Open Letter : Competitive vs. Instructional

Over a half a century ago, a group of concerned citizens worked together to set aside land and resources to establish a youth baseball program comprised of Little League and Pony Programs.  Some people gave up parcels of land,  The Price Co. donated pipe and welders,  as well as manpower to build backstops and fences. Over the years,  many good people have worked selflessly and unselfishly to support and maintain these programs out of care and concern for youth development. For you see, no matter what authority on the subject of youth sports you read, the primary concern is with the development of the athlete as an individual, as a citizen, and as a model of youth. The teaching is of unselfish play, participation, cooperation, fairness, . The competitive side of the game, is and necessarily should be only of secondary concern to those that administer such a program. Have we not seen enough video of raging parents, pushing their sons or daughters to the point of burnout, or in fisticuffs with officials, or each other?

The BAAB constitution states in part, that : “BAAB seeks to protect and develop local youth by implanting ideals of sportsmanship, courage, obedience, loyalty, truth and reverence, so that they may become finer, stronger and happier young people and grow to be good, clean, healthy adults. This objective will be reached by providing supervised, competitive athletic games. The supervisors shall bear in mind at all times that the attainment of exceptional athletic skill or the winning of games is secondary, and that the molding of future citizens is of prime importance.” 

It is without question that the term “Sportsmanship” most completely encompasses the basis of all sports as it should. It is “regarded as a component of morality in sport...” “In general, sportsmanship refers to virtues such as fairness, self-control, courage and persistence (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995) and has been associated with interpersonal concepts of treating others and being treated fairly, maintaining self-control in dealing with others, and respect for both authority and opponents. Five facets of sportsmanship have been identified:
Full commitment to participation (e.g., showing up, working hard during all practices and games, acknowledging one’s mistakes and trying to improve) 
Respect and concern for rules and officials 
Respect and concern for social conventions (e.g., shaking hands, recognizing the good performance of an opponent) 
Respect and concern for the opponent (e.g., lending one’s equipment to the opponent, agreeing to play even if the opponent is late, not taking advantage of injured opponents) 
Avoiding poor attitudes toward participation (e.g., not adopting a win-at-all-costs approach, not showing temper after a mistake, and not competing solely for individual prizes) 
(Vallerand, Deshaies, Cuerrier, Briere, & Pelletier, 1996; Vallerand, Briere, Blanchard, & Provencher, 1997).

As a Board of Directors we are charged to oversee and manage the program keeping in mind not only the original purpose but the best interest of all participants. How can it be said that one way of structure is preferential to another? To listen to the concerns of a select group of parents and how they classify the program, we as a league are not “competitive”. We are labeled as “recreational” because we include any and all people that choose to register to play. We pool all registrations together and select teams on the basis of a draft system, just as Little League ,Pony, Babe Ruth, and even believe it or not, Major League Baseball has done for the majority of  their history. Think back if you can to the grouping of kids on a ballfield, with two vying for position on a bat handle to see who gets to pick first out of a pool of waiting faces. This is the beginning of the Fairness principle. We provide and schedule our league to accommodate those who wish to participate in tournament play, perhaps you could call this “Competitive” ball, but we call it a Tournament Team. Never has this league said no to anyone that wanted to participate in tournament play. This is the concept of  Excellence in sports, but not of sportsmanship. 

But to reduce the argument to its basic level,  for the parent who is “looking out for the best interests of his son or daughter” by requiring them to play on a “select, competitive team” without regard to the interest of other players or the community within which they play, we would make the following analysis available to them. Take for example, only one position on a baseball field, and determine for yourself the adequacy of a “select team” being in the best interest of all the playes on that team. Just evaluate the benefit to a pitcher who plays on an instructional league team vs playing on a tournament team loaded with pitchers. In most leagues, teams are “lucky” to have two players who can provide consistent long term pithcing performance. In league play, the average is two games per week, and if lucky, 5 innings per game. Each team therefore has on average 10 innings of work for any pitchers on that team during the weeks time. As luck would have it, most league impose a 9 inning limit per week for any single pitcher, representing a safety factor for the most part, although truthfully a limit based on pitch count would be a far safer standard. While practice can provide a degree of work for most facets of pitcher training, “live pitching” has no substitute. At a minimum, each pitcher should pitch at least  4 innings live each week outside of tournament play. Thus a league team would only be able to provide 2 pitchers the innings needed in order for them to “improve”  and maintain their game. How would a team with 5, 6 or 7 pitchers ever hope to accomplish this feat in the average league structure, regardless of the leagues status as recreational, competititive or instructional. If your son is in the top one or two pitchers on that team, then you should have no problem, as long as he gets his live pitching in every week o f the season, although it is difficult to see how this can be done. The American Sports Medicine Institute sets standards by age group for pitch counts and days of rest. Obviously, the closer the average pitcher comes to these standards, the better  his training will be in terms of repititions. And with this being the purpose, then an instructional drafted league is superior to a select league in developing pitchers. We would suggest that the same is true regardless of the position. In addition, we would suggest that the cross-training benefit of playing various positions is invaluable in the personal development of the athlete, even to the point that we do not suggest that a child should be limited to a single sport.

 But consider then the “pigeonhole” effect of being on a select team vs drafted league team. Did you know that Michael Jordan was rejected as a basketball player as a sophomore in high school? Could it be that he developed his skill level later than the age of 15? Can anyone say who will be the best athelete out of a group of a hundred 10 year olds, when they attain the age of 18? Has noone seen a seemingly coordinated athlete grow 3 inches in a year and become a gawky uncoordinated player over the same time period? Has noone heard of the concept of a walkon player making a college team, even though they may have never played with any notice in high school. Sports like any other endeavor in life, deserves and requires  the best effort and dedication on an ongoing basis. Yet we want to pigeonhole players and reject them from our teams, at the age of 10, 12, 14 years of age, thinking we have the knowledge and foresite to know how they will be 4, 6 or 8 years in the future. This is not only unfair to the athlete, but it is even more unfair to the program being administered and developed for the community. The only sensible conclusion to be drawn is that the team is being developed for the moment, with the end result being the win rather than the development of the athlete.

This is hardly an exhaustive discussion of the basic concept of  “Competitive” Youth Sports, and there are arguments that can be made on both sides. But Everyone should keep in mind the principles of sportsmanship when determining how this or any other board should respond to the wishes of a few concerned parents in regard to how a league of youth sports should be administered. We bear them no malice in their decision on how they train and administer their childs athletic endeavors, they should bear no malice towards us in our endeavor to administer our athletic program assuming we follow the guidelines properly established so many years ago, and rightfully so. We welcome all who wish to participate and follow the rules established for the best interest of the league. Its called sportsmanship. 
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