Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, Why Children Are Abandoning Baseball. Using the town of Newburgh, New York, as an example, it cited a precipitous drop in interest in Little League—just 74 kids are playing across four age groups this season, down from 206 in 2009—that mirrors a nationwide decline in youth baseball participation levels, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. The trade group reported that 9 million kids ages 7–17 played the sport in 2002, but that number fell to 5.3 million in 2013—a whopping 41 percent decrease.
Baseball isn't the only sport in which youth participation is dropping, the article noted—softball, basketball and even soccer are seeing declines, too—but apparently baseball is being hit the hardest. And not everyone thinks that's a bad thing. Last week, Slate writer Justin Peters penned a response to the WSJ article, Good Riddance to Little League. "Whether you find the WSJ report convincing and conclusive—and there are good reasons to be skeptical of it—it should raise in your mind an overwhelmingly important point: Little League and other youth sports leagues are terrible, and we should not be sad to see them go."
As a sports lover and a baseball mom, I couldn't disagree more.
My 8-year-old son has been playing Little League for two and a half years now. He's learned valuable physical skills on the diamond, and even more valuable lessons in sportsmanship. He's a good ball player—good enough to make his league's All-Star team, good enough to make the summer travel team—but not the best, and that in itself been a good experience for my competitive kid. On his own team, he's taken on a leadership role. But that team has a losing record, which means games are frequently disappointing. We've spent a fair amount of time talking about attitude, PACE (that's performance after critical errors), and being gracious both in victory and defeat.
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Peters, who played baseball until he was about 14, writes in Slate of organized sports, "...the fun moments I remember are vastly outnumbered by the terrible and stressful ones: botching a critical play and feeling horrible about it for a week, failing to make all-star teams because the coaches nominated their own kids, the tension and agita of pretending these games have actual stakes, and the sense that if you don't perform at your best, you're letting everybody down." Spontaneous play, he argues, "is better than organized play. The two can coexist, of course. But spontaneous play allows children to be in charge of their worlds for a while, to set and explore their own rules and boundaries, to exercise their imaginations in addition to their bodies."
Of course, spontaneous play is great. And botching a critical play sucks. My son has struck out with runners in scoring position. He's been frustrated that the teams in his league aren't more evenly balanced in terms of talent and experience. But you know what? Lots of activities that kids do can have those same "terrible and stressful" moments. For me, those moments came at piano recitals. Playing piano at home, with the sheet music to top 40 hits on the piano in front of me, was my version of "spontaneous play"—the back-lot pickup game. But those recitals, where I was completely alone, on stage, expected to play notes that suddenly seemed to elude my brain and fingers? Those were my terrible, stressful moments. I still remember them with a shudder. So should we stop letting kids play piano recitals? Of course not.
Last weekend, my son played on the All-Star team. He played a good game; his team won. He got a medal. The next day his team played a make-up game against the kids who, just the day before, had been their All-Star teammates. My son's team lost 16-7. It was a weekend of highs and lows. That's sports. And that's life. There's are plenty of good ways for kids to learn that lesson. Organized sports is one of them.
Erika Janes is the Digital Director of Parents.com and the mom of two sports-loving boys. Follow her on twitter: @ErikaJanes1