Life Lessons from Little League
Updated: Feb 24
When my youngest daughter, Aubrey, was 7 years old, she asked her mom and I if she could join a community softball team. Kathryn and I agreed to let her participate as we figured it would be a positive, learning opportunity for Aubrey. But what I didn't figure on was that it would be an important learning experience for me as well. I was about to discover that human agency is like a baseball bat. We can employ it for the benefit of ourselves and others, like a determined player using it to empty a piñata of its candy. Or we can swing it recklessly, whacking ourselves and everyone else around us.
Strange metaphor, I know, but we humans are paradoxical creatures. On the one hand, we have the ability to make conscious decisions to help others and to improve ourself. (I offer an example of this in an earlier article.) On the other hand, that same human agency can go awry and make life more difficult or even do some harm. This is what I call the dark side of decision-making. But before I recap the lesson I learned, let me first provide you with a little background.
When Aubrey initially asked to play softball, I was a bit conflicted.
I actually love the sport. I played baseball for several years as a youth and was actually pretty decent at it. I had a solid ba
tting average. I was the cleanup hitter on my final team, and I hit four homeruns that season. But my favorite place to be wasn't beside the plate, it was right behind it. I was our team's catcher.
Catchers are often referred to as team captains because they always have a full view of the field. They have an important leadership role as they can adjust the defense based on the behaviors they observe in the baserunners and in the batter standing next to them. It's not a surprise that many catchers later become team managers. As a catcher, I took my leadership role very seriously. For me, the game is never slow, it's always a fascinating chess match outside of time. So on one level, it was easy for me to encourage Aubrey to play softball.
But over the years the game had also taught me that it comes with its share of risks. I played in a game once where my brother broke his arm and we had to take him to the emergency department. In another game, an opposing batter hit a grounder passed our pitcher down the center of the infield. This resulted in a baserunner sprinting from third base towards home plate. Our center fielder scooped up the ball and threw it in my direction, as the ball bounced off the turf and into my mitt I didn't see the oversized eighth grader running at me at full tilt. I not only got knocked over, I got knocked out. I was literally knocked unconscious. I couldn't remember what happened after the hit, but a teammate later told me, "a lot of adults got pretty freaked out when you didn't respond right away."
So in deciding whether Aubrey should be allowed to play softball, I held these two contrasting outcomes in my mind. She could engage in a wonderful game that taught teamwork and discipline; but it could cost her a broken limb or a concussion in the process. To return to our earlier metaphor, I figured Aubrey could be the player or be the piñata, and I wasn't having any of the second option.
After giving it some thought, I decided that I could mastermind a situation where there was only one possible outcome. Aubrey would enjoy softball and be protected from potential injury because I would protect her. As her dad, a former baseball "captain," I would help Aubrey enjoy this glorious sport while simultaneously keeping her safe from the dangers of the game.
Isn't it funny how naïve we humans can be? It didn't take me long to learn my lesson.
One Saturday morning, about two weeks into the season, I took Aubrey to a team practice. I had talked to her coaches (a husband and wife team) beforehand and had learned that they were going to do some infield work followed by some batting practice. I knew that bats in kids hands can be a bit dangerous, so I was intent on keeping a close eye on my daughter. In my days, I had seen a couple errant bats go flying into people, and I had even been on the receiving end of a couple reckless warmup swings. Ouch! But I was determined that this wasn't going to happen to my kid.
I sat on the bleachers right behind the backstop (the tall chain-link fence behind home plate) and watched the field like a seasoned scout. This old catcher wasn't going to let anything get passed him.
The kids were fun to watch as they tried to handle the bouncing balls skipping toward them. Aubrey did pretty well, catching and throwing, and she seemed to be having a good time. It was a warm morning in St. George, Utah and the sun was beaming down as usual. I think I was enjoying this practice more than Aubrey was.
As the girls transitioned over to batting practice, the coaches teamed them up into pairs. Aubrey was matched with a nice girl named Vanessa. Aubrey got to bat first.
Batting practice consisted of one of the coaches gently lobbing a 3.5 inch diameter ball in front of the girl standing at a makeshift plate. The other girl would stand about 8 feet back from the plate and gather up any balls that went passed the hitter. I smiled to myself as I thought about how this second girl was kind of like a catcher. Aubrey was a pretty good hitter for her age (see video below) and made contact with most of the balls thrown her way. After a little bit, the coach told the girls to switch positions.
