Perhaps, unless we lead the change, that day is just around the corner.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Alliance for Youth Sports.

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