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?

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).

Should Your Child Specialize in One Sport?

Sports specialization in youth sports is a hot topic.  I came across an article in USA Today’s High School Sports section highlighting that 30 of the 32 first round picks in the last week’s NFL draft played multiple sports in high school.  While reading the article, there were links to two others on the subject.  One that presented the data from an NCAA survey of over 21,000 Division I, II, and III athletes.  The other presented results from research that indicated that single sport athletes were twice as likely to suffer a lower-body injury than multi-sport athletes.  What does the Hustle & Attitude philosophy say about the subject.

 


 

What do Hustle & Attitude parents and coaches do with respect to sports specialization?

Recall that the Hustle & Attitude (H&A)  philosophy is a youth recreational sports philosophy.  This implies that it is not conducive to sports specialization in that the typical specialization scenario – at least in the team sports like baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, etc. – is that the child plays for the local (often school-affiliated) team in season and then for a travel or select team in the off-season.  This often makes for a year-round commitment to the sport.  [As an aside, my friend’s son – and his family – have worked hard to play school and select soccer and school and select baseball leading up to and all through high school.  In a sense, he ‘specialized’ in two sports!]  Given the typical scenario, H&A parents and coaches wouldn’t have the choice about specialization because they would be involved in rec leagues.

In light of the benefits of playing multiple sports espoused in the “Few Surprises” article:

  • Less potential for burnout
  • Accumulating cross sport skills, and
  • Reducing overuse injuries – think pitchers in baseball, see John Smoltz’s recommendation – or injuries at all as the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health study indicates)

It would seem playing in rec leagues (or finding corresponding in-season and off-season sports like my friend’s son did) would be recommended.  [Although, truth in advertising, my friend’s son did have Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow during his junior year at the age of 17.]  The core of the H&A philosophy is to provide positive youth recreational sports experiences for our children.  Although many H&A families wouldn’t be faced with the question because their child wouldn’t be playing on a travel or select team, I could see, and indeed have seen, children and families that have had positive experiences while specializing in one sport.   [To close these parenthetical asides about my friend and his son; I don’t think he or his parents regret ‘specializing’ in soccer and baseball for the last 6-7 years, even considering the Tommy John surgery.]

So long as the child is having a positive experience, perhaps specialization is OK.  However, my personal belief is that playing more sports is beneficial to the development of our kids.


I need to get on a little rant here (anyone remember Dennis Miller’s show on HBO?)…

We need to stop using college and professional football players as our examples of why kids don’t need to specialize in sports in order to succeed (where the general public definition of success is getting a scholarship).  The USA Today articles highlight the NFL draft picks and how Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer has repeatedly said he only recruits multi-sport athletes.  Well, duh!  It should not come as a surprise to anyone that college-level football players played multiple sports in high school.  To make it to the collegiate level in football, the young men were obviously very athletic.  Unlike the sports I mentioned above in the specialization scenarios, there is no travel or select football.  I know, I know, if you’re reading this in Texas or Alabama, you’re thinking “There ain’t no offseason for football, yankee!”  First of all, I apologize for the gross generalization of how folks from Texas or Alabama talk.  Also, I’m from Arizona and a Red Sox fan, so I’m not a Yankee.  Anyway, I agree there are spring drills, and 7-on-7 and passing leagues in the spring/summer.  However, think about it; even with the offseason football activities, there is ample time for these high-caliber athletes to play other sports competitively.  As the data in the USA Today article indicates, track and field and basketball are high on the list of sports football players also play.  And based on my high school experience and watching my boys’ classmates, I would suggest wrestling is also a natural sport that football players gravitate towards as it is very complimentary of the skills, strength, and endurance required in football.

Let’s stop touting football players as our example of why children shouldn’t specialize in a single sport.  The general concern is not that football players specialize – again, they kind of can’t – it’s the travel and select baseball, basketball, soccer, and lacrosse leagues that offer our kids the opportunity (challenge?) to play one sport year round.  I appreciate the message.  I agree that children shouldn’t feel the need to specialize – certainly before high school.  However, we need examples of baseball, basketball, and/or soccer players who benefited from playing multiple sports.  Stop with the football examples.

