(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Politics of Selective Travel Teams

My daughter came home the other day and told her that a good friend was upset because she was demoted from one level of a travel team to another. The friend's main beef was that there was a girl or two on the team from which she was demoted who were clearly inferior to the rest of the girls, but parents of the kids in question were coaches on the team.

Sound familiar?

Another situation: a friend of mine's kid is a good baseball player, played on a team that had three coaches and a three-man pitching rotation. The coaches' kids batted 1-2-3 in the lineup and got the chance to pitch (and were the only ones who got the chance to pitch).

What do you tell your kids in that situation?

On the one hand, we need good parents to volunteer to coach. We can't expect them to not have their kids on the team -- at least at some level. But therein lies the rub, doesn't it?

It's one thing in recreational leagues, but another on really competitive teams. In recreational leagues, you expect coaches to play their kids (and everyone else's) for that matter. And, yes, there are certain iniquities that will arise, such as perhaps a coach will prefer his kids and play them a little more or at better positions. In certain cases, the coaches' kids will be the best players, and in certain cases they won't be, but it all will work out. Also, at some point the kids figure out who are the best kids, and the whole machine of respect, as it were, will break down if the best kids ultimately don't play the right positions at the right time and enable their teams to win. After all, at some point we shouldn't be giving everyone a trophy.

But then there are travel teams, teams in which people invest a lot of time and money, teams that exist to enable the best kids to get better experience than they would get in the rec leagues and, as a result, improve. It's a simple premise, to be sure, but then there's the question of who coaches the kids and who determines whether those coaches are the right ones and are being intellectually honest in their selections. For example, as an entry-level matter, you would hope that the parents who volunteer do so because their kids are truly exemplary, so that you avoid the situation where parents of kids with little ability end up coaching travel teams. That's one end of the continuum. The other end, high impractical, is that the teams retain professional coaches who are committed to player development and winning and only permit the best players to play. That won't happen because of the cost and the tradition that parents coach their kids in these endeavors. Fine, but where's the middle?

What if some coaches' kids don't improve as they age? What if those kids lose interest, get surpassed by kids who were viewed as laggards at a younger age? What happens if the parents insist upon continuing to coach? Who has the right/heart to tell them that their kids aren't good enough, that their gig is probably up? Or, are there iniquities that we should endure because the volunteerism is more important than a pure meritocracy, assuming, of course, that there is always a shortage of good coaches?

But if we do endure the inquities, what do we tell the kids who get penalized because the need for "good" coaches (read: any coaches who pass a background check, perhaps) is more compelling that the need for a meritoracy at the age of 11, 12, 16? Do we tell them that it's politics, that this type of thing happens, that we measure the kids not by how they handle victory but how they rebound from disappointment? Do we tell them to keep plugging when deep down perhaps they believe they gave it their all and failed, so what's the use if there's always going to be a political situation that could pull the rug out from under them? Do well tell them that they're right, that they got the short end of the stick, so to speak, and that it's unfair? Do we get critical of the coaches for putting nepotism over team?

How do you handle the disappointment of 11- and 12- year-olds? How do you tell them that it's worth it to keep plugging under these circumstances? When should the meritocracy take over?

Most coaches will tell you that they owe it to the team to play the best players, not players whose dads they know, whose previous coaches they know, players to whom they might have promised something or players with seniority. Why? Because if they want the team to win, the team needs to know that the best players will play, period. You don't get the back-ups to challenge the starters in practice if a meritocracy isn't in place, because kids need to know that if they bust their rear ends they'll get recognized and potentially rewarded. Show me a team without a meritocracy, and I'll show you a team with a losing record.

So what would you say?


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