Just Let the Kids Play

How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports

By Bob Bigelow, Tom Moroney and Linda Hall.

Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc. 2001

Bob Bigelow grew up in Winchester, Mass. After a sudden growth spurt, he became a high school basketball star, and received an athletic scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he played under Chuck Daly. Bigelow was a first round NBA draft pick, and played four seasons with the Kings, Clippers, and Celtics. He received an MBA from Babson College and since 1992 he has been delivering lectures around the country on the subject of youth sports.

Bob Bigelow interviewed by David Nevard and Norman Neu. Saturday, March 23, 2002:

D: I saw you on Waltham cable access many years ago. I had told Norman about it.

N: Then we saw the Globe Magazine article. That’s where it started.

It may be the first and only time there’s been an article written about me, that went to the back room stuff. Most of the time it’s bad coaches, bad parents, blah blah blah. Which is good stuff. This is the first time they did the Little League draft, the testosterone, and as I like to say, Rotisserie Youth Baseball. And all the egos and all the fun stuff.

We were wondering, how did we get from Point A to Point B. When we were growing up it was, “Where are you going?” “Down the playground.” “OK, be back for supper…” to the highly organized situation we’re in now.

Well, there’s two major societal changes in the last 30 years. The first one of course being mothers who work. Our mothers didn’t work, generally. They worked in the house, they worked hard, but they didn’t work for pay. So what happened is the playgrounds of our youth, the sandlots, were places we could go, have our fun, come home for lunch, go back, have our fun, come home for dinner, go out after dinner – that sort of thing. The neighborhoods were full of moms.

Now what happens is, in most places, with the moms working… Now as parents, we are truly concerned about what happens to our children during non-school hours. So in the non-school hours, between three and nine at night on weekdays, now we set up activities for children that are organized and structured. And that’s not just sports of course, there’s a whole panoply of act ivies. But sports has certainly crept into that void, the last 15 or 20 years, at a phenomenal rate. So what ended up happening is probably the – I call it the 800-pound Gorilla – of organized youth sports in this country is soccer. Which was what I call the Great Seventies Caucasian Phenomenon.

Before 1970, there was no such thing as pre-ninth grade soccer in this country, other than in ethnic enclaves in cities: Lithuanian, Portuguese. In places like that, soccer had been around since the turn of the last century. But what happened is that soccer became sort of the suburban, exurban sport of kids. They were the first sport to go after 5-6-7 year olds on an organized venture. As you both remember, Little League Baseball (which has been around since 1939) never started until 8 yrs old. They weren’t allowed to.

When soccer came into the fold in the Seventies, we soon saw the advent of T-ball. Because obviously the people who do baseball understood that kids couldn’t pitch a ball over the plate. Much less hit it if it came over the plate.

So they were competing with soccer for the players?

They were competing with soccer for those kids. Now the interesting part about this is that if you think of it, they probably developed the most age-inappropriate sport, for an age group, ever developed. Because 6 year olds – which is why soccer is a great sport, because they just go chase a ball. You run. In T-ball, you stand around. The last thing you ever want is kids standing around, especially at that age.

It’s hard to get them to stand in one place.

Exactly. You have to have adults telling them to sit down and be quiet, which is not what they should be doing.

By the way, my favorite T-ball story – when I was first on the radio with Dale Arnold on WEEI probably 7 or 8 yrs ago I got a letter from a guy in Westford, and he said nice things about what I had to say on Dale’s show. And he said “Bob I coach my son in T-ball.” His son at the time was probably six years old. And he says, “After T-ball practice…” The first thing I did when I called the guy, “I said what the hell is T-ball practice? What do you do?

So he said, “After T-ball practice tonight I asked my son and one of his friends, ‘What they liked best about T-ball?’ Both of the kids said, ‘We love going after practice, after the games, over to the playground, playing on the slide.’”  So he said, “I assumed I wasn’t engaging them enough in my T-ball.”

