Soccer in the SandlotWhat the delightfully nostalgic baseball film ‘The Sandlot’ can teach us about our sport
by Ken Sweda | Tuesday, July 24, 2012
“Yer killin’ me, Smalls!!”
So declares the tubby, freckled Hamilton “Babe” Porter to the new kid, Scotty Smalls, in one of the many memorable scenes from the whimsical film The Sandlot. Young Smalls has just revealed one example too many of his major flaw: he knows absolutely nothing whatsoever about how to be a kid.
The movie is a wonderfully conceived document of the freedom of youth, and the pure love of a game. It is seen through the preteen eyes of a crew of neighborhood characters whose never-ending games of sandlot baseball mark their summers while providing the one constant in their ever-more-complicated lives.
When newcomer Smalls, a reluctant, straight-laced lad moves into the subdivision and begins to interact with the regulars at his mom’s insistence, the existing dynamic is tested, and the adventures and lessons ensue. And Smalls, with some cajoling from the “Babe” and the others, finally begins to embrace the many pastimes of childhood.
Before we meet young Smalls, however, we get a glimpse of the importance that baseball, the sport they love, plays in the lives of this amiable bunch. We see their affection for it, their devotion to it and its heroes. Each child plays the game for the sheer joy of it—none are part of any organized team, but each shows up to the sandlot every morning without fail to delight in the game and its nuances. Each member of the gang stands out in his own special way and makes his own contribution to the proceedings. Their pursuit provides a depth of experience that becomes its own reward and fulfills each participant in a way that trophies, standings and screaming parents cannot rival.
The best player in The Sandlot’s ranks is Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, a phenom that may in fact have a future in the game. He takes young Scotty under his wing and tutors him while infusing in him the love he already has. All the while, Benny resists calls to join a “real team”, preferring instead to play the “real game” with his friends and fellow die-hards. During Benny’s ascendance there is no jealousy, no sabotage. There is merely the excitement of having had the chance to play with such a talent. And there is recognition and respect on the part of Benny that the sandlot and its inhabitants made him who he is.
Indeed, when the boys are challenged by the local travelling team, all decked out in their fancy uniforms, Benny is as excited as the rest to put the braggarts in their place. The ease and spirit with which the sandlot boys dispatch their privileged rivals is predictable if not telling. Sure they were happy to win, but it’s how and why they did it that mattered.
As we follow the boys on their journey, Benny’s talents eventually outgrow the sandlot, and the film flashes forward to a perfect ending, with Benny making an appearance in the big leagues, and his old pal Scott Smalls broadcasting from the press box, now a knowledgeable and passionate adult.
But what does any of this, a fanciful if believable baseball tale, have to do with footy?
Namely this: it is the richness of the sandlot experience that is at the heart of soccer around the world, and unfortunately it is one of the things decidedly lacking in the North American soccer landscape. The most creative and intuitive players around the globe often come from areas where there is no money for organized soccer at the very early ages. The players begin to play on their own, informally, in their version of the sandlot. And eventually, if they are good enough, they will find a neighborhood coach who is willing to take a chance on them. The coach will look to mold the skills the player has begun to develop on his own, readying the player for the team dynamic, rather than strip those individual abilities away.
In the US and Canada, things are, frankly, just the opposite. There is no sandlot soccer culture here, no informal self-play or participation for its own sake. Most young players’ first exposure to the game here comes in an oppressively organized fashion, often lacking in the individual fundamentals that might keep a young player engaged. First, tactics and group play are often introduced too early and to the exclusion of encouraging technical ability and a deep personal feel for the game. And shortly thereafter, when the joy of the game should be taking flight, we quickly move on to employing those tactical and team concepts in a short-sighted and misguided pursuit of victory.
What can we as parents, fans and coaches realistically do to relieve the pressure on our youngest and most treasured, but also most impressionable, players?
Most importantly, delay the focus on winning; become educated in the game and concentrate instead on development, so that when competition finally does become more important, our young players feel better able to handle it. The elephant in the room is that winning is often far more important to the parents, and consequently the coaches, than it is to the kids. It’s about time we took ownership of our role in this, changed our attitude about what’s really important in youth soccer – and deal with it. The reality is that development and a winning mentality can coexist. I’ve seen it in my own youth team but the environment needs to be right.
In addition to changing our focus, I believe we need to add the component of self-play, and the passion, understanding and creativity it can foster.
Yes, that’s correct – our children need to play MORE soccer.
Not organized, overly-scrutinized soccer but fun, engaging, stimulating pressure-free soccer. No time? Worried about overdoing it? Studies have shown that adding informal soccer does not burn players out or make them more susceptible to injury, as the movements and requirements are not as rigid and repetitive as a typical “coached” session. All you need is a single parent to sit and watch, and the kids will take it from there.
In short: Enough with the excuses. Let them play. And let them forge their own relationship with the game, mistakes and all. It costs absolutely nothing.
On the sandlot, “if you can play, you can stay.” It sounds like a challenge, and it is. But it is also a clarion call to join up and join in. And if you can’t yet hang, well, hang around until you can. The game’s not going anywhere.
Think of the sandlot baseball games, the pickup basketball games or the gridiron football at recess. Where is their American and Canadian equivalent? Call it sandlot soccer or pickup soccer. Frankly, call it whatever you want. Simply get them out and play. And don’t say a word, unless it’s to encourage them and help them break free to experience the real game.
Let them play with no rules, other than the rules of sportsmanship. Help them play with no fear, other than the fear they might run out of daylight. Allow them to play with no responsibilities, other than the responsibility for taking ownership of the game for themselves.
Think you can’t make a difference? I had nearly 35 young players come to each of two pickup games last week, enjoying and pushing themselves on three roughly marked and dusty fields … sandlots.
I played alongside these wonderful young people.
And as we pressed on into the fading daylight, I may have rediscovered my own childhood.
In fact, I’m sure I did.