I was on the phone with my brother earlier this week, and he told me that he had to stop playing in his rec soccer league because it interfered with travel. When I asked him how he felt about it, his answer caught me off guard. “I don’t really care,” he said, “travel is better and people take it more seriously.” I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised, as he’s a kid who likes to surround himself with the most competitive people possible. Still, I couldn’t help feel a little disappointed for him. Throughout my baseball career, rec leagues provided a much-needed- and possibly even more enjoyable- reprieve from high school and travel ball.
I played baseball all four years in high school, and was on the varsity team my Junior and Senior years. We weren’t quite an elite team but enjoyed some moderate success, and our record was always comfortably over .500. Every year, on the first day after the final cuts were made, when the team was finally set, our coach would give the exact same speech: “I promise you that we will be State Sectional champions this year, and I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that becomes a reality. Right now, I want you to think about what you are going to demand from yourselves to make that happen, what kind of work you are going to put in” (spoiler alert: we never won State Sectionals). There’s nothing wrong with a coach setting goals for a team, especially in a competitive environment, but looking back on it, it’s a little odd that he promised we would be champions from day one (especially since he said it after we didn’t win the previous year). Did everyone on the team want to win State Sectionals? Of course. But to me, his speech seems pretty ridiculous. He made our entire existence on the team about one goal, one moment, when we were not even structured to achieve it. We always had great pitching staffs, but never had the ability to put up enough runs to reach an elite level. Why didn’t our coach start the season with a speech about becoming better hitters, or having better plate discipline?
Every year, when the State Sectional tournament rolled around, finally winning it was all I could think about. My Senior year, we made it to the Sectional finals, our goal right in front of us. In the later innings of the game, our second baseman made a crucial error that allowed the other team to score two runs. We lost 3-1 (surprise: we couldn’t hit), and the team was heartbroken. Winning the tournament was all we ever heard about, and our final chance to do so had come and gone. In the following weeks, it seemed like nobody acknowledged anything else the team accomplished. Our second baseman was vilified, even though he was one of the best players on the team all year long, and the season was treated as an absolute failure, even though we went 17-2 and beat our crosstown rivals twice.
From day one, our coach instilled in us the culture of unbridled achievement orientation that Eric Dunning talks about in his essay “The Dynamics of Modern Sport: Notes on Achievement- Striving and the Social Significance of Sport.” Everything we did, whether it was sprints in the preseason or long hours shagging fly balls for outfield practice, was centered around the State Sectional championship. Eventually, it took some of the enjoyment out of playing. There were a couple of weeks left in the season after the tournament, but the team was incredibly deflated. Failing to achieve what we were supposed to had crushed us.
Eventually, after the season was over, the whole baseball program decided to set up a night league to maintain a team identity over the summer. The games were still extremely competitive, as all the teams were made up of mostly high school varsity players, but there was not really a sense of achievement involved. We were just playing to enjoy the game an keep improving as a group. As a result, I enjoyed my time in our league more than I ever had in high school. Without the looming State Sectional title, I felt like I could play without any restrictions. I dove for fly balls without worrying about the risk involved, I swung on 3-0 counts, something the coach would never approve of, and I threw curve balls when I was down 2-1, something I never would have considered in regular season play. The same level of competition was still there, and without it it would not have been enjoyable, but the achievement orientation was not. Without the pressure of attaining a singular goal, I was able to recapture the “play element” that Dunning talks about.
I’m not opposed to setting a goal as a team, and in fact I think it’s healthy for teams to do so. I do, however, think that playing without goals every once in a while can help to reconnect someone with his or her sport. Every once in a while, it’s nice to relax a little and play the game without any outside forces impacting your decisions. Sometimes it’s great to just take that long three-pointer, go for the forehand winner, or dive for that ball in the outfield, without having to worry whether its going to cost you the championship.