When the Right Strategy is Wrong for Kids

Our friends at GameChanger included an article about a new Little League Baseball rule change in their Season newsletter.  The rule change is related to how intentional walks are handled in Little League.  Specifically, under the new rule, managers will declare they want to intentionally walk the batter and the pitcher will automatically have four pitches added to their pitch count.  This is not immaterial as Little League Baseball has mandatory pitch limits based on the age of the pitchers.  The article describes a situation where a manager in last year’s Little League World Series (of which I have already written about my mixed feelings) denied an intentional walk by instructing his batter to swing.  This was done to get the starting pitcher over his pitch count limit – forcing the opposing manager to replace the pitcher.  The manager who declined the intentional walk is quoted as saying “We’re trying to win” and “It was just strategy“.  It worked in this case as his team rallied against the new pitcher to win the game.  But is it appropriate for kids 11-13 years old?
I have written about my philosophy about youth recreational sports .  Further, in my coaching clinics, I tell the coaches that we are playing to win, but that we’re doing so with other higher priorities.  Specifically, the priorities are that every child plays an equal amount (over the season) and every child gets a chance to play multiple positions (again, over the whole season).  Hustle & Attitude coaches don’t measure the success of their season by wins and losses and tournaments won, but in terms of whether the athletes want to play again the following season.  Within the season, the measure of success is whether each player had fun, learned how to play the game, and got better at playing the game throughout the season.  Does the above situation – denying an intentional walk deliberately to increase an opposing pitcher’s pitch count – fit with the Hustle & Attitude philosophy?  I don’t know that I would go so far as to say it runs contrary to the philosophy, but I know that I wouldn’t have done it.
I appreciate Little League Baseball’s attempts to encourage positive experiences for young baseball players.  They have mandatory playing time rules.  Pitch counts show appropriate concern for the young players’ health.  However, there is still room for coaches to behave poorly.  Specifically, instructing their players to do things that will contribute to the team winning, but are contrary to actually learning how to play the game correctly.  I can remember a game while I was coaching in Marlins Little League Picturethe El Segundo, California Little League where the opposing manager was instructing or encouraging – I’m not sure, but let’s say I know he wasn’t discouraging – his players to just keep running to second on a walk.  The batter would take ball four and then sprint to first base and while the catcher was throwing the ball back to the pitcher, would take a turn and break for second base.  This was an attempt to take advantage of the fact that 8- and 9-year old recreational baseball players have trouble reliably throwing and catching the ball.  The pitcher would have to catch the ball, then turn and successfully throw the ball to the second baseman or shortstop covering at second who would, in turn, have to catch the ball and make a successful tag.  In response to seeing this a couple of times, I instructed my catcher to walk the ball back to the pitcher while staring down the base runner.  Does this sound like baseball to you?  Of course not.  Did the opposing manager’s ‘strategy’ increase his chances of winning?  Sure.  He’d often get a runner in scoring position with each walk.
Strategies like the ones above fit into a mentality that teach the wrong lessons to the children playing the game and often can lead to more insidious strategies like losing on purpose for tournament seeding.  These are not in keeping with a desire to provide a positive experience for the youth participating in sports.  Hustle & Attitude coaches do not coach that way.  Rather than declining an intentional walk, I would recommend the batter take their base and encourage the next batter to do their best to drive the runners in.  Easy for me to say…I’ve never been coaching with a Little League World Series game on the line.  Regardless, I would suggest to you that our team was more successful that year than many of the teams in the Little League World Series any year.  The players had fun.  They learned how to play the game (the appropriate way).  They got better throughout the season.  And, to my recollection, all of them came back to play the following season (many of them requested to play on my team).

High schools against pitch counts?

It is hard for me to believe that, in this day and age – with all we know about arm injuries (and admittedly there is still a lot we don’t know), there are youth sports organizations balking at the idea of pitch count restrictions. Particularly given the lack of hard core research, why wouldn’t we prefer to err on the safe side?

See the Chicago Tribune article below:
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-high-school-baseball-pitch-count-illinois-met-20160524-story.html

I’d appreciate your thoughts on the subject.

Do Away With the Mercy Rule?!?!

Mercy Rule Baseball

I read Jake Karton’s post on the National Association of Youth Sports website where he advocates for doing away with the mercy rule in youth sports.  I was caught off guard that anyone would advocate for doing away with the mercy rule.  A Google search of ‘mercy rule’ actually comes up with a mix of positions [it also results in a lot of information about the Kirk Cameron movie of the same name; which is very good, by the way].  Turns out what I thought was a widely accepted mechanism for displaying and teaching sportsmanship in youth sports is not so universally accepted.
Karton makes his case against the mercy rule by stating that the “mercy rule was instituted to protect younger athletes by sparing them the embarrassment of a loss”.  I disagree with this assertion.  In every recreational league I have coached or my kids have played, the mercy rule didn’t shield the kids from losing.  It did, however, stop kids from being hurt physically or emotionally by an overwhelmingly better team (with by the way, in many cases, an over-aggressive adult coach).  Karton highlights the value of the mercy rule in protecting kids physically, and I agree.  What he misses are the emotional and/or psychological injuries a team that is getting beaten handily might endure.  Further, neither side is learning or getting better when the game is obviously lopsided.  The winning team is not getting any competition and might as well be practicing.  The losing team is unable to put into play what they have learned in practice when they are getting creamed.

The definition of ‘mercy’:  compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.  Maybe better are the synonyms:  leniency, compassion, and kindness.  Teams that are winning by such a margin that the mercy rule comes into play should be encouraged, either by rule or just the coach’s good sense, to keep from harming their opponents by showing compassion.


