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