Playing Hard, Kicking Tail

We had our last softball game of the season this past weekend, Alaina’s inaugural attempts at the sport an overall success. Having bypassed T-ball for coach-pitch she still needs some work on her swing and gets confused about where to throw the ball after fielding it, but she’s shown a cannon for an arm and no longer thinks that the goal of the game is to out race her teammates to every ball that is put in play.

There were no participation trophies given out, but had there been I would have let her keep hers and she would have displayed it proudly. Contrary to the recent statements from Washington Nationals star Bryce Howard, one of the best players in the game and presumably not somebody that came in second place very often, I’m not worried  that six and seven year year olds will never be motivated to succeed if they know that their efforts will be praised regardless of outcome.

I would have told her that she got the trophy because of her hustle. That even thought the third baseman doesn’t need to retrieve foul balls near the visitor’s dugout, she was running hard. I would have commended her sportsmanship, reminding her that while running the bases we don’t pick up a ball hit by a teammate and hand it to the opposing players. I would have told her how proud I was of her hard work, all the hours spent in the backyard practicing, the innings spent at catcher after she determined that would be the best way to improve that aspect of her game, the dramatic improvement shown in a relatively short time.

I told her all those things anyway. We didn’t keep score in any of her games and she never asked for one. Teaching was the goal, not winning.  She learned a lot.

Also in the last week was “field day”, the town’s kindergartners and first graders massing on the athletic fields for various “stations” of outdoor recreation. There were no “three legged” or “potato sack” races, very little in the way of competition actually, with no ribbons awarded. The only activity with winners and losers was a wet sponge relay race that embarrassingly ended in a shoving match between my kid and a little boy from the winning team that she felt was gloating a bit too enthusiastically to some of her slower teammates. She was reprimanded and reminded to keep her hands to herself but I’ll admit to having to hide a small smile of pride while doing so.

How successful I was is uncertain but I made no such attempt at the next station, an un-timed obstacle course set up for them to traverse at their own pace. There weren’t meant to be winners or losers but Alaina and that same kid treated the course as if Olympic gold medals were at stake. They both were convinced that they were able to get through it the fastest but this was indeterminable and there was no repeat scuffle.

For now her cleats and glove will be packed away, not too deep in case one of our nights at the minor league park inspires us to some backyard batting practice or I talk her into a game of catch. In the fall another set of gear will be dug out, soccer registration mailed in just as her big sister is about to hang up her own cleats.

She went out with a bang. This past season has seen Kayla’s playing time dramatically decreased, a several year hiatus and accompanying conditioning loss relegating her to defensive back-up status.

That hasn’t stop her from making the most of her time out there though, her hustle and effort impressing.  Last weekend her squad participated in a full day, four game tournament that meant a lot of extra time on the pitch, conditioning tested for both players and spectators alike.  I didn’t last the entire day but did return in time for one of her prouder moments in a long time. She didn’t score a goal or prevent one, didn’t do anything that anybody else watching would have thought significant. She just knocked a dude on his ass.

The kid was one of the better players on the other team, looked about twenty five and brought it on himself. Streaking up the field he had a teammate wide open for the cross and instead chose to challenge the girl coming up to defend. Perhaps thinking that he was going to run right by her and continue on to glory, the look of surprise on his face as he looked up at the clouds was matched only by the smile on hers.

Competitiveness is an important quality, one that should be encouraged to prepare our children for future success. Just as important though, sports foster a desire for self-improvement, a mindset of always striving to do better then YOU did before, not just being better than the other players. Sometimes they will win, other times lose. There may be first place trophies, participation trophies or no trophies at all. As long as they are working hard and striving to be better, I think that the real lessons of youth sports are being learned.

This post was previously published on and is republished here with permission from the author.


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Photo credit: Jeremy Barnes

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