Anyone with kids in little league baseball knows about the ‘mercy rule’. If a team gets up by a certain number of runs, the game is ended early. The idea being the kids will get demoralized, so ending it early protects their sensibilities. You don’t find mercy rules too often in soccer though. The emphasis is always on ball touches – the more the merrier and the more game play situations the better. However, that doesn’t mean soccer avoids blowout matches and the psychological impacts of them.
Our league has faced an interesting situation this fall. This was our first season with travel teams which meant there was another outlet for the more advanced players. Our league allows kids to play both Challenge (travel) and Recreational soccer during the same season if they want to. The only restriction is they cannot play for two different teams on the same day. During registration, a lot of the kids who made Challenge teams signed up for Recreational as well. When our division coordinators created the teams, they tried to ensure the better players were evenly distributed across the teams to balance the division. However, before the first practice, but after the rosters had been finalized, a lot of the kids on travel teams dropped out, deciding to play only travel soccer. We also lost a number of athletic kids to football who also had signed up ‘just in case’. In essence, we had parents ‘reserving’ slots for their kids.
Needless to say this affected some teams significantly when they lost their better players while other teams kept all their players. The result is some teams are dominating while others are struggling. 8 point goal differentials in a single match are not uncommon.
Because of this, I’ve had some parents and coaches ask why we don’t have a mercy rule. I’ve touched on lopsided matches before. As a coach, I find them very difficult to handle as you try to ensure your kids get field time without running up the score and upsetting the opposing parents and coach. It’s great to try out new lineups and risky things you might not try during a normal match. However, it can be very difficult to rein the kids in and get them to not score. Even so, I’m not convinced a mercy rule is the right solution.
I speak from experience. While my U10’s are doing very well, my U8’s are struggling. We’ve lost some matches by 7-9 points and the kids KNOW they’re being outplayed. My older players are really taking it hard. However, I’m not sure a mercy rule would help that since they know early in a match when the other team is dominating the game. Ending the match 5-10 minutes early won’t change that. Besides – my kids need ball touches, especially in game situations. Losing 5-10 minutes off every match adds up. I believe it’s my job to ensure the kids don’t get down on themselves and that the parents understand – it’s a building year. Happens to everyone. Obviously I’m struggling as a coach with my U8’s and we’re trying to make some adjustments to ensure the older kids aren’t bored as we work on basic skills the younger kids should have already had from U6. We’re going to try some new things this week to see if we can get everyone back into it.
Now I will say that any coach who lets a single player rack up 5+ goals against a weak team is teaching the wrong lesson. However, if you have a number of your kids score a couple of goals, the score can spike in a hurry. I don’t think that’s bad. Also, often when a strong team faces a weak team, the stronger players will score early. Is it fair to the less skilled players who so badly want that ‘first goal’ to have to also ratchet back and not score? I don’t think so. I know with our U10’s against certain teams, the stronger players won’t get much offensive time at all. One of my players actually told me he tries not to score because he knows I’ll pull him as soon as he does. He said this not long after I pulled him in a match where he scored 3 goals in less than 3 minutes. So, they play defense and the other kids get much more offensive touches. It evens things out and I find myself struggling to ensure the more advanced players get their ‘equal’ time.
A lopsided match is tough to take if you lose no matter how many players score. I understand that. However I’m not sure a mercy rule would change much. Kids know their match is being called early if it’s anything more than 5 minutes left. I think it is the responsibility of the league and coaches to explain to the parents that there can be a huge difference in two matches where the score was 10-2. One coached properly (players challenged with weak footed shooting, consecutive passes, multiple players score) and one coached improperly (same kid exploits weak defense over and over to score). It may not make it any easier to handle, but it will often keep parents from assuming ‘oh that coach just wants to run up the score’ when there is nothing farther from the truth.
This problem will be less of an issue in the spring as we’ll break up the U10 and U8 divisions based partly on the fall results. We could have split in the fall, and debated it for a long time, but in the end, with the unbalanced spread of dropouts, any likely split would still have resulted in a few dominant teams in each division.
This isn’t an easy thing to manage. I’m curious how other leagues have handled seasons where a few teams emerge dominant and the teams at the bottom of the standings get outplayed week after week.