Let me tell you our story; you decide what you think. 

My oldest dest daughter loved the game of softball.  She always had.  She’d been playing since the spring of her second grade year, when she asked to sign up to play.  Baseball is something my husband and I both love.  In fact, we conducted a good deal of our courtship at Fulton County Stadium, cheering for the Atlanta Braves. He played very serious baseball growing up, and was excited about her interest, so we let her do it.  She had a great time, some seriously great coaching, and the price was right. The whole family was enjoying her participation.  There’s something absolutely wonderful about a Saturday morning at the ball park with the smell of hot dogs, the crunch of the peanut shells under your feet, and the red dust wafting through the air.  Even better to soak up the sun from your folding chair, watch your baby turn a double play, and listen to the coach tell you that your kid has heart, and potential.  

We threw a wrench into the machinery of Daughter #1’s plan for greatness in the sport of softball when we moved to Colorado during the summer of 2009. We signed her up for the local recreational level team as soon as we arrived that summer, but it just wasn’t the same.  She had skills the other girls in her age group didn’t.  Nobody on the team could catch, even the easy fly balls, and the players didn’t know where to throw the ball if they did happen to catch it. There were grounders going between legs, and outfielders crashing into each other while the ball drops five yards away. To make matters worse, the league rules required the players to take turns at each position, which meant  Daughter #1couldn’t play shortstop, her favorite position, consistently. She was bored and frustrated.  So was I.  My husband couldn’t even stand to watch.   

The rec team coach sought us out after a game near the end of the season. He told us that daughter#1 had talent, and that we should seek a higher level of play if we had aspirations for her.  “We can’t teach her anything new at this level,” he said.  “If you want her to play in high school”, he said, “You should get her into a ‘competition’ level program, so she can maintain her skills and make the team.”  We listened for a few minutes about the stellar reputation of the coach at our local high school, about her winning record, and the fact that a lot of the kids she coached went on to play softball in college.  (I was to learn later that the words “play in college” were a euphemism for earning scholarship money, but I didn’t know that then).  My husband wore a huge toothy grin the whole way home.  He was bursting with pride.  I knew I should feel proud too, and I did, but I also felt pressured.  “Does this mean if we don’t get her onto a ‘higher level’ team, that she wouldn’t be able to play in high school at all?” I asked him from my side of the front seat.  My husband said he thought it did.  “If the other girls are practicing and playing,” he said, “and our daughter isn’t, the other girls will be much better than her by the time high school tryouts roll around, and she probably wouldn’t make the team.”  I really didn’t like that answer.  It made me feel like they (whoever they are) had us over a barrel.  Besides, I didn’t think it should matter whether we wanted her to play in high school or college.  The question was… did she?  

Then one beautiful Friday afternoon, the first week of school, she came home saying that she had been invited to try out for a “travel team”–a term interchangeable with “competition level team” or “elite team”– that very afternoon.  The wheels began to turn in my head.  This could be the solution our problem, I thought.  Maybe a “travel team” would be a better match for her ability. Maybe this team would help her keep her skills up so she would have the option to play in high school, if she wanted to.  I was willing to consider it for her, if she wanted it.   She said she did.

So I called my husband, who left beers with his buddies, and the three of us attended the tryout.  Daughter #1 did well that day.  She slammed a bunch of machine pitched balls far into the outfield, and she ran the bases fast enough to make the coach smile as he clicked his stopwatch.  The coach spent some time talking with her too, which gave her a chance to show that she knew the more intricate rules of the game.  Honestly, I was nervous during the tryout.  I wasn’t entirely sure she had the “right stuff” for this “higher level of play”.  Most of the other girls trying out outweighed her by at least twenty pounds and she was not so good at accepting constructive critism (I wonder where she got that?) but the coach said she was good enough to make the team.  I don’t know why I was nervous.  Girls who played at a much lower skill level also made the team that day.    

It was only $1200 dollars, the coach told us, a reasonable fee compared to most ‘elite’ teams.  That amount would include her uniforms, he said, a calendar year of instruction with practices twice a week and weekend games during the fall, spring, and summer.  There would be no games during December, January or February, but practices would be held all year.  What did he say?  $1200 dollars?  I was used to paying $75 to $100 for a six to eight week season in the spring and again in the fall, so $1200 seemed like an outrageous amount of money to me. My husband, however, didn’t bat an eyelash, and since he was the family expert on sports, I repressed my concerns about the money, tried hard to quash my incurable thrifty nature, and stayed quiet.

