It has been said over and over again that baseball is a game of failure. A hitter is considered a success if his batting average is .300. That "success" means that he is failing 70% of the time. Having been through 342 baseball seasons - give or take - with my three boys over the past 15 years, I have become well acquainted with the frequent struggles that come if one plays this game long enough.
There's not a baseball player alive who hasn't gone through a slump. Whether it's a pitcher struggling to find the zone or a hitter finding himself walking back to the dugout time and time again instead of standing safely on a base, players of this game will go through days, weeks, and even full seasons when they just can't seem to get it right.
As a parent, it can be really tough to watch your kid endure a slump. It can be even more difficult to try to find the right words to encourage them through it. Over the years I've been witness to some ugly slumps, not only in baseball, but in a whole lot of other sports.
And while I don't wish it on anyone, I'm going to go out on limb today and suggest that a slump can be one of the greatest gifts that sports can give. I know it's a hard sell. It's gift that no one puts on his Christmas list. It comes with the tackiest wrapping paper and a big ol' ridiculous bow that takes forever to untie. And then you gotta find a knife because the dumb box is taped close and then you have to sift through all those piles of stupid tissue paper. But, if you can encourage your kid to dig through that gift box with an openness to learning, he just might find out things about himself he couldn't have found in any other way.
I think one of the greatest character traits any man from a 7 year old athlete to a 70 year old CEO can have is that of humility. And there is no doubt that a long slump can serve up a big, huge bowl of it. For any player, no matter the level, there is a time to recognize that there will always be those who are better than he and those who are not. There are lessons to be learned from looking at both sides of that equation. It has been my experience that more often than not, just as soon as a kid decides he's the best hitter since Babe Ruth, a slump will show up in the sneakiest way. Humility often has to be learned the hard way and it can leave a pretty nasty scar. But it's one scar you want your kid to bear. It will help him navigate both successes and failures with dignity in all aspects of his life.
Along the same lines, a slump can teach a kid how crucial it is to put the team's success above the individual's success. Slumps immediately impart the lesson that each and every member of a team matters to the whole. When all is going well, an individual player might imagine that he is being the greatest of teammates. I mean, if he's contributing to the numbers on the scoreboard, what else could you want? A kid in a slump sometimes has to face the reality that he might not be the best man for the job on a particular day. At that point, he can become jealous and resentful or he can choose to be the biggest supporter of the teammate coming off the bench. A slump can force a kid to dig deep enough to recognize that making a contribution to the success of his team sometimes has nothing whatsoever to do with his ERA or batting average. It might have to do with understanding that roles change from season to season and sometimes from game to game.
One of the very obvious gifts of a slump is that a kid can learn how hard he is willing to work. Sports movies tell us that if he can simply go out one night with Dad and hit a bucket of balls while some Rocky music plays in the background, he'll show up at the next game and hit a grand slam. The reality is that pulling out of a slump can require really hard work that can be tedious, boring, relentless, and you know, really hard. Of course, the best lessons here involve perseverance and endurance, but even more importantly, this kind of work takes patience. In a culture that wants a quick fix for every problem, a kid who has the patience to adjust or even completely change the way he's always done something to improve his skills will most certainly make him better equipped to meet challenges in any number of fields in his future.
In regard to the difficult work that it can take to pull out of a slump, I'd contend that one of the greatest gifts that a slump can give a kid is to help him determine how important the game is to him. To be quite frank, Mom and Dad, very often this is a more of a lesson for the athlete's parents than for the kid himself.
What if your kid doesn't want to put the work in? What if you don't see the fire in his eye or a focused effort to improve? Does this mean he's lazy? Does he have a serious self-esteem problem? Do you need to google "Inspirational Sports Movie Speeches" before it's too late?
Maybe take a step back, Pops. It might be time to recognize that your son doesn't have a passion for the sport that he used to have. Maybe he has other interests. Maybe he's recognizing that his talents are better suited some where else. We, Americans, wince at anything that might resemble quitting, but one of our greatest responsibilities as parents is to understand that our children are unique and whole people apart from us. Just because he doesn't want to work hard in one area of his life doesn't mean he won't go on to crush it in another area. Give him the space to figure that out on his own.
Perhaps urging your player to embrace a slump is too much to ask, but at the very least I'd encourage you to help him find the hidden gifts in the struggle no matter how long it lasts, understanding that no season of our lives is wasted. There is purpose in every challenge, no matter how big or small.
UVA basketball coach Tony Bennett recently said, "If you learn to use it right, adversity will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn't have gone any other way."
I've seen the truth of that quote play out in countless instances, not only in my own kids' endeavors, but in athletes from twelve years old to forty years old in sports from golf to basketball to hockey to baseball and in every sport in between. In the end, these are the lessons that serve to contribute to a life well lived. Slump on, kids. You never know where you'll end up on the other side.