Once again the conflict between development and winning surfaces. This time, Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League champions and the formidable Little League International governing body are in the cross hairs of the controversy. This is not a debate about whether those kids should retain their “title.” Of course they should. They were 12 years old and accomplished their competitive objective. They are kids. They represented themselves well and honorably. The heart of the controversy resides in the actions, attitudes, and distorted objectives of adults. The 12 year olds of Jackie Robinson West (or any other Little League team) do not administrate Little League International or any local Little League organization. Little League International is hardly more concerned with the interests of the kids (athletes) than the NCAA is about college athletes. Little League makes money. In 2007, the organization had a surplus of over $600,000. One can only imagine what the current television deal for the Little League World Series generates. While Little League serves a purpose, it can also be regarded as exploiting youngsters who play baseball. How else can one justify the voyeuristic appeal of nationally televised games for 12 year olds, with cameras trained on moms and dads carrying cowbells, sitting with their fingers crossed, and sometimes weeping. And of course, there are the carefully wired dad-coaches who never cuss at their kids, but whose stories are often constructed out of fantasy rather than reality. Have Little League, the networks, and their sponsors sold their souls to put young kids on a preposterous stage for public consumption?
Most of us, including teachers, coaches, and players have endured, with varying degrees of satisfaction, the Little League years. But do those years really develop, or do they lead to distorted ambitions? Years that should be all about development are burdened by inexact definitions of success (equating 70 mph fastballs at 46 feet with a 95 mph fastball for the major leagues), as if those successes are transferable to the next stage of development and competition. The Jackie Robinson West coaches and directors did nothing different that what is played out in many Little League districts every year. Coaches fudge the selection of teams; politics play a hand in selection of “Williamsport” rosters; phoney drafts and draft rules are created and manipulated. And all this happens at the expense of development. Perhaps this offends some, but it is undeniable. And for Little League International to respond to a sour grapes whistle blower who harbors those same distorted objectives after the fact, reveals the gap between development and winning that plagues youth baseball. And now Little League wants to punish the kids for the mistakes of adults… just like the NCAA metes out punishments to athletes at colleges and universities that had nothing to do with adult transgressions (see Penn State), while those same governing bodies rake in millions of dollars.
A recent article by John O’Sullivan posted on Steve Nash’s basketball blog takes direct aim at the issue of development. It was shared by our friends at Pure Performance who work with many Ruffnecks. Eric Cressey is also a vocal critic of the errant objectives in youth sports, especially baseball. One interesting quote from Mr. O’Sullivan’s article follows below:
I am competitive. I love winning… And I believe that every time an athlete takes the field, he or she should give maximum effort in the pursuit of victory.
But players who play to win is one thing, and has nothing to do with coaches who only coach to win, and organizations who create environments focused on winning and not development. Their approach actually robs kids of their athletic education, and sets them up for failure later in life.
The Ruffnecks Challenge
Neither the New England Ruffnecks nor any other program such as our can afford to be self righteous about their objectives. Nor are the Ruffnecks immune from mistakes and failures when it comes to balancing development and winning. However, we prefer to balance development and competition. Few if any (read most likely none) players, parents, coaches in the Ruffnecks program do not like to see us win when there is a game to be played. But the focus remains on development. This is a difficult line to walk. Development accelerates against the very best competition. Meeting up with the very best competition is often a result of winning games, or at least competing well against the most talented opponents. And while we love to get to the semi-finals and finals of tournaments so that our players are challenged, we do our best to do so in the context of development. Indeed, development includes the lessons learned through the hierarchy of “earned” playing time or talent, but there should be a path to the starting lineup in the biggest games. Sometimes being in a reserve role is also a developmental building block. What the Ruffnecks resist is the “rigged” game of using mercenary players, pitchers who join the team for a single weekend or a tournament… and we often get the crazy phone calls from parents (usually dads) offering their wildly talented sons to us for a special event!!! Alas, we do our best to build teams… sorry. If rankings are the primary motivation, then it is easy to see how adults can influence, challenge, and build winners at the expense of development. For now, we will stand on the side of development, with a deliberate approach to building players who can compete on any stage. It is far more enjoyable to work, laugh, and grind away with the kids we know.