Much of my summer has been taken up with a particular pastime: baseball.
Those of you who know my regular job won’t find this surprising. I do, after all, write for MLB.com. But the baseball I’m talking about wasn’t being played by Major League millionaires or even top prospects. It was being played by 8- and 9-year-olds.
I had the honor, and yes, privilege, to coach my son and a group of about 15 boys this summer as part of the 14th Ward Association’s 8-year-old All-Star team. It’s been a true labor of love working with what’s been an amazing group of kids (and parents). The team improved tremendously over the course of the summer, not just as players, but as people and teammates, and it culminated with us winning the final tournament we played in.
This, of course, created much excitement and, I must admit, stirred the competitive fire in me from my youth. The question I kept asking myself, though, was, “Is that a good thing?” How much should exceling in a sport matter? Is winning and losing — being competitive — something kids of this age should even care about?
I was hoping to find some Jewish texts to guide me, wisdom about competition from scholars, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to come up with much, other than some information on how post-biblical and Talmudic writings frowned upon sports because they were associated with Greek and Roman idol worship. In today’s context, not a whole lot of help unless you wanted to extrapolate something about not having role models from the professional sports ranks.
During the first part of the summer, when the team hadn’t gelled and was getting daily doses in humility, the worry was about diminishing returns. Sure, losing builds character, but does getting killed every time out serve any purpose, other than to deflate self-confidence?
Slowly, but surely, the team started playing better, winning one game in the next tournament before going home with trophies in the third. There’s no doubt it was a wonderful moment. As Nuke LaLoosh in the movie “Bull Durham,” said so astutely: “I like winning. It’s like, you know, better than losing.”
But I realized this summer was about much more than wins and losses, something that didn’t dawn on me until I took a step back. More than celebrating on the field, every single player saw that the hard work they put in had a direct positive impact on their play. Better than that, they came together as a team, pulling for each other every step of the way, supporting each other not only when things went well, but even when they didn’t. They grew more as people and friends more than they did as ballplayers.
And for that, there’s plenty of text to draw from. Let’s start with Proverbs, where it is written:
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
That’s the value of competition at this age, in my opinion, and where the extreme non-competitiveness of things like Dynamo miss the boat. I understand the need to keep things under control, and that the extreme opposite of crazy parents and coaches in little league has been well documented. But it’s also important, in a warm environment, to teach kids about competition. Life lessons don’t need to be hard ones at this age, but there’s nothing wrong with starting to learn about winning and losing, exhibiting good sportsmanship on both sides and how hard work can improve outcome.
The value of being on a team and working toward a common goal is equally crucial. I’m reminded of Hillel’s immortal words, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
If those aren’t words for any athlete on any team to live by, then they don’t exist.
The educational experience of the summer was a two-way street, of course. Any parent who was an athlete of any sort can’t help but live vicariously through their children as they make their first forays into the sporting arena. Coaching this summer, in particular, has helped me manage expectations. It’s not that I had delusions of grandeur, but as we embarked on this All-Star season, it was hard to contain that part of me that wants to win at all costs and see my son perform better than I ever did (He’s already done that — I never won an All-Star tournament).
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and a staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)