Last year, around this time, when the snow was melting and there were puddles in the gutters, my youngest son, Lindell, did not make the Little League team. Although this will sound silly to some people, it was a terrible thing to go through, and I have waited, as the snow started melting again, with dreadful anticipation for this year’s tryouts. I’m a big proponent of real competition and only giving winners the trophies they’ve earned, but that doesn’t make it any less brutal when your own child is on the losing side of things.
Both Lindell’s older brothers, Ford and Owen, had made the Little League team when they were 9 years old, and in many ways, we all just assumed Lindell would be “in,” too. That was our first mistake. The next mistake, according to Ford, was my tendency to talk about the upcoming Little League season like Lindell had already made a team. But we were all about to learn how the participation-trophy mentality has creeped into our society and how it ultimately affects kids’ motivation.
Lindell has never been part of an organization that gives out participation trophies, but he, like many of his peers, still sometimes suffers from a belief that things should come easily. In hindsight, I realize he did not feel a sense of urgency for last year’s tryouts. I remember that morning, before we left for the high school, where coaches would evaluate the players, Ford offered to play catch with Lindell in the front yard.
“Nah, too wet out there,” Lindell had said.
“You really need to get warmed up,” Ford said.
“I’ll warm up when I get there,” Lindell told him.
And when we got to the tryouts, Lindell seemed neither too nervous nor very focused.
Still, stupidly, we all thought he’d make it.
So it was quite a shock when Lindell’s friends all got “the call” and he did not. For nearly two hours, Lindell cried and asked me “why,” while his older brother unhelpfully called out from the other room several times to say, “Because you didn’t try hard enough,” and “You didn’t even warm up before the tryouts.” The next week, when all the kids who made it wore their new baseball hats to school, Lindell came home and cried again. He wanted to wear one of those team hats in the worst way.
That’s when my husband, Dustin, told him the plan. “If you want to be on Little League, if you want to make the team, you’re going to have to work for it,” Dustin said. “You need to play on the minor league team this spring, practice throughout the winter and when your brothers offer to go outside and throw with them, you do it, even if it’s wet.”
Lindell was still sniffling, but he seemed more determined. He laughed when Dustin suggested he sing the Rocky theme song whenever he’s forgotten what he’s working for. “And when you finally get the team hat,” Dustin told him, “it’s going to feel even better than if you had gotten it this year.”
Over the next twelve months, here’s what I saw I happen:
Lindell played on the minor league team and stayed late many nights to work one-on-one with a player from the junior high team. Each weekend that Dustin was home, my four boys went up to the field and practiced some more. During the summer, Lindell did push ups on the swim dock at camp to strengthen his arms, and when winter came, he did sit ups in the living room with Dustin. Sometimes we hummed Rocky as he worked. Then, for a couple months, Lindell worked one-on-one with another coach to practice hitting the ball, and every time his brothers offered, Lindell went outside to work on throwing.
The morning before tryouts, which were this past weekend, Lindell put on his favorite MLB shirt and ran outside to practice with a friend in the front yard. The urgency — the drive — was there.
At tryouts, Lindell was focused and nervous. He spent less time joking with his friends and more time listening to what the coaches wanted. Each time he made a good catch, he quickly gave himself a little first pump. I knew he was probably humming Rocky.
As I write this, teams have already been selected from the weekend’s try outs, but coaches have not called the players yet. We don’t know if Lindell made it or not. But in either case, this year has taught Lindell some things he will never forget: You don’t always get what you want. It feels good to work for something. And some day, when he gets the hat, he will know that he has earned it.