Little League, Big Politics

I wish to address two issues related to children playing team sports:   overly competitiveness and selfish coaches.

When you are a parent of a child playing sports, it is not all fun and games.

Having two boys who have played team sports, I have discovered that the honeymoon of the “sports are fun” concept is quite short. The competitive and political nature of youth athletics begins before children reach double digits.

Recently I attended a basketball tournament and I was amazed at how competitive some of the teams were with kids who appeared eight or nine years old. I’m talking about kids who had no reservations about bumping into one another or driving to the hoop and falling hard onto the wooden floor out of bounds.

Here’s the Catch 22 on youth sports. If your child isn’t good enough, he is not going to get as much playing time as another child who is, yet if he doesn’t get to play that much, he’s not going to gain experience playing the sport.

Therefore, if a parent is serious about his child playing at a level good enough not for the pros, not even for colleges, but for high schools, then the parent is going to have to use other ways for that child to become better.

I was aware of these travel teams, private groups coached by independent contractors, where the sport is played for real. We never put out sons in travel teams because it sounded like too much pressure too early. Now that our oldest is going into high school, I wished I at least tried a travel team.

He tried out for the summer basketball team and made it. However, it is clear that many of his teammates have been playing at a higher level for quite some time. We are trying to have him improve quickly before the next tryouts occur in the fall by doing extra drills and conditioning exercises.

Even then, he has an uphill battle to catch up to these other players. So here’s some advice. Before your kids turn 10, have them play the sport as often as possible, pay for private lessons and/or travel clubs, and find an agent. Otherwise, their playing days may be over at age 9.

Of course, their playing days may already be limited if they coaches who play favorites.

Such favoritism is epidemic in youth sports. While there are a few coaches who don’t play favorites, too many do just that. There seems to be an unwritten approval that those parents who donate their time coaching teams get to do what they want with their players even if it means that their own children get preferential treatment.

The National Alliance for Youth Sports has developed the National Standards for Youth Sports.  Standard #8 states that “leagues must encourage equal play time for all participants.”

In reality, player playing time and player positions are at the whims of the coach.  Therefore, if a parent is unlucky to have a stubborn coach whose only interest is his own child’s welfare and those of his best buddies, all other children are out of luck.

What these coaches don’t realize or care about is that many parents sit in the stands for two hours to see their child participate, but often only see their child hit once or play defense an inning or two. That is pure selfishness on the part of the coaches who are too absorbed maximizing playing time for their own children.

Typically, the coach’s son isn’t the best ballplayer, yet game after game that child bats first and only plays infield or is the main pitcher or catcher.

I don’t get coaches who have a set line-up of third graders. I’ve seen the same kids bat last game after game meaning that the coach’s son gets two at-bats while those near the bottom of the line-up only get one. In other words, the coach’s favorites get twice the amount of batting experience.  How does this translate into “equal play for all participants”?

These coaches don’t take into consideration that the child’s relatives —aunts, uncles, grandparents—make special trips to the games in order to see their little loved ones participate. But due to the selfishness of certain coaches, they hardly see their nephew or grandchild play. Something is wrong with the way these teams get managed.

Leagues should require that for pre-teen teams, players should be rotated in the line-up and play both in the infield and the outfield so that each child can share a similar experience.

Another guideline coaches are supposed to follow is Standard #3 which states that “coaches should be trained in . . . the emotional needs of children.”  I’ve lost track at how many times I’ve noticed the same kids in the dugout inning after inning, not getting a chance to play.  

My youngest son who loved t-ball for two years now dreads going to his new team’s games because, as he puts it, “I’m so bored in the outfield.”  And when he is sitting on the bench, sometimes alone, how is this meeting his emotional needs? Think about this. If a kid doesn’t play on the field and has to wait for 13 other kids to bat around before he bats again, that child can easily sit on the bench for over an hour. How is that fun, productive, or healthy?  

I understand that as kids get older, their abilities get sorted out and those who can field a ball well play the infield and those with strong arms play the outfield. But how can that determination be made at age 8 or 9, when they are barely getting the hang of how to play baseball?  Many of them are still preoccupied with swatting at gnats and doing twirls in the outfield. But that is part of the charm at this age. And it is such charm that is quickly extinguished by insensitive coaches.

All the more reason why adults who volunteer their time to work with these kids should have a basic understanding of their mental and emotional growth.   Too often, coaches already view their sons as future Major League prospects or scholarship meal tickets which explain why their sons always bat first or always play the infield no matter the number of strikeouts or errors.

It seems the only way to defend against such unfair treatment is to form a team yourself. If I were more physically able, I would have done so years ago. However, if I were the coach, even if my son was the most talented ballplayer, I would never have him bat first or only play the infield just for appearance sake so other parents knew I wasn’t playing favorites. It’s amazing the brazen audacity that these coaches have with no threat of repercussions. 

Youth sports organizations should pay more attention to those parents who don’t play fair, and should ensure that all children be given equal opportunity to fully explore their range of capabilities.  

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