Friday, May 22, 2009

Blue Jays Advance to Finals

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The Town & Country 10U Blue Jays (a client) played an absolutely ugly game of baseball in the Division Semi-Finals yesterday, with a 5-7 win over the Yankees. The Jays overcame a four-run deficit, putting up a final stand on both sides of the plate to assure their slot in the Finals.

In the third inning, the intricacies of Town & Country's pitching rules required a last-minute change in the rotation, along with a completely on-the-fly lineup for that inning. As the coaches scrambled furiously to create a lineup that was as fair as it was effective, we got a first-hand glimpse into the power and value of the solution.

With, coaches have instant access to innings played, innings sat, infield/outfield percentages and other "fair play" statistics, as well as a comprehensive set of performance-based statistics, over any web-enabled device. An automated Lineup Manager rounds out the mix, guiding the coach through the process of assigning positions to avoid duplicates, gaps and other administrative pitfalls.

At the end of the day, the Blue Jays have a great set of volunteers and an even greater set of kids playing. was an effective tool in helping the coaches identify the best opportunities for each of their players to shine, ultimately helping them throughout their run for the Title.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Winning isn't everything (but is it something?)

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Last week I posted an entry on the definition of "winning" in youth sports. Specifically, winning was defined not according to the immediate objectives -- trophies, medals and such -- but as the achievement of one's objectives while developing the more important growth qualities that warrant a child's involvement in youth sports to begin with.

At face value, it seems that our children are under far more pressure to perform than I was as a kid, to say the least. Every season I encounter at least one parent who is grooming their ten-year-old to be the next Nolan Ryan. It is not uncommon to see seven- and eight-year-old children facing rigorous travel schedules on "select" sports teams, and even in "recreational" sports we find coaches whose primary goal is to win without regards to the means through which they're doing it.

I faced an ugly and unfounded accusation this year as a coach. As our team pressed on toward the Division Title, a parent on my team accused me of "caring only about the win." She told me I wasn't giving her son equal playing time, and that I was catering to the top 3 or 4 kids on the team (fortunately, I was able to show her my FairPlay™ statistics to demonstrate the degree to which I had created ample opportunities for the developing players to contribute).

In the course of my conversation with this parent, she reminded me that winning isn't everything, that sometimes kids learn more from defeat than victory, and she chided me toward more "balanced" game play."

We were fortunate enough to resolve the situation in a civil manner, primarily because I helped her see on an objective level how our contributions to her son's development had worked to his benefit. Of course, taking home a trophy tends to mend wounds, as well.

In spite of the Blue Jays' successful season, I found myself contemplating that conversation from time to time. If winning isn't everything, is it at least something to be considered in recreational youth sports?

When Winning Matters

Youth psychologists have myriad perspectives on the "right time" to introduce our young athletes to performance-based game play. While the more extreme among these perspectives suggest that score shouldn't even be kept until age eleven, even the children on a five-year-old developmental soccer or tee ball team tend toward a fundamental awareness of "the score" and a desire to come out ahead.

In spite of our best attempts as parents to curb kids' competitive edge, it stands to reason that many (if not most) children -- boys in particular -- are remarkably goal-oriented. While this typically does not play out with the same long-term focus many coaches would hope, it does mean that our players will often equate a "winning season" with a "more fun" season.

Throughout my own experience as a coach, I have found that the ideal age for the "win mentality" tends to be in the 9-12 year age range. With greater maturity comes a greater capacity for teamwork, self-discipline and longer-term focus. In these formative years of a young athlete's development, statistical victories can have substantially positive effects:
  • They can develop confidence at an age typically characterized by a great deal of uncertainty and self-doubt
  • Statistical victories prepare our children for the results-oriented environment they will face in their adulthood
  • Even the least contributor on a winning team can learn that they can help achieve success for the group, even if theirs wasn't a standout performance.

Ultimately, as coaches and parents we should not confuse "winning" with "winning at all costs." While there are advantages to prioritizing the statistical victory, we do our children a great disservice if we in any way compromise the more important attributes of character, integrity and fairness.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Defining "Winning"

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Yesterday was as tense as 10-year-old baseball can be. An undefeated home record, the most consistent batting order I've seen in six years of coaching and a season of tremendous ups and downs led the Blue Jays to the final game of the season with the Division Title on the line. A win, and we're guaranteed either first or second place. A loss or tie, and we place fourth.

