The question of whether we are getting better in the long run

By Christopher Cudworth

Local 285At the age of 9 there is nothing more that I wanted on earth than to make the cut with the Local 285 baseball team on which my older brother had played. Tryouts went well enough, but when the names were announced mine wasn’t among them. I was hurt but understood there were many good players on the team. 

The next year I not only made the cut at Local 285, but contributed to a season in which our club won the prestigious Lancaster New Era Tournament. In the second game I began pitching in the middle innings and we won 8-6. The first game we’d won 26-0. 

The great thing about playing for Local 285 was learning the fundamentals. We were taught technique in everything from hitting to sliding. Then came fielding, how to charge the ball and make plays to the cutoff man. We were disciplined yet creative in our play. As a pitcher I had absolute confidence my fielders would back me up when the ball was hit. Those were some of the wonderful lessons in playing high level baseball. 

Our coach held us to standards of behavior that fit with the goal of playing good ball. We were not supposed to wear our baseball caps on anything but game day. No swimming was allowed on game day either. No wearing our uniforms except to the ballpark. We were not supposed to play wiffleball because it could mess up our swing and our arms, but that was a rule I broke quite regularly. I still think the hand-eye coordination was valuable with the bat, but playing softball in season was absolutely not allowed. 

It would be interesting to see how that team stacks up against youth baseball teams of today. We played by Major League Baseball rules with full stealing bases and all. We practiced twice a week and played a couple games on weekends during the summer months. 

Thinking back to the team structure, I know that we didn’t pay for anything to play. The team was sponsored by the Armstrong Tile United Rubber Workers. If you made the club (and that was the trick) everything was covered after that. No one payed thousands of dollars to cover tournaments, and we did not travel other than to play teams around the county. 

Did that limit our experience or keep us from being major league ballplayers? Not likely. Plenty of kids who came through the systems in Lancaster County went on to play pro ball. Tommy Herr was one of them. Bruce Sutter was another. 

I played baseball through my junior year in high school, when running took over. Yet Local 285 was where I learned a few things about my running ability. Following every practice the coaches had us do pushups and then run a lap around a pole way beyond center field. I loved that stuff and no one could touch me in the running game. The coaches made me do more pushups so that I could not win the run by so much. Then a few more. And more. But I kept making up the difference. The challenge thrilled me. 

It was a great experience playing for that team. Yet the season wrapped up before August. There were no fall leagues. No indoor instruction either. Come August the kids I knew would all gather and play baseball on local fields. We got better doing that as well. 

One wonders then whether all the investment in youth baseball today, with 80-game seasons, $200 bats and traveling tournaments is making anyone any better at the game of baseball, or any other sport for that matter?

I coached soccer for 10 years in one of the most competitive environments in the nation. At one point an aggressive new organization came in and took over the youth traveling teams that were an extension of recreational league. Everything ramped up from the paid coaches to the pressure to turn our kids over to a system where they might bounce from team to team. It was a European model for player improvement.  

I get that’s the way to develop real soccer players. But that was not the experience my parents wanted for their kids. So we stuck together, paid our $250 per season for 10 games and one tournament and lived with the fact that we would be designated for play in the Silver or Blue divisions rather than the Gold or Platinum leagues where the supposed superstars were all deigned to play. 

Yet when we scrimmaged the top teams in our programs we typically only lost 3-1 or so. There’s no doubt there was better coaching on the top teams. We still held our own. 10 out of 15 kids I coached went on to play high school soccer.

Years later when I was recalling the days of coaching those teams, my son turned to me and said, “Dad, I don’t remember a single game we played. But I do remember the practices. We had fun.” In high school my son came to me and said, “Dad, when I’m running track I’m 25% happy. But when I’m in drama I’m 100% happy.”

I told him: “Then the decision is made.” He went on to act and direct plays all the way through college and beyond. He’s studied improv in New York City, met major comedy stars and uses those skills in many aspects of his new consulting business. 

The point here is that we might be missing the point of youth sports with all this pressure to turn games and activities into a youthful profession. The three-sport athlete has virtually disappeared. Most sports are year-round activities or you don’t play at all. 

