Little League World Series – Still Some Good, But Also Plenty of the Bad and the Ugly

I try not to watch. As I said with in a previous post – I think the Little League World SeriesLittle League World Series Logo is the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  But my son likes to watch, so it was on – the coverage is pervasive across the ESPN networks this time of year.

So far, a coach failed to comply with the mandatory playing time rules and I saw a 13-year old from the Hawaiian team with a bat flip after a home run that would have made Joey Bautista proud.  To my thinking, despite the goodness of Little League, the Little League World Series – and all the national attention it brings on 11-13 year-olds, is more bad and ugly than good.

Proponents point out that Little League Baseball is one of the last bastions of recreational baseball that is an alternative to the travel and select baseball machine.  Little League is affordable, has mandatory playing time rules, and has mandatory pitch counts.  I applaud all of that.  The H&A philosophy stands for positive experiences for youth in sports.  The affordability offers broader accessibility than travel teams.  Mandatory pitch count limits are in line with keeping the game safe for kids.  And, although my philosophy would go further to try to ensure the players play an equal amount, mandatory minimum playing time is a start.

However, the pitch counts lead some Little League managers to find exploitative strategies that might not be the best in terms of sportsmanship .  And even when coaches follow the mandatory minimum playing time rules, they may still discourage kids from wanting to play again.

So, I will likely watch more of the coverage – it is the biggest thing in youth sports right now.  I just think maybe it’s too big.  What do you think?

Why Coach Youth Sports?

In the post on the Positive Coaching Alliance blog, former MLB pitcher and current pitching coach for the Colorado Rockies, Steve Foster, provides a solid answer.

http://positivecoach.org/the-pca-blog/the-heart-of-the-child-is-the-point/

I appreciate his point that youth coaches can be a stepping stone or a stumbling block towards a child developing a love for the sport. More to come on adults’ role in helping kids fall in love with sports (I’ll be writing about Cal Ripken’s book on youth parenting soon).

What do you think?

Most Comprehensive Study to Date on NFL Players and CTE

Bleacher Report article indicating high number of former NFL, college, and even high school football players whose brains were found to have CTE;

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2723657-cte-discovered-in-more-than-99-percent-of-deceased-nfl-players-brains-in-study

We obviously need to study this more to understand the risks to football players of all ages.

Chris Lillstrung: High school sports community deserves mandated part of summer off

http://www.news-herald.com/sports/20170704/chris-lillstrung-high-school-sports-community-deserves-mandated-part-of-summer-off

I whole-heartedly agree – for me, the key reason is for families to have time to be families.  Now, this is mostly a school sport issue and not specifically a youth recreational sports one, but they’re related.

For too many young people and their families, a summer trip – historically an annual family affair – now may come at a price for the young athlete.  Often, the coaches will question a young athlete’s commitment to the team if they miss summer activities.  Think about that for a minute; a teen ager – and the parents who want their son or daughter to have every opportunity on the high school team – has to deliberately forego vacation time with family in order to stay out of the coach’s dog house.

A friend of mine had to weigh the potential impact of taking his son to a college football camp, which would have meant his son would miss a ‘voluntary’ workout with his high school team.  This wasn’t even a vacation (although surely the father and son would have had some real quality time together); it was missing a ‘voluntary football team workout’ to attend a college football camp.  Fearing that his son might lose his place on the depth chart, my friend didn’t take his son to the camp.

It’s not just summers, either.  For my boys, spring break was another test of their ‘commitment to the program’. As high school baseball players, they were expected to be in town for mandatory practices and even games!  A week during the school year intended for student (and family) R&R was now off limits. No trips scheduled in advance or other vacation arrangements made in case the boys made the team and needed to be available for baseball.

The idea of kids sacrificing to play sports is not bad.  They give up their free time and energy after school and sometimes the weekends during the school year.  Shouldn’t that be enough?  Particularly when the alternative is less time with family over summer break.

