Ghost runners: The imagination of playing

We were talking about Title IX, the landmark federal legislation which opened up educational opportunities for women in the United States. The law, most noted for its impact on high school and college sports, turns 40 later this month and I was interviewing Jennifer Teague, the softball coach at the University at Buffalo. And while we discussed things like opportunity, we also talked about our experiences with sports growing up. Born in the mid-1970s she was technically a Title IX baby but her home state of Indiana was a bit behind the times when it came to creating organized teams for girls. So she played with the boys. It’s a familiar story.

Then she brought up ghost runners. And creating your own baseball/softball/kickball diamond. You remember the drill. It went something like this:

OK, first base is the tree over there. For second base, we’ll use this flower pot. Third base is the fence. Yeah, it’s kinda close to second but go with it. And this spot here is home plate.

In case you forgot the concept of ghost runners, that’s what happened if you were on base but your turn in the batting/kicking order was up. You’d call out GHOST RUNNER and go up to bat. Everyone knew there was a runner at second base. Everyone knew you could still get the ghost runner out.

As Jennifer shared her memories, some of mine came flooding back. I didn’t get in too many pickup baseball or softball games. Kickball was more my speed, particularly at recess (which we called “lunch time” instead. “Recess” was far too formal and sounded funny to our fifth-grade sensibilities.)  We made up games in the neighborhood over the summer, back when my mother would say to me and my brother, “Go outside and play.” Some days there were lots of kids to play with. Other times there were lots of ghost runners. Never really stopped us.

While she played organized sports, Jennifer cherishes those backyard type of memories. “There are so  many distractions nowadays days with TV and video games. I think it’s important to stay in sports or you get lost in all of that. I think I have a pretty good imagination because of the backyard sports that I played. My players today, they just didn’t grow up with that imagination of playing.”

The imagination of playing.

Unstructured play is critical. It gives us a chance to stretch our imagination and our bodies.

We get caught up in so many of the things sports can teach us about discipline and organization. About being a team player and developing strength and healthy habits. We know how good sports can be for our kids and so we institutionalize it and create a youth sports machine with schedule practices and games and for those desiring elite status travel competitions for elementary school kids. But what about unstructured play? What about imagination?

Organized youth sports have a great place in the lexicon of athletics. More opportunity to play, to learn skill fundamentals, to make friends, to compete, to have access to good coaching — all great things. But it doesn’t need to be either/or. Kids still need the freedom to create their own games, to use their own imagination. Yes, sometimes backyard games end up in tears because of disagreements over where exactly second bases is located or if the ghost runner was really out. But there are lessons in those moments and even those disagreements sometimes inspire creative solutions in ways which might not fly on the formal pitch with a paid official and coaches with rule books.

I thought about the imagination of playing in my own athletic world. As an endurance athlete, my “play time” is often structured training. Today’s track workout was 600 meter repeats. I can’t exactly just run to the next tree. But I can play with my workouts much more than I realize. I can change up my routes. I can run on trails. I can bike with friends. I can leave my watch at home and not track and analyze every single workout. I can invoke my imagination. It’s always accessible and able to create anything, anything at all, in my existence.  Every workout may not be “by the book” so to speak, but that’s exactly the point. Breaking away from sanctioned organization helps me expand my imagination. I become more creative in all areas of my life. I am able to see more possibilities because I’m not limited by what the coaches, refs and rule books describe. It’s not about playing out of bounds. It’s about drawing my own boundaries which, while abiding by the same spirit of the “rules,” look unique to me. The imagination of playing allows children to explore who they are and allows adults the opportunity to be themselves fearlessly.

GHOST RUNNER. Sorry. Had to call for a ghost runner. See, it’s my turn again at the plate.

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