Boys of Summer
Each summer, 12-year-old boys are thrust into the spotlight of the Little League World Series. It is a great thrill for most of them to be on TV and have the whole country watch them compete play against the best young baseball players in the world for what is truly a world championship.
Into the Pressure-Cooker
Players at the Little League World Series face several pressures, including:
Community Pressure: It isn't easy for kids to handle the pressure of representing their hometown.
Tough Competition: Playing at such a high level of competition causes stress.
Travel: All the teams have traveled a significant distance from home and spending time in a new and unfamiliar environment.
Handling the media spotlight. The glare of the media spotlight, both print and television, is intense. Kids aren't accustomed to being interviewed and having their answers captured on television or reported in the newspaper.
Pressure: A Part of Sports
Pressure on athletes, whether youth or professional, is a fact of life; no player in competitive sports is immune. The stories of athletes who succumb to the pressure are legion: In the 2001 World Series, for example, the Arizona Diamondbacks' closer, Byung-Hyun Kim, experienced a meltdown of monumental proportions, giving up dramatic game winning homers in the ninth inning of both Games 4 and 5 against the New York Yankees. He continues to be haunted by his failures, as does perhaps the most famous goat in sports history, Boston Red Sox first baseman, Bill Buckner, who booted Mookie Wilson's easy grounder in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, allowing the New York Mets to score the winning run, and eventually the Series. Eventually Buckner had to leave the Boston area after being tormented for years by angry Red Sox fans.
Media Pressure Is More Difficult for Young Players
Clearly, 12 year olds are a lot less prepared to deal with this kind of pressure than are professional players. It would be easy to make the case that 12 year olds should not be subjected to these types of pressures. However, even if Little League baseball chose to understand the problems their World Series creates for young players, the organization probably will not change the format or stop this style of competition.
Since the pressure of high-level competition in youth sports is here to stay, it is imperative that parents of young athletes learn about performance pressure and how they can help their child be better prepared to handle the stressors.
Like older athletes, kids remember their failures and successes in sports, and they have long lasting emotional impact. In my private practice I often hear stories from players who recall difficult moments and how they were severely impacted by the event. It might be hitting a batter in the head with a pitched ball; an injury sustained at second base while sliding in or a very nasty confrontation between an umpire and player. The young athlete is constantly being challenged to interpret events on the field in the context of his emotional foundation and personal values.