Mindfulness, Little League, and Parenting

Dollar Photo Club 

By Mark Bertin, M.D.

Baseball’s all fun and games and bonding together—except when it isn’t.

Following up a previous blog in which I wrote about wisdom found in the movie Bull Durham, it’s clear I’m a New Yorker recovering from a brutal winter. Spring baseball is on my mind. And with baseball and children come hours for parents of sitting around waiting for anything at all to happen on a Little League field. It wasn’t until I became—in addition to a baseball fan—a parent that I realized just how slow the sport can be.

How much of our parenting time do we spend taking children to ball games, dropping them off, and then waiting for the action to begin? And then once the so-called action begins, how much actually happens? The answers, at least until children get older, are “an awful lot” and “not much.” It’s all fun and games and bonding together, except when it isn’t.

Knowing that, can we fully support our children while also taking a moment for ourselves? The answer to that, depending on how we spend our time hanging out, is “yes.” The long, slow hours of a Little League baseball game can prove both entertaining (if and when something happens) and create an opportunity for parents to use their limited free time more constructively.

 Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Attention and stress are directly related. Even at a Sunday Little League game, it’s easy to get caught up in unsettling thoughts—particularly when our kids are involved. You might worry your children are going to fail in front of their friends, or undermine a future all-star career, or about their enjoyment or effort or anywhere else your mind goes.

In reality it’s just Little League. It’s for fun and to learn a little about teamwork and the sport, nothing more. It doesn’t have much bearing on, say, anyone’s academic future or physical health. Yet with our children, it often feels much more loaded than that. The stress of hoping our children enjoy the experience, don’t get hurt, and perform reasonably well can make watching a challenge.

Even around something like baseball we can develop our ability to attend more often to what’s really going on in life. Off the field, what’s the difference between throwing a ball with your child while you sort through a work problem, and just throwing the ball together? With the latter, your child gets your full attention—something most children readily perceive. And for you, you get a mental break, stop shaking your mental snow-globe of stress, and stick to the pleasure of playing ball.

So now, back to our game. We may logically know better than to get wrapped up in a childhood sport. And while some days nothing feels better than the outdoors, our children and our friends, other days may feel like a whole lot of sitting around waiting for whatever comes next. Little League mindfulness is an opportunity to notice yourself caught up in it all, and then let go and return to real life once again.

Mindful Little League

You are going to be on the sidelines for the next two or three hours. Your child may bat three or four times, and you better be paying attention the one time the ball heads his or her direction. You or your child may even have some investment about the outcome. So here’s a potential new mindfulness practice—Little League Awareness.

• Set your intention. Pick a few minutes to set aside for mindfulness. If you need to catch up on e-mail, or want to talk to friends, choose to do that at some point—there will be plenty of time. Socialize and cheer on your team. Have fun, enjoy the day and the game. Get caught up in the excitement. But also select a short stretch of time and dedicate it to mindfulness.

• Pay attention to your real-time experience. Mindfulness isn’t meant to disconnect you from the world, but the opposite. Keep your eyes open. In an unforced, natural fashion, notice sounds in and around the game. Observe what you’re seeing, smelling, and feeling in your body. Notice your emotional state … whether you are bored or excited, rehashing a tough week or wrapped up in following a tight game. Notice your thoughts and where they tend to go. And at the same time, observe your child’s experience with care and direct attention.

 Practice being responsive instead of reactive when stressed. Unless there is something that actually needs fixing right now, do nothing but observe for a few minutes. Whether whatever you think or feel seems peaceful or restless or anything else, practice not getting caught up in your internal world quite as much. Give yourself a break. Notice your experience as you might the weather, coming and going without any need to do more.

• Accept things as they are right now. Mindfulness in public requires flexibility—not a bad habit to cultivate. If someone approaches, talk to them. When something exciting happens in the game, join in. Perhaps set an intention to approach the game, other parents, coaches, umpires and your child with particular traits you value, such as being calm, supportive, or humorous.

• Pay attention again. Life is distracting. Each time you find yourself daydreaming and off somewhere else again, come back to the game. When your mind wanders use the physical feeling of breathing as an anchor, guiding your attention where you choose. Breathing in, I watch another ball roll to the backstop. Breathing out, I bring my attention more fully to the next pitch.

Little League mindfulness may carve out a few minutes for practice you might otherwise struggle to schedule. Of course, the same might apply to any sport or activity. Relish the event, cheer for your child, hang out with friends, and throw yourself into the experience. When you find yourself excessively seeking distraction or lost in daydreaming, return again to paying attention, real time, to whatever is going on around you. Mindfulness and family weekends create an opportunity to give your attention more fully not only to your own life, but your child’s.

Adapted from Psychology Today

Mark Bertin, M.D., is a developmental pediatrician and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at New York Medical College

© 2012 Foundation for a Mindful Society

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