It seems like yesterday when I was 12 years old getting on my bicycle with my glove on my bat, bat over my shoulder, and heading to the field to play a game of baseball in my local Little League. I liked to get there early so I could enjoy as much time as possible at the field. I waved to my parents and off I went with one hand on the handlebars and one hand holding my bat. We only played 20 regular season games, so each one was so important to me. I had the game schedule taped to the mirror in my bedroom, and if you asked me when my next game was, I could tell you without question when and where it was.
The anticipation of playing the game and competing against another team was enough to make me feel like I was going to burst. When the game started, I remember vividly that I never wanted it end. Regardless of the outcome, when the game was over it was awful, because we wouldn’t have a game for a few days. I couldn’t wait for the next opportunity to play this wonderful game against other players that had the same feelings I did. This was why we played, for the love of the game.
Fast forward thirty years to present day baseball, and sports in general. First, no parent is going to let there twelve year old son take a bike on Brackenville road, which is where we lived. Traffic is plentiful, the road has no shoulders, and with people texting and talking on the roads, that’s a recipe for disaster. The differences don’t stop there:
- How the heck could a twelve year old ride a bike to his game anyway. He can barely put his Brand New fifty pound baseball bag on his back, let alone ride a bike with that thing.
- There is not a whole lot of anticipation for the game, because Mom and Dad have the game schedule on email, and he never sees it.
- There is no real reason to get to the game too early, because that’s going to take time away from texting and gaming.
- If he’s playing travel ball, he may be playing in upward of six games over the weekend. So it’s not that special to him. So, when Mom and Dad say it’s time to go, that’s when he puts on his uniform (I slept in mine the night before so I didn’t have to waste time getting it on in the morning).
- There’s a good chance he’s going to get Rita’s water ice and a nice meal after the game, and if his team is good enough to get in the top ten, or just show up, he might get a trophy every weekend.
￼The games still get played, the kids still get excited, but so many fundamental things have changed. Why?
When I played, my enjoyment came from playing the game and competing against my peers. It was nice to get a trophy every now and again, and some ice cream after some games. However, those things didn’t motivate me to play. There was an intrinsic motivation for kids to play the game. We played for the Love of the Game. I’m not sure we all can say that nowadays.
I connected the dots the other day when my wife was asking our seven year old if she was going to play softball this year. After some back and forth, my daughter said, “will there be snacks after the game?”. When my wife replied with yes, she said “ok I’ll play”. This is extrinsic motivation.
In general, our society tends to overcorrect perceived problems and the pendulum often times swings to the complete opposite side, creating other problems. Take for example the mortgage crisis, there was a time it was difficult to get a mortgage, so they loosen up the standards. Then everyone could get a mortgage and the bottom fell out. Then they were tightened so tight, nobody could get a mortgage. Now we are a little more balanced.
Youth sports is kind of experiencing a similar phenomenon. Past generations were perceived to be far to tough on us in sports and life. Most coaches, parents, teachers used more punitive motivation, rather than reward based motivation. Example, if you don’t do it right, you will run laps all practice. Now, if you do it right, you’ll get a piece of candy.
Both approaches are fundamentally sound in some sense. The challenge is simply to have some balance in our techniques as coaches, teachers, and parents.
Lets use the example of my seven year old and snacks after the game. Her first reason for playing softball is so she will get a snack after the game and/or practice. This leads to the next level of extrinsic motivation. At age nine or ten the opportunity for “travel ball” may present itself. She see’s her older sisters big nice bag and fancy uniforms, the thought of traveling to different states and stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, and so on. These are all extrinsic motivators that slowly detract from the Love of the Game.
The next step at ages thirteen or fourteen and entering high school should be to make your team, but is it really? Oh no, it’s time to talk scholarships. Who cares if less than 4% of HS athletes receive any money for athletic scholarships. That’s the new carrot. Lets hit all the showcases and play as many games as possible, in hopes that someone sees us so we can get a scholarship offer.
Snacks, travel, and scholarships are all carrots we as coaches, teachers, and parents are using as extrinsic motivators. Let’s try to find some balance so we can start to swing the pendulum back toward the middle. We are conditioning our youth in sports to play for the love of the Reward. It would be great if our kids can truly feel the great feeling of playing For The Love of the Game