Just Let the Kids Play
How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s
Fun and Success in Youth Sports
By Bob Bigelow, Tom Moroney and Linda Hall.
Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications,
Bob Bigelow grew up in Winchester, Mass. After a sudden growth spurt, he
became a high school basketball star, and received an athletic scholarship
to the University of Pennsylvania, where he played under Chuck Daly. Bigelow
was a first round NBA draft pick, and played four seasons with the Kings,
Clippers, and Celtics. He received an MBA from Babson College and since
1992 he has been delivering lectures around the country on the subject
of youth sports.
Bob Bigelow interviewed by David Nevard and Norman
Neu. Saturday, March 23, 2002:
D: I saw you on Waltham cable access many years ago. I had told Norman
N: Then we saw the Globe Magazine article. That’s where it started.
It may be the first and only time there’s been an
article written about me, that went to the back room stuff. Most of the
time it’s bad coaches, bad parents, blah blah blah. Which is good stuff.
This is the first time they did the Little League draft, the testosterone,
and as I like to say, Rotisserie Youth Baseball. And all the egos and all
the fun stuff.
We were wondering, how did we get from Point A to Point B. When we were
growing up it was, “Where are you going?” “Down the playground.” “OK, be
back for supper…” to the highly organized situation we’re in now.
Well, there’s two major societal changes in the
last 30 years. The first one of course being mothers who work. Our mothers
didn’t work, generally. They worked in the house, they worked hard, but
they didn’t work for pay. So what happened is the playgrounds of our youth,
the sandlots, were places we could go, have our fun, come home for lunch,
go back, have our fun, come home for dinner, go out after dinner – that
sort of thing. The neighborhoods were full of moms.
Now what happens is, in most places, with the moms
working… Now as parents, we are truly concerned about what happens to our
children during non-school hours. So in the non-school hours, between three
and nine at night on weekdays, now we set up activities for children that
are organized and structured. And that’s not just sports of course, there’s
a whole panoply of act ivies. But sports has certainly crept into that
void, the last 15 or 20 years, at a phenomenal rate. So what ended up happening
is probably the – I call it the 800-pound Gorilla – of organized youth
sports in this country is soccer. Which was what I call the Great Seventies
Before 1970, there was no such thing as pre-ninth
grade soccer in this country, other than in ethnic enclaves in cities:
Lithuanian, Portuguese. In places like that, soccer had been around since
the turn of the last century. But what happened is that soccer became sort
of the suburban, exurban sport of kids. They were the first sport to go
after 5-6-7 year olds on an organized venture. As you both remember, Little
League Baseball (which has been around since 1939) never started until
8 yrs old. They weren’t allowed to.
When soccer came into the fold in the Seventies, we
soon saw the advent of T-ball. Because obviously the people who do baseball
understood that kids couldn’t pitch a ball over the plate. Much less hit
it if it came over the plate.
So they were competing with soccer for the players?
They were competing with soccer for those kids.
Now the interesting part about this is that if you think of it, they probably
developed the most age-inappropriate sport, for an age group, ever developed.
Because 6 year olds – which is why soccer is a great sport, because they
just go chase a ball. You run. In T-ball, you stand around. The last thing
you ever want is kids standing around, especially at that age.
It’s hard to get them to stand in one place.
Exactly. You have to have adults telling them to
sit down and be quiet, which is not what they should be doing.
By the way, my favorite T-ball story – when I was
first on the radio with Dale Arnold on WEEI probably 7 or 8 yrs ago I got
a letter from a guy in Westford, and he said nice things about what I had
to say on Dale’s show. And he said “Bob I coach my son in T-ball.” His
son at the time was probably six years old. And he says, “After T-ball
practice…” The first thing I did when I called the guy, “I said what the
hell is T-ball practice? What do you
So he said, “After T-ball practice tonight I asked
my son and one of his friends, ‘What they liked best about T-ball?’ Both
of the kids said, ‘We love going after practice, after the games, over
to the playground, playing on the slide.’” So he said, “I assumed
I wasn’t engaging them enough in my T-ball.”
