To hear its critics describe it, baseball is too slow, too dull and too outdated for youngsters raised on the instant gratification and non-stop mental stimulation of smartphones, video games, and TV clickers.
But while such criticisms may be accurate, they also mask an important truth: that what ‘ails’ the sport is precisely why kids need baseball more than ever.
“Baseball matters,” writes Susan Jacoby, “because it provides genuine nourishment rather than junk food.” And by junk food, no doubt she means the passive consumption of mindless ‘entertainment’ via social media.
A lifelong baseball fan, Jacoby, like others, worries that kids hooked on digital entertainment are missing out on a sport that “requires intense, sustained concentration” – the very traits, mind you, that adult relationships, jobs, and every day challenges will demand of kids as they transition into adulthood.
The 6 Baseball Secrets Every Parent Should Know
Baseball, of course, isn’t alone in its struggles. Just about every youth sport is losing participants. Baseball is unique, however, not just as ‘America’s Pastime,’ but in the many critical lessons it teaches kids – lessons that will help them long after they set aside the bat and glove.
The good news: MLB great Cal Ripken Jr., a special adviser tasked with creating new strategies for growing interest in youth baseball and softball, just this month rolled out ‘Hit and Run Baseball,’ a modified version of the sport that delivers more action for kids at a faster pace.
“It’s not trying to teach kids how to play the game faster,” Ripken told the Associated Press. “It’s a way to get more reps. To present the game that’s more fun. To get to make it more interactive for kids. It’s a teaching opportunity. There’s a lot of value in there.”
All true, and we salute the efforts by Ripken and MLB to bring in more kids.
But lost in these conversations is the many lessons baseball can teach both children and parents alike. Lessons such as:
#1: Baseball Teaches Patience and Focus. For seven players on the field, every baseball ‘play’ begins with inaction. Yet each player, a specialist based on his or her location, must be ready to spring into action and work together for a single purpose.
Players learn to focus, in order to be ready to make the right play at the right time. And they learn to be patient – to wait for their opportunity to act – without just standing around and losing concentration.
Which brings us back to the slow pace of the game. If a child can master the twin arts of being patient and focused, of knowing what to do when circumstances demand it, don’t you imagine these will serve him well later in life? Can’t you picture the twin virtues of patience and focus helping her raise a family or progress in her career?
#2: Baseball is an Equal Opportunity Sport. I have played and coached a lot of sports and most face at least a few participatory limitations. But baseball doesn’t require a child to be especially tall, powerful, fast, or agile. I have yet to meet the kid that could not play baseball.
Side note: Did you know that even kids with disabilities can play baseball? My disabled son played in a Challenger Baseball League designed for kids with all sorts of motor disabilities. There is a field named after the guy who taught those kids the game.
#3: Baseball Teaches Linear Thinking. Baseball has long been known as a ‘thinking man’s game’ because it requires a unique, linear mode of thinking and teamwork. In football, for example, the quarterback on offense and linebackers on defense do most of the thinking for the team. In basketball, the point guard does the thinking. And so on.
Baseball, however, requires every player to be intimately aware of what he or she is supposed to do under a variety of circumstances. This kind of sequential thinking is why board games are considered good for kids’ cognitive development.
Consider that before each pitch, a player must know what to if:
- The ball is hit toward him
- The ball is hit toward any of the other eight players on the field
- There is a player on a particular base
Players also must understand the particular strengths and weaknesses of the batter (does she hit deep?) and any base runners (is he prone to steal?) and teammates (is the second baseman slow? does the right fielder have a weak arm?).
Once the ball is hit, in order to get a batter out, players typically must work together to execute a sequence of coordinated activities among two or more team members.
For example, a ball is hit deep to left where the outfielder scoops up the ball and in an instant must gauge, based on where the ball is fielded, the speed of the runner(s), the score of the game and inning being played), whether to throw to the cut off man, to third to force an out, or to home to stop a score. That is A LOT of critical thinking to be executed in an instant. And again, every other player faces the same potential sequence of events on every play.
What other sport demands teamwork, order, timing, and logic from all nine players at any moment of any game?
#4: Baseball Balances Participation, Skills. No one player can dominate a game. There is the innate sense of “balance” in baseball. Unlike most any other team sport, baseball does not allow one really good player to dominate and win a game. In basketball, one good or one very tall player can be the difference between winning and losing. Hockey – the winner usually has the best goalie. Football, a good read-option quarterback or lightning-fast running back can be impossible to stop.
In baseball, sure, a really good pitcher can be tough to beat, but he can’t pitch every day, and pitch counts limit him from pitching entire games. On top of that, you can’t ‘hide’ a weak player in baseball and keep him out of the action. On any given pitch, a ball can be hit to any fielder. And every player has to bat.
#5: Baseball Builds Friendships. Most of the great movies based on team sports focus on baseball. And for good reason – baseball builds friendships like no other sport.
I’ve coached a lot of sports and it is precisely because Kids spend so much time together on the diamond and in the field that they develop such close and abiding friendships.
Contrast baseball with basketball. This is not to say that basketball players don’t become friends. I’m just saying that an hour-long contest versus two or more hours – plenty of that spent in the dugout or on the field together – creates a camaraderie that’s difficult to beat.
For parents, I know those shorter games can seem like a blessing. But what about the kids? If the point of team sports is to keep your child active and socially engaged, baseball stacks up pretty darned well against other sports.
One of the great joys of coaching baseball is listening to the chatter in a dugout. I’m routinely astonished at the amount of game knowledge these kids absorb and share with each other – skills particularly important in a sport where one player’s physical superiority cannot determine outcomes.
Before we complain about how much time a baseball season requires of our busy schedules as parents, maybe we should ask ourselves this question: Wouldn’t a baseball team be a great place for our kids to spend time?
#6: Baseball Teaches Kids How to Fail. Human language is filled with baseball euphemisms. ‘Three strikes and you’re out.’ ‘ The batting average for most marriages today is 50%.’ He ‘knocked that one out of the park.’ And so on.
Consider that even the best batters are going to fail roughly 67% of the time. So the job of a baseball player is not, in fact, to expect to get a hit or to whack one over the fence. His job is to expect to fail most of the time, and to accept that fate with equanimity as well as a can-do attitude to try again, and again, and again.
Which is why baseball is a fantastic way to teach kids how to fail. Because life is filled with failure and, as so many adages go, it isn’t whether we fail but how we step back up to meet the next challenge. Every child development expert will tell you that learning to fail is a prerequisite to any successful childhood.
Bringing Home the Rewards
Yes, baseball, like all youth sports, has its challenges. But I hope I’ve offered a nice set of positives as well. I’d like to add one more ‘unofficial’ advantage that you won’t see in any child development textbooks or sports essays.
Baseball is unique in that, in between pitches, a child can stand there in the field or sit there in the dugout and simply marvel at the game itself. That ‘slow pace’ gives kids a chance to feel the grass beneath their feet, the sun on their faces, and the wind in their hair. They can talk to their friends, plan in-game strategies, and for an oh-so-brief stretch of time enjoy being kids.
If you’ve never played baseball, you likely don’t know what I’m talking about. But trust me, your child will never forget his or her days playing baseball (or softball). If you have played before, then you already know what I’m talking about. And you’re probably smiling at some of the memories.