 My husband told the coach that we would sleep on it and give him a call in the morning with our decision, but I knew by looking at him that it was a done deal.   The kid really wanted to do it, and for some reason, some reason vaguely related to never having had a son, I thought, my husband was emotionally invested in letting her.  “I don’t want her to miss this opportunity,” he said, “like I did.”  (When he was a high school senior, he was offered a spot on the baseball team at Virginia Tech, but passed it up thinking he would not be able to manage the demanding engineering program and baseball.  It is a decision he’s always regretted.) In time for practice the next day, he wrote a check, and our girl was on the team.  She and her dad were excited, really excited.  I had some un-examined and un-named reservations about the whole thing, but I was determined to be supportive.  Since everyone else seemed so happy, I would try to be happy too.

 I learned pretty quickly that the $1200 fee was only the beginning.  The original fee only covered the basics: two jerseys, two pair of baseball pants, and a jacket.  We were responsible to buy everything else. To meet her potential, Coach said, Daughter #1 needed better equipment, including a three hundred dollar bat, special jerseys that would protect her heart, and a wide selection of Under Armor (like long johns, but sporty) to be worn under her uniform for comfort in various weather conditions.  There were special shorts that prevented injury during sliding. There were practice pants and t-shirts. There were the ten or so pairs of different shades of orange socks to match her uniform.  And then there were the shoes.  The “right” cleats were unbelievably expensive.  My softball player was twelve years old.  Really?  Even my husband took issue with the price of the bat, and got her a slightly less expensive one, but he bought all the other stuff she “needed.”  He replaced her shoes when she outgrew them, twice.  Plus, it seemed like every time I took her to practice I was shelling out cash for additional fees for batting cages, softball camps, and what they call “clinics,” which is a fancy word for more practice, except with a different coach.   What I call the “Band Aid budget” went up dramatically.  Every week I was buying gauze and tape, ankle braces, band aids, ace bandages, and gallons of Neosporin with the weekly groceries.  Expenses related to softball were beginning to add up, but I was still able, for the time being, to talk myself out of my worries over the money.  It was okay with me, I decided, if she was happy, and interested, and challenged by the game.  It wasn’t so much saying goodbye to money that bothered me, but the impression that we were being gouged.  But…I told myself it would all be worth it, if we can help her achieve her dream.

It wasn’t just the expenses I worried about.  I also worried about injury.  I worried about severe injuries like concussions, broken arms and legs, or a sudden heart attack from being hit hard in the chest with the ball. (The team kept a defibrillator on the field to deal with such incidents, so it must have been a possibility.) I had visions of emergency rooms and physical therapy.  Sarah already had a weak ankle from a bad slide when she was eight.  (She was safe, but her ankle wasn’t.)  It hasn’t been quite right since.  I’m not sure it will ever be quite right.  Just like the expenses, her smaller injuries began to add up.  She constantly jammed her fingers, which were often black and blue and purple.  Skinned knees and elbows were a regular occurrence.  I worried that all the little cuts and bruises would have a cumulative effect.  I had visions of my perfectly formed baby as an older woman in a tattered housedress, working her way slowly from a recliner in front of the TV to her kitchen for a cup of tea because her body didn’t work so well, with hip, or knee, or ankle, or god forbid, brain problems.   And for what?, I wondered.  Softball is neither an Olympic or professional sport.  If she worked hard she could play in college, but was that worth a lifetime of pain? Of course I said nothing.  Sublimating my worries was becoming a habit. 

I also learned pretty quickly that “travel teams” are called “travel teams” for a reason.  We traveled by air out of state for one tournament and my husband and daughter traveled hours by car every weekend for others.  I am not exaggerating.  There were tournaments every weekend, which started at 7:00 am on both Saturday and Sunday morning and lasted all day (so much for church, we now worshiped the sport of softball).  My younger daughters and I joined them when our schedules allowed, but most weekends, the family was split.  I missed them sorely, at first, and then I grew resentful that the team demanded so much of our family time.  Besides, I thought it was odd that our team always seemed to be playing against the same five other teams, no matter where we played.  The whole league, all five or six teams, would take themselves to another city, in another part of the state or country, and then play the same game that they could have played in the park where they practiced, which was within walking distance of our house.  I didn’t get it.  Certainly there must be enough girls who are good enough to play “elite” softball in our own city (population 2.7 million) to make up a league, but I dismissed my thought, thinking the experts must know what they were doing.   