So I called him and I said, “Jeff, let me ask you a question. If you were to ask every 6 year old in the country playing T-ball, what would you rather do, play T-ball or go play on a playground, what would there answer be? And of course the answer is the playground. And I looked at him and I said, Jeff, what do kids do on playgrounds? Well, they go to the swings, they go to the slides, they’re back to the fort, they’re all over the place. What do you do in T-ball that replicates that?”  And he says, “Nothing. They stand around.”

So, what ended up happening, is the Little League folks, and later on the Youth Baseball folks, the reason they started this, is because they thought they were going to lose kids to soccer. Which wouldn’t be the case finally, they wouldn’t. What they did is they developed a game after what the adults would play. And this to me is always one of the biggest program challenges in sports is so many of these people try to adapt the kids to the game, instead of adapting the game to the kids. Physical education people have known this for a hundred years. But you rarely see physical education people running community-organized youth sports in this country. It is run by butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, sales consultants, writers, lawyers, people who don’t have what I call “the kid piece”. They have kids, but they don’t understand what it’s like to be 10, 8, 6 years old….

Once you become adults, you bring adult thinking to activities you do, including the ones you structure for kids. My co-writer Tom Moroney says it staves off the adult brain chaos. And that’s what we do when we organize. But in so many cases we tend to over-organize and over-structure. And make these leagues and tournaments and structures with adult brains. And that’s where in the last 20 or 30 years where we have gone down some very wrong roads.

We were talking about high school hockey, where they play 16 or 18 games a season, compared to Youth Hockey, where they might play 40 or 50.

All the high school sports in this country which are generally 14 to 19 year old, were programmed and designed by educators. They are run by the state high school athletic activities associations. Ours in this state is called the MIAA. And they are made of committees of administrators, high school administrators, principals, superintendents, board of education people, school committees, athletic directors, coaches. So what they do is they have a certain starting time, a certain ending time, a certain amount of games that can be played. Because the mission of high school sports, of course, is to get kids diplomas. That’s what it’s about.

And the sports which can be such a valuable part of a teenager’s life, is used as an enhancement of that. Burt once you get to Youth Sports, these are not run by confederations of educators. They are run oftentimes at the community level, by boards of mostly dads. Oftentimes their agendas are not necessarily for all the kids. It’s for the advancement of their son or daughter through the system. And that’s where sometimes we can go off on the wrong track. And I ask boards all the time, “How many of you have a physical educator, a child psychologist, or a pediatrician on any one of your boards?” Of course, I never get a hand raised. And I say, “Who’s representing the children? Here you have activity in the programs for children, but there’s not one expert on children on your board. Why?” That always gets a furrowed brow.

Are these programs producing better athletes?

No. What they’re doing is producing the better athletes earlier on, who are deemed the better athletes by those who are running the system. But in the long run, they’re not producing better athletes.

When I was a senior in high school, the best five basketball players in the state were me, Ronnie Lee, Bobby Carrington, Steve Strothers, and King Gaskins. You take the top 5 last 10 years, we beat every one of those – none of us had travel, AAU, all this off-season stuff now…. They had community centers and playgrounds and gyms. I grew up in Winchester never even playing the freaking sport until I was 14 years old. What these systems at the younger ages do, is they systematically eliminate late blooming kids. That’s all they do.

Your future baseball players, your hockey players, your basketball players, your soccer players, are all anointed early. But you’d better have the early gross-motor skills and kinesthetic awareness and balance and coordination, or else you’re out. The coaches at these community levels pick their best kids, the “less worse” as I call them, and “let’s get on the road and go play Duxbury. And play their best.”

We now have 4th grade travel basketball, in the Greater Boston area, where kids try out for 12 spots and get cut. Have either of you guys ever seen 4th grade basketball? It is the most awful stuff going. The best 6th grade basketball player in the country stinks. Everybody else is worse! We’re now cutting 4th grade players. So we can go play Sharon.

The theory is that the elite will play other elites and thus be made better players.

