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).

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.

The Little League World Series: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Every year I both look forward to and dread watching ESPN’s coverage of the Little League World Series.  I look forward to it because there is a lot of good in Little League baseball.  I dread it because there are things that are not in line with my Hustle & Attitude philosophy.  And, don’t get me started when things get ugly.  Let me explain:

  • The Good – Little League baseball is a recreational sport; that is, every child that signs up gets to play.  There are no tryouts or cuts.  Further, Little League baseball has rules about minimum playing time for each athlete.  Finally, Little League baseball has mandatory rest for young pitchers based on the number of pitches they throw.  The organization does a great job of allowing children the opportunity to participate in baseball games.
  • The Bad – Curveballs!  Experts suggest that 11-13 year old athletes should not throw curveballs due to the potential for injury (CNN article on curveballs and Little League, American Sports Medicine Institute (AMSI) Position Statement).  Yet, almost every game, the announcers are raving about the breaking pitches these young men are throwing.  Another thing that I think is unfortunate is the cameras covering the athletes after a loss.  These are pre-teen children who are now on live television – with all the corresponding pressures – and when they lose, we see just how young they are.  I don’t believe 11-13 year-olds ought to compete in televised national tournaments.
  • The Ugly – Too many times recently, and for various reasons, adults have made decisions that fly in the face of good sportsmanship and fair play with respect to Little League.  The Jackie Robinson West Little League scandal from last year and just this week with the Little League Softball World Series ‘tanking’ incident.  This is almost the worst thing that could happen in youth sports of any kind – when an adult makes a decision or gives direction that ruins a young athlete’s sports experience.