Hardball

Dads' egos can run amok in super-competitive Valley youth baseball, and that's dangerous

But if it had, I just hope the coroner would have identified the true cause of my demise:

Death by Pride.


Mike Woods has built a baseball powerhouse at Hamilton High School in Chandler.
Peter Scanlon
Mike Woods has built a baseball powerhouse at Hamilton High School in Chandler.
Andrew Nelson warming up for an All-Star game.
Robert Nelson
Andrew Nelson warming up for an All-Star game.

"That's the dark heart of it all, isn't it?" child psychologist and author Darrell Burnett asks rhetorically. "A father's pride. It can be quite a beast."

But we're supposed to be proud of our kids. Every father-son movie ends with: I'm proud of you, son! To express one's pride ina child to the child is something dads are always told to do.

"I guess, just tell him you love him instead," Burnett says.

Simple, really. Just amend the old song by the '70s band Sweet. Pride is like oxygen. You get too much, you get too high. Not enough and you're going to die.

Just enjoy and distribute, in moderation.

"You're over-thinking this," he tells me (a nice euphemism for you're neurotic). "But you are thinking about it. That's the main thing I tell dads. Just make sure you are thinking about it, watching yourself. Always be asking yourself: 'Who am I doing this for? Am I doing it for me or my child?'

"And remember: Make sure you relate to him or her as a kid first, an athlete second."

I know, I don't mean to be an asshole, I tell him.

"That's probably true of the vast majority of the fathers who cause the vast majority of problems for kids out there," he says.

We live in a state where more kids than ever are playing the same single sport all year-round.

Where there are leagues funneling into big schools where very many kids can be left very far behind if they do not completely focus on one activity at which they are very, very good.

(I personally had the good fortune of going to a small Nebraska high school known for mediocrity where I could participate in myriad activities at which I universally sucked.)

Dads quickly become well aware of the facts of sports life in suburban Phoenix in 2005. And even dads who are not feeding their own egos get caught in the year-round cycle because they want to help their kids survive and thrive in this highly populated and competitive market.

Which can lead to pitching and hitting and agility coaches. Which can lead to fall ball and winter ball and spring ball and summer ball. Which can lead to rec teams and club teams and developmental teams and elite teams and scout teams and high school prep teams. All fine in moderation. All dangerous when abused.

Which all can lead to curve balls and splitters at age 13.

Or, at age 12 because your son needs to keep up with the kids from the Blaze or Yankees or Bulldogs who are throwing them.

Or, it's age 11. Or at 10. Because the other guys are doing it.

Or, hell, because you just want to beat the jerks!

So you will only let your boy throw a few.

But it is the fourth inning in the championship game of the Super Series or the Triple Crown tournament in October, then November, then December. And yes, his pitch count is high, but yours is a strong kid. And the team just needs a few more innings out of him, and just a few more curve balls because it is the only way to keep the opposition from scoring in this really, really important tournament that nobody besides a few other dads knows exists. And then there are a few walks and a few hits, and the bases get loaded a few times, and the pitch count sneaks over 110. His fastball is dying, so you let him turn to the curve ball, trying again to finish this thing off. And, hurrah, your boy succeeds and gets a little gold-colored medal. And then you wonder the next morning why your son cannot lift that spoonful of his Breakfast of Champions without whimpering.

Each source for this story -- from doctor to pro ballplayer to coach -- went into a rambling narrative about the nature of today's youth sports that sounded oddly similar to the previous paragraph.

This chain of bad thinking has led to, according to coaches and doctors, a massive increase in the number of children who have had some sort of sports-career-ending injury.

Or, kids who just do not want to play anymore.

"The result is, we're destroying the whole reason for youth sports," Burnett says. "We're not building bonds and self-esteem and strong bodies and character while having fun. We're tearing them all down with too much work."


"H ello? This is Mike Woods. I'm the baseball coach over at Hamilton. You called about a story you're doing."

I explained to Woods, coach of a team that has won two of the last three 5A state titles, that I'm trying to find out about overuse injuries and burnout in kids from the perspective of a dad who probably is more the problem than the cure.

I tell the baseball coach at Arizona's largest high school, which is a mile from our home in south Chandler, that I'm writing this because my kid just finished Little League in Chandler and I'm in postseason self-assessment mode. I tell him that I believe I've let my kid play too much baseball.

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