Exactly. And it’s all the wrong stuff. Because pre-pubescent athletic ability is a meaningless indicator of post-pubescent athletic ability. The two greatest male basketball players in the history of this world, #2 Michael Jordan, #1 Bill Russell, were respectively 5’9” and 5’10” their sophomore years in high school. Fifteen years old. And by the way, both of them would not have made the Weston varsity as sophomores this year, with their sophomore talent. And they’re the two best ever. You can be sure that Michael Jordan and Bill Russell are glad they didn’t grow up in communities with travel basketball. And you can be damn sure Bob Bigelow is happy, because I wouldn’t have made it here.

We were talking about driving around and seeing empty playgrounds. What does that mean?

The unfortunate thing – and this is hard to tell people, because of course this is the delicious irony of what I do for a living – 35 to 55 year old, primarily guys, who all grew up the same way we did, the playgrounds and sand lots with no adults. Now of course we’re hell bent to get our kids on skates by the time they’re 4, and into rinks. Or into T-ball by age 5, with their tee shirts. And get them their first trophy by age 6. This is delicious irony. We never remember what happened to us. So what ends up happening without the playgrounds – and if the playgrounds are full they’re full of structured programs – the kids never learn how to put their hands on a bat, and pick who’s going to bat first. They never learn that with only six kids there you have to close off right field, and call every ball hit there an out. They don’t develop and modify and adapt their own games. That’s what happens. And that’s what they’ve lost. Everything is structured and governed and organized and refereed by adults.

One thing we’ve heard in baseball is that the younger players coming up now don’t have the arm strength that they used to because they don’t play catch any more.

If these kids 8 and 9 years old are playing on a team – the Tangerines or the Athletics or whatever their name is – over the course of April 15 to June 15, but all they’re doing is either showing up to games or making the occasional practice. And what you and I did, as kids, what we played structured Little League was probably 5% of our total baseball experience. The other 95% was the pickup games on the playgrounds. Think of the thousands of throws and catches and hits and fielders and grounders and flies that we caught. And if you just look at the sheer number, that’s why they don’t have the arm strength.

Do you know how much long-toss I spent from ages 8 to 14 years old before I took up basketball? I was throwing baseballs a mile. That’s why I still have a very strong arm to this day. I just threw and threw and threw some more. And probably 5% of what I threw was in organized baseball. The other 95% was on the playground after the game was over. We’d just hang around another two hours and play again. That’s what’s missing.

My bet is the Dominican kids, the Caribbean kids, who are now as you know populating baseball to the max – this is what they do. It’s what Pele does in the barrio of Sao Paolo, Brazil, with those soccer kids, in all those countries. Kicking a can or a stuffed sock around. Not even a ball. For hours at a time. Eventually some of them pop up world class.

We talked to old-time semipro guys grew who up in the Thirties – they’d walk down the street and pick up a team by the time they got to the end of the street. Families were bigger in those days.

Families were bigger when we were growing up. We were the baby boomer era. As you well know, it was not unusual to have 3 or 7 or even 12 kids. The baby boomer era will never come this way again. Winchester High School when I went through in the late Sixties, early Seventies routinely had classes of over 400 kids. Those classes are now somewhere between 200 and 250. We’re going through a baby boomlet right now. Ten years ago those classes were under 200. My parents got married in their early twenties. My mother had four kids by the time she was 27. My wife and I got married in our thirties and we had two kids. That’s the change in demographics, the last thirty or forty years. So there are fewer kids around, yes, and therefore with the playgrounds, and obviously fewer structured opportunities for us, we had to make do on our own. So what did we do? Walked down the street, pick up a couple kids, 8 year olds or 10 years olds or 12 year olds, go find a spot, and go play. And the guys you interview who grew up in the cities would probably tell you about stickball, and all the other derivatives of stickball, where the hydrant was first base and the car up on blocks was second. Then you had a broom handle, and you probably had half a tennis ball.

They still have a Half Ball Tournament in Charlestown.

