Morse: Fun in youth sports on the decline

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What happened to the fun in sports, and especially youth sports? I realize in the field of athletic competition, the desire to compete is fueled by the conquest of victory at all costs. No one plays these games to lose.

But every day across America, someone is experiencing the thrill of victory while others are dealing with the agony of defeat. And so it is, the nature of the beast. But what happened to the fun of it all?

The youngest kids, at the Pee Wee, Tee-Ball and instructional levels, are having fun. The sheer thrill of putting on that tee-shirt emblazoned with your team’s name is as exciting as being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But as they move up the ladder of competition, innocence is stripped away by a screaming, overbearing adults who intercede like the next coming of Billy Martin. I’m not saying that all youth coaches take this over-controlling tack. I have met some of the nicest people in my work as a sportswriter.

What I’m saying is the bar to succeed has been raised to enormous heights, and it takes all the fun out of being a kid. All the fun is gone. The pressure builds and the parents become beside themselves with every call from the umpire. That only adds to the pressure that junior feels —and he only joined to have fun in the first place.

When they first got together at the Tee-Ball phase, kids were running around, bumping into one another falling in the grass. They were squealing with laughter and giggling while the parents laughed right along with them.

You could tell they were having fun by the ear-to-ear smile that adorned their precious little faces. The parents were busy taking pictures and shouting out words of encouragement like, “Great job honey, nice catch.”

Just a few years later, the innocence is gone as angry faces replace the laughter and words of encouragement have turn to threats. “Knock his head off,” and “Umpire, are you blind?”

I was fortunate to grow up with the love of sports, and I played just about every game there was. But I grew up in a different era, one that allowed teams to cut players in spite of parents’ worries that players would be scarred for life.

I was cut from four teams as I was growing up, but ended up playing eight years of semi-pro baseball because I never gave up. I feel those adversities helped me to build a solid character.

I played baseball in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Minnesota and Iowa along with 13 other states because I never gave up. I also had a tremendous amount of fun. That is what playing sports is all about: learning about team camaraderie, working together as a unit and never ever giving up. And somewhere along the line, we had a load of fun.

I can remember in grade school, at Bunker Hill, when students still had to wear ties. At lunchtime, we would wind our ties up in a ball around our fist and play handball. We would play on the side driveway with bases marked out in chalk.

There was an overhang to the left of the driveway, about 15 feet up the school wall, which served as a doorway to the gymnasium. That was our Green Monster. If you hit it up there on a fly, it was an automatic home run.

Being a lefty, I was a natural, and I launched a league-leading 44 home runs in my eighth-grade year. I also pitched the only no-hitter in our leagues history. My best buddy, Frank LoRusso, would hit these vicious line drives that could take your head off, but he never developed the knack to put it up on the short porch.

Wayne Fermonte was a tall gangly fellow, who at times would hit majestic shots all the way up the driveway onto Bunker Hill Avenue. These were not great feats in athletic competition, but we were having fun.

I can remember diving for shallow pop-ups and tearing my new school pants that my Mom bought at the Rose Shop in downtown Waterbury, long before anyone had ever heard of a shopping mall.

Let me tell you, I was not having fun on those occasions. I grew up in an era when “time out” was unheard of, and a swift backhand was the way kids were raised. Honestly, I feel I’m a better man for it.

I’m not telling you to haul off and belt junior, but that was a different age, and I show no ill effects. It taught me respect, discipline and a little bit of fear before it was too late.

But the one thing I do remember the most about being a kid was that I had fun, and lots of it. I was raised to have respect for people and to have a disciplined nature. But when it came to being on the field, we had fun.

My parents would show up at the games to show their support, but I rarely heard them. They were respectful of the umpires and never put any pressure on me to succeed. They did put a lot of pressure on me to toe the line, and for that I’m a better person.

So the bottom line is this: Let kids be kids. Let kids have fun and enjoy the thrill of victory, and console them in their time of defeat. And somewhere along the way, they will benefit from all the benefits sports have to offer: respect, discipline, honor, teamwork and commitment — all the things that will help them to develop into fine members of society.