I'm on a mission. This winter I am in search of the close-to-perfect youth sports league. I've received a couple of emails from organizations within our listening area claiming to have possession of the ring holding the keys to such a place. While I’ll never give up on my quest to find perfection, it’s unlikely to exist as long as we continue to waste time and energy by arguing, choosing sides, and battling self-serving agendas (some would categorize this as a board meeting). I’ve often wondered if our kids would actually find it more enjoyable and therapeutic to get together at the field, “choose-up” teams, and play until it’s too dark to see the ball.
OK, enough of that cynical attitude (for now). We're here to work together on this. And besides, why tease our children with perfection at such a young age?
What I would like from you, my faithful readers, are the reasons why you think your league should be held as a model for all to admire. Put your thoughts together in an email and send it off to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Working on Perfect” in the subject line of your email. A panel of 10 unsuspecting tweens and teens will choose our winner. That organization will then be presented with the "First Annual Working on Perfect Award" (probably a framed certificate to display at your organization’s world headquarters) and be featured in this very column (and become my Facebook friend). I can already feel the excitement building!
I have also sent out questionnaires to more than 100 past and present youth sport coaches to help identify some of the most important issues, topics, and dilemmas facing youth leagues today. If you are a coach or league administrator and would like to participate, please email me as well (put "Coach Questionnaire" on the subject line, please) and include the name of the town, league and your position. In the following weeks I’ll be sharing some of those results as well as generating a questionnaire for parents.
As we begin to shift into our problem-solving mode, let's be clear about one thing: It's quite alright to go into a discussion at one end and come out of it somewhere else. There’s a wonderful exercise called “brainstorming” — and discouraging constructive criticism is much like severing a direct artery to progress and overall improvement.
I like to believe that my own thoughts and ideas are constantly evolving. I've voted on certain rules and regulations only to realize after watching them play out and collecting feedback that perhaps there is a better way.
Let's start off with a little "soft toss" for the Little League Baseball diehards among us. I have a few changes that I’d like Little League Baseball to make mandatory. Here are my proposals and the reasoning behind them.
1. All batting helmets must be outfitted with face guards. In Little League the pitcher is only 45 feet from the batter. The reaction time for the batter is around one-half of a second. The average reaction time of a human is about 3/4 of a second. Have you ever heard of Jacques Plante? In 1959 he became the first NHL goalie to wear a face mask in a regular-season game. Now every goalie in the world wears one.
2. All hitters and pitchers must wear chest guards. I'd have to guess that the pitcher has much less time to react to a hard hit ball considering where he lands after his follow through. He’s an easy target! Is there anything wrong with erring on the side of safety? At least Little League has finally realized this potential danger and put a moratorium on most composite-barreled bats.
3. All players must play 3 innings per game. Yes, it can be done by reducing the playing time of those who get 5 and 6 innings a game (more on this later).
4. Do away with any type of mercy rule that cuts a game short. There is nothing worse than ending a game on a beautiful spring evening after only 4 innings. The most blatant casualty of the rule is the child who has just entered the game or hasn’t even gotten a chance to play. Keep playing! Take the dominant players out of the game for the last two innings. Either sit the pitcher or put him in right field. What better time for both teams to discover another pitching arm and to let the kids play other positions? There are many creative ways to continue a game even though the winner has already been determined. Are we so consumed with stats and the thought of abandoning the strategy that we’ve mapped out for the week? Would we rather pack it in an hour early and let a kid go home without having had a chance to swing the bat or throw someone out at first?
You’ll have to excuse me if my next comment seems to be a little harsh on the coaches — believe me, in the weeks to come this column will be very “coach-friendly” as I begin to post some of the answers to the coaching surveys I’ve sent out.
The one issue that will cause a parent to blow a gasket is when the outcome of the game has long been determined and their child (the one that usually sits more than he plays) is still not in the game. It happens in every single sport, and Ill bet that most of us have been or continue to be guilty of this practice.
Why and how does this happen? In baseball especially, it’s simple to avoid. You are killing the other team … you have three kids that play 80-90 percent of every game. You have three other kids that play 2 innings a game — OK, sometimes three or four innings — but rarely. Take the three off of the field and replace them with the three on the bench. And again, pardon me for getting all frothy regarding the subject, but there is no excuse (I’ve heard them all) for not doing it.
OK, friends, remember — only constructive conversation please. Maybe, just maybe, close-to-perfect is right around the corner.