Early on I noticed that every time I sat down on a set of bleachers, some parent said something to me along these lines:  “We are so pleased with this team.  Our daughter has improved so much since she’s joined.  We understand that college scouts attend club games more often than high school games.  We just know so and so (their daughter) will be able to get some scholarship money, so she can go to college.”  I would smile weakly, and say nothing, but I didn’t agree with the logic. I thought if we all put the huge amount of money we are spending on softball into a college savings plan, a four year education at a good in-state university would be paid for in no time. I thought if the kids put the time into studying that they put into softball they would all earn academic scholarships.  Every time I had this conversation, which was a lot, I got a sinking feeling.  Didn’t any of these parents know the statistics about how few kids get athletic scholarships?  Shouldn’t it just be for fun?   Was I missing something?  Was there something about this hope-for-a-scholarship thing that I didn’t understand?  

I wondered too, after these conversations, what about the kids whose families couldn’t afford the time or the money required for participation in “elite” softball (or baseball or football or soccer, or any sport)?   If what the other softball parents said was true, that college scouts came to more club sports games than to high school games, wouldn’t the players without a lot of money get left out of the mix? Wouldn’t the whole sport suffer as a result? What if today’s system had been in place thirty years ago, and the parents of Pele or Joe Namath or Mary Lou Retton couldn’t have afforded “elite” sports?  Soccer and Football and Gymnastics would have suffered a great loss.  This system, this race for scholarship money, seems fundamentally unfair to me.  It seems that you have to have the money for club sports in order to get the scholarship money for college. I began to think that the word “elite” in elite sports referred to a young athlete’s socioeconomic status, instead of their ability. It was a disturbing thought. 

Meanwhile, back on the field, our daughter was becoming disillusioned.  Her team was losing, a lot, and they were embarrassing losses, massacres.  If there is one thing I can tell you about my eldest daughter that can in no way be refuted by anyone who ever met her, it is that she likes to win.  No, she needs to win.  There were problems with the coaching too.  There was a lot of yelling, stomping around, and kicking up dirt on the field, which was tempered by precious little encouragement. This kind of coaching was a poor fit for daughter #1, who is a perfectionist (I wonder where she got that?).  When she made a mistake that caused the coach to yell at her, she couldn’t let it go and move on.  She would miss the next play because she was still thinking about it.  Her performance on the field got worse, not better.  She would come in from her games and practices with a hangdog look on her face, complaining of stomach aches.  Once, she threw down her glove and walked off the field, mid game.  Another time, she spoke disrespectfully to her coach.  She was exhausted from the long hours the team kept, and her school friends were dropping out of her life because she didn’t have time to spend with them.  She threatened to quit.

My husband and I were horrified.  We weren’t raising a quitter, or a brat that sassed adults and threw temper tantrums in public.  Her behavior was clearly unacceptable, and I told her so in no uncertain terms, but internally I was torn.  I didn’t want her to quit, especially after our mounting investment, but I could see how unhappy she was. 

When I spoke to my husband about it, he said I was coddling her.  When I suggested we were wasting our money if she was no longer happy in the sport, he told me I was insufferably cheap.   He was right, I was coddling her, and I am cheap, but to me, the issue was happiness.  To him, it was commitment.  People were relying on her, he kept saying.  She needs to be a team player, he kept saying.  I could see his point, but softball had become a constant source of anxiety for all of us. My husband and I disagreed about the importance of softball in our lives, and we argued about it sometimes. My other two daughters were missing things they wanted to do, like birthday parties and piano lessons, because of the softball schedule.  Softball was taking a toll on our whole family, but I swallowed hard, bore up to the strain, and encouraged my other daughters to do the same.  I wasn’t so sure anymore that we were helping her to pursue her dream.  She was no longer having fun.  Neither was I.  Not even my husband was having fun.    

When Daughter #1 and my husband came in from practice late one night, talking about going to a nearby ski resort for  yet another tournament,  I said ”Hey, let’s camp out!  It should be perfect weather up there this time of year, and we can save a few bucks.”  It just slipped out, the thing about saving money. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.  I told myself to get over the money issue. Nobody was going to go without because we were paying for softball. 

