View From The Dugout

A College Coach's Perspective

Beware Of Lefties - Teaching Fear Through Baseball

Teaching Kids Fearfulness

As the baseball season reaches its climax and the 2009 World Series gets underway, and those of us who follow the Milwaukee Brewers are once again enviously consigned to watch other teams play on into the chilly days of October and November, I am reminded, with some ambivalence, about a fateful August night spent cheering on my baseball heroes.

imageThe night at Milwaukee's Miller Park started off on the highest of notes; it was a beautiful evening and the Brewers were playing the hapless San Diego Padres which surely guaranteed a win (it actually turned out to be a ghastly 13-6 loss) and thanks to the largesse of a good friend, my family and I had front row seats behind the visitor's dugout for the sold-out game.

I have been to many major league baseball games over the years but it was the first time for my nine year old daughter and her friend and, suitably adorned in our Brewers paraphernalia, we excitedly settled in to watch the game, eat hot dogs, watch the infamous sausage race and cheer vociferously for the home team.

I had the glow that all parents feel when they sense they are doing something good and wholesome with their kids and things got even better when one of the players flipped her a baseball between innings. It was amazing; her very first game and she gets a baseball. I have been going to games for thirty years and I only ever got one baseball and that deflected to me off the shoulder of a person sat behind me who wasn't quick enough to recover after the ball had hit them! Be that as it may, I was feeling parentally proud and somewhat heroic for providing this cultural rite of passage for my child.

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Then things changed.

Due to our proximity to the field I had mentioned that we all needed to be alert when left-handed hitters were batting in case a foul ball came in our direction. Although it was a relatively serious request it was imagereceived with about the same attention that I pay to flight attendants' instructions about where the exit rows are on airplanes; in other words , not much.
Things were fine until Prince Fielder, perhaps the biggest and most powerful baseball player in the majors lashed a foul ball over us and into the crowd several rows back.

Nobody else in our group seemed particularly bothered by it but, motivated by some sort of father-knows-best instinct, I felt a rushing compulsion to sharply and emphatically spell out again how dangerous it could be to sit in these particular seats and to be extra vigilant when a lefty was batting.
I was trying to imbue my daughter with my savvy baseball-watching experience but unfortunately the only thing I imbued her with was fear. From that point on, whenever a left-handed batter was at the plate she heeded my admonition and ducked her head below the dugout as soon as the ball was pitched in case she got hit. I pointed out that there wasn't any reason to be so afraid but, because my reaction to the earlier incident had alarmed her so much, there was no changing her mind. To her, these wonderful seats and this fantastic event were fraught with imminent danger, and as much as I tried to convince her otherwise I was fighting a losing battle.

As I sat there I became increasingly annoyed with myself for putting fear and trepidation into my child's mind when there were probably other, less dramatic ways I could have handled the situation. I had wanted this to be a great overall experience for her but my own well-intentioned anxiety had dampened her appreciation of seeing a big league game from a once-in-a-lifetime location.

It made me reflect on the other ways that parents make their kids uptight and anxious in the name of being safe and how we coddle, over-protect and sanitize their experiences because we feel we know with absolute certainty what is good for them. Nobody wants to knowingly endanger their kids and it was important to me that mine was not blind-sided by a Prince Fielder foul ball but I had no intention of fear being the medium by which she learned the lesson I was trying to impart.

There are good reasons why a kid should not run with scissors, or touch a hot stove, or cross the street without looking, or talk to strangers, or eat without washing their hands but unmeasured parental fear is not something that we want them to inherit either. I believe that when we pass on fear we handicap self-confidence and inhibit their willingness to explore, take calculated risks and learn from mistakes and misfortunes; all of which are essential developmental skills.

The onus on parents to protect and prepare their kids provides us with many teachable "Prince Fielder" moments, some obvious, some more subtle. With the best of all possible intentions I inadvertently dropped the ball at Miller Park but thankfully there will be more innings to play.

Brian Tompkins is the Head Coach of Men's Soccer at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

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