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).

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.

Nolan Harrison, entitlement, & participation trophies

Recently, Nolan Harrison caused a stir when he posted that he was returning the trophies that his sons earned for participation in youth sports.  Harrison’s point that his sons should earn trophies brings to light the question of ‘participation trophies’.

Participation trophies are a common experience in youth recreational sports where every child that is signed up receives a trophy at the end of the season.  Essentially, they receive a trophy just for showing up.  Some see this as positive reinforcement for our youth; that they should be rewarded for their effort (see SB Nation post – the author makes three good points and then there’s the 4th…).  Others however, see this as part of a larger parenting concern with creating a culture of entitlement with our children (see Losing is Good For You op-ed from the New York Times for a sports-related discussion and In Praise of the Ordinary Child piece in Time magazine for a more broad discussion to include education).

The Hustle & Attitude philosophy accommodates both sides of this discussion.  I disagree with Mr.Harrison when he implies his sons are not entitled to something just because they did their best.  I think there is merit to rewarding a child for giving their all in competition; whether they win or lose or make the all star team.  However, I agree with Erik Brady of USA Today when he points out that the kids are savvy enough to recognize who the best players are, regardless of whether everyone gets a trophy.

My sons have shelves full of trophies from all the youth sports in which they participated.  Neither my boys nor my wife and I ever pay them any attention.  And more importantly, that’s not why my boys played recreational sports.  They played for the fun of competition and the camaraderie with their friends and teammates.  The trophies were an after-thought.

My coaching style included recognizing the athletes after each game.  In every sport, I had a “Hustle & Attitude” award that was given out after each game.  The idea was to recognize the child that best represented the concepts of good hustle or a positive attitude.  The award was tied to the sport we were playing.  For example, in baseball, I gave out a pack of baseball cards.  In addition, we would recognize an offensive and defensive MVP for each game.  The MVPs would each get a wristband that they could wear during the next game.  After each game, the previous MVPs would give back the wristbands to be awarded again.

My boys with their 'MVP' wristbands

My boys with their ‘MVP’ wristbands

This is not necessarily an ‘everyone gets a reward’ thing – most of the time, I didn’t keep track who I gave them to – but, it did provide an opportunity to recognize a kid who didn’t always shine.  For instance, even though your star pitcher pitched well and the kid that played shortstop and left field played his usual solid game with good plays; you might take the opportunity to name the kid who made a (perhaps surprisingly) great play at their position as the Defensive MVP.
Again, as rewards go; the kids know who did well, who the stars are, and who the weaker players are.  Coaches (and all the adults involved) have to be genuine with them.  You can’t talk up and award the Offensive MVP wristband to the kid that struck out looking in both of his at bats just because you want to lift his spirits or because you think it is his turn for the wristband.  The rest of the kids (and parents) will see right through that and you will have lost some measure of credibility with them.