So I called him and I said, “Jeff, let me ask you
a question. If you were to ask every 6 year old in the country playing
T-ball, what would you rather do, play T-ball or go play on a playground,
what would there answer be? And of course the answer is the playground.
And I looked at him and I said, Jeff, what do kids do on playgrounds? Well,
they go to the swings, they go to the slides, they’re back to the fort,
they’re all over the place. What do you do in T-ball that replicates that?”
And he says, “Nothing. They stand around.”
So, what ended up happening, is the Little League
folks, and later on the Youth Baseball folks, the reason they started this,
is because they thought they were going to lose kids to soccer. Which wouldn’t
be the case finally, they wouldn’t. What they did is they developed a game
after what the adults would play. And this to me is always one of the biggest
program challenges in sports is so many of these people try to adapt the
kids to the game, instead of adapting the game to the kids. Physical education
people have known this for a hundred years. But you rarely see physical
education people running community-organized youth sports in this country.
It is run by butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, sales consultants, writers,
lawyers, people who don’t have what I call “the kid piece”. They have kids,
but they don’t understand what it’s like to be 10, 8, 6 years old….
Once you become adults, you bring adult thinking to
activities you do, including the ones you structure for kids. My co-writer
Tom Moroney says it staves off the adult brain chaos. And that’s what we
do when we organize. But in so many cases we tend to over-organize and
over-structure. And make these leagues and tournaments and structures with
adult brains. And that’s where in the last 20 or 30 years where we have
gone down some very wrong roads.
We were talking about high school hockey, where they play 16 or 18 games
a season, compared to Youth Hockey, where they might play 40 or 50.
All the high school sports in this country which
are generally 14 to 19 year old, were programmed and designed by educators.
They are run by the state high school athletic activities associations.
Ours in this state is called the MIAA. And they are made of committees
of administrators, high school administrators, principals, superintendents,
board of education people, school committees, athletic directors, coaches.
So what they do is they have a certain starting time, a certain ending
time, a certain amount of games that can be played. Because the mission
of high school sports, of course, is to get kids diplomas. That’s what
And the sports which can be such a valuable part of
a teenager’s life, is used as an enhancement of that. Burt once you get
to Youth Sports, these are not run by confederations of educators. They
are run oftentimes at the community level, by boards of mostly dads. Oftentimes
their agendas are not necessarily for all the kids. It’s for the advancement
of their son or daughter through the system. And that’s where sometimes
we can go off on the wrong track. And I ask boards all the time, “How many
of you have a physical educator, a child psychologist, or a pediatrician
on any one of your boards?” Of course, I never get a hand raised. And I
say, “Who’s representing the children? Here you have activity in the programs
for children, but there’s not one expert on children on your board. Why?”
That always gets a furrowed brow.
Are these programs producing better athletes?
No. What they’re doing is producing the better athletes
earlier on, who are deemed the better athletes by those who are running
the system. But in the long run, they’re not producing better athletes.
When I was a senior in high school, the best five
basketball players in the state were me, Ronnie Lee, Bobby Carrington,
Steve Strothers, and King Gaskins. You take the top 5 last 10 years, we
beat every one of those – none of us had travel, AAU, all this off-season
stuff now…. They had community centers and playgrounds and gyms. I grew
up in Winchester never even playing the freaking sport until I was 14 years
old. What these systems at the younger ages do, is they systematically
eliminate late blooming kids. That’s all they do.
Your future baseball players, your hockey players,
your basketball players, your soccer players, are all anointed early. But
you’d better have the early gross-motor skills and kinesthetic awareness
and balance and coordination, or else you’re out. The coaches at these
community levels pick their best kids, the “less worse” as I call them,
and “let’s get on the road and go play Duxbury. And play their best.”
We now have 4th grade travel basketball,
in the Greater Boston area, where kids try out for 12 spots and get cut.
Have either of you guys ever seen 4th grade basketball? It is
the most awful stuff going. The best 6th grade basketball player
in the country stinks. Everybody else is worse! We’re now cutting 4th
grade players. So we can go play Sharon.
