More and more, I think we blame the wrong things for the problems evident in youth sports. For instance, everyone blames AAU for everything bad about basketball, yet school teams often employ the same tactics. With young athletes, we often blame keeping score for the issues that arise.
Neil Swidey writes about the issues of keeping score in his article “What happened to losing?” He touches on the real issue briefly: the loss of play for the sake of play.
Until relatively recently, children tended to get the bulk of their athletic exposure in sandlot games where kids handled the organizing, team selection, rules enforcement, and conflict resolution. Now, from a very young age, kids inhabit and compete in an adult-organized world.
I began playing organized basketball in the fourth grade. But the basketball experiences that shaped me much more were the pickup games played on the courts in the center of town. The action there was intense, yet there was never an adult in sight. We kids ran the show. If one team dominated too much, we just naturally switched up teams. We called our own fouls. And, yes, we certainly kept score, but no one had time to obsess over victories and losses. There was always another game just about to begin. (For many kids today, the only regular exposure to this type of environment is video games, and kids don’t seem scarred from losing at Mario Kart on the Wii.)
Now, if the article veered down this path, I would agree. I played on good teams and bad teams in my various youth leagues. However, much of my athletic development occurred during recess games and summer pick-up games near my house. Pick-up games ensure a competitiveness, as losers sit while winners stay on the court. Arguments often ensue, but disagreements are dealt with quickly and forgotten. While sitting for the next game sucks, it certainly is not the end of the world, and few people keep track of their wins and losses in these pick-up games.
However, the article again returns to the subject of keeping score, handing out trophies and more, while acknowledging that adults often are the source of problems in youth sports.
If adults cause the problems, why not address these issues rather than not putting up a scoreboard? Children and parents keep score; everyone knows who won and lost the game, and the absence of a scoreboard prevents very little.
The problem with many teams and leagues is the over-competitiveness of coaches. Because we evaluate coaches based on what we see – games – coaches strive to make their teams look organized and disciplined during games.
Rather than look at those within one league as associates working together to help a group of children in a specific area, we often view the opposing coaches and teams as adversaries.
When I was young, I played for Fair Oaks Little League. Each season, I played for a different team within F.O.L.L: Dodgers, Orioles, Indians, White Sox. We competed against the other teams in our league, but at the end of the season, the top players played together as the F.O.L.L. All-Star Team against other Little Leagues like Citrus Heights, Sunrise, etc. Most of the players within F.O.L.L. eventually fed into Bella Vista High School.
When viewed in this way, the individual teams were not adversaries: when I played for the Dodgers, the Giants, Reds and others were not the enemy. Ultimately, we were playing to elevate each other’s play and prepare the best players for the Tournament of Champions and All-Star Tournaments. From a long term perspective, we were developing to play high school baseball and turn BV into a winning program.
From this perspective, one way to reduce the competitive egos of the coaches is to make teams and coaches work together. Rather than assign one coach to each team, assign a group of coaches to an age group. These coaches become responsible for the development of all the players in the age group, not just the 12 players on their individual team.
In this way, players play to win the game and compete against the other teams. However, the coaches’ goals differ. Rather than run up the score against a lesser opponent, the coach’s goal is to find a way to challenge each team. Maybe that means that he throws his third-string pitcher against a weaker opponent and risks a defeat. Maybe he switches his outfielders into the infield and vice versa to develop his players’ all-around skills. Maybe he works on situational hitting and gives up an out with a sacrifice when his hitter likely would have driven in the run. This also helps the opponent practice different skills, like hitting against a hittable pitcher and fielding bunts among other skills.
To expand the idea, coaches could switch between teams for practices. In a similar basketball league, what if one coach is an expert at teaching man2man defensive principles while another is an expert shooting instructor? In a traditional league, the 8-12 players on the defensive coach’s team benefit from his defensive instruction, while the 8-12 players on the shooting coach’s team benefit from his shooting instruction. But, in a true developmental league, why not allow the coaches to work together? The defensive coach could run a practice for the two teams focused on defensive principles, while the shooting coach could take a practice and focus on shooting. This way, the players benefit from the best of all the coaches, and the coaches lose a little of the ego involvement because they want to see all the players develop the skill set that they are teaching, rather than focusing only on one team and proving his worth as a coach through their win-loss record.
Back to the article, Swidley makes an important point about cuts with youth teams:
Cutting kids from teams when they’re still in elementary school — or even middle school — simply makes no sense. Truth is, the predictive powers of even experienced coaches to survey a bunch of 10-year-olds and spot the future Division I college stars are about as reliable as a 90-day weather forecast. Athletic prowess at 10 or 11 is largely a function of physical maturity. Getting cut at an early age is no good for the kids who don’t make the roster, yet might otherwise have blossomed. But it’s also no good for the young anointed superstars who get tracked into early specialization of one sport, increasing their chance of burnout. By age 13, some 70 percent of kids have dropped out of youth sports. And imagine how crushing it is for the third-grader dubbed the next Mia Hamm who, after other kids catch up in physical maturity, isn’t even able to make her high school varsity team.
Before high school, all leagues are developmental: the primary focus is fun, learning and improvement. If we believe these are the goals, why cut players? I laugh when I see advertisements for developmental teams seeking 5’10 centers for their u11 team. If you are recruiting certain types of players and cutting others, how is your team developmental?
If we can find ways to include more players; create more unstructured environments for players to play for the sake of playing; and remove the coach’s ego from youth leagues, we will create a better experience for all players and make the experience more enjoyable for coaches who can work with their peers and learn from each other rather than viewing everyone as a competitor or adversary.
By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League