- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
But as shortchanged as the good player may be, especially when" he leaves college as neither a draft choice nor a graduate, he's rarely as abused as the average or less-than-average athlete. When the role model for American sport shifted from the amateurs to the pros in the '50s and '60s, competition gradually swung to a new tack: the specialization of athletes. We came to believe that it was acceptable to take highly motivated, disciplined youngsters with ability and filter them through the athletic system toward a single goal: the pros. It would be all right for them to channel all their energies into one sport, to close off all other options, to be one-dimensional. And the success of the pros gave competition in sports a new end. One no longer played to learn courage or teamwork or to become a man. One played to continue to play. For money. For fame. Forever.
It can be argued that the excellence we enjoy watching in pro sports is an affirmation of that turn to specialization. New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, former Princeton Tiger, Rhodes scholar and New York Knick, says the pros represent the broadest participation in excellence that we now have in any area of life in the U.S. The result, says Bradley, is that you see feats in championship events "that you couldn't believe possible." Excellence that's uplifting. Not an opiate, but an uplift; one of the things sports does best.
Billie Jean King believes specialization is what makes champions. For her, any intrusion on the climb to the top was unwelcome. A boyfriend once asked her why she was in college, because all she did was rush to the library each day to read the sports page. "You're right," Billie Jean answered. "I hate school." College, she says, was her parents' idea.
But there's an awful tyranny in specialization, too. Dr. Spock was appalled while living in Cleveland to find parents bringing bleary-eyed little children to the ice rink at 5 a.m. to practice their figure skating. "That's not fun," he says, "that's a family conspiracy." The young competitive specialist who went on to become a national champ or an Olympic gold medalist wasn't alone. There were thousands of other preteens doing exactly the same thing, believing that dogged determination would get them to the top.
We have fostered a generation or two of young people whose main goal in life, for a while at least, has commonly been to become better competitive athletes. They begin specializing in the little leagues, in many instances at the expense of education and social life. The young man who walks off the Olympic platform with a gold medal or out of a front office with a million-dollar pro contract will tell you it was "worth it." But what about the thousands who went into this system and didn't make it?
The sine qua non of sport is enjoyment. When you take that away, it's no longer sport. Perhaps the worst creators of specialists are the little leagues in all sports. Although some observers believe there's much of value in them, the leagues have their critics. "Abolish the little leagues," says philosopher Weiss. "Forbid 'em," says sociologist Riesman.
To visit on small heads the pressure to win, the pressure to be "just like Mean Joe Greene," is indecent. To dress up children like pros in costly outfits is ridiculous. In so doing, we take away many of the qualities that competitive sports are designed to give to the growing-up process.
Sports psychologist Bruce Ogilvie laments "the sickening arrogance" of little-league coaches, too many of whom are unqualified. Some coaches, says another psychologist, Thomas Tutko, even "think sports is war." They make 8-year-olds sit on the bench while others play, learning nothing beyond the elitism of win-at-all-costs sport. Token participation—an inning in right field, a couple of minutes in the fourth quarter—can be equally demoralizing.
Adult-run little leagues can deprive children of the chance to grow naturally in sport, to learn for themselves about competition's ups and downs. Organizing games. Playing them. Being their own umpires—perhaps the best teacher of all. With adults around, kids often don't have a place in which to absorb the hard lessons of sportsmanship without the small, inevitable failures being blown out of proportion.
And matters get worse when adults channel children into playing positions in team games that prevent the kids from experiencing all aspects of what makes sports so enjoyable. Eventually, physical development and skill limitations and sophistication will make such positions palatable. But a boy who's tasting football for the first time and is stuck permanently at right guard will never have the pleasure of running with the ball or passing it or catching it. Too many-kids get bored right out of the game. Maybe all games. When you take the fun out, says Terry Orlick, a sports psychologist at the University of Ottawa, you risk turning a kid away from competitive sports.