When I was a kid, my friends and I were making diving catches on the backyard football field or ridiculous jams on the driveway basketball court that my three kids today only see on Sportscenter. Why? Because in Wisconsin where I grew up, we honed our skills playing endless hours of good old-fashioned pick up games all day, year-round. Our yards were big enough to be football fields in winter and baseball fields in summer. Everyone in our neighborhood could hit a baseball from both sides of the plate because we kids made up rules which required it. My kids, on the other hand, have never played a pickup game of anything in their life (unless you count dodge ball or flashlight tag in our suburban cul de sac).
In fact, I can’t remember the last time I drove past a group of pre-teen kids playing baseball or football in a driveway, a backyard, or a public park in Northern Virginia.
I blame a lot of things, but mostly technology. Kids today don’t simply run out the door looking for a game. They rely on parents to call ahead and arrange a ‘playdate’ that makes a pick up game requiring more than four players a logistical nightmare. How many phone calls does it require to get up a game of 5-on-5? I don’t know, because I have never tried.
Secondly, kids have the option of playing what amounts to pick up games of Halo on the xBox against friends in other neighborhoods, states and countries via online connections. Those games require no parental involvement whatsoever. In my day, we only resorted to a round of ‘pong’ if the tornado watch suddenly changed to a warning and drove us inside.
Thirdly, our Northern Virginia suburban yards aren’t big enough to play sports that require an outfield or two endzones a decent distance apart.
Finally, the neighborhood ethic isn’t what it used to be in rural Wisconsin when I was growing up. My friends and I used to pitch tennis balls against a strike zone on the garage door and the batter, if she/he put some lumber on the ball, would hit a “home run” that could carom off of the neighbor’s dining room window. Nobody said anything about it except a few really mean neighbors.
All is not lost. Today’s child-athlete does have some advantages. My children play full pads tackle football in fall, lacrosse in spring, soccer in fall and spring, and swimming in summer. These leagues come complete with referees, computerized databases, adult coaching, and road games in faraway towns. Permission slips, birth certificates, and game schedules are emailed back and forth and entry fees paid online. Some local football coaches have been known to videotape games of future opponents from neighboring towns. In short, organized youth sports is very organized. They put to shame the YMCA flag fooball league that my brother, my friend Dave, and I played in which each player jammed a white tube sock into their belt loop.
At the end of the day, no matter how much we modern parents spend on all the equipment, private lessons, and registration fees so that our kids can develop their skills under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable coach and a paid ref, nothing is more pure than a bunch of kids organizing and playing a spontaneous game of pick up that lasts until the ball flies deep into the neighbor’s fenced yard with the nasty dogs or until the sun goes down, whichever comes first.