A Psychologist on Why Youth Baseball Stresses Kids Out

A coaching expert and sports psychologist on how parents can help children overcome the bizarre psychology a difficult sport.

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Baseball is a battle against failure. The chances of a successful pitch or a base hit almost never climb to even. This means that the reality of baseball — the experience of playing and making plays — is fundamentally at odds with what coaching expert and sports psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor describes as the “winning-obsessed” culture of the youth sports industrial complex. And the cognitive dissonance of being pushed to win in a game that comes with failure baked in often creates intense psychological pressure for kids too young to cope. This is why Little League, which should be relaxed and fun, can feel so fraught.

Taylor, an Ironman triathlete and author of Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation to Achieve Your Sports Goals, spoke with Fatherly about the psychological strain of youth baseball and why parents should keep it very chill in the bleachers.

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Every sport rewards a different sort of mental preparedness. They are all, in a sense, mental games. But baseball does seem a bit different. How is it, unlike other sports?

It’s an individual sport in an odd sort of way. The pitcher is pitching and nobody can help them. The hitter is hitting and nobody can help them. There are some team components, but the way you perform as an individual really affects your teammates. If you strike out or make an error that affects the team and the outcome.

Baseball creates a lot of individual pressure. It’s not just the individual success or failure, but the fact that the individual success or failure leads to the team’s success or failure. There’s more on the line, which affects the anxiety and pressure kids feel.

How do kids reconcile the fact that baseball is a game of averages, where individual games are less important than the arc of a season?

Imagine any other career path where you can succeed a third of the time and be paid millions of dollars. It wouldn’t work in surgery, that’s for sure.

The game of baseball is incredibly focused on failure. If kids see an at-bat as so important, that creates tremendous pressure that creates poor performance. Instead, they should see the at-bat as just another in perhaps hundreds of at-bats. If they can go to the plate understanding their odds of failure are greater than their odds of succeeding, that takes the pressure off.

So what is a parents role in this? Are you telling your kid to get out there and have fun failing?

The best thing to do at a game is shut up. Parents have a tremendous capacity to believe that they can affect their child’s performance if they can just say the right thing. Parents don’t have that magical ability. They do, however, have an evil magical power that can cause a kid to play poorly.

Saying anything related to results is like putting an evil curse on your child. When they walk up to the plate then, what are they focused on? Results. And when do the results occur? After the at-bat. What are they not focused on? The process. The fundamental thing for parents is don’t talk about results — hits, averages, game wins, whatever. Kids don’t need to hear about results. They know that winning matters. Parents need to be the counterbalance.

Okay. So how do parents act as that counterbalance? Is there anything they can do or say?

Before a game, give your kids a hug and a kiss and say ‘I love you.’ Nothing else. Not, ‘Have fun.’ Not, ‘Keep your elbow up.’ Nothing like that. Just, ‘I love you.’ After the game, win or lose, three strikes out or a home run, say, ‘I love you.’ That’s it. Not ‘Good game,’ not ‘Way to go,’ not ‘Good effort,’ and definitely not criticism. They don’t need to be coached. They need to know that you still love them. Parents have a tendency to send a message that this game is really important or was really important and you know what? It’s not.

But that seems so much at odds with the popular culture and media narratives that kids are exposed to all the time, right?

Kids get so many messages in this youth sports industrial complex that it’s all about winning. If parents hammer that message home the kids are doomed. Because the fact is that at baseball they’re going to lose way more often than they succeed and not every team in the league can have a winning season. I see kids in tears all the time after a game. That’s so horrible, because that’s showing it’s super important to them, and that losing is a bad thing and that their parents might not love them anymore. That’s the reason why 70 percent of kids drop out of organized sports between the ages of 8 and 13. It’s no fun and it’s stressful.

What if your kid has already taken on the attitude that the pitch or at bat is everything. Can you deprogram a kid like that?

It’s a challenge for sure. But if parents see this happening with their kid, they just talk to them and offer a different perspective. You can tell them that other people believe that, but we as a family do not believe that. We believe you give your best effort. You fail. You learn. That’s life. This lays the foundation for success because if a kid goes in feeling like a hit is life or death the chances of them getting a hit are next to nil.

So is there anything parents can do to help a kid improve?

Being successful at bat or on the mound requires confidence and relaxation. They need to focus on the three Ps. They need to focus on positive things: ‘I’m getting this hit!’ They need to focus on the process: ‘What do I need to do to get this hit?’ And they need to focus on the present: ‘What do I need to do now?’

These are mental muscles. And muscles need to be exercised. So working on helping kids focus and be positive and build their confidence comes through practice. These mental muscles get strengthened the same way they strengthen physical muscles.

Interested in Little League? Check out Fatherly’s complete guide to all things Little League and youth baseball related. We’ve got great coaching tips, funny stories about life in the dugout, and features about the past and future of one of America’s great athletic institutions.

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