Drew Brees wants to “save the game of football” with flag football

http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2017/06/28/drew-brees-wants-to-save-the-game-of-football-with-flag-football/

Interesting article from NBC sports.  Brees’ comments are in line with what I have been saying for a while now:

  • Tackle football is facing a crisis and might need ‘saving’ (and I think it is worth saving, by the way) 
  • Many current and former players have said they wouldn’t let their kids play tackle football
  • Flag football is a fantastic alternative to tackle football for athletes before high school

As interesting to me as the article itself are the comments posted in response (scroll to bottom after the article itself).  It seemed to me 1 of every 4 or so of them was viruntly against the idea; essentially arguing that flag football is for sissies.

This is a topic that bears more discussion and consideration.  I’d love know what you think.  Leave a comment and join the conversation.

Read The Matheny Manifesto

Mike Matheny’s book is the best book I’ve ever read on youth sports.
Matheny is the current manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and a retired catcher who played 13 seasons for four teams, winning four Gold Glove awards for his defensive prowess behind the plate.  He replaced legendary manager Tony LaRussa in 2012 and won the National League pennant in 2013.
In 2008, between his playing days and his managing career, he was asked to coach his son’s youth baseball team.  He agreed, but only if the parents agreed to a set of rules or operating procedures that has since been codified as the ‘Matheny Manifesto’.  The manifesto can be downloaded in pdf.  Essentially, Matheny wanted to make sure the parents understood that, if he was going to do this, he was going to do it right – meaning he was going to take the opportunity to build the character of the kids on the team.  Shortly after giving this speech to the parents of his son’s team, the manifesto went viral on Facebook.  Matheny’s book includes the manifesto, how his experience in youth and professional sports resulted in this philosophy, and expands into other areas of life that sports can contribute.
Highlights of the manifesto:
  • It starts with this:  “I’ve always said I would coach only a team of orphans.  Why?  Because the biggest problem in youth sports is the parents”.
  • “I believe biggest role a parent can play is to be a silent source of encouragement”.
  • “Attitude, concentration, and effort are three things they can control”.  You know I love this quote – he essentially said my Hustle & Attitude pitch…I had been coaching for several years by the time he said it; so I’m guessing I said it first!
  • “I know times have changed, but one of the greatest lessons my father taught me was that my coach was always right-even when he was wrong”.
  • “There’s never an excuse for a lack of hustle on a baseball field”.
Concluding the opening chapter introducing the manifesto, Matheny says “Only a miniscule fraction of the boys and girls you and I coach will ever make a living or even put themselves through college as athletes.  But they can all become better men and women if we can instill in them values they can apply in the workplace, in their homes and families, and in their communities”.  AMEN BROTHER!
The book is then broken into 3 parts:  The Problem, A Better Way, and The Keys to Success.  Highlights of each part include:

Part 1 – The Problem
  • “Somehow, the more organized sports became, the more they became about the parents and not about the kids”.
  • Explaining that some parents were OK leaving a team where they “put less emphasis on winning, refused to dominate other teams, and purposely moved players around in what appeared to be nonsensical lineups”.
  • In explaining how parents can reduce the pressure on their kids by being “just a spectator and fan of your child doing something that he loves” instead of being “the world’s best cheerleader”, Matheny says about kids “He has the rest of his life to learn about real pressure and disappointment.  Let him have fun”.

Part 2 – A Better Way

  • “Our sole desire was and still is to use the arena of youth sports-in our case, baseball-to teach kids the game, encourage them to love it, and set them on a course toward becoming responsible members of society”. WOW!
  • On playing multiple positions:  “I did push the kids on our youth team to try new positions at least once”, “I do believe kids should start specializing in certain positions at some point, but not until they are well into their teenage years”, and “Please let them play all the positions at the beginning stages of their games, and I’m talking about more than tee ball”.
  • Matheny has a chapter where he goes through Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden’s maxims, including one of my favorites:  “The best competition I have is against myself to become better”.