Vanessa was a nice kid, but she wasn't very athletic. Ball after ball, swing after swing, she just wasn't making any contact. To my surprise Aubrey just stood there as the softballs bounced passed Vanessa and landed around Aubrey's feet. She didn't pick any of them up or roll them back to her coach. I watched this for a couple minutes and then figured I should help out, so I yelled down to my daughter. "Aubrey, gather up the balls and roll them back to your coach." She didn't seem to hear me. I yelled again a little bit louder this time, "Aubrey, grab the balls and roll them to your coach!" Aubrey jumped to attention as if waking from a daydream. To my utter horror and disbelief, she immediately stepped over the balls lying around her own feet and walked forward to the balls next to Vanessa's feet.
As Aubrey approached and bent down, Smack!
Vanessa had swung the bat, missed the ball that had just been tossed toward her, and as the bat came around it hit Aubrey right on the forehead. Aubrey stumbled backwards. I just about jumped over the backstop to get to her. Sprinting over, I grabbed her in my arms as she was now on her knees. Her hands were touching her head and the coach was asking her if she was okay.
I didn't know how Aubrey was doing, but I was a royal mess. All my fears came tumbling down upon me like a skier getting wiped out by an avalanche of snow. I was sure my daughter just experienced a serious brain injury. Fortunately, the coach had a better view of what happened and she indicated that it wasn't as bad as it probably looked from the bleachers. Vanessa wasn't very strong, her swing was decelerating, and the bat was deflected a bit by Aubrey's hat. The coach told me it would likely leave a bruise but it seemed pretty minor to her. Still, she cautioned that I should keep an eye on her just to be safe. The coach asked Aubrey if she wanted to call it a day, and Aubrey said she did.
I took Aubrey's hand and walked her to the parking lot. As we approached our vehicle I started to cry. Aubrey stopped and looked up at me. "Dad," she said. "What's wrong? I was the one who got hit by the bat." I nodded and wiped away some tears. "Yes, that's true kid," I said. "But your dad just got clobbered by reality." She said she didn't understand, and I replied that it was okay. I feigned that I was just experiencing tears of joy because she was going to be alright.
In fact, Aubrey was fine. She didn't have much of a bruise the next day. But as for me, the incident left an indelible mark which I won't soon forget.
I cried in the parking lot that day because I realized that I had engineered the very thing that I was trying to avoid. I had attended the practice in order to keep my daughter from getting hurt, but in the end, my actions there actually led to her getting hit on the head. I had created what social scientists call a self-fulfilling prophecy. My feelings and perceptions misled me, causing me to take an action that resulted in the opposite of what I wanted.
There were at least two confounding issues that led to this result. First, I was fearful. I looked back at my own childhood past and focused too much on the negative possibilities. I allowed fear to drive my attitudes and actions regarding little league softball. That's a bit ridiculous when you think about it. Little league softball took me down.
The second problem was that I teamed up my fear with my pride. I arrogantly recast myself as some kind of softball expert who could not only see the whole field of play, but could predict the future. In my mind, I was the only one that could properly protect Aubrey from danger. Apparently my wife couldn't do it, the very competent coaches couldn't do it, and God couldn't do it either, just me. Fortunately the "old ball game" had something still to teach me.
As Yogi Berra, the great New York Yankees catcher, once said,
"Little League is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets."
For me, it not only kept me off the streets it took me to school. It taught me that certain parts of who I am can work against my more noble mission. My immediate fears and my personal pride encourage me to act in ways that run counter to my larger goals and values.
It's worth emphasizing this point. Your life purpose is more likely to be sabotaged by you than it is by the things around you. If that statement is true, maybe it's worth asking yourself what specific fears or areas of pride or unhealthy perspectives are holding you back? If we don't question our own culpability in our failure to find purpose we're liable to discount it altogether or incorrectly assume that something else is stopping us. And that's a pretty unhelpful approach, as Yogi Berra so humorously pointed out in the following baseball quote:
"I never blame myself when I'm not hitting. I just blame the bat and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn't my fault that I'm not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?"
(Credits: Baseball diamond photo by Haniel Espinal on Unsplash; little league photo and video of Aubrey at bat provided by the author; photo of Yogi Berra from Wikimedia Commons)