The Evolutionary Psychology of Little League – Darwin Meets America

In reality, to do the topic of the evolutionary psychology of the Little League experience justice would require a full book – and perhaps a multi-volume series. It’s all in there. Just a sampling of the evolutionarily relevant concepts (see Geher, 2014) that sit at the heart of the Little League experience includes:

  • The motive to succeed in a public forum (“I’m going to get a big hit and everyone will be cheering – maybe they’ll do the wave for me!”)
  • The motive to defend and support your offspring, in spite of any and all situational factors (“My kid was safe at first, and everyone saw it! That ump’s a (*&!*!!!*&*^*&^&^&^**!!)
  • The nature of human families and broader social groups to congregate at culturally specific venues (“I’ll see you and the kids at the game on Sunday!”)
  • The highly competitive nature of humans – for “bragging rights” – resources that, by definition, have no value in direct Darwinian currency (“We won, and you lost!”)

… and more. As an evolutionary psychologist and an involved dad who has become immersed in the Little League baseball experience, I can’t help but to see the entirety of the experience with a Darwinian lens. And while I am not quite up to writing another book right now, I bet I could write a full book on this – and I bet it would be interesting – at least to people interested in both kids’ sports and psychology.

This Fall, along with the help of some really great dads and moms who know the game and who care about the kids – along with about 25 awesome young 9 and 10-year olds, I co-direct our town’s small “Fall Ball minor league.” Our town is rinkydink. There are two teams. I coach one (“The Red Devils” which includes my son, Andrew, who has turned into a great catcher and hitter) and my friend Jason coaches the other (the “black shirt team” which included his son – a highly athletic and bright utility player, who’s done great on the mound, and who got a single-handed triple-play during a game … wowzy!).

There’s a tension working with kids this age in a league like this – and this tension has Darwinian elements. As with nearly anything, there are two schools of thought – that differ almost completely from one another – and there’s a nice place that’s hard to get to, that you might call “the middle ground” – out in deep center field, so to speak.

Two conflicting motives exist – as follows:

  1. As coach, I want each kid to have a great experience, develop skills during the season, and develop a true understanding and passion for the game.

However …

  1. As a coach, I want my team to win. (Note that abrupt punctuation at the end of the prior sentence.)

Well if you know me well as a person, dad, and teacher, you probably wouldn’t be surprised that I’m a little more of “Type A” (i.e., develop each kid positively) kind of coach – let’s encourage and develop each kid to the fullest – and foster a love of the game. Winning, from this default perspective of mine, is something of a nice afterthought. This perspective focuses exclusively on what’s best for each particular kid. However, as I’ve come to learn along the way, advancing a fully Type-A agenda can ultimately come at a cost to the goals of the Type-A agenda itself!

If you don’t follow the Type-B (win at all costs) agenda whatsoever in your coaching strategy, guess what? Some kids start to disengage. I saw that a bit and was surprised. The expressed concerns from these kids generally sound about like this: “I want our team to win – really badly. Losing sucks!” Hmm. To the extent that kids are seeing and feeling like this, then fostering the individuals in a vacuum fails to take into account how optimizing the outlook for the team actually has the capacity to optimize the situation for many of the kids as individuals. You want what’s best for the individual kids? You can’t just look at the personal goals of the individual kids – taking the group goals into account will better allow you, as a coach, to help realize the goals of the individuals. Being part of a coherent team – and one that succeeds, you see, is a crucial goal of any individual human from an evolutionary perspective (see Wilson, 2007) – and a coach who wants to optimize things for each and every kid needs to take this “groupishness and team-ness of humans” into account.

In his ideas on mulit-level selection, David Sloan Wilson (2007) famously showed how two important kinds of pressures have come to shape modern humans – pressures to create qualities that benefit individuals directly and pressures to create a desire to be in a successful group and to help that group reach its goals. This second kind of pressure indirectly helps individuals succeed themselves simply by getting people to be part of successful groups that outcompete other groups for sparse resources (such as bragging rights).

So yeah, as a Little League coach, you’ve got to develop and care for each individual kid – but you also need to keep at least one eye on the win – as being part of a winning team makes anyone experience the following:

  • Increased positive emotional states
  • A belief in the future success of oneself and others in his or her group
  • A belief that he or she is part of a group that includes individuals who will help him or her when needed (i.e., an expectation of teamwork)
  • The ownership of bragging rights – ability to go into other social venues tagged as “a winner” – and the pride that comes along for the ride with this one.

In a groupish species such as ours, steps taken to ultimately benefit the group that one belongs to feed back and benefit the individual in indirect but important ways. Evolutionary forces select for both (a) qualities that benefit individuals and (b) qualities that benefit the group that an individual belongs to. For me, at least, in coaching the formidable Red Devils, finding this particular balance of evolutionary interest is central to our next steps in team development. And with any luck, we may just beat Jason’s team yet along the way!

Sound like an American Story? It is. And yeah, we play in the backyard of a church, there’s a homemade scoreboard donated by a local Eagle Scout (my daughter and her friends are charged with updating the scoreboard), a playground for the little ones adjacent to the field, and an ice cream place that you can walk to after the game – whether you’ve won or lost. It’s a pretty good deal – it is the American Dream – and working with this league has been, and continues to be, just a great experience. As always, win or lose, I’m looking forward to the next game!

References

Geher, G. (2013). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone. New York: Delacorte Press.

 

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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