But it’s funny. How did we make do, without anything? No coach. No equipment. We’d modify. We played a game here in Winchester called punch ball. Remember those pink rubber balls that were so popular? We didn’t have a bat. We would hit it out of our hand with a fist, and run the bases. It’s just another derivative of baseball. And we’d play that game with three people, six people, a hundred people! Whoever showed up. I remember doing that, recess and playgrounds, all the time, in elementary school.

How about the element of parents just being afraid of what might happen to their kids?

That’s the other societal change. I didn’t get to the second one. The second one was single parent families, which there are more of now. The third one is, of course, even in our posh suburbs, we tend to be a little more reserved and scared about what our 10 year olds are doing away from us. You know back when I was 10, my mother said, “Sure, ride your bike down to the local playground.”

Even, “Get out of the house.”

For sure I’d get the hell out. And for sure I’d be coming back for lunch because I was hungry. But we’re not necessarily quite as easy as that any more. In fact that kid in Cambridge, Jeffrey Curley, that awful thing with the two men – that’s every parent’s nightmare, what happened there. And that’s why. That’s a one-in-a-million shot, but it was dramatic headlines. That’s what we’re all worried about, even in the nicer suburbs, the Westons and the Winchesters, we’re worried. So now we’ve got to make sure that it’s structured, there’s an adult there, etc. etc.

In your book, the first part is describing what has gone wrong, and the second part is: How do we straighten it out?

Well, it’s what I call the elementary school recess approach. One of the things I tell people in my talk is, “One of the things I’m going to make you do, before you ever go back to an athletic venue with kids, is watch recess for five hours.” And, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to structure the time. We’re not going back to Leave It to Beaver. The time has got to be structured where there’s an adult supervisor there. But once the kids get there, let ‘em go play. And this is really no different from the thousands of recreation programs that we had when we were kids. I remember here in Winchester, the rec department used to have probably a college student or two, at the playground. And there were balls and bats and gimp, remember that stuff? I loved that stuff.

And what we would do was go play games. There’d be a supervisor, and adult there, probably a college kid, 20 or 22 years old. And we’d go play. Sometimes the kid joined us, sometimes he didn’t. It would be a structured program. But the activities would be unstructured. Let the kids go. And it’s something I’m constantly telling the adults that run these programs: the kids will figure it out on their own, if you let them. Let them call “out of bounds”. Let them call their own fouls. Let them play pickup. But they’ll be playing pickup at a place with adult supervisors, and adult supervision. You won’t be drilling them. You won’t be telling them to get their hand up on the bat.

We used to spend half the game arguing. Maybe it was part of the fun.

You know, you think it’s half the game. But if you did a time study, it was very little. Cause I’ll tell you about that arguing. It lasts a very short time, because generally the argument is only between two kids. And you’ve got seven other kids sitting there saying, “Will you quit your arguing? Let’s go play.” Because children – and sociologists have studied this for 40 years – children left to their own devices will play games. Adults left to their own devices, with kids, will play rule-based games. They’ll consult the rulebook and the bylaws. They’ll stick an umpire in there to screw it up! But the sociologists have studied this thousands and thousands and thousands of hours. I’ve got studies up the wazoo.

I was reading a book about kids’ games, and one of the interesting things was all the Tag games, where you have It and Not It. There’s all these rituals for, How do figure out who’s It? Like sometimes everybody yells “Not It!” and the kid who’s slowest gets to be It...

This is anthropology, this is what all the sociologists have done the last 30 or 40 years, is really anthropologists, studying our own little societies. And that’s what kids on playgrounds want. Our own little secret society. With our own rules modified, not day after day – hour after hour! Depending on the number of kids, how old… I’ll throw something at you guys:

There’s a guy named Clark Power. He is the director out at Notre Dame of the center for sport, character, and culture… I was at a conference in New Hampshire about a year ago and Clark did about an hour piece. And he looks at everybody and he says, “We are all familiar that America is a democracy. Then he goes into the Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Declaration of Independence, that stuff. A little history lesson. I want to ask you a question. Our children are not allowed to vote until 18 years old. But before 18 years old, how many chances do they get, in their lives, to actually experience democracy? Not learn about it, they learn that in school. But actually experience democracy?”

