My Part in the Downfall Revisited

(Saw this article on-line this morning, related to the Generation-Y workforce I discussed in this post last July.)

For a few years now, I have been hearing and reading about generation Y, people born after 1980, and the complaints from my generation, the baby boomers, that this new generation isn’t willing to work hard, and expects to be pampered and treated as “special”.  Much of the blame for this is placed on people like me, people who coached this generation in youth and recreation league sports, where everybody got to play and winning wasn’t emphasized.   Apparently, people like me drove the competitive will out of these young minds and replaced it with the namby-pamby “oh, well, at least I tried hard.  I’m still special!”

I coached co-ed recreation league softball and boys basketball for most of the years my sons were growing up.  I have always loved sports, and played little league baseball as a child.  I was too small (I was basically a year younger than most of my classmates) to go out for football and not good enough to make the middle and high school basketball teams, but I played back yard and pick up games with other neighborhood kids every chance I got.    I became a rabid sports fan and developed a life time love for all three games.

Early on in my sons’ lives, I noticed that, at least in my little corner of suburbia, the landscape of childhood had significantly changed.   In the post urban sprawl spread of real estate development of 1990s suburbia, neighborhoods as defined in my childhood were a thing of the past.  Kids no longer found other kids in nearby backyards and began playing together.   Instead, with neighbors further away, with technology like gaming and the internet driving kids inside more often, with parents working more hours and obsessively worrying about sexual predators, playtime had to be carefully scheduled and coordinated.  Kids had to be driven to and picked up from their friends houses.  As a result, spontaneity was largely removed, and kids had fewer opportunities to explore places and discover new friends than when I was a kid.

The largest casualty of this was the backyard or driveway pickup game.   With so many logistical factors to coordinate, getting enough kids for a game together on short notice became impossible.  Organized sports became the only way kids could play baseball or softball or basketball.

There were two types of organized sports kids could choose from – competitive and non-competitive.   The competitive options included traveling teams, which have grown to become a unique phenomenon, and little league.  Little league wasn’t as demanding as the travelling teams, but you had to try out to make a team.

The non-competitive leagues were run by the village or the local Y.  Everybody who signed up was guaranteed a roster spot, and there were minimum playing rules to ensure that everybody played.  It wasn’t as namby-pamby as many of the critics like to exaggerate.  Score was kept, each game had a winner and a loser, and standings and season ending championship tournaments were usually tracked.   As someone who loved sports, and wasn’t good enough to make most of the teams I tried out for as a child, the non-competitive leagues were an attractive option for my boys.  We signed them up and I quickly became involved in coaching, first as an assistant  on my oldest son’s softball team, then as the head coach of my second son’s softball and basketball teams.

Going into coaching, I knew all of the different strategies and philosophies that I thought would make a great coach, and what my teams may have lacked in talent or skill would be made up for by my brilliant tactical approach to the game.  This dream lasted about as long as it took the ink to dry on my coaching sign-up form.  I soon realized that not only were these little kids with short attention spans, but that many of them had never played the game before.

In basketball, for example, instead of implementing post or perimeter offenses or zone defenses, my time was spent trying to figure out which player could dribble the ball past the half court line, and trying to explain that unlike volleyball, you don’t have to slap and swat at the ball, you can actually catch it, or trying to convince a kid that he can’t catch a pass or get a rebound or play defense with his hands inside his shirt (this last example was made more frustrating by the fact that the kid with his hands in his shirt was my own son, Nick.)

So our weekly practices were exercises in riot control.  First and second grade boys who had been cooped up in their homes in the cold winter months were suddenly let loose in a gymnasium with about 10 other boys and a bouncing ball – their energies were as broad as their attention spans were narrow.  The chaos would be paused at the end of the session, only to be picked up where it left off on the Saturday morning games, where despite all my shouting they would still dribble into the corner and the other nine players on the court would follow, as if magnetized to the ball.

But every now and then something amazing would happen – the ball would actually travel airborne in the general direction of the basket.  Even more amazingly, three or four times a game, it would actually go in!  The kids would jump up and down and scream, which they pretty much did all the time anyway, while in the stands, the proud Mother and Father would beam, the Mother thinking how cute my little Billy looks, while the Father began silent deliberations on Duke or North Carolina.

Co-ed softball was even more of a challenge.   There was the second grade girl who practiced her ballet during games in the outfield.  There were the missed throws that resulted in extra bases that resulted in more missed throws.  There were fly balls that bonked outfielders on the head.   There was one of my all-time favorite players who, for reasons that will forever remain unexplained, always travelled with a portable DVD player and a copy of the film “Ghostbusters”, which he’d watch over and over while sitting on the bench between innings or waiting his turn to bat.

In both sports, in both practices and games, there was an abundance of short attention spans, confusion, frustration, and general mayhem.    And I grew to love every minute of it.   They were not only as fun as a barrel of monkeys; they actually were a barrel of monkeys.  Once I realized they were never going to comprehend a pick and roll or a suicide squeeze, I had to determine what if any value any of us, players and coaches, could get out the experience.   In time, I realized that they were just kids, and like the girls in the Cyndi Lauper song, they just wanted to have fun.

