Is development more important that winning in youth sports?

Justis column: Having fun is paramount, but skill need to be taught

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Nancy Justis, correspondent

Editor’s note: Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and collegiate sports information director. She is a partner with Justis Creative Communications. 

I sat at my 8-year-old grandson’s player-pitch baseball game. Since it was the last game of the night, the kids were allowed to play the entire 90 minutes.

This recreation program scheduled several weeks of practice before beginning the twice-weekly games. Learning every baseball skill cannot be accomplished in just a couple weeks. Particularly pitching. This is the first year the children are throwing the ball instead of a coach.

As a result, there are more walks issued than hits. If a ball is miraculously hit, it most often doesn’t leave the infield. Innings can last quite a long time with the number of balls thrown. At least the number of runs scored in an inning is limited to four at which time the teams swap defense to offense and vice versa.

As I watched another walk being awarded, I began a debate within myself whether it is more important to develop the fundamentals and basics of the game or to let the kids play a real game, albeit with some stipulations.

This is not a new debate.

I fully support the idea that youth sports, first and foremost, need to be fun. From what I can see, my grandson and his teammates are having fun. But because there is no formal practice time anymore, there is little opportunity for the players to work on skill development.

A blog I recently read by Kelly Gray Sports, sports management professionals with more than 50 years experience in athletics, discussed “The Development Scenario” versus “The Winning Scenario.”

Giving a scenario in soccer (at the under-9 age), I believe it works for any sport. The winning scenario places the player who can kick the ball the farthest at central defender and the fastest player at striker. The defender will kick the ball the length of the field and the fast forward will “sprint past everyone and score on a breakaway. This will happen three or four times per game, and the team will win most the time.”

The development scenario has the same players line up in the same positions, but “instead of kicking the ball up the field as far as they can,” they are told to control the ball with one touch and find a short pass with their second touch. With this, the team loses most of the games.

So which scenario is best for the kids?

In the winning scenario, the author states: “This strategy will work for (players under 11). When they reach U12, they will struggle because these players will not have learned how to play the game of soccer. They will have simply learned to kick the ball hard and run fast, getting by on their athleticism alone. After U11, when they come up against teams that have learned to pass and create a space, they will end up chasing the game the entire time and most often lose.”

So my thought is, do we cut back my grandson’s baseball games to just one a week, and use the other night for practice? I know as each season goes along he will learn more about the game and the skills it takes to play the game, but will it be too late?

The blog goes on to state, “The challenge (of the development scenario) is to get players to stay with the development scenario even when the team loses most games. What does it take to convince parents that a coach is doing the right things and that in a few years the team will win the large majority of games ...”

I asked the mother of my grandson, my daughter, and some of the other moms sitting nearby if they thought one game and one practice each week would be a better experience. None of them thought so. First, it would extend the season to get in the same number of games played, leading directly into football. Would the kids get tired?

They also thought the kids were having fun no matter what. “The games are a social event. They have fun in the dugout.”

And does it really matter at this age?

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