Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Boys In the Bubble

Trinity on the Green, one of New Haven's oldest churches, has an elite boys choir that performs at the White House, Radio City Music Hall, and other major venues. Week after week, the choir of 10- to 13-year-olds produces some of the most moving music imaginable. But to me, the choir's greatest gift is the way it teaches a couple dozen boys how to do something well.

The choirmaster is a gentle man named Walden Moore. In the choir's thrice-weekly meetings, Walden demands real commitment from kids who otherwise might be distracted by XBox, skateboarding, or The Simpsons. Besides showing up on time, knowing the week's music, and following the directions of the "lead boys," the boys are expected to spend a week at camp bonding and learning the toughest music for the upcoming year.

Parents are not allowed to be part of the camp in any way. They can't be chaparones and they can't write or phone their kids during the week. The reason is simple. If parents insinuated themselves into the camp, they would interfere with their kids' time together. And when parents call their kids with questions -- "You getting enough food?" "Need a care package?" "You like their bunkmates?" "Are you homesick?" -- the kids get anxious. To get anything done, you have to put a big DO NOT DISTURB sign at the camp gates.

As Little League's state champions get ready for eight regional tournaments, players and coaches will experience the same kind of isolation. Little League's regional complexes provide barracks where all teams are expected to stay. Even if they live nearby, everyone is expected to stay at the little Olympic villages. And at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, it's more of the same.

Little League officials want to shield players from overanxious parents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, and media. Sealed off from the outside frenzy, the players can get to know kids from other teams, go swimming, play video games, watch ESPN, and otherwise hang out.

Life in the bubble is mostly a good idea. One of the greatest benefits of an intense experience like this is bonding with teammates and coaches. Years later, players will remember the days and nights behind the gates.

But the bubble has its down side. Some coaches are so intense that they don't allow their kids to do anything but prepare for games. Many coaches don't let kids swim, for fear of stubbing a toe (shades of Dizzy Dean) or tiring their arms. Some coaches discourage interaction with other teams. Lots of kids get cabin fever in the compound. They love the camp food that gets slopped on their plates, but start to get sick of it too.

Everyone in The Bubble forgets that an outside world even exists. Baseball is a 24-hour obsession.

After a while, some kids start to bicker. Think of these compounds as a 10-day cross-country car ride. Ever been on a long-distance trip when the kids didn't pick and bicker with each other? Me either.

Parents sometimes get resentful when they can't shadow their kids all the time. They often get sick of each other in the hotels and pine for the opportunity to take their kids to a restaurant, amusement park, or mall. One coach from the 2005 LLWS told me of a couple of mothers who were best pals throughout the summer, then turned on each other in Williamsport.

Back to the Trinity choir. What makes the experience so special is that it's just one week of the year. The kids are off in the country, in an environment that teaches them how to get away from the pressures and expectations of childhood. It's a refuge, not a pressure-cooker.

One more thing: At that camp, the experienced singers start to assume their new roles as "lead boys." The choir encourages the older kids to take leadership roles -- and restricts the adults' roles to teaching and logistics. I'll have more to say about that in a future essay. But suffice it to say now that Little League does not do enough to get adults to back off and kids to take ownership of their own games.


Blogger CarrieM said...

"But suffice it to say now that Little League does not do enough to get adults to back off and kids to take ownership of their own games."

Some feel that LL has too many rules. For example, one of the prime reasons (as well as safety) that adults are not allowed to warm up a pitcher is to get more kids off the bench, using their glove, touching the ball, and getting involved in the game! And yet at every level, in every league, there is grumbling about it and many managers simply ignore the rule.

I would also love to see more kids coaching 1st and 3rd bases. Every team has a "baseball wonk" who knows and studies baseball, and would be an ideal base coach. I remember when it was against the rules to have adult coaches out on the bases.

12:24 PM  

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