Keith Wahl

Hitting instructor Matt Lisle (@CoachLisle) used his vast online platform this Independence Day to reflect on how much youth sports have changed since his generation (Generation X, if we’re using labels):

“You see, when someone my age watches The Sandlot, we experience it differently than kids nowadays, and that’s what makes me sad.

My youth parallels The Sandlot story almost too much. Every day the neighborhood kids got home from school, and all during summer vacation, we would congregate in the court and play until the street lights came on. We played baseball, football, street hockey, basketball, you name it.

My favorite youth memories weren’t family vacations or anything I ever saw on a screen. My favorite memories were a group of us playing wiffle ball in my backyard, where the strike zone was taped to the sliding glass door, and my dad had painted foul poles on the backyard fence.

In 2022, the majority of youth are consumed by screen time and organized athletics and will never get to experience what the movie The Sandlot embodies.”

Lisle brought me back to the backyard of my childhood. I can remember the first time I hit a home run that traveled the distance of two backyards (only to have to confront the fear of retrieving the ball from a yard with a nippy little dog that might bite my Achilles tendon) and when I switched to the left side to hit a homer that cleared the neighbor’s house on the fly. Retrieving those blasts came with the internal echoes of thousands of fans cheering inside my head.

Lisle’s reminiscence also reminded me of a chapter about youth sports from a long-forgotten book titled Competition. Written in 1979 by Gary Warner, a former Fellowship of Christian Athletes staff member, the most striking feature of the book is that it was written over 40 years ago when we must have been on the edge of the youth sports toilet bowl,  right at the beginning of the flush. Yet somehow Warner saw clearly where youth sports culture was going.

In one section, Warner quotes Bill Harper of Emporia State College: “Any time you have games in which the participants have less control than the organizers about how they play, who they play, when they play, then it is not really play.”

I see this today. Too often we train kids from a young age to “work” their games instead of playing their games. When I lead youth baseball and softball camps in my role at Valor Christian, I try to counteract this trend a little bit. Through 4-6 rotations, we spend 7-10 minutes teaching a skill and 12-15 minutes playing a variety of “sandlot” games. Big Ball Softball (Chicago-style Softball, for those familiar), Ultimate Baseball (Ultimate Frisbee with a baseball), Bounce Ball (a tennis ball game where the ball has to bounce before the hitter hits it), and a variety of Wiffle Ball variations. This is our attempt to “clog the drain” and stop the spiral; it’s our small effort to bring restoration to the youth sports environment.

Sport Psychologist Dr. Thomas Tutko is quoted in Warner’s book, too. “I strongly believe that when we force competition prior to the child’s capability of handling pressures involved,” Tutko says, “the long-term detriments will outweigh any supposed benefits.”

Tutko’s comments get at the motivation for youth sports, the “why” or overarching purpose for participation. If we were to ask the current crop of youth sport athletes and their parents, I suspect that for many the purpose is a means to an end. The kid plays so he or she gets a scholarship and achieves something mom and dad did not. This means we have a generation of people who didn’t choose to play for the sake of play. And as a result, we end up taking youth sports both far too seriously (in terms of time, money, specialized training, and how we treat the refs) and not seriously enough (in the sense that we don’t consider the harm to both the young athletes and to the games that we love).

Gary Warner saw this problem, too, as well as a possible solution. “When we treat the competitors as people,” he writes, “this means we loosen up, allow for mistakes, don’t take ourselves so seriously, and maybe even have a good laugh.”

When’s the last time you saw that attitude at a youth or high school sports event? When’s the last time we followed the suggestion of Ed White of the Minnesota Vikings, who told Warner we needed to treat “little ones as people”? Or even treated ourselves as people?

Everything we do seems to have to have a utilitarian purpose. Increasingly we seem to miss the community benefits of play together, or we ignore the opportunity to give back to the game when we’re done playing.

My sense and guess is that we are experiencing a significant decline and will continue to see a decline as people get older and current generations age out of competitive sports. Already fewer young people are participating in youth sports. And this summer, we saw stories from across the country of baseball and softball games being cancelled because of umpire shortages. When we see these numbers spiral more and more out of control, the toilet bowl has flushed and all has been lost.

We’re so deep into the whirlpool now, it can seem like there is no escape. But it’s at these crisis points in history when we have the opportunity to participate in restoration. Maybe that restoration takes form in growing non-traditional sports like Spikeball (yes, we play that during camp as well). Or maybe it looks like a sport that has yet to be invented.

Instead of organizing the effort, what if we turned the kids loose in a sandlot with some equipment and let them create? The Aspen Institute’s Project Play, which is on the cutting edge of working for solutions to the problems in youth sports, believes that any approach to youth sports must start first and foremost with the kids and what they want.

Like Project Play, I have faith in the next generation and what they’d create over time. If my generation created worlds as rich with imagination and legend as we did, our kids can do the same. Let’s give them the opportunity to get youth sports out of the toilet and point us back to the things we enjoyed most in sports. Maybe then, like Matt Lisle, they’ll have their own playful sports experiences worth remembering one day.

About the author: Keith Wahl is Assistant Athletic Director at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, CO. Until 2022, he also served as head baseball and softball coach. As a baseball coach, his teams have won several state and regional championships, and he was also named ABCA/Diamond Regional Coach of the Year (2011) and Colorado State Coach of the Year (2016). He has written and published the Well Coached series, novels about the lessons and hardships of coaching, and he runs a blog at Coach Wahl’s purpose is to serve others so they can fulfill God’s destiny and design for their lives. He hopes to create cultures focused on building relationships, atmosphere, and habits through the living ideas of Jesus Christ. It means the world to have the support of his wife, Alyson, and two kids, Mia and Brady, as he pursues his calling.