Female softball player at bat

The power of rules

Rule: one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere. –Oxford Languages

I was watching teenage girls play softball at Mapleton Field. They were part of a huge annual tournament called “Fireworks and Sparkler,” where 1000+ teams converge to compete in the summertime heat. I don’t know much about it, just that I’ve ridden my bike through the uniformed players snappily warming up, their coaches, parents, and siblings waiting patiently, surrounded by a vast variety of foldable chairs, coolers, and very impressive looking softball bat packs.

Female softball player at bat

I played fastpitch in high school, being part of the incredible bridge between pre- and post-Title 9. First we were playing intramurally in our green rompers, then suddenly we had real uniforms, got to bus across town to play against other high schools. The switch was breathtakingly fast, and pushed us all to step up and act like real athletes.

Team photo in rompers

Yes, we wore these one-piece green rompers to play.

Team photo in uniforms

Starting to feel a little more like athletes.

And–these girls looked like a different species from who we were 50 years ago. They strutted, held their heads high as they smacked their throws smartly into each others’ gloves, cracked base hits, slid into bases without any hesitation.

The umpires were similarly up for a different level of play. The plate ump looked like a bantam rooster, his chest protector hidden beneath his shirt, giving him an extra big chest. He called balls with a fast gesture, making a “hoooah” sound when strikes made it across the bat. He was right there to watch one runner race to third just ahead of the ball, apparently safe. What he saw that I missed was how she obstructed the basewoman–he called her out.

Ump signalling an out

Of course, those close plays happen throughout any good game. Part of the fun is the ensuing debate–did the ump blow it or get it right this time?? Baseball fans are known for their love of statistics and specificity. The rules matter.

This is a strange blog for me to write. I have my own brand of rebelliousness, my own ways of resisting control and authority. But if you’re going to play a game together, you need to follow the rules. Otherwise, it’s impossible to keep playing.

Over the years I’ve played referee for hundreds of couples, and lots of families. Occasionally I’ve wished there was someone to call the play for me in my relationship, and have often longed for a video replay (“you DID use that tone!”). What I’ve noticed is, for the most part, folks try to play the relationship game without any rules at all. In fact, when conflicts get the most escalated it’s typically because any norms have been abandoned, leaving it to each person to resort to basic mammalian strategies like fight hard and dirty, run away, or simply play dead.

What I’ve realized is how much I rely on a set of rules to actually make a game fun. If playing softball meant any ball is in play, or players could knock each other down, or there simply wasn’t a strike zone I wouldn’t actually want to play. It’s the container of agreements that make it a game, that allow me to step in and play as hard as I can.

I was recently helping a family resolve some issues cross-generationally. As is true for most of us, life had added lots of complications along the way: an affair that led to estrangement and alienation; little kids growing into teenagers with their own reactions, rebellions, and opinions; festering childhood resentments that became open sores in adulthood. They’d tried to just fight it out openly, but eventually that devolved into the same mammalian behaviors that I referred to above, the family members resorted to a emotionally blood strategy: distance and avoidance. (Can you relate?)

In order to get them back on the field, I created this set of “Rules of the game”. They’re trying to learn them, though, like with any new skill, it’s taking lots of practice, and there’s been steps forward and then back.

I offer these rules to you all with the idea that you, too could benefit from a common understanding of where the foul lines of communication are, and what to do when play needs to stop and allow for a reset. Relationships, while not exactly like a game, thrive within a structure of agreed-upon behavior. We can experience the thrill of playing our best when we know what we’re all doing together.

Rules of the Game

So– that’s a set of rules for you to consider. Of course, the rule book for girls’ fastpitch softball is 88 pages, so you can add as much complexity as you’d like.

You probably know how much I love to play–wanna play catch??



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