The theory is that the elite will play other elites and thus be made
Exactly. And it’s all the wrong stuff. Because pre-pubescent
athletic ability is a meaningless indicator of post-pubescent athletic
ability. The two greatest male basketball players in the history of this
world, #2 Michael Jordan, #1 Bill Russell, were respectively 5’9” and 5’10”
their sophomore years in high school. Fifteen years old. And by the way,
both of them would not have made the Weston varsity as sophomores this
year, with their sophomore talent. And they’re the two best ever. You can
be sure that Michael Jordan and Bill Russell are glad they didn’t grow
up in communities with travel basketball. And you can be damn sure Bob
Bigelow is happy, because I wouldn’t have made it here.
We were talking about driving around and seeing empty playgrounds. What
does that mean?
The unfortunate thing – and this is hard to tell
people, because of course this is the delicious irony of what I do for
a living – 35 to 55 year old, primarily guys, who all grew up the same
way we did, the playgrounds and sand lots with no adults. Now of course
we’re hell bent to get our kids on skates by the time they’re 4, and into
rinks. Or into T-ball by age 5, with their tee shirts. And get them their
first trophy by age 6. This is delicious irony. We never remember what
happened to us. So what ends up happening without the playgrounds – and
if the playgrounds are full they’re full of structured programs – the kids
never learn how to put their hands on a bat, and pick who’s going to bat
first. They never learn that with only six kids there you have to close
off right field, and call every ball hit there an out. They don’t develop
and modify and adapt their own games. That’s what happens. And that’s what
they’ve lost. Everything is structured and governed and organized and refereed
One thing we’ve heard in baseball is that the younger players coming
up now don’t have the arm strength that they used to because they don’t
play catch any more.
If these kids 8 and 9 years old are playing on a
team – the Tangerines or the Athletics or whatever their name is – over
the course of April 15 to June 15, but all they’re doing is either showing
up to games or making the occasional practice. And what you and I did,
as kids, what we played structured Little League was probably 5% of our
total baseball experience. The other 95% was the pickup games on the playgrounds.
Think of the thousands of throws and catches and hits and fielders and
grounders and flies that we caught. And if you just look at the sheer number,
that’s why they don’t have the arm strength.
Do you know how much long-toss I spent from ages 8
to 14 years old before I took up basketball? I was throwing baseballs a
mile. That’s why I still have a very strong arm to this day. I just threw
and threw and threw some more. And probably 5% of what I threw was in organized
baseball. The other 95% was on the playground after the game was over.
We’d just hang around another two hours and play again. That’s what’s missing.
My bet is the Dominican kids, the Caribbean kids,
who are now as you know populating baseball to the max – this is what they
do. It’s what Pele does in the barrio of Sao Paolo, Brazil, with those
soccer kids, in all those countries. Kicking a can or a stuffed sock around.
Not even a ball. For hours at a time. Eventually some of them pop up world
We talked to old-time semipro guys grew who up in the Thirties – they’d
walk down the street and pick up a team by the time they got to the end
of the street. Families were bigger in those days.
Families were bigger when we were growing up. We
were the baby boomer era. As you well know, it was not unusual to have
3 or 7 or even 12 kids. The baby boomer era will never come this way again.
Winchester High School when I went through in the late Sixties, early Seventies
routinely had classes of over 400 kids. Those classes are now somewhere
between 200 and 250. We’re going through a baby boomlet right now. Ten
years ago those classes were under 200. My parents got married in their
early twenties. My mother had four kids by the time she was 27. My wife
and I got married in our thirties and we had two kids. That’s the change
in demographics, the last thirty or forty years. So there are fewer kids
around, yes, and therefore with the playgrounds, and obviously fewer structured
opportunities for us, we had to make do on our own. So what did we do?
Walked down the street, pick up a couple kids, 8 year olds or 10 years
olds or 12 year olds, go find a spot, and go play. And the guys you interview
who grew up in the cities would probably tell you about stickball, and
all the other derivatives of stickball, where the hydrant was first base
and the car up on blocks was second. Then you had a broom handle, and you
probably had half a tennis ball.
They still have a Half Ball Tournament in Charlestown.
But it’s funny. How did we make do, without anything?
No coach. No equipment. We’d modify. We played a game here in Winchester
called punch ball. Remember those pink rubber balls that were so popular?
