In 2018, the US Open Tennis tournament made a change. The ball boys and girls who retrieve during a match would thereafter roll the tennis balls instead of throw them.
The reason was quite simple. Not enough kids could be found who could throw the balls accurately overhand, the length of the court.This may not seem to be a big deal to you, dear reader. But to me, a former physical educator, exercise scientist and coach, it is a sign of the erosion of play in America.
How have we arrived at the loss of these simple skills in our young people? Well, it is a failure, first, of our physical education programs, which have been diminished by budget cut after budget cut. PE, music and art always take the hits. Think back: How often did you have PE in your grade school, middle school, high school days? At one time it was every day. Our childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1963 and that only leads to myriad adult health problems and costs.
The other accomplice in this sorry state is the lack of play among today’s youths. Too much screen time and not enough reality time. As a child, I was told to “go outside and don’t come back til dinner.” Now, don’t misinterpret this – I was raised by very loving parents, but they were parents who believed that we should play outside and rely on our own imaginations.
Play and laughter, which go together, are two of the universal languages of humans. Consider the benefits of play. It is fun, spontaneous and the kids are in charge ... of everything. They create their own rituals, choose their own teams and solve their own disputes, thereby learning critical social skills. If they argue, it’s not for long because they want to get back to the fun part ... playing. This leads to their sometimes solving an argument by saying “OK, you get this one but we get the next one.” Compromise and diplomacy. What a concept.
They unknowingly created alternate possession, which is used in basketball today. And it is a much better rule than the original game, which included a jump ball after every score. If one team is too strong, they choose new teams or make a trade or handicap the best player who may have to bat opposite handed in baseball or softball. Why? Because a lopsided score is no fun. A close competition is more fun.
This lack of play has compromised kids’ ethical foundations. The Honor Code was the referee in pickup games. Call your own. And it works quite well. Think about it. We only lie and cheat in games for which we have put on official uniforms – games that have adults as referees and parents as coaches and fans in the stands.
The U.S. Open was the only tennis major in which ball people regularly threw the ball to each other. At Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open, balls are rolled. The aerial show component was part of the U.S. tournament’s identity (like strawberries and cream at Wimbledon) and it is now gone. Ball people at the U.S. Open must be at least 14 years old and it is the only one of the four majors to invite adults older than 18 to take part. In 2009, 61-year-old Jerry Loughran was a ball boy.
If you are a “Seinfeld” enthusiast, as am I, you may remember the episode where Kramer tried out to be a ball boy at the U.S. Open. “I may be old, but I’m spry,” he told a younger skeptical candidate.
Moms and dads, play more catch with your kids.
George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
Jerry Loughran knows that.