Let Them Play “Up”, Not “Down”

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

Recently I came across a Little League website and looked over their rules and guidelines page. This particular league holds tryouts for seven year-olds who want to play “up” in the Machine-Pitch division and for eight year-olds who want to play “up” in Kid-Pitch. This line caught my eye: “All 9 year-olds not drafted into Kid-Pitch will play down in Machine-Pitch.”

Now I’m not one of these guys who thinks every kid should get a trophy all the way through high school. I’ve written several articles about the positive lessons learned through striving to win, competition and through failure. But I couldn’t get one image out of my mind.

That was the face of a little nine year-old who was told that he “didn’t make it,” and that while all of his friends would be moving “up” into the glamorous world of “real” baseball, he was going to have to stay “down” and repeat another year where the balls are pitched by machines.

It is the same with soccer and other sports that have “elite” teams at very young ages where players must be “good enough” to participate. It saddens me to think of how many of these very young kids play in organizations that believe tryouts should begin at the earliest levels or are pushed into a tryout by overzealous parents only to have to endure the sting of rejection and humiliation.

Again, kids have to learn sometime that there will be disappointments. They’ll need to learn the lessons that either through talent or hard work, or both, some succeed and some don’t. But at what age should that happen? It seems like nine might be a little soon. Years ago, Little League International changed their rule and mandated that all 12 year-olds who wanted to play in the highest Little League division, Majors, would be allowed regardless of ability. At the time there were many who complained this would dilute the talent in this division. But a more compassionate way to view it was that it was overly-harsh to have a child go all the way through the Little League process and never have an opportunity to play at the top level, if even only for one year.

I imagine Little League also looked at this as a way to try and reduce attrition. Because it is a fact that nearly every 12 year-old who didn’t make Majors simply quit rather than play in the lower division. I am guessing many of the 9 year-olds in this particular league who are told they must play again in Machine Pitch do the same thing.

There is an epidemic of youth quitting or simply not participating in sports. Numbers are down in nearly every category. More kids are choosing video games instead where they can control what happens, where there is no judgment from adults, where failure is private and unimportant, not public and devastating.

If we want to get more kids playing sports, and if you’re reading this you probably do, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to be more inclusive, instead of more exclusive? Wouldn’t we be better-served, at least at the youngest ages, to tell everyone we want them to play?

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

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