Pittsburgh Sports Report
May 2005

For The Fun Of It
Pick-Up Games Offer Good Alternatives To Organized Sports
By Scott Robertson

Eleven-year old Tony Picardi of Scott Twp. plays soccer in the Chartiers Valley Athletic Association. He does it for fun. But when he really wants to have a good time, he plays soccer, baseball and basketball with his neighborhood friends.

"I like the pick-up games," he said. "We play just for fun. When we play (organized) soccer, you have to go all the way out there and listen to what the coaches tell you. The coaches can be scary sometimes."

Something scarier than a youth coach, though, appears to be happening on local playing fields - or not happening, depending on your perspective. Fewer and fewer children are participating in pick-up games, playing instead only when they are part of organized youth sports.

Tony's father, Joe Picardi, has noticed that trend as a Little League parent. He says a field near his home is almost never in use - unless it is for an organized team baseball practice.

"You might see a father and son go out there for a little while and hit and catch, or maybe a father and a small group of kids, but that's about it," Picardi said. "You don't see the pick-up games where eight or 10 or 12 kids are out there just having fun."

That has led many to believe that youth sports are becoming too organized, to the point where society is suffering. This loss not only is felt in the form of overzealous parents or coaches, but in some ways in the lack of social development among young athletes.

"I think in a lot of cases there is too much organization," said Dr. Aimee Kimball, director of Mental Training with the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine and holder of a Ph.D. in sports psychology.

"Kids (playing pick-up games) learn to be more honest," she said. "They have to call fouls on themselves (in basketball), and that requires them to be honest with themselves and the players they are playing against.

"When they are in such organized sports, they rely on referees and coaches to make their choices for them. You don't necessarily always know if you are right or wrong."

That scenario played out on a national scale in March when Temple basketball coach John Chaney ordered one of his players to go into the game and commit a hard foul against an opponent. The Temple player was put in a difficult situation - carry out an order he knew was wrong, or don't carry out the order at the risk of discipline from the coach, a potential loss of playing time and the fear of letting down his own teammates.

"It is a tough decision," Kimball said. "But in a situation like that, an athlete has to stand up and do what is right. We need to educate these kids that if something is not right, you don't have to do it. You are in the same situation when you have pitchers throwing at hitters or hockey fights going on."

Joe Picardi, 45, recalls days when he played pick-up baseball on an almost daily basis in the summers. He says kids who do not play such games probably do not improve at their chosen sports as much as they otherwise might.

"I think from the aspect of baseball, the more swings you get, the better you are going to be," Picardi said. "When you are in organized sports, where everyone has to play, that means a kid might play two games a week, and only play parts of both. So he might get a handful of at-bats in a week, and with the way kids pitch, he might only get to see one or two good pitches to hit in a week.

"When we were kids, we'd go out and play all day, just about every day, in pick-up games all summer. You were going to get a lot more pitches to hit, and a lot more chances to play and get better that way."

Playing within the rules and bettering yourself as an athlete is what youth sports are supposed to be all about. In Kimball's view, some of that attitude actually gets lost in organized sports. It is more often found in pick-up games, which, while apparently a vanishing breed, remain in many ways the purest form of athletic competition.

"When you have to call your own fouls, you have to be more honest," Kimball said. "Kids are taught today to sell the tag in baseball. I know when I played softball, that's what we were taught. You aren't able to do that in pick-up games. Those games almost require you to be more honest.

"It's at that time that kids are playing for fun and the enjoyment of the game. It's not necessarily all about winning or losing. They are playing to get better. In the levels of organized sports, it becomes more about who is the best out there. A lot of kids miss out on the fun. They get furious when they are not the best."

This is not to say that organized sports are bad for children, or that exposure to them should be taken as a negative. In many cases, they give more kids a chance to play and provide vital learning tools.

"I think it's true that in some cases in organized sports, there is too much pressure put on the kids to win," said Tom Rapp, 39, president of the Forward Twp. Athletic Association. "We try to instill in them that it is not all about winning. It's supposed to be a recreational thing.

"Another thing is that certain kids don't live in neighborhoods where there are enough other kids to play a pick-up game. In that sense, we are providing an opportunity for more kids to play. We give them a night or two per week where they can interact with their friends and they can develop socially. If it wasn't for organized sports, some kids would not get to play at all."

Rapp, 39, who has been president of the FTAA for three-plus years, said parental interference with coaches remains a problem, but organizations such as his work to instill in the kids the value of team sports.

"What we want to do is instill values in the kids - not just in terms of playing baseball or softball, but lessons that will help them as they grow older," Rapp said. "We are trying to teach them values that they can use for the rest of their lives. Organized sports is a great place for them to learn those things."

While youth sports are supposed to be fun and learning experiences for kids, many who watch youth sports take the measure to the extreme, suggesting that scores should not be kept if the kids are in it for fun and to get better.

Kimball disagrees with that notion.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with keeping score," she said, allowing that most kids participating in sports would know the scores in their heads anyway. "The problem is that there is too much emphasis on (the score). I try to tell parents that if they miss their child's game, they should not allow their first question to be about who won the game. They should ask whether their child had fun playing, or maybe if they were able to make improvement in a skill they had been working on. It doesn't really matter who wins at that stage. It's good to try to win, but it's more important to be happy with you effort and trying to be the best player you can be."

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