Oh, Jackpot!

(I can’t find the “Family Guy” clip, so the title’s allusion will have to do)

There’s not much to do in Milwaukee. At what there is to do is hard to get to if you don’t have a car. My parents grew up in a Milwaukee suburb called Fox Point. Its streets are a grid of two-story farm houses, all of them the same design, all of them some combination of white or cream buildings with dark-colored roofs. There are no sidewalks. Each street is so similar that once my dad and I managed to get lost on a walk around the neighborhood, despite the fact that HE GREW UP THERE!

So whenever my family makes its annual late-August trip to visit my grandparents, I wind up watching a lot of TV. Every four years, this means the Summer Olympics. But for the off-years, what I wind up catching a lot of ESPN’s coverage of the Little League World Series. And after all of these years, I can honestly say I love watching the miniaturized action that takes place in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

To begin with, I love those sporting events which can truly be called “international.” The Olympics are one such example, the World Cup is another. The World Baseball Classic is not, nor is the FIBA World Championship. But the LLWS is. 8 teams from the U.S., 8 from the rest of the world. People travel from all over to come to the games and root on their city or country. Recognizing the cost some families might pay to support their children, the LLWS has made all of their games free to watch (the World Championship game’s tickets are distributed by the LLWS, but they are still free). What other major sporting event can be said to treat its fans with such care and respect?

And it IS a major sporting event, no doubt about it. A common complaint you find among children that age (11-13) is that adults neither understand them nor do they care. Well, I think we can say we care about this. ESPN will air many of its games and stream all of them for free via ESPN3. They treat these children as what they are: athletes. Sometimes that will mean criticizing their play, but more often it will glorify, making as big a deal of their talents as they would a professional’s. They will make as big a deal over a 12-year-old’s 70 mph fastball as they will a 24-year-old’s 98 mph fastball (because of the shorter distance from mound to home, the speeds are actually almost equivalent in terms of difficulty to hit). A home run is still a home run, no matter the age of who hits it. And a diving catch always makes it to “Baseball Tonight.” The only difference is how much the pitcher outwardly  cheers on the play.

The question I always have about the LLWS is whether or not it’s good for a child that young to be put into situations whose tension can rival the pros. Scouts will be there. More people than most of these children have ever seen before will watch them, and even more will watch them on t.v. Their successes will show up on SportsCenter, but so will their failures. Everything is magnified in the LLWS, and that kind of pressure can be crippling to a child. They lack the emotional maturity of young men, what psychologists call the “coping mechanisms” that allow them to process anxiety and failure.. They can’t fall back to the professional’s knowledge that what they do is their job (think J.D. Drew) and doesn’t define who they are. And, ultimately, they know that they’ll never have this chance again (a college player could have as many as four chances, the professional upwards of ten). That’s a lot of pressure to put on a child. And while the structure of the LLWS prevents the onset of some negative behaviors that plague college and professional athletes (alcohol and drug abuse, for instance), the inability to express that pressure (how many 11-year-olds can calmly describe a feeling as complex as performance anxiety?) can be profoundly damaging.

This is not to say that parents and coaches aren’t aware of all of this. Any time I see a coach visit the mound (interestingly, the LLWS mikes coaches and umpires, but not players), the conversation is nothing like the kind you’d find in, say, “the Mighty Ducks.” There is no harsh criticism of a player, no demand for perfection. The coaches (at least the American ones… I can’t understand the international ones) respect the talent of their players enough to ask them to perform, but try not to let them get too caught up in the negative tension in the air.

I remember one particular game where a coach visited the mound after his pitcher had walked the bases loaded. The game was in its last inning and his team was up by one. Another walk would tie the game. A hit would probably lose it. The coach was aware of this, but he did not start screaming at his pitcher. He calmly explained the situation, respecting the player’s intelligence enough to make the reality of the situation clear. When the kid would get a forlorn look on his face and his eyes would start drifting towards the scoreboard, the coach would get his attention back. He told the player that he believed in him without putting undue pressure on him (no expressions like “it’s all on you”). And he knew that, should his team lose, no one would feel worse than the pitcher. His team DID wind up losing the game, and the pitcher broke into tears. A very common reaction to profound loss at that age. But the coach knew there was no need to make the pitcher feel worse, so he didn’t.

Ultimately, I think the LLWS does more good than harm for these young athletes. I’ll skip the afterschool-special shpiel about how athletics build confidence, teamwork, and an interest in physical health at a young age. However, I believe the very trauma of loss I warned about in the last paragraph is the best thing that can happen to a young child with aspirations of playing at a higher level. While children may feel loss more deeply than adults, they also show the ability to recover from it quicker. Some might give up athletics after such a loss, but most with the talent to play at that level continue on to higher levels. For them, they will subconsciously compare every loss they subsequently suffer to this one. This loss might sting the most, but every time after they’ll know that they’ve suffered worse losses and survived, so they can survive this one as well. It’s like the stand-up comedian describing an early-career bomb as the best thing for his career (Dave Chapelle has described such an experience). The pain they feel now will translate to a resiliency later. It will enable them to persevere through injury, through loss, through trades and the uncertainty of being a professional athlete. And for those lucky few who win it all, they will learn how to win with grace at a young age. No greater skill can be learned by an athlete at a young age.

The championship for the New England region will take place tonight at 7:00 PM. I’m voting for Rhode Island, but only because they have better Italian food.

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