Taking the Pressure out of Sports

The Ins and Outs of Kid Leagues

When former Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. was searching for a baseball league for his then 7-year-old son, Ryan, a few years ago, he could have easily brought his major-league know-how to the search. But Ripken admits he really wasn't as analytical as he might have been. Eventually he and his wife, Kelly, enrolled Ryan in a league that (a) was nearby and (b) had a longstanding connection to their family, because Kelly's dad had been one of its founders.

Though it's worked well for Ryan, Ripken doesn't suggest following his lead. Before you enroll your child, he recommends studying a league as you would a school. Go to a few games. Speak with parents of players. Peruse practice and game schedules, noting how many nights per week your child is being asked to commit. Among the questions he suggests posing to league officials: Is there a strong emphasis on winning? How much importance is placed on teaching and having fun? "It's easy to get carried away with practices three nights a week and a game on night four," says Ripken. "Before long, you're looking at a schedule that matches the pros'."

Chris Downs, president of Baltimore's Roland Park Baseball League for players ages 6 to 13, says one of the best questions a parent can ask is one he seldom hears: Does your league have a mission statement? "That's the first thing I'd want to know," says Downs, a middle school teacher and father of two girls who play in his league. Be wary of statements containing phrases like "highly competitive" and "total commitment" -- most experts agree that a child's first sports experience should be relaxed.

The highly competitive non-travel leagues are easy to spot. Usually, the more rules a league imposes on kids, the more serious it is. Warning signals include coaches with policies about missed practices (two and you're off the team, for example), registration forms that advise against family vacations during the season, and admonitions from league officials not to join extracurricular activities. Before enrolling your child in such a league, especially if she's under 12, parents should ask themselves, "Does my child truly want this, or am I pushing my own desires for competition onto her?" Some kids thrive on more serious games, of course. But forcing reluctant children into such high-pressure situations can turn them off to sports for years -- or forever.

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