Life lessons on the Little League field
By Sandy Zavala
Dust wafts up from home plate as the baseball plunges to the ground. Alex just got a piece of the pitch for a foul ball. Using his budding acumen about baseball tendencies, our Rookie shrewdly awaits the ideal pitch. Coach pitches the ball again. Craaack! The bat makes contact with what baseball fans would call the “sweet spot.”
Less trendy than soccer and safer than football and soccer combined, baseball is exceptional at teaching hand-eye coordination, discipline and teamwork. Every batter is essential to his teammates on base. Every fielder is a link in a chain of players eager to throw out their opponent. Every Rookie cheers his teammates onto victory. Like a well-oiled machine, every nut, bolt and gear work together to not only master baseball fundamentals but also to place the goals of the team before individual glory. Baseball teaches our children what society often cannot –we are a team and every action or inaction directly or indirectly influences the lives of others.
Perhaps the most critical lesson baseball teaches kids is perseverance. A .300 batting average is outstanding. Placing a round bat on a round ball is one of the most challenging things to do in any sport. Out of every 10 at bats for a .300 hitter, there is only a 30 percent chance of success. Legendary Mexican-American hitter Ted Williams, with a phenomenal .344 lifetime batting average, earned nicknames like “The Splendid Splinter” and the “The Thumper.” He collected 2,654 hits in 7,706 at bats playing for the Boston Red Sox. That means “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived” “failed” over 5,000 times.
When we registered our son for baseball the last thing we anticipated was coaching his team. Because most of our Rookies hadn’t played organized baseball before, we wanted to decisively sow the seeds that would grow into a love for “the all-American game.” A former Quincy Jacks pitcher, my husband Juan delivered sound baseball instruction in a lively and innovative style. Enthusiastic praise, patient instruction and energetic encouragement routinely echoed across our field from Coach Zavala and Assistant Coach Lindquist to Rookies and between teammates. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll once said, “People make mistakes all the time. We learn and grow. If there’s patience and love, and you care for people, you can work them through it, and they can find their greatest heights.”
Research shows that children who participate in organized sports are more likely to achieve higher grades, enjoy deeper connections with community and school, choose more academically focused peers and exhibit greater levels of self-discipline. Even more startling is that 73 percent of women who played sports in high school were more likely to complete college within six years of high school graduation. Girls who participated in sports were less likely to experience teen pregnancy, depression or sexual victimization. As 30 percent of our Rookies are girls, I’m thrilled that their parents are not adhering to outdated gender stereotypes about softball being for girls and baseball being for boys.
Although sports participation has overwhelmingly positive effects for youth, it is paramount to emphasize that the “quality” of participation is what determines successful outcomes. Some research indicates teen athletes are more likely to engage in risky behavior such as underage drinking and aggression if coaches did not provide leadership that promoted character building and caring sportsmanship. Dr. Hodge argues in his study “Character Building in Sport: Fact or Fiction” that character must be “taught” not “caught.” Coaches and parents who emphasized winning over teambuilding to their participants induced anxiety, stress, unhealthy competition and disregard for team members and opponents.
In the United States, over 50 million kids participate in youth sports every year. According to the NCAA, out of about 72,788 college football players, 256 get drafted. The chances for a baseball career are slightly higher with 738 out of 34,198 drafted to play professionally. The numbers for men’s basketball are lower, with only 46 out of 18,697 being drafted.
Targeting competiveness over character development as a means toward attaining the unlikely goal of a professional sports career is a grave error. The primary goal for coaches and parents who exclusively focus on competitiveness should be developing and affirming positive character traits in their charges. Coaching offers a unique opportunity to imbue our youth with a sense of belonging, increased work ethic and awareness of self-worth because each player’s contribution determines the success of the team.
As parents of children who are starting to participate in athletics, many of us have been sideline witnesses to overly zealous parental involvement and disengaged or excessively militant coaches. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden famously stated, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” Longtime Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi simply summarized the importance of character development and team building by asserting, “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses or the problems of modern society.”
Looking back at our season, I’m delighted that our Rookies love baseball as much as we do and are already asking my husband if he can coach them next year. The most remarkable development of our season was witnessing some Rookies evolve from never donning a baseball glove to becoming proficient hitters and fielders.
Coach Juan gushed, “It was great to see the kids come out of their shells and become more confident. Their pride about their growing baseball skills was clear in the hard work they put in and how they supported their teammates.”
To that I say, “Home run!”
Sandy Zavala is a former social worker, healthcare researcher and counselor. She is proud to add “team assistant” to her life experiences.