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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