This then became my mission – I wanted every kid on my teams to have fun.  On the surface, nothing seems easier, because kids are built for having fun.  Fun is the only reason for existence that a child has.  But after spending some time with my teams, I quickly realized and remembered that it’s not that simple.   Some kids weren’t as good as others, some weren’t as smart, some were small, some were overweight, some lacked social skills, and some came from difficult family situations.   It became apparent that for some of these kids, fun was a rare experience if not an alien concept.

My strength was a sense of humor that isn’t as well developed as I’d like to think it is – in other words, it remains at about a fifth grade level.  This may make me come across as juvenile and sophomoric in the adult world, but it served me very well with children.   I found that the one thing that would at least momentarily hold their attention was my potential for goofiness.  They may not have listened when I tried to explain which base to throw to from the outfield, but if they thought they might hear me say something stupid, they were a rapt and attentive audience.  I think that all kids, for a myriad of reasons, love hearing adults say really stupid things.  Once I realized this, it became my secret weapon.  I’d say enough stupid things to get their attention, and then, every once in a while, I’d slip in some coaching.   They’d remember verbatim every stupid thing I’d say, while maybe 25% of the coaching seeped through – but hey, that was progress.

Knowing now how to get at least a minimum of their attention, and knowing how much they enjoyed the stupid things that I said (and did), I realized an amazing thing.   The kids would all listen to me and laugh at me together.  A really good player might be sitting on the bench next to a really bad player, and they’d both be laughing at me.   They may have had nothing else in common, but they shared the common experience of being sentenced to listen to my corny silliness.  The year would always begin with separate cliques of kids from the same schools or the same neighborhoods, groups of familiar faces unfamiliar to the other groups of familiar faces.  There would always be a kid or two alone on the outside.  My job became to break down these groups and meld them all together into a team, a team that may or may not have won many games, but a team, and all that means.   Above all else, I loved watching those early season cliques dissolve, and I loved it when the good players would cheer on or try to buck up the bad players, and even more, when the cool kids found something interesting in one of the un-cool kids.

I coached for I think eleven years, until Nick was out of high school.  Over the years, I actually had some teams that were good enough to win championships.  I also had teams that failed to win a game.   The one consistent thing was, I believe, despite the fact that no statistics were kept, and regardless of our won-loss record, every year my teams lead the league in laughter.

Every year, I’d watch these collections of kids become a team, and that is what these leagues were all about.  I don’t mean to imply that I was a brilliant motivator or supremely skilled in developing young people.   Most of the other coaches were just as effective, using their own methods and skill.  It was the structure of the leagues and their mission that everybody gets a chance to play and learn the game that allowed teams to develop.  More than that, it was the kids themselves.  Adults have a tendency to take credit for too much; that these kids were able to overcome their own differences and preconceptions is ultimately a tribute to the open-mindedness that young children still possess.  It’s adults who close these minds with fear and suspicion and distrust.

Now these kids, whose minds I helped fill with unreasonable feelings of self-worth, are young adults starting their careers.  We keep hearing how demanding they are and how they expect to be treated as if they are something special.  They apparently believe the “everybody is a winner, everybody is special” philosophy learned in our sports leagues.  Baby boomers have difficulty understanding this, thinking, I’m not special, I’m lucky to have a job, and if I have to work 60 hours a week to keep it, then that’s what I’ll do.  What makes these kids think they are so special?

Maybe the generation Y kids will continue to insist they are special.  Maybe they won’t stand for their jobs being outsourced.   Maybe they’ll feel the job is lucky to have them.  Maybe they won’t put up with all the crap the baby boomers assumed was owed to their bosses.

One topical book refers to this generational difference as “Hard America” vs “Soft America”;  that the baby boomers of “Hard America” are driven by competition and accountability, while the “Soft America” of generation Y, having been coddled all these years, is inherently weaker, and needs the protection of government regulation.  I’d argue that this is ridiculous and short sighted.  “Hard America” may be driven by competition and accountability, but anyone who has ever had to suffer the obnoxiousness of an overly competitive family member who sulks and pumps his chest through games of Trivial Pursuit or Pictionary knows that weakness and insecurity lie not far below their surface.  It is this weakness, this fear of failure that has allowed this generation to take the world’s strongest economy and slowly destroy it.  Where families were once headed by a single wage earner, now two or more family members work two or more jobs and still struggle to make ends meet.  The competitive win at all costs mentality has been exploited, and as a result, we work harder for lower relative wages with fewer benefits.   The people who run the corporations love this, while everybody else suffers.

The values taught to “Soft America” place value on the individual and his contribution to the team.  Ask anyone who has ever been a manager who they want on their team, the overly competitive and aggressive ladder climber, or the good team player.   If members of generation Y truly believe that they are special, then there may be hope that they will demand the simple respect that the baby boomers have given away.  They may be the only hope to fix what we, their parents (who instilled these values in the first place), have destroyed.

(P.S. – my time as a coach was all volunteer, so, unlike those pesky teachers, my contribution to poisoning young minds was at least tax-free)

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