We didn’t have a bat. We would hit it out of our hand with a fist, and
run the bases. It’s just another derivative of baseball. And we’d play
that game with three people, six people, a hundred people! Whoever showed
up. I remember doing that, recess and playgrounds, all the time, in elementary
How about the element of parents just being afraid of what might happen
to their kids?
That’s the other societal change. I didn’t get to
the second one. The second one was single parent families, which there
are more of now. The third one is, of course, even in our posh suburbs,
we tend to be a little more reserved and scared about what our 10 year
olds are doing away from us. You know back when I was 10, my mother said,
“Sure, ride your bike down to the local playground.”
Even, “Get out of the house.”
For sure I’d get the hell out. And for sure I’d
be coming back for lunch because I was hungry. But we’re not necessarily
quite as easy as that any more. In fact that kid in Cambridge, Jeffrey
Curley, that awful thing with the two men – that’s every parent’s nightmare,
what happened there. And that’s why. That’s a one-in-a-million shot, but
it was dramatic headlines. That’s what we’re all worried about, even in
the nicer suburbs, the Westons and the Winchesters, we’re worried. So now
we’ve got to make sure that it’s structured, there’s an adult there, etc.
In your book, the first part is describing what has gone wrong, and
the second part is: How do we straighten it out?
Well, it’s what I call the elementary school recess
approach. One of the things I tell people in my talk is, “One of the things
I’m going to make you do, before you ever go back to an athletic venue
with kids, is watch recess for five hours.” And, what we’ve got to do is
we’ve got to structure the time. We’re not going back to Leave It to
Beaver. The time has got to be structured where there’s an adult supervisor
there. But once the kids get there, let ‘em go play. And this is really
no different from the thousands of recreation programs that we had when
we were kids. I remember here in Winchester, the rec department used to
have probably a college student or two, at the playground. And there were
balls and bats and gimp, remember that stuff? I loved that stuff.
And what we would do was go play games. There’d be
a supervisor, and adult there, probably a college kid, 20 or 22 years old.
And we’d go play. Sometimes the kid joined us, sometimes he didn’t. It
would be a structured program. But the activities would be unstructured.
Let the kids go. And it’s something I’m constantly telling the adults
that run these programs: the kids will figure it out on their own, if you
let them. Let them call “out of bounds”. Let them call their own fouls.
Let them play pickup. But they’ll be playing pickup at a place with adult
supervisors, and adult supervision. You won’t be drilling them. You won’t
be telling them to get their hand up on the bat.
We used to spend half the game arguing. Maybe it was part of the fun.
You know, you think it’s half the game. But if you
did a time study, it was very little. Cause I’ll tell you about that arguing.
It lasts a very short time, because generally the argument is only between
two kids. And you’ve got seven other kids sitting there saying, “Will you
quit your arguing? Let’s go play.” Because children – and sociologists
have studied this for 40 years – children left to their own devices will
play games. Adults left to their own devices, with kids, will play rule-based
games. They’ll consult the rulebook and the bylaws. They’ll stick an umpire
in there to screw it up! But the sociologists have studied this thousands
and thousands and thousands of hours. I’ve got studies up the wazoo.
I was reading a book about kids’ games, and one of the interesting things
was all the Tag games, where you have It and Not It. There’s all these
rituals for, How do figure out who’s It? Like sometimes everybody yells
“Not It!” and the kid who’s slowest gets to be It...
This is anthropology, this is what all the sociologists
have done the last 30 or 40 years, is really anthropologists, studying
our own little societies. And that’s what kids on playgrounds want. Our
own little secret society. With our own rules modified, not day after day
– hour after hour! Depending on the number of kids, how old… I’ll throw
something at you guys:
There’s a guy named Clark
Power. He is the director out at Notre Dame of the center for sport,
character, and culture… I was at a conference in New Hampshire about a
year ago and Clark did about an hour piece. And he looks at everybody and
he says, “We are all familiar that America is a democracy. Then he goes
into the Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Declaration of Independence,
that stuff. A little history lesson. I want to ask you a question. Our
children are not allowed to vote until 18 years old. But before 18 years
old, how many chances do they get, in their lives, to actually experience
democracy? Not learn about it, they learn that in school. But actually
He said, “Let’s take traditional school. It’s not
truly a democracy, obviously you’ve got a teacher, you’ve got work to do,
etc., etc. That’s not really a democracy. Let’s talk about youth sports.
