Coaching To Win

It is very common in American youth sports to find coaches whose sole desire is to win. The best kids play, the worst kids sit. Youth leagues across many sports have tried to implement rules to ensure kids get equitable playing time, at least at the recreational level. Most recreational soccer leagues implement some type of equitable playing time requirement (ours is 50% of the match since our roster sizes are always less than twice the players on the field at any given time). This is a good thing.

Now I’ll admit a healthy dose of competition and pressure can also help kids learn to deal with pressure and losing. Valuable life lessons. So you often find the pressure higher during tournaments and especially end of season tournaments. Do you coach to win in the championship game? Some would say yes, especially if you’ve coached the entire season more worried about player development than winning. If you reach the final round, is it that bad to put your best team forward to win the gold?

You might be surprised at what your decision might be and what can come of it.

Imagine this scenario (not soccer – sorry :) ) Little League Baseball, PONY level (9-10 year olds). Championship game. Your team is up by one and on the field. 9th inning, two outs, runner on third. The other team’s best batter is in the batters box with a weaker hitter on deck. What do you do?

Well, a coach faced this very situation and decided he would seal the win for his team by intentionally walking the strong hitter to face the weaker hitter, who struck out.

Now I don’t know enough about Little League baseball at the PONY level to know if an intentional walk is appropriate or not in a championship game. It just feels wrong – if your team was that good to be in the championship, face the strong hitter. But intentional walks are a common strategy in baseball.

However, there was one added wrinkle. The batter who struck out has cancer. Needless to say, the parents and coaches from his team went ballistic over the other coaches strategy. It also made national news where the coach was raked over the coals repeatedly.

The sports editor for the local Davis Clipper, Ben De Voe, ripped the Yankees’ decision. "Hopefully these coaches enjoy the trophy on their mantle," De Voe wrote, "right next to their dunce caps."

Well, that turned Bountiful into Rancorful. The town was split — with some people calling for De Voe’s firing and describing Farr and Farley as "great men," while others called the coaches "pathetic human beings." They "should be tarred and feathered," one man wrote to De Voe. Blogs and letters pages howled. A state house candidate called it "shameful."

Ouch. The coach who called the walk swore he didn’t know about the boys condition, but admitted even if he did, he’d have done the same thing – he felt it was good strategy. Too bad he seems to be shading the truth a bit (OK it’s pretty much lying) because this coach coaches the child with cancer in basketball and the parents tell every coach about his condition. Ooops. He had to know, though I can imagine he didn’t immediately think "I can’t do this because that kids got cancer". He simply saw a strong hitter in the box and a weak hitter on deck.

But taking things back to an abstract level, what would you have done? The coach was perfectly within the rules. Some feel the coach took advantage of the kid who struck out, while others argued he was being treated like any other player, something kids with medical conditions often want. Rick Reilly at thinks it was way out of bounds.

Me? I think what the Yanks did stinks. Strategy is fine against major leaguers, but not against a little kid with a tube in his head. Just good baseball strategy? This isn’t the pros. This is: Everybody bats, one-hour games. That means it’s about fun. Period.

What the Yankees’ coaches did was make it about them, not the kids. It became their medal to pin on their pecs and show off at their barbecues. And if a fragile kid got stomped on the way, well, that’s baseball. We see it all over the country — the overcaffeinated coach who watches too much SportsCenter and needs to win far more than the kids, who will forget about it two Dove bars later.

I think it’s more subtle than that. Kids that age are not stupid. They know the difference between winning regular season matches and winning the championship. Sure, kids get over loses in big games quickly. My son has made it to the championship twice, losing close matches each time. Was this coach wrong to make a single strategic decision to help his team advance? Would the pressure have been any different on the kid that struck out if the best hitter had walked normally or if that kid had happened to be next to bat with two outs?

Before you decide, consider this scenario. Championship U12 match, tied 0-0. Penalty shoot out. Who do you pick for your first 5 kickers? Your strongest players? Does it matter if the other team’s keeper has cancer?

I’m not saying what this coach did was right. There is always a delicate balance between player development and certain situations where a coach has to make decisions so his team can win. All too often ALL coaches are told ‘you just want the trophy on your shelf’ That’s bull. Sure, there are PLENTY of coaches like Reilly describes. But many of us want our kids to be successful to gain confidence. My U10’s went 2-0-5 last season, with all the kids getting 50% playing time and trying out various positions. But when we faced the #2 team in the tournament, we put our best team forward and played our hearts out. Everyone played, though a couple kids who hadn’t practiced in weeks because of baseball played less than the kids who had practiced hard in preparation. When we upset the #2 team 5-4, you could see the kids confidence boosted. In a case like that, yeah, I made some decisions to get us a ‘win’. We lost in the next round, but that one win made a huge difference for our players and their confidence.

All I’m saying is that there are idiot coaches in every sport who shouldn’t be coaching since they do it for themselves, not the kids. But at some point we can push the pendulum too far in the other direction where we’re so afraid of putting any pressure on our kids we hide them from some hard life lessons. You know I feel really bad for the kid who struck out in the 9th inning – I’ve been there. But how’s this for spunk and a lesson learned:

the next morning, Romney woke up and decided to do something about what happened to him.

"I’m going to work on my batting," he told his dad. "Then maybe someday I’ll be the one they walk."

That’s just awesome. Why did the media, parents, and his coaches see fit to treat him like a victim? He simply saw that he needed to work on his hitting. Good for him.