Part 3 – The Keys to Success; in this part of the book, Matheny goes through his experiences and how they have shaped his youth sports philosophy (fans of the University of Michigan and the St. Louis Cardinals will enjoy these sections)

  1. Leadership
  2. Confidence
  3. Teamwork; “Many coaches don’t leave families any room to enjoy their summers aside from the baseball schedule.  Try to remember that these kids have these summer breaks for only a few years”.
  4. Faith; another thing I appreciate about Matheny is he is a Christian.  In this section, he explains that he doesn’t openly evangelize as a youth coach (or Cardinals manager for that matter), but that his faith is important to him and he will never shy away from it.
  5. Class; “Resign yourself to the fact that by and large the umpiring at the lower levels is going to be bad, and set your team’s expectations accordingly” and “usually bad umpiring is not intentional”.
  6. Character; on page 182 (of the hardcover version I have), Matheny comments how it seemed that everywhere his team went they heard positive comments about the boys’ “hustle and discipline” and later he explains that it wasn’t about “attracting only the best talent” but “this was all about attitude“.  Any questions why I really like his philosophy?
  7. Toughness; in this chapter Matheny relates his own story dealing with concussions that forced him to retire.  Further, he describes the situation “Kids in youth sports think they’re invincible” and “it falls to us adults to do the right thing…to guarantee that nothing close to what happened to me-and so many others-ever happens to a player who has been entrusted to us”.  I particularly like the way he puts the last part…players who are entrusted to us.
  8. Humility

There are only two areas where I slightly disagree with Matheny:  participation trophies and player selection.
I have written about my position on participation trophies before.  Matheny is against them; suggesting that it is OK for a child’s first or second year of organized sports, but “at a certain age there is way too much to learn from loss and failure to let kids continue thinking that everyone should get a trophy, even when they finish in last place”.  He goes on to say that a participation ribbon or certificate would be OK, but not a trophy.  As I have said before, I agree that sports provides life lessons on how to win graciously and not be a sore loser.  As for the harsh realities of the world, I say let the kids be kids and they’ll learn the harsh realities when they get to high school.  And, essentially, Matheny’s concession about certificates or ribbons means he’s all for all players getting something at the end of the year, just not trophies.  He makes a distinction between trophies – which should go to the winners – and certificates and ribbons.  I think the hubbub about participation trophies is blown out of proportion; it’s not that big a deal.
As for our differences on player selection; it really boils down to the type of leagues we’re talking about.  Matheny describes having to tell players they weren’t welcome on the team anymore because they didn’t appear to have the desire to put the effort required to be on the team.  Well, that sounds like a select or travel team.  My philosophy is specifically intended for youth recreational sports .  In recreational sports, no child is turned away.  Every child that joins the team makes the team and the Hustle & Attitude philosophy is that they play equal amounts of time at multiple positions.  What is encouraging is the significant overlap between the Hustle & Attitude philosophy and Matheny’s philosophy (see all the highlights above) and how many of the principles apply to select and travel leagues as well as recreational leagues.
In summary, if you care about youth sports at all, I recommend you read Matheny’s book.  His manifesto is all about providing positive experiences for youth in sports (just like the Hustle & Attitude philosophy).

Another NFL Great Recommends Kids Don’t Play Tackle Football Before Junior High School

In this piece from the Orlando Sentinel, George Diaz quotes former Miami Dolphin great Larry Csonka as saying “Kids shouldn’t play tackle football until junior high…” and cites lack of qualified coaches and proper equipment as reasons.  The link includes a video of Nick Buoniconti’s son (Buoniconti is another Dolphin legend) talking about the struggles his father is going through after playing football for so many years.  The piece also mentions Buoniconti’s other son, Mark, who was paralyzed playing college football.

I continue to recommend flag football for youth prior to high school.