The Power of the Sandlot

I am certainly not against organized youth sports. I think they are a great way for kids to develop general athletic skills, sample different sports, get physical exercise, build friendships, learn about handling success and failure, etc. However, I think that if we were able to step back and truly observe kids in organized sports environments compared to free-play sports environments I think that we would see that the free-play environment is vastly superior on so many important levels.

My 7-year-old son played outside with a couple of neighbors several times while we were visiting my wife’s family in Kentucky over Christmas. He had only met the kids a few times previously. One day he was outside playing for over 6 hours and only came in the house once so that he could eat lunch (he made a PBJ that he took outside to eat).

One day after he came home from playing outside, he couldn’t wait to show me how he made a catch right along the sideline (which was a pile of leaves) when they were playing football and he was able to keep his feet in bounds. “I was AJ Green,” he said.

A couple of days before we were supposed to go back home, my 4-year-old daughter got sick and we were contemplating leaving early. When we told my son that morning, he started crying because he said he promised the neighbors he would meet them outside at 10am to play and he didn’t want to let them down. We decided to stay.

The last day we were there, he was playing outside when I took my in-law’s dog out to go to the bathroom. I could hear the kids over at the neighbor’s house playing basketball although I couldn’t see them since the hoop was on the other side of their house. I could hear them going over the game situations constantly (the score, the time left in the game, who’s ball it was), they were communicating (matchups, calling for passes), and most importantly you could tell they were having a blast. When he came inside for dinner later that day, I asked my son if he had fun playing basketball, he replied disappointedly, “You were watching us?” He thought I was out there watching their game. I told him I wasn’t watching, I could just hear them when I took the dog out.

This was certainly not my son’s first time playing outside with friends or playing pick-up games, however, since it was so recent it made me think again about how important these types of opportunities are for kids mentally, physically, and socially.

He owned the story of the game. Since I wasn’t there watching him, he got the opportunity to tell me what happened in his own words (and give a physical demonstration). He was so excited to tell his story about the catch he made. In organized sports, since the parents are watching the game, there is often no reason for the kid to be excited to tell his story after the game. And unfortunately, we end up being the ones that talk about the game, so the story becomes ours and not theirs.

He dreamt he was a pro. He got to be AJ Green. I think all adults can remember playing outside with our friends and pretending to be someone else. I can remember at recess one of my friends would pretend he was Lawrence Taylor whenever we played football and if he made a “tackle” he would get in your face and yell “OOOOH YEEEEAH, LT BABY!” while flexing his 9-year-old muscles. In all his season of organized sports, I am yet to observe my son dreaming that he was one of his heroes. Perhaps this is because there is so much else going on in organized sports (coaches, refs, parents, rules, etc.) that kids don’t have a chance to dream while they play?

He was accountable to his “team”. He was upset about the thought of breaking his word to his friends. Nobody had to give him a cheesy coach quote on the importance of being a good teammate…he intuitively figured it out because he had the opportunity to build a true bond with his friends.

He loved the autonomy. When he thought I was there watching him, he got genuinely upset. Similar to how kids get upset if you stare over their shoulder the entire time there are watching YouTube on an iPad or playing a video game. They love what they can own.

Not to mention, how many catching, throwing, kicking, shooting, dribbling, defending, running, and jumping reps he must have got in those few days!

Also, I failed to mention at the beginning of the story, but there were only THREE kids playing together this entire time. They played all of these sports with only three kids and clearly without making teams of even numbers.

In less than one week, he had a way more meaningful and beneficial athletic experience than he would get in an entire year’s worth of organized sports. Like I said at the beginning, I still value organized sports, and my son will continue to play on teams. However, we all look around and talk about how sad it is that pick-up games are dying, yet we can be the generation to do something about it and give our kids the opportunities that we cherished when we were their age. I dare any adult to go watch the movie the Sandlot right now without wishing that was you out there playing. Pick-up games don’t need to be taught. They are free. They are CRUCIAL. Let them happen more.

Crossfire GB’s

  • Create a box ~ 15 yards x 15 yards
  • Each team has 2 players inside the box and 2 players on the outside
  • 4 players in the box play everything out “live” within the box
  • The players on the outside cannot go inside the box but they can move along their line of the box
  • A team scores a point by having a middle player scoop a ball that was rolled in by one of his teammates and then complete a pass to his other teammate on the outside
  • The outside players always roll the ball to the inside and the inside player pass the ball back out
  • If a ball rolls outside of the box, it is put back into play by the outside player on the line that it rolled out of


  • Each team has 4 players on the field at a time (use more or less depending on your team)
  • Out of bounds always goes to the other team
  • Players can run with the ball but can only pass it backward – no forward passes
  • You score by running the ball into the other team’s end zone
  • You get 1 point for running it in on the outside of the cones and 2 points for running it in through the middle of the cones

Thunder Dome

  • Create a Box around the crease circle (or cone off a small area in the middle) – no goal in the crease
  • 3 players from each team inside the box
  • 2 players from each team start in the middle around the crease and one in the corner
  • The coach puts a ball in the middle
  • On the whistle, everyone is LIVE
  • You win by completing 3 consecutive passes inside the box
  • If the ball rolls out of the box, the coach rolls a new one in

Mirror Race – Double Move

  • Done 1v1 – One player is “O” and the other is “D”
  • “O” player runs to the middle and either cuts back to the first cone or does a hesitation move and sprints to the far cone
  • Then the “O” player makes a second move and can go to either cone
  • The “D” player has to mirror the “O” player the entire time and try to beat him to the final cone he goes to
  • You can do this without sticks or have the “O” player carry a ball and the “D” player try to keep his stick touching the “O” player the entire time

Mirror Race – Single Move

  • Done 1v1 – One player is “O” and the other is “D”
  • “O” player runs to the middle and either cuts back to the first cone or does a hesitation move and sprints to the far cone
  • The “D” player has to go to the same cone as the offensive player and tries to beat him there
  • You can do this without sticks or have the “O” player carry a ball and the “D” player try to keep his stick touching the “O” player the entire time

First to Three

  • Have two ends of 6v6 (or 5v5 or 4v4) setup
  • One side is dark jersey offense and white jersey defense and the opposite side is white jersey offense and dark jersey defense (all white are on the same team and all dark on the same team)
  • All extra balls are at the midline
  • Both sides start a half-court 6v6 at the same time
  • Nobody crosses the midline
  • Every time the ball goes out of bounds, including a shot, the offensive team must run to the midline and pick up a new ball
  • If the defensive team gets the ball, they just play keep away on their half for as long as possible
  • The first team to score three goals wins