Competitive vs. Cumbayah Philosophies in Youth Sports

A Little League baseball player squares around...

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What would youth sports be without controversy??  And I am not talking about questionable calls that are forgotten soon after a game is over.  I am talking about coaching philosophies. And right now there seems to be a growing rift on my son’s 11-year-old Triple-A Traveling baseball team.   I don’t know about your community, but in our suburb,  AAA baseball is the cream of the crop, the highest level the kids can play.

Last year this same group of boys (except for 3 newbies including my son) won the 10-year-old Double-A State Championship.   And they did it playing Cumbayah ball.  Every kid pitched, the batting order was on a consistent rotation and all of the kids played and tried every position.  Not all parents agreed with this approach but they didn’t complain too loudly because the team kept winning.

Fast forward to this year and the eye-opening experience of AAA ball.   Same coach, same mindset, with much stiffer competition and totally different results.  The boys have lost several games by 15 or more runs. Some parents are frustrated. They want the coach to put the kids at their strongest positions and put the best batters at the top of the order.  They are over this feel good, huggy, lovey baseball approach, saying that’s what Little League is for, not traveling baseball at the Triple-A level.  So how important should winning be at 11 years old? And should it be different based on what league you play in? Different arguments are emerging and I am sitting somewhere on the fence.  The head coach must be feeling the heat because he sent an e-mail to parents reiterating and defending his strategy.

 “I am moving players around early on in the season and I am going to continue to rotate the batting order.  They are going to make mistakes and that is all part of the experience.  Key positions and hitting spots in the order will be earned for tournaments and playoffs.”

We have three games next week and we will be getting some new kids in to pitch and catch.  We are trying to develop as many pitchers as we can which means every kids will pitch.  I am not sure how we will fair, but I know this for sure…if they don’t do well it is okay…they need the experience and will get another chance.”

One parent responded with the following.

“No other team at this level does this, why should we?  They are playing their best players in the right positions for most of the game, why are we still rotating our kids?  We are not competitive that way.  Little league is the place to play if you want to play all of the positions and be PC with the parents.  We signed our kids up to play, be competitive and to win.”  

The coach replied the following day.   And yes,this is all playing out through reply all email.

“It is of little concern to me what other teams do.  My main goal is to ensure I teach them how to play multiple positions at this age.  If I pigeon-hole players into playing only 1 or 2 positions, this will only catch up to them later as more talented players may edge them out in the two positions they know.”

“We did not join AAA to win.  We did it to find better competition and I refuse to place winning above development.  Losing like we have has brought some much-needed humbleness to our boys who went  45-6 a year ago against lesser competition.  By playing at the AA last year it created an illusion that we were the best team in the state at this age level.  All successful athletes need to learn how to deal with adversity and that is what our boys are learning at the present time.”

I guess I can see it from both sides.  Winning shouldn’t be everything,  but shouldn’t you give your kids the best shot at success? When I mentioned to my son that he would likely get a chance to pitch this week,  I thought he would be excited to get his turn on the mound. Mom was wrong. Although he has expressed interest in pitching,  he only wants to pitch if the coaches think he has earned it, not because every kid gets a chance.  He doesn’t want to be set up to fail and let the team down.  It was an ah-ha moment for me.

I think it’s great for kids to have opportunities, but like my son said, he wants to earn it.   We need to make sure the kids feel good about their contributions. When they make errors, they can start to doubt their abilities.  You don’t want them finishing the game with the weight of the world on their shoulders feeling like they blew the game and disappointed their teammates.   Place the kids in spots where they feel confident. If you are not sure, ask them. I am sure they will tell you.   Some kids may feel confident playing anywhere.  Worst than can happen is you get a whole team that says “shortstop”.   But it’s at least worth finding out.  As far as development, maybe there would be a way to add scrimmages and practices where kids can move around and try new positions.

I think it’s great there is some movement in the batting order.   My 12-year-old currently bats last every game and it’s eroding his confidence at the plate.  What about keeping your strongest batters in the first half of the line-up and mixing up the rest?

Somehow, someway, it would be great to find a compromise.  Baseball is supposed to be fun, not filled with tension and animosity.  I believe there is a happy medium where the kids can develop, grow, and feel encouraged by their play rather than discouraged by it.

Or maybe the kids don’t care as much as we think and it’s just parents making a big deal out of nothing.   It’s amazing what a Culver’s burger did for my son’s mood on the way home from a losing game last week.

I am not writing this to throw anyone under the bus, just to get a more friendly dialogue started.   I am inviting those on our team, in our community and outside of our community to share their stories and advice. What’s worked for you as a parent, coach or player? What do you think is best for our team and other teams playing at such a high level?