“Liam, We Talked About Your Focus!”

Once, Little League taught boys to be team players. Now, it’s about their dads berating them to maximize their personal excellence.

Mouths of a dad yelling at his son playing Little League.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

My young son is obsessed with baseball, so for the past four springs I’ve spent many golden evenings and hazy weekend mornings watching father-son psychodramas play out on the baseball fields of Prospect Park. As a dyed-in-the-non-performance-wool indoors kid who never played any sport ever, I approach these practices and games as an anthropologist might. And I have come to the conclusion that to watch a Little League game in 2018 is to see a microcosm for the confused state of contemporary malehood.

Little League has always been about teaching boys how to be men. While the original league was invented in 1939, it wasn’t until the post-WWII years that organized youth sports really took off. Middle-class American families were buying houses in suburbs and seeking community in these brave new subdivisions. Little League offered a way to get to know the neighbors while keeping the nuclear family firmly in place: Dad coached, Son played ball, while Mom and Sis cheered them on. (Girls weren’t allowed to play until 1974.) The war had necessitated some confusing gender-role shifts, but now all those Rosie the Riveters could be shuffled back to the sidelines, while families focused on sculpting the next generation of soldiers.

What’s more, a changing world order meant that being a “team player” suddenly had cultural capital. America’s postwar economy supported fewer people making a living by farming or working as self-employed tradesmen. Instead of being their own bosses, more and more men were donning suits and joining large companies. Little League and the other organized youth sports that followed were handy tools for teaching boys how to be the team-playing men they would need to be, whether they were headed to the trenches or a cubicle.

From what I’ve observed, however, learning to be a team player is no longer the focus of youth baseball, or at least not in the Pony Leagues of our urban corner of the world. The teams never really gel as teams. (Perhaps that happens in older age groups, when the kids are more likely to be there because they want to be and not just because their parents signed them up?) The coaches’ focus tends to be on the basics, and the basics tend to be what each kid can do to get on base. And the dads hang around practices and games like cargo-pants-clad personal managers, each intensely and noisily coaching only his own son. And the dads don’t hold back—I’ve never seen parents shout at their own children as much as I do during youth baseball, and I’ve been to Disneyland.

The living-vicariously sport parent has become a cultural meme, but honestly I never see fathers yelling at the coaches or the umps or even the teams, merely their own tiny sons. I’ve lost count of how many dads I’ve heard tenderly reminisce about their own baseball years, only to then turn on their young with surprising ferocity. These are 6- and 7- and 8-year-olds, who still spend a lot of time on the field spinning around until they fall down, picking dandelions in the outfield, or jumping directly upon their friends. My husband (not a yeller, thank God) suspects that the intensely dyadic attention circuit also has to do with today’s dads wanting to be more involved with their kids’ lives than their own fathers were, but not always knowing exactly how to temper that.

Game days are different than practices, because on game days the mothers are there too. The mothers don’t yell at their sons. They ask them if they are making good choices and offer them snacks and water when they look haggard. And what I hear parents worrying about is not whether the team wins, but whether their own sons will play well enough to not be grouchy afterward—because they need to head to the next activity and don’t want to have to drag along a child who is sullen because he never got on base.

So if Little League was once about preparing boys to become team-playing, nuclear-family-focused men, what is youth baseball doing now? It doesn’t seem to me that this springtime ritual is actually about preparing today’s youths for the Yankees bullpen. It doesn’t really seem to be about community either; the team families are cordial, but everyone’s lives are complicated and busy, and when parents aren’t focused on their own kid—when he isn’t at bat or pitching, that is to say—they have their noses in their phones, waiting out the languid, two-hour-minimum games.

No, it seems clear to me that the current subtext of Little League and other kids’ sports is the development of the individual—that extreme, individualistic work ethic called for by late capitalism. Every time I see a dad with a red face hustle over and yell-whisper into his minishortstop’s face, the messaging isn’t Listen to Coach, or Help your teammate. It’s: Liam, we talked about your focus. You have to stay focused.

And why not? Americans don’t place the same trust in corporate leaders or organizations of any kind as we did in the 1950s. Even in TED-talk-enlightened early-education circles, the talk is less about “team players” and more about “grit” and “agency.” It’s every man for himself in the gig economy! And so we teach our children, whether we mean to or not, to look out for themselves, to strive for personal excellence, and that their net worth—even to their fathers—is directly linked to how perfectly they can do a thing.

My son loves Pony League. He also loves the raggedy pickup games he and my husband rustle up at our local blacktop baseball diamond. But what my son loves even more is all-day baseball camp, where the coaches are semipro players and the parents aren’t around. I ask him, do the coaches yell at the kids? They do, he answers happily. They yell at all of us at the same time.

Update, June 4, 2018: This piece has been updated to clarify which youth baseball leagues the author was referring to.