Win, or Be the Star?

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

Would a player rather be a starter and star on a team that loses most games, or be a role-player on a team that wins? Kids want to play – but they also like to win. How can we balance the two?

In recreational sports, coaches and leagues all struggle with determining where and how much everyone should play. I believe we can all agree that in the youngest divisions, all kids should rotate around to play every position and share playing time equally. Imagine a 5U soccer coach making one player only go on defense or sit out much of the game. Or a T-ball coach who lets a five year-old only play outfield and bat last every time. This would be unthinkable.

Opinions vary about when this play equality ends. In other words, at what age and what level of competition do we no longer let everyone play the same as everyone else? When do we begin putting the more talented players in the more coveted (and important) positions, and relegate the less gifted players into back-up roles?

There is no clear and definitive answer to these questions. Some feel that anytime a league is recreational in nature, everyone should play equally, no matter the age. Others believe that with each year can come more merit-based play and position assignment – even in rec. In most sports, at the youngest ages, no score is kept to encourage coaches, parents and players to only focus on playing and having fun, not results or winning. Theoretically, it shouldn’t matter if less talented and more talented players share equal time and roles since no one is trying to win.

But eventually, in all sports, we do begin keeping score. Once that happens, whether it be right or wrong, coaches, players and (maybe especially) parents, do start to measure the outcome of games and seasons by the result of the score. At this point, because everyone would rather win than lose, it is natural that coaches will be prone to play their “stars” where they can help the team most and will assign the others to less important roles.

What would the typical kid prefer? Play a prominent part on a losing team, or be a bit-player on a winner? I’ve seen all four situations. I can tell you about kids who loved being on a championship team, even though they weren’t on the top half of the depth chart. I’ve also known some on the same team who groused and moped because they didn’t get to play where they wanted or as often. And, on the other side of the coin, I’ve known kids who’d rather score a goal and lose 10-1, or be the pitcher for a team that didn’t win a game all season, than to be on a better team and have to give up the individual glory. And I’ve seen kids who were the best athlete on a losing team become bored and disenchanted as the season went along. I think they would have rather been an average player on a winning team. So the answer probably is that there is no “typical” kid. Some are more interested in their own individual accomplishments and fun, and others take more pride in team results.

As coaches, we have the ability to improve the experience for every child, even if there are some who play more than others. One way is to not just cater to the stars, especially since they get most of the glory anyway. This is easy to forget. We spend the post-game exuberantly talking about Melissa’s great game-winning goal or Kyle’s game-winning two-run homer. Make as big a deal about Kevin’s walk to get the rally started or Lisa’s fantastic pass to start the ball going the other way, which lead to Melissa’s goal.

It’s a valuable lesson when kids begin to learn that they’re not all equal in talent. They realize soon enough that not everyone is special athletically. However, the more we as coaches can make them feel special, the more they’ll enjoy playing the game – and the longer they’ll play it. Even if they’re not a superstar.

Brian Gotta is a former professional recreational youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is President of Help Kids Play, a collection of companies whose mission is to further the development and enjoyment of youth sports.

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