Don’t miss tomorrow’s OnDeck Newsletter

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Me First or Team First?

All four of my kids played recreational sports while also playing on club teams. That dynamic continued through high school. There were clearly pluses and minuses to both. But as youth sports trends toward more involvement in travel leagues, there is one important factor to consider.

It is likely that everyone reading this, to some degree, is involved in youth sports. And it is also likely that the lessons children acquire by participating are among the major reasons we want our kids to play. We love that they learn that hard work leads to success, that failure is temporary and can be overcome with effort and resilience. Both of these can be taught to players in recreational as well as competitive sports. So, if this is true, that the essentials of work ethic and bouncing back from adversity are learned in either environment, what difference does it make which path is chosen?

As I said, my kids played both. My daughter played rec and high school soccer, as well as club. It was the club soccer that got her a college scholarship. My three boys played Little League (with me as coach) and high school baseball, while simultaneously playing travel ball. Here was the big difference between the two: In competitive sports no one really cared about winning. In rec and high school, that is all they cared about.

I’ll start with my daughter: When her high school career came to an end with a playoff loss, she was inconsolable. Her school had never won a city girls soccer title and she wanted it more than I can describe. A championship would have been huge news to the entire school. There would be a banner hanging in the gym forever. Her regular league games against our bigger, rival school just a couple miles down the road were wars. She would have traded her best personal game ever for a team win.

Contrast that with her club team. It was a very good team which several times went to national playoffs with a chance to win a U.S. championship. And all the girls would have liked to have won. But winning was secondary. Because they all also knew that scouts from every major college were watching. Each of them would have rather scored a spectacular goal in a losing cause than play poorly and win. It was twenty individuals wearing the same jersey. And they knew that outside of themselves and their parents, no one else would know or care whether they finished as national champs or also-rans.

As I mentioned, I coached my three boys in Little League. We had a great league, and all of my sons’ friends also played. Every year the talk in the schoolyard was about who was going to win the championship. The players on the team that had won the previous season had bragging rights. It didn’t matter if you were a star or a part-time player, you wanted to be able to say, “we beat you.”

My oldest son, now a pro baseball player, has coached some travel baseball in the off-season and says he thinks travel ball is killing the sport. In his observation, none of the kids want to be out there. No one cares if they win or lose. When my second son, now also in the pro ranks, heard this he confided that he used to hate our travel ball games when he was young. He said he never would have admitted it then, but he always dreaded them. Why would this be? A Little League game on Saturday against his friends from school, the most fun he ever had. Then a club game on Sunday against guys he didn’t know, he wished he didn’t have to go. They were both baseball games. But they were different.

So my contention is this: While there are many benefits to travel sports, where it lacks is in the teaching of some of the most important lessons learned in athletics: Teamwork. Putting the good of the team ahead of yourself. And winning.

Now a cynic might say he doesn’t care about any of these things if his kid gets a scholarship to play in college. But are we shortchanging our youngsters in life by thinking short-term? Are we robbing them of valuable experience by taking them out of youth league baseball and softball in favor of travel, or by having them play Academy soccer instead of high school?

Are we raising a generation of kids who are going to learn that they should look out for themselves first and others later, if at all? Are we bringing up children who will never know what it is like to really be part of a team that is all pulling for a common goal instead of individual accomplishment? Teamwork isn’t just about sports. It’s about getting along with friends and family, about being successful in the workplace years after athletic careers are over. When will those lessons be learned if not on the youth play fields?

Years ago I read an article in the Los Angeles Times sports section about the number of kids opting for travel baseball instead of high school. There was a quote from the USC head baseball coach that I’ll paraphrase which was, ‘I like kids who play high school because they care about winning.’ Even the worst cynic who isn’t concerned about his children being taught teamwork and self sacrifice would probably want them to learn to win. Sports have always had an important place in our society, for good reason. But when team sports really just become individual sports being played by a bunch of youngsters at the same time, I wonder if what is gained isn’t outweighed by what we’ve lost.

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found atĀ He can be reached at

New Advertiser Coming Soon to OnDeck

We asked for your input yesterday and we listened. We have a new advertiser coming to our OnDeck Newsletter! We welcome! You won’t believe how excited we were to learn of this company that does custom batting gloves for high school, college, travel-ball and youth organizations. Imagine your team donningĀ batting gloves embroidered with your logo, with your nickname stitched on the strap and in your team colors. These are top-of-the-line, craftsman-made gloves, but at a price that is incredible. Stay tuned for our upcoming issue for more!

What took so long?

We say this tongue-in-cheek, but it has always been confusing the way sports organizations who use the “U17” or “U10” etc. label their age groups. Since the “U” stands for “Under”, the phrase reads like, “Under 10” which would lead one to believe that 10 year-olds don’t qualify because a child must be under 10 to play. But no. We all learned that “Under 10” was really for ten year-olds and we all just accepted the terminology and moved on. Volleyball uses the same classification and even some travel baseball and other sports. But fortunately, US Youth Soccer came to the realization that there is no good reason to continue confusing folks. They are changing the age classifications to read “10-U”, as in “Ten and Under”. Let’s hope the other organizations out there still putting the “U” first come to their senses as well. (Courtesy Soccerwire).

Message to baseball parents from John Smoltz

Newly inducted Hall-of-Famer, John Smoltz is the first-ever inductee to have had ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction, better known as “Tommy John” surgery. Smoltz finished his induction speech with an important message for parents of youth travel-ball players. Take heed moms and dads. Smoltzie knows what he’s talking about.

You Get What You Pay For

By Brian Gotta

I received two emails in the same week that were related. The first was from a parent who was seeking advice on how to handle her daughter’s first-ever team sport experience in which the coaches only cared about winning and didn’t let everyone play. The second was from a coach who was removed from his soccer team for focusing more on player development than winning. In both cases, I had a similar response:

The parent who wrote me complained that her fifth grade daughter was trying basketball for the first time and, in the first game, didn’t get in to play at all. She said her daughter cried on the bench, after the game and all the way home. Of course, I felt sorry for the young girl. But something about the story didn’t sound right.

I replied back and asked if this was a competitive or a recreational team. The mother responded that it was a competitive team. She said she’d spoken with the coaches after the game, and they’d told her that they would be trying to win every game and that only the best girls were going to play unless they were way ahead or way behind. They recommended her daughter try recreational basketball.

I get these types of emails frequently, from parents who have put a child on a competitive team and now are upset over lack of playing time or what position their child is playing. I always wonder the same thing. Didn’t they think to ask before they signed up? Weren’t they informed that the objective on this team is to win, only the best will play, and time on the field or the court will have to be earned, not granted? Why then do they complain when their child doesn’t get equal playing time with others? They apparently want it both ways. The idea of playing on the best team seems great until it means their child will be sitting the bench. Then it isn’t fair.

If you want equal playing time, that’s what recreational sports are for. Most rec leagues have rules mandating a certain number of innings or time be given to each child regardless of ability so that everyone gets a chance. The emphasis is not supposed to be primarily on winning, but on player development and enjoyment. If your child isn’t ready for the more competitive environment, (as this mother’s daughter clearly was not as evidenced by the crying), then let them play Little League, or AYSO, or whatever other sport, in a recreational setting. While these types of recreational leagues can still be very competitive, they are designed for players of all skill levels, not just elite athletes.

The other email from the coach seemed like a sadder case to me. Judging by his writing, English was not his first language. He told me he’d played as a youngster, had invested his own time and money into coaching this team as well as in obtaining a coaching license. He didn’t even have a child on the team. He was doing it, as he said, ‘because he loved