He said, “Let’s take traditional school. It’s not truly a democracy, obviously you’ve got a teacher, you’ve got work to do, etc., etc. That’s not really a democracy. Let’s talk about youth sports. That’s not a democracy. You’ve got coaches, you’ve got administrators, you’ve got assistant coaches, you’ve got games to play, you’ve got practices to run. I wouldn’t call that a democracy.”

He said, “So where are our children left, in this 0 to 18 age frame, that they get democracy?”

One of my friends popped up his hand, “Hey, how about pickup?”

And Clark looks at him and says, “How much pickup do we have these days?”

And then he began to go into a 20-minute treatise on pickup, or playground, or unorganized sports. And I’d never thought about it before. So he throws out this little thing: “Let’s say you have 10 kids in an area; they’re playing pickup baseball. The two or three oldest are twelve. The two or three youngest are eight. Everybody else is somewhere in the middle, nine, ten, eleven.” He said, “If those two or three twelve-year-olds are probably the best of the players – they’re the oldest, the most coordinated, gifted. If they become too tyrannical, what happens to the other kids? They leave! And what happens is those two or three tyrants are left on their own. It’s a little tougher now to have your baseball game now, with two or three of us. So what they have to be is sort of benevolent despots. Now we’re getting closer to democracy. That have to control the game, but they can’t be so controlling that kids are going to say, ‘well I don’t like this any more’ and go leave.”

And he says, “Now we’re getting down to the fundamentals of democracy.” I’d never thought about it this way. And that’s what we were doing, on all our little playgrounds. We were sort of learning democracy in its own little messy fashion. Was it perfect? Of course not. Nothing is. But the younger ones had to get along with the older ones and vice versa. If the older ones were too tyrannical, the younger ones just left and did their own thing.

So they may have been sort the governors – the older kids – but they to sort of govern by the will of the people, the rest of them. Because if they didn’t, bye-bye.

I was just thinking of, in a pickup game, the kid who won’t swing, who wants the perfect pitch. Everybody else playing gets on him – “c’mon, swing, swing the bat, we wanna play.”

And maybe one of the older kids would say, OK, slow the pitch down, get in closer, let the kid get a hit. Because what they would realize very soon, if the kid wasn’t swinging, no one was doing anything. They’re all standing around. And the interesting thing about this is, of course, if you started the game and after two or three ups, the game was 12-0, everything switched. Some of the people on the 12 went to the team that was 0. You’d balance the teams. No one would stay that way, because it was boring for both sides. But we did this on our own. We never needed an adult to help us. It was messy, it was murky, and there might have been a few bloody noses, but it was kind of the formation of all our little democracies.

Clark said this two years ago, I give him credit all the time, I never really thought of it like that. When do we get a chance from 0 to 18 to experience democracy?

These were all little democratic societies, in their own way. And sometimes they were parliamentary, sometimes they were a monarchy – there might have been one bigger kid and he sort of ruled. But after awhile they found out – the ones who were ruling these little societies – that they’d have to give and take. Because if they didn’t, then they wouldn’t have their games. So that was kind of the cute thing about it.

This is what the kids today are missing, by not doing it. Although you see it every now and then. In fact some kids were over here with their Dad who I know. They were here about two summers ago. The kids were playing Wiffle Ball in the back yard. There kids that were 5 and kids that were 10, and anywhere in between. And I told him, “Watch this for ten minutes. I’m not going to say a word. And tell me what you think the difference is between this and one of their organized T-Ball games or minors, or whatever it was.” He had a beer and went on the back porch. And after ten minutes I said, “What’s the difference?” He’d picked it up. None of them ever stood still.

They were always active. And that’s what doesn't happen in structured baseball. And that’s why structured youth baseball in this country, in the next five years, is going to take a real hit on the bow with lacrosse. For that reason alone. I think soccer has made its way. I don’t think soccer numbers are going to impinge on baseball any more. That would have happened on the last 20 to 25 years, and it’s leveled. But lacrosse is the new kid on the block.