In terms of keeping the kids from the shame of losing; although I don’t know that I agree with shutting the scoreboard off, don’t kid yourself that the kids that are losing don’t know they’re losing.  If the mercy rule is in play, the losing team is losing badly and everyone in the stadium knows it.  The mercy rule keeps the losing team from the shame of the continued embarrassment.  Applied appropriately, mercy rules can even allow both teams to keep playing.  For instance, I really appreciate a rule that Flag Football Fanatics employs where, if one team goes up by more than 28 points, the winning team does not get the ball until the losing team scores a touchdown (unless the losing team declines the option).  In addition, the league tries to avoid needing to employ the rule by maneuvering the schedule to get games between evenly matched teams.
Coaches who try to end the game as fast as possible by only playing their best players are definitely not getting it.  Don’t miss my emphasis here…I mean coaches in any youth sport; recreational, select/travel, and even high school.  Hustle and Attitude coaches play all their players on the team regardless of ability the same amount and in multiple positions.
While coaching Little League baseball in California years ago, we were playing a team whose coach had a much different philosophy Mercy Rule Baseball Playerabout recreational sports than mine.  His team was up by at least 10 runs in the 5th inning and was having their way with my pitching staff.  My assistant coach and I got upset when their third base coach sent a runner from second to score on a base hit.  Really?!?! Up by 10, you take advantage of the lack of skill of my kids to score another run.  Well, congratulations!  In a baseball game between 9-year olds, I would suggest taking your foot off the pedal when you are up by 10 runs is warranted.  His kids still get to play baseball if they only take one base at a time.  And mine get to try to get three outs and get out of the inning.
My bottom line, in reference to Mr. Karton’s article is that, although I agree with him that there is no benefit to shutting off the scoreboard (remember, the kids know the score anyway) and a focus on sportsmanship and education can have the same positive impact, I disagree that we should do away with the mercy rule altogether.  Particularly in recreational sports, the idea of showing compassion on a team that is grossly overmatched is also showing sportsmanship; teaching life lessons to children (and parents) on both sides of the score.

Baseball – A Game for All Players

 

I had the great opportunity last week to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  I recommend it for any baseball fan.  The game of baseball has such a rich history – and the Hall of Fame captures the heritage in a genuine way.

While there, we came across this display:Baseball for all Hall of Fame.jpg

I appreciate the discussion of the “muffin nines”.  Baseball was a form of recreation – even for the “club’s worst players” – that resulted in hilarity and FUN.

How many league administrators, coaches, and parents would benefit from remembering that “after all, baseball is just a game”.

 

More on Participation Trophies (my Dad & the PCA)

Gold_TrophyI’ve written about my thoughts on participation trophies before.  Since then, I’ve come across a couple of dissenting opinions.  One was from my own father and the other was from a recent Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) post.


My dad was my coach for many of my youth recreational sports.  When I introduced this blog to him and highlighted one of the key tenets of my Hustle & Attitude philosophy involving equal playing time for all the children on the team regardless of skill and ability, my dad indicated he disagreed.  He told me how being the back-up catcher on his town’s youth baseball team spurred him to work harder to beat out the kid who was the starter.  He did work hard and took over the starting position.  Further, he told me that he can’t be sure, but perhaps this lesson – that, if you want something, you have to work for it – even learned at such an early age, was key in his achieving so much in his life.  My dad served 23 years in the Air Force including a tour in Vietnam and has been a model husband and father for me.  He explains that he was never handed anything – he had to earn everything he got.  I very much appreciate his perspective.

I told my dad that this sounded more like what today’s select/travel team participants experience.  Select/travel leagues are different from recreational sports leagues.  Jacen CatchingIn the Hustle & Attitude philosophy there isn’t really a starter at any position as I encourage each child to play every position and to get equal playing time each game and throughout the season.  There were many seasons that my son Jacen was the best catcher on our team.  However, being left-handed, if he wanted to continue to play baseball, eventually he would need to be able to play other positions.  If we were playing each game to win, Jacen belonged behind the plate because of his skill and ability.  However, we were playing to learn the game, work together as a team, and have fun.  So, he played multiple positions.  Jacen now plays first base, outfield, and pitcher; more traditional positions for a lefty.

My dad also believes that giving every child the same trophy can lead to a sense of entitlement.  This is one of the points Vaughn Bryant, Chief Program Officer for the Chicago Park District, makes in his PCA Development Zone video.  Another point Bryant emphasizes is that participation trophies undermine the message inherent in sports that there are winners and losers in competition.  As I said in my previous post, the kids know who won and who lost each game.  They also know who the best skilled players are on their team and in the league.  Giving a trophy to each child doesn’t invalidate that knowledge.  Further, whether they get a trophy at the end of the season or not, winning always feels better than losing.  The kids I coach – who know that I expect them to hustle all the time and maintain the right attitude – will strive to be their best in order to try to win…whether they know that only the kids on the championship team get a trophy or if every child gets one.  Bryant gives an example of running a mile and that, only by working at it will the child get better or faster.  Agreed.  Where some might only give a trophy to the winner of the race, I think there is value in recognizing the kid that finished 12th, but set a personal best because of their hustle and attitude.