And then… my husband said to me (I remember this part in slow motion, because it was the moment of my epiphany about ‘elite’ softball) “Naw, we need to get a room.  If the team doesn’t buy enough rooms, we can’t play in the tournament.”  He leaned against the counter and chewed a bite of the sandwich I had made for him, not noticing the light bulb that was slowly illuminating over my head.  In my mind, the niggling discomfort that I had been feeling from the beginning crystallized into anger.  I began to feel like a chump, a mark, the victim of a scam. This is a business, I realized!  This whole exhausting, expensive, worrisome thing is not about teaching kids skills and sportsmanship.  It’s not about supporting our daughter in her goals.  It isn’t about financial help with college tuition.  It isn’t even about softball.  It is about out selling hotel rooms, and equipment, and batting cage time, and maybe even sports medicine appointments.  Suddenly it made sense to me why the girls who weren’t that good made the team!  It was because the only real criterion for making the team was the parent’s ability to pay the fee!  Then I felt the punch in the stomach of the harder realization:  my daughter probably isn’t talented either, but the coach/team/league just wanted to get the fee.  Suddenly it made sense to me why we always seemed to be playing against the same four or five teams, no matter how far we had to go to play them.  Suddenly it made sense how a grown man had the gall to tell me a twelve year old girl needed a thousand dollars worth of equipment.  It was because they were making a profit!  It’s a racquet, and the “experts” to whom I had been deferring were actually profiteers.  It isn’t just a business, it’s an entire industry!

I felt like an idiot.  Stupid!  How could I have fallen for this gigantic line of BS? How could I have believed in those sales-pitch words like ‘elite’ and ‘competition level’ and the worst of them, ‘scholarship’?  And what’s worse, how could my smart, athletic, and heretofore sensible husband have fallen for it too? How could he stand there chewing when our hard earned money was draining out of our accounts like water from a sieve, and our daughter was miserable?

I quickly added in my head all that we had spent in the past year on softball.  (I had been doing it all along, but I couldn’t admit it to myself.)  The total was in the neighborhood of $5,000.  $5000!     

It was then that I began to yell.  “Are you kidding me?  Are you kidding me?” I screamed.  (I am usually more articulate than this, but I was so angry that my vocabulary failed me.)  I didn’t care if the children heard me.  I didn’t care if the neighbors heard me.  I didn’t care if my husband concluded that I had lost my mind.  Maybe I had.  I was mad at myself because I hadn’t listened to my gut, and at my husband because he hadn’t listened to me, either.  I was mad because we were out $5000, a year of our lives, a thousand other more educational and valuable experiences that we had not had time for, and it was all because I had not spoken up.  Well, I was speaking up tonight.  I recovered my ability to speak intelligently, and I covered all my aforementioned concerns at the very top of my lungs.  It was a bad night.  My husband and I didn’t speak for a day or two.  He remained committed to the team.  I couldn’t.

When I cooled down and we were finally able to talk about the issue rationally, we decided to stick with it through the rest of the season, because we felt that it was better for our daughter to learn to stand by her decisions.  I yelled and clapped for her and the team just as loud as ever, but I was faking it, and I suspected she was rolling her eyes at me under her batter’s helmet, rather than resolving to hit a homer.  I had to drag myself, and her, out of bed for softball, where in the beginning she had jumped up eagerly to get ready for her games and practices.  When I sat on the bleachers, I felt like I had the word “sucker” tattooed to my forehead and wondered why the other parents didn’t feel that way too.  I had never quite fit in with the softball parents, but now I really felt separate.  I just wanted it to be over.

At the end of the season daughter #1 quit the softball team, to the great disappointment of her father, and to the great relief of her mother, and she has lost her love for the game of softball.  On high school orientation day this spring, she passed by the sign-up sheet for the freshman team without a backward glance.  She couldn’t get away fast enough.  She has moved on to basketball now, which was before, something she did in the off season to keep in shape for softball.   Even though she says she loves the game of basketball and shows off her scrapes and bruises with pride, I can’t say she loves basketball the way she loved softball, way back when.  I hope so, but I can’t see it in her eyes, or on her face.  She seems jaded and wary, as if basketball might hurt her too. 

I feel bad.

I feel guilty because I wonder if my feelings, which I truly made a herculean effort to keep under wraps, could have affected (infected?) her anyway, and ruined her first love.  I feel guilty because it may have been me that caused her to fall out of love with the game of softball.  If I had not behaved so badly, if I had been more supportive, if I could have found the right way to encourage her, or if I found a coach for her that was a better fit, might she someday be a star?  I don’t know.  I don’t know, and that’s the hard part.  There is no doubt I could have done a better job helping her achieve her dream, but for the life of me, I still can’t figure out how.

There has to be a better way. I just wish I knew what it was.