One final thing. Shame on the media for blowing this into a national story because the kid had cancer. You want to comment on coaches coaching to win because a coach intentionally walked a kid, fine. But this kid having cancer was what made this into a national story which to me is sad. It never would have gotten this much attention if cancer wasn’t involved. Think about how this kid must feel, with all this attention because ‘he has cancer’. Why wasn’t the media there in the first place highlighting what a fighter this kid was, playing baseball with a brain shunt and playing in the championship game? Because that wouldn’t be controversial enough.
For shame.

Was The Intentional Walk OK?

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  1. Er. Wow, that’s weird that people would get this upset over it. Almost like they felt like the team had a duty to lose so the kid with cancer could have his team win. Like you, I don’t know a whole lot about Little League but the intentional walk seems a perfectly logical thing to me and I don’t see anything wrong with it. But maybe it goes against the culture. Still… I don’t see why someone having cancer should be a factor in that decision.

    The kid’s response was great. It reminds me of a situation I had when I was playing youth soccer. Our rec league had a very similar requirement to the 50% playing time one that you speak of. When I reached U-14 I played for a new coach who chose to ignore that rule. I complained to my dad, who complained to one of the league officials. The league official assumed wrongly that I was getting the required playing time and that my dad was just upset I wasn’t getting enough to satisfy his or my ego. The following year after he discovered his error he apologized to both of us, which I thought was very cool.

    By then it was a moot point though. My reaction to this lack of satisfaction was to work harder, play more aggressively, and constantly challenge for the ball. I became more useful to my team and got more playing time. I didn’t always start, but by the end of the season I was playing at least half of each game, usually more. I was happy with that because I knew I’d earned it. This was better than just having that playing time “given” to me by league rules.

    Given my experience, it’s inconsistent of me to say this, but I understand the reason for those rules and I support them; I think they’re important. Yet I’m still glad things worked out the way they did in my own situation. I’m not sure how to reconcile the contradiction, but there you have it!

  2. The good news is it isn’t as much of a contradiction these days. While most rec leagues require equal playing time, etc., the higher level leagues like Challenge and Classic don’t require 50% playing time. The competition is more intense and kids are driven to improve in situations very similar to what you describe. So in a way you have the best of both worlds – ALL kids in rec getting lots of ball touches, some of which will improve enough to play at the next level and be driven by a different set of rules and pressures. Our son is on his first travel team this season and it’s been interesting to see him driven not only to do his best, but also to earn more playing time and to possibly start. For certain kids that can be a powerful driver, but I agree that it shouldn’t be used across the board. Better to save it for kids who voluntarily know what they face (ie trying out for a travel team)

  3. Yes, if both options are open to kids then that is the best of both worlds. There was only one travel team in the area and I wasn’t considered for it because the coach, in his words, “didn’t think girls could compete with boys at that level.” That still pisses me off.

    Where I live now, there are more than enough teams for kids and even adults to pick their preferred level of competitiveness. I wonder if the smaller communities like the one I grew up in have got there.

  4. human – funny you mention that. My son’s travel team has a girl playing on it. She had an awesome tryout and earned her spot outright (our tryouts are done by independent evaluators – the coaches don’t pick their players) I think that’s very cool and I expect she’ll surprise some folks.

  5. If the kid had put his bat in the way of the ball and looped it between a few fielders and won the game, the kid would have made national news as well. See the kid with autism who sank all those three pointers as an example.

    To treat the weak hitter with cancer as different from the weak hitter who doesn’t I think more or less demeans the kid who has cancer. I doubt was out there looking for favors because of his condition. Maybe he thinks that for a few hours on saturday he stops being the “poor kid with cancer” and gets to be a “ballplayer” like everybody else. If I was a coach that’s exactly how I’d coach against him.

    Maybe the morals police otherwise known as the average American sportswriter should ask the kid. That Rick “Pee in my Cup, Sammy” Reilly also is blaming the coach is hardly surprising, as he’s a prototype for the model.

  6. Voros makes a good point. The best course of action is to treat everyone equally so that they also feel equal, regardless of any potential conditions. In addition, youth baseball coaches have a fine line to walk between getting the “surer” win, and having all your players not only play, but improve in-game. At the heart of it, baseball coaches should be focused on the fun part of the game, and winning should come in second. Of course, the problem is that winning is sometimes seen as the only way to have fun.

  7. John, perhaps. What seems to get lost is the fuzzy area between regular seasons and tournaments. A little competition and pressure can be a godo thing – in moderation. If a coach has coached his team with the #1 goal to be player development, learnign, and equal playign time all year, when the end of season tournament comes around and it’s time for the team to shine, shoudl that coach be allowed to coach to win the tournament or should the coach. In other words, if this coach did this during the regular season woudld it have been any worse than doing it in the 9th inning of the championship game? I think so.

    One thing that always drives me crazy is when someone will say ‘oh you just want to win so you can put a trophy on YOUR wall and you’re just using the kids, etc, etc’ While there are some coaches out there, I still believe they are the minority. I know when my kids play in a tournament – of course I want them to win – because I want them to succeed and put all their hard work to use on the field. I could care less about any trophy on my shelf. It’s the look on their faces when they realize they played their hearts out and were rewarded for it. I highlighted just such a situation in an earlier post. For many of us – it really is about the kids, even if we push the to win at times. The key word being at times.

  8. To me the marker of whether a coach is competitive for the “right” reasons is how they treat their players, opposing players, team parents, and officials. Playing hard to win within the rules isn’t a problem for me. Those who just want to win for their own sake rather than the kids’ sake out themselves pretty quickly, most often by verbally abusing the officials. That’s been my experience.