Club Sports

There’s something our generation made up that’s gotten way out of control.
Club sports.
I want to find the guy that said, “I’ve got a good idea.  Let’s have kids and parents get up at 5 on a Saturday morning, drive an hour and a half to some giant sweatbox in Anaheim so our sixth graders can play volleyball against the Bakersfield Spikers.”
We all see everything from our own experiences – and here’s mine.  I’ll bet the ranch, if you’re male between 25 and 130, your experiences looked a lot like this.
I rode my bike in my uniform to a baseball league game at the park that was about 10 blocks from my house.  We played one game.  The game lasted an hour; not eight hours.  We played against pals we knew from town and they were on teams with names like “La Grange State Bank” and “Sauerberg Pharmacy.” 
I can still see the “First Federal” infield in their blue and white uniforms; Don Near at first, Bruce Wallenberg at second, and the Varno brothers at short and third.
By the way, in fourth grade, as you can see in this backyard picture, my gym shoes we’re ‘multi-sport’ shoes.   I don’t believe they were Nike.  I believe they were a popular brand in our suburb called ‘gym shoes.’  I don’t think there was a name on them.   They were fabulous for baseball, basketball, tennis, touch football, golf between the goal posts at the football field — and they were great in summer, winter, spring and fall.   As you can see, they were a hell-of-a lot bigger than my foot, but I’m sure I grew into them the next year.
Back to our story…  After we played, the dad/coaches would treat us to a chocolate dip cone at Frosty Freeze.   From there, we rode our bikes home.
During the summer, we played at the park without coaches, parents, batting specialists… for hours.   Just hanging with my buddies goofing around.  That’s where I learned to play baseball.  And a lot more in life.
And after baseball season ended, we all played football.  And then we all played basketball.  We also played tennis, swam, played golf or anything else that involved balls, racquets or scoring.
Whether you were great or whether you stunk, you played in the same leagues and on the same teams.  It didn’t matter all that much.  And if you stunk badly enough, you played or did something else.
Although I didn’t have lessons with fielding specialists in baseball or dribbling doctors in basketball — I was sure I was going all the way.
Standing out in right field in my yellow-and-white Sauerberg Pharmacy little league uniform, I was absolutely positive this was just a bump in the road on my inevitable journey to Wrigley Field.
And when I was shooting hoops at night against the garage door smack in the middle of the freezing winter, I not only was sure I had as much talent as Rick Mount on Indiana – I was Rick Mount at Indiana as I’d toss in a 20-footer.
My parents’ total investment in my 10-year baseball career was three mitts (one used), four pairs of baseball shoes, and a bunch of balls, bats and cups.  That’s it.  No lessons.  No batting cage fees.  No hitting coaches.  No fielding workshops.
And nobody, nobody can convince me we didn’t have just as much – or more – fun as our kids committing thousands and thousands of hours to one sport – and lots of money — to keep up with every other club kid coast-to-coast.
In general, are kids better baseball players/hockey players/golfers/soccer players/you name it today?  Yeah, they’re better.  But so what.
So, at the end of the day, hip-hip hurray.  The next generation of baseball players may decrease fielding errors by 4.27%.
Who wins?  Nobody.  Not the kids.  Not the parents.  Nobody.
While I was sitting in the bleachers on Court D9 in the “American Sports Center” in Anaheim one Saturday and Sunday with 1,300 other sweating volleyball kids and parents, this dad came up and sat next to me.  From the speed he talked at 8:15 in the morning, I’d guess he was on coffee cup #18 for the day.  He told me he was “scouting” our game because his daughter’s team was in our “pool.”  They were from Santa Barbara; so he and his 7th grade daughter got up at 3 AM to be on the road by 4.
Boy, that’s fun.
It seems in vogue to have/do “more.”  That “more is better.”  Super-sized fries.  Five sets instead of three in tennis.  Three-hour long movies instead of two.  More homework.  More books in a kid’s backpack.  More pages to sign on “home loan” documents.  Six matches a day in volleyball tournaments instead of one.
All bad ideas.
In one match we played, our girls were a point away from beating their opponent in a see-saw game against the Hawthorne Somebody-or-other.  What could be more dramatic?  But nobody cared.  The parents were probably more excited than the kids were.  Why?  The kids: 1) never saw their opponents before and probably never would again.  2)  It was their 6th match of the day.
The Kentucky Derby lasts less than 2 minutes.  That’s why it’s exciting. That’s why it matters.  If it were an endurance contest where the horses went around the track 60 times – I don’t think there would be such a thing as a mint julep.
We’re sucking the drama of sports – and life – out of our kids.
I’d guess when my daughter looks back at her childhood days of playing volleyball, she’s not going to remember many matches in this volleyball club Taj Mahal.  But she’ll probably remember standing in the huddle with her best friend from her 8th grade team – duking it out in the final minutes of the Conference Championships against their local archrivals, Harvard Westlake.  She’ll remember the cheering crowd, her teammates, and the stakes in that one, bigger-than-life match.
I’m sure at some point, maybe a dozen years ago, club sports were created for all the right reasons.  To have a network of teams spanning a broad geographic area providing exceptional, elite athletes the opportunity to compete on an accelerated level.
But that’s not what clubs are now.  When I was sweating on the those bleachers on CourtD9 in a non-air-conditioned refurbished convention center with 1,500 other parents from San Diego to Bakersfield, I wasn’t looking at exceptionally talented kids; I was looking at Little League for volleyball.
Last time I checked, I’m 5’9″ on a good day and shrinking, and my wife checks in at about 5’5″ in her snappy shoes.  The chance of our two girls being college-bound volleyball scholarship players on UCLA’s varsity squad is about the same odds as me having the marque role in the Russian ballet next season.
A study done by Dan Doyle, the Director of the Institute for International Sport and author of “The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting,” found 3,000,000 juniors around the world are aggressively aspiring to be world-class tennis players.  How many tennis players make money on the pro tour?  175.  Do the math.
Alvin Rosenfeld, a New York Psychiatrist specializing in adolescents, says, “Structured sports time has doubled, unstructured play has been cut in half – and family dinners have declined by one third.”
High school coaches, like Jim Perry at La Quinta High School in Westminister, California, talk about the “burn-out.”  “It’s not a matter of club sports sucking talent away from high school.  They’re driving high-end kids away from athletics in general,” he said.  “They’re sick and tired of playing 135 travel baseball games a year by the time they’re 12 years old. Or playing 100 soccer games a year before they ever set foot in high school.  They don’t need it anymore.”
I pulled in the driveway with my daughter asleep n the back seat at 6:15 that night.  That’s 13+ hours dedicated to volleyball.
It’s too much.  It’s too much.
Too much time.  Too much pressure.  Too much money.  Too much driving.
I wish I had a quick fix to suggest to how we could get off this sped-up merry-go-round, but I don’t have the answer.
But I do know this.  My kids only get one shot at growing up, and I only have one shot of watching them do it.
As Oscar Hammerstein said, “Life is a carousel, my friend; life is a carousel.”
So true.  The ride is so much fun if it’s at the right speed – and lasts the right amount of time.
But it’s no fun for anybody if it’s spinning too fast – and you can’t get off.