In case you still believe kids can’t handle competition

Sarah Smiley shares lessons learned from her sons about competition

In the wake of some schools across the country canceling things like academic awards night and valedictorians at graduation because people might not be able to handle the exclusivity or “unfairness” of it all, I witnessed something that helps prove this theory wrong.

It was the night the minor league baseball team got to play on the “really big field.” By “really big field,” I mean the one adjacent to the minor league field, where the “really big kids play.” And by “really big kids,” I mean the 9 to 12 year olds who play Little League.

To my 7-year-old, Lindell, whose baseball jersey falls to below his knees, the Little League field is only slightly less impressive than Fenway. That’s because the minor league field is made of gravel and meant for kickball. There is no scoreboard, dugout, or concession stand, and there is only one set of bleachers. The coach usually pitches, and there aren’t umpires. No one can call strikes.

But according to Lindell, all of this is at least a step up from farm league, where they don’t keep score and each player swings (and swings and swings) until they get a hit.

On a recent night in May, Lindell and his team arrived at their usual field and didn’t see the coaches. Some of us parents wondered if we had gotten the date or time wrong. Then the kids peered over the Little League fence, curtained with a blue tarp and topped with a yellow bumper, and realized, in true Field-of-Dreams fashion, that they were going to play on the big field while the Little League team was away.

The umpire swept home plate. An announcer tested the PA system. The dugouts were already filled with helmets and bats. A parent volunteer propped open the concession stand door. And the tiny round lights of the scoreboard flickered on. When the boys ran in a stampede to the dugout, more than a few of them screamed in excitement, “They’re going to keep score tonight!”

No one cried. No one quit.

Now, let me rewind and tell you what a typical minor league game is like. The kids sit on a bench waiting their turn. A small minority of them are riveted to the game; a surprisingly larger majority is rapt with attention for their hotdog, the dandelion at their feet or the ladybug on their friend’s helmet. A parent usually has to keep the team focused: “Even though you’re on the bench, you need to watch the game and support your team.” No one—not the parents, the kids nor the coaches—is sure which team is ahead. Therefore, the children’s and parents’ attention waxes and wanes based on who’s at bat. And all of this is okay. It’s minor league, after all. The coaches are fantastic, and the kids are learning baseball.

But when Lindell’s team got on the “really big field,” it was like a whole new game. The boys clung to the chain link fence of the dugout and cheered for their teammates. I could hear their screams from my place on the bleachers: “One more out! You can do it!” “Bring the runner home!” “We are only down by 9 runs!”

They said the last one with such enthusiasm: Only 9 runs to go! The team could hardly contain their excitement. And they were losing.

None of us parents dared to interfere in the dugout. We’d just be a distraction. Those boys were focused on the field—and the scoreboard. For the first time, all of them were truly engaged in the game.

Previously, on their regular field, the team could have been behind by 9 or ahead by 12. They never knew. But now they had twinkling lights as a reflection of their efforts and a benchmark for their goals. They were working together (which, when you’re 7 looks a lot like screaming and jumping up and down) to change that score.

The team never got ahead. The other team demolished them.

Still, no one cried.

In fact, I have never seen those boys with such big smiles. They had seen the competition play out on a board, and they lost. Big deal. What mattered was they saw how each of their runs, strikes and outs changed the lights on the scoreboard. They had had a taste of the awesomeness of Little League, and it would be hard to get them back to the minor league field for the next game.

That was okay, too. They belong on the minor league field for now.

But from this point forward, they have a goal: to practice and get better so they can advance to Little League and get back on that field, under the lights, where their runs—and their strikes—count.