That’s not a democracy. You’ve got coaches, you’ve got administrators,
you’ve got assistant coaches, you’ve got games to play, you’ve got practices
to run. I wouldn’t call that a democracy.”
He said, “So where are our children left, in this
0 to 18 age frame, that they get democracy?”
One of my friends popped up his hand, “Hey, how about
And Clark looks at him and says, “How much pickup
do we have these days?”
And then he began to go into a 20-minute treatise
on pickup, or playground, or unorganized sports. And I’d never thought
about it before. So he throws out this little thing: “Let’s say you have
10 kids in an area; they’re playing pickup baseball. The two or three oldest
are twelve. The two or three youngest are eight. Everybody else is somewhere
in the middle, nine, ten, eleven.” He said, “If those two or three twelve-year-olds
are probably the best of the players – they’re the oldest, the most coordinated,
gifted. If they become too tyrannical, what happens to the other kids?
They leave! And what happens is those two or three tyrants are left on
their own. It’s a little tougher now to have your baseball game now, with
two or three of us. So what they have to be is sort of benevolent despots.
Now we’re getting closer to democracy. That have to control the game, but
they can’t be so controlling that kids are going to say, ‘well I don’t
like this any more’ and go leave.”
And he says, “Now we’re getting down to the fundamentals
of democracy.” I’d never thought about it this way. And that’s what we
were doing, on all our little playgrounds. We were sort of learning democracy
in its own little messy fashion. Was it perfect? Of course not. Nothing
is. But the younger ones had to get along with the older ones and vice
versa. If the older ones were too tyrannical, the younger ones just left
and did their own thing.
So they may have been sort the governors – the older
kids – but they to sort of govern by the will of the people, the rest of
them. Because if they didn’t, bye-bye.
I was just thinking of, in a pickup game, the kid who won’t swing, who
wants the perfect pitch. Everybody else playing gets on him – “c’mon, swing,
swing the bat, we wanna play.”
And maybe one of the older kids would say, OK, slow
the pitch down, get in closer, let the kid get a hit. Because what they
would realize very soon, if the kid wasn’t swinging, no one was doing anything.
They’re all standing around. And the interesting thing about this is, of
course, if you started the game and after two or three ups, the game was
12-0, everything switched. Some of the people on the 12 went to the team
that was 0. You’d balance the teams. No one would stay that way, because
it was boring for both sides. But we did this on our own. We never needed
an adult to help us. It was messy, it was murky, and there might have been
a few bloody noses, but it was kind of the formation of all our little
Clark said this two years ago, I give him credit all
the time, I never really thought of it like that. When do we get a chance
from 0 to 18 to experience democracy?
These were all little democratic societies, in their
own way. And sometimes they were parliamentary, sometimes they were a monarchy
– there might have been one bigger kid and he sort of ruled. But after
awhile they found out – the ones who were ruling these little societies
– that they’d have to give and take. Because if they didn’t, then they
wouldn’t have their games. So that was kind of the cute thing about it.
This is what the kids today are missing, by not doing
it. Although you see it every now and then. In fact some kids were over
here with their Dad who I know. They were here about two summers ago. The
kids were playing Wiffle Ball in the back yard. There kids that were 5
and kids that were 10, and anywhere in between. And I told him, “Watch
this for ten minutes. I’m not going to say a word. And tell me what you
think the difference is between this and one of their organized T-Ball
games or minors, or whatever it was.” He had a beer and went on the back
porch. And after ten minutes I said, “What’s the difference?” He’d picked
it up. None of them ever stood still.
They were always active. And that’s what doesn't happen
in structured baseball. And that’s why structured youth baseball in this
country, in the next five years, is going to take a real hit on the bow
with lacrosse. For that reason alone. I think soccer has made its way.
I don’t think soccer numbers are going to impinge on baseball any more.
That would have happened on the last 20 to 25 years, and it’s leveled.
But lacrosse is the new kid on the block.