The Value of Recreational Sports Leagues in a Travel Ball World

I hate losing. Winning is way more fun. I don’t know many people who would line up to argue with me about that.

But here’s a not-so-obvious point: I don’t learn much after winning. Losing typically sparks the kind of deep soul-searching that eventually leads to growth. When I lose, I am forced to seek out deficiencies. Losing motivates me to locate areas that need improvement to ensure that it never happens again. Winning doesn’t do that.

I was forced to lose last Friday night. I coach my son’s baseball team at North Oldham Little League. We finished the regular season in first place and were feeling good about our chances in the tournament. However, we ran into another good team in the semi-final, and our magical season was regrettably brought to a premature close. I would be lying if I told you it didn’t sting a little.

After the game, as I stewed in those old familiar feelings of regret and self-pity, I received a message on the team group chat from a dad of one of my players. He wanted us to know that his son had lost his mother three years ago and that this baseball season was the first time he had agreed to play sports since then. He credited the coaches with instilling confidence in him through constant encouragement. He wrote that he had witnessed his son break out of the shell that he had been hiding under since his mother’s passing. He wanted to thank us and assure us that his son would be back in the fall for more baseball.

I responded, “That means more to me than any championship.” The timely message was a powerful reminder to me of something that is easy to forget. While winning is fun and should be a goal of every team, there are other things that are far more important. Real life is much larger than a baseball diamond, but a baseball diamond provides so many opportunities to impact real life.

The experience of this one player illustrates powerfully the potential of youth sports. As my mentor and friend David Prince has written, “Athletic competition provides practice games for life.” My prayer is that the players I coach will learn much more than baseball from their experience on my team. My ultimate prayer is that they would learn about Christ.

But there’s a problem. Recreational youth sports are in trouble. Researchers have recently started paying attention to a trend that I noticed anecdotally a few years ago. The recreational youth sports that I played growing up are being replaced by club teams. Whereas recreational youth sports places kids of various skill levels from the same community side-by-side on the same teams, club teams cover larger geographic areas in search of players with elite skills.

As one of my friends texted me after reading the message last Friday night, “This is why I love Little League. Club teams don’t have stories like that. Glory be to God!” He’s right. This player would have never been chosen for a club team, and consequentially, he would have never gotten the opportunity to learn and grow by watching his teammates and competing alongside more skilled players. He would have missed out on some amazing life lessons and may even have continued hiding in his shell of grief after losing his mother. I’m glad he got the chance to compete and that I had the privilege to coach him. He’s truly an amazing young man.

But it’s not only less skilled players that get overlooked by the cultural transition from recreational youth sports to club teams. It’s also kids from less economically advantaged homes. Recreational sports have minimal costs and programs exist for families who cannot afford it. Club sports are astronomically expensive, and competition requires weekend travel that is simply not feasible for many working families.

I understand the attraction of club teams. Players who want to improve desire better competition. But in our zeal to reap the benefits of elite club sports, let’s not forget what we’re losing when we abandon recreational youth sports. Our kids lose the opportunities to patiently and lovingly help others who may not be as skilled. They miss out on the exposure to other kids who may not have a mom and a dad at home or who may not be able to afford the new $300 baseball bat.

Jesus asks, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). Maybe we should ask, “What will it profit our kids if they gain a college scholarship and forfeit compassion?”

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