I think back to my training during the summer months between track and cross country in high school and it wasn’t that impressive. Perhaps I could have been a better runner and made it downstate had I put in 500 or so miles in June, July and August. By maybe not. I played basketball for hours at a time all summer. Played baseball too. Rode my bike for miles on summer nights. Once or twice a week I’d go for a run. And participated in summer track, but not with much intensity. 

When we turned out for HS cross country practice in August we got into shape pretty quickly. Freshman year my best time was in the low 17:00 range. Sophomore year I ran 16:23 for three miles. Junior year it dropped to 15:15 for three miles and as a senior I ran 14:49 for three miles but did not make it downstate because our sectionals had four of the top five teams in the state of Illinois. You can get as good as you like and fate can still intervene. 

Overall the competitive environment in the early to mid 1970s was at an extremely high level. Craig Virgin had just set the Illinois state record of 13:51 or so that still stands to this day. But it was the depth of quality runners that was more impressive. Through the early 80s you had to run sub-14:30 to place in the top 25 year to year. The winning times for the next few years following Virgin’s record were in the 14:00 range. 

Luther Cross CountryThere were quality runners every year in Illinois for the last four decades. But the times and depth have not improved so much that one could actually say today’s runners are better than they were 40 years ago. The proof is absolute. Either you can run three miles faster on the same course or you can’t.

Fast runners were everywhere. The group of five freshman cross country runners who entered Luther College together in 1975 could all run sub-15:00 for three miles in high school. And that was at a Division III school. 

I get the similar impression that road race times are not any faster these days either. When flipping through Competitor Magazine or some other publication that shows results it can be fun for me to go through the local 5Ks and 10K picking out races that I would have won with my normal times of 15:00 for 5K and 31:20 for 10K. There aren’t that many regional runners posting those times. Does it matter? 

Still, it’s a weird phenomenon to me. With all the superior shoes and better tracks and 40 years of running knowledge now supporting the run community, shouldn’t today’s runners be superior to those of us who broke ground back then? As a running shoe guinea pig I put things on my feet that should not have been worn by mountain goats, yet we somehow found ways to go fast in them. 

I look at kids entering the running world now and they’re starting earlier than ever. Fortunately the experiences seem to be participatory and positive. The middle school meets I’ve watched are full of encouragement. Dozens of parents line up and cheer for every single runner on the course. In some ways the final kids get more cheers than the winners. 

That’s a hallmark of today’s distance events in general. One hardly sees reports of who won what race these days. It’s almost inconsequential to the event as a whole. Plus the general media has shrunk so much there’s no room any more to put the results of high school cross country meets in the newspaper. All that has migrated online where the churn of news is so heavy the results of today or yesterday have no more significance than the recovery four-miler you just ran. The combined effects of emphasis on participation, not just winning, and the proliferation of social media where you essentially manufacture your own press has turned every accomplishment, no matter how small, into a matter for cheering each other on.

But does that make us better in the long run, or simply satisfy our hunger for attention?  

Of course the fact that people pay so damned much to participate in events these days may also be having some effect on the overall celebration of who wins and who doesn’t. The runner or cyclist or triathlete who pays $60, $80 or $200 to enter an event––and wins––is technically no more valuable to the monetary gains than the athlete who takes two hours to complete a 10k. It turns out money is the great equalizer in the end. It might mean more to raise money for a good cause than to actually win a race. 

It all feeds into a massive maw of social competitiveness that has become less well-defined than ever in terms of understanding what’s important. 

The point here is substantive, not qualitative. The question of whether we are all getting better in the long run due to our participation sports is ultimately not one of comparison, but of reconciliation. We have come full circle yet arrived at a different plane of existence. With millions of moms now out there running, it’s no longer just the accomplishments of the kids that matters. And with millions of dads extending their active years through endurance sports, perhaps the appreciation for the role of youth sports will ultimately evolve, and change. 

There’s no doubt the quality of play exhibited by the Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago deserves attention, or that young lady Mo’Ne Davis. Phenomenally interesting. 

It will be a great day when we begin to appreciate that the experience of our kids in youth sports should be targeted toward a lifelong love of fitness, health and activity. That will make us all better in the long run. 

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About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @gofast and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and at 3CCreativemarketing.com. Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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