The Mets were on a white-hot winning streak, having risen through the ranks from seventh to a second-place tie, having taken down several formidable teams along the way. The Blue Jays had a solid record, but the Mets had the momentum and the desire to pull off yet another upset.

The Blue Jays dug an early hole for themselves: a 6-run deficit at the bottom of the second inning. When it was time to take the field, the Jays were crowded in the dugout with their hands in a bag of Doritos instead of taking their usual, eager positions at the on deck circle with gloves in hand. This was the first time in my career in which I wanted to hand the clipboard to my wife and watch the kids while she took care of "business" for a while.

At some point in the third inning, however, I saw the passion and desire return in my players' faces. It was as if they suddenly realized that a title was on the line, and they weren't about to go quietly into the obscure ranks of mediocrity. Suddenly our hitting, base running and defense were flawless, and the Blue Jays fought down to the wire with a 9-8 victory.

During the post-game huddle, it occurred to me that the chances of our backing into the first-place spot were slim. Second place is typically an awkward place to be (a friend of mine describes second place as being the "first loser"), but there were two things that made this a remarkably sweet victory.

First, I considered the first place contender. The team that "won" the first place title did so with a number of "bush league" tricks up their sleeves. As a matter of fact, we watched the team's final game, and you could hear their players, coaches and parents laughing as the players took advantage of their opponent's weaker kids. We finished our season half a game behind the first place team, but we did it with integrity.

Second, I considered the team we had just defeated. While my batters were warming up in the cages, I saw the Mets' Assistant Coach approach one of my players and extend his hand.

"Good luck," the coach said. My player, a nine-year-old in his first year of organized baseball, thanked him. The coach's response made my jaw drop.

"You're going to need it."

For the next 30 minutes, this Assistant Coach, a grown man who had pledged his time and efforts to the development of young athletes, proceeded to boast and prod the kids on my team! All I could do at the time was hope that his hubris would be repaid with a nasty fall from the heights of egotism.

At the end of the day, at the end of the season, this group of kids with whom I've been entrusted are a winning team. The Blue Jays are not a winning team because they'll have another trophy on their shelves. They're a winning team because they respected their teammates, their opponents and their adult volunteers. They are a winning team because they looked adversity square in the eye and found the courage to play just a little bit harder. They are a winning team because I had the privilege of seeing even the smallest shift in each of them toward the confident, determined and dedicated adults they will all too soon become.

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Exemplifying Character

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I had a number of potential topics last week, but for one reason or another I considered none of them ready to publish at the moment. A series of events over this weekend's May Day Classic tournament, however, led me to a topic too significant to ignore: exemplifying character on the field and in the stands.

The first example of a character-lesson presented itself in our second game of the tournament. We had added two pitchers to our rotation, and this was my first chance to see one of them in action. He was pitching quite well for most of the game, with a formidable cutting fastball that was proving untouchable. He was flawless, that is, until he walked his first batter.

The gesture was really inconsequential. The slightest shrug with his palms held upright, along with a surprised glance at the umpire. It was enough to catch the umpire's attention, however, and from that moment the strike zone grew quite minuscule.

In the second example, we were playing what would be our last game in the tournament. After two consecutive innings leaving runners stranded on loaded bases, we were in too deep a hole to win. With a team waiting outside the dugout to take their turn at the field, I asked my kids on the bench to begin clearing the dugout.

Having heard my request, one of the kids' parents chastised me from the bleachers and instructed his son not to listen to me. Fortunately, I managed to rein in my normally unbridled tongue!

As I pondered the weekend it occurred to me that there were more than two character lessons in the midst of it all. My pitcher learned that even an innocent gesture can be devastating for your team. Arguing with the umpire seldom, if ever, works to your benefit. My kids got to see a slightly ugly side of youth sports in an umpire that, at least at face value, punished an entire team for the actions of one of its players.

As a coach, I was convicted in realizing that my own desire to keep things in order could be interpreted as something much less benign. I really thought my blog entry would focus on the parent. We all know it's not a great idea to teach your kids that it's okay to disrespect the authority figures in his life. Somehow, though, I was more sensitive to the more subtle message that presented itself.

As coaches, parents, players and volunteers in the already emotionally-charged environment of competitive youth sports, our actions have the potential to be significantly amplified and misinterpreted. At one point I even found myself complaining about the umpire in front of my own players. Again, how did my complaints help my team win, grow or learn? We all must be sensitive not just to the explicit messages and lessons we're communicating, but in how our words, attitudes and actions are perceived by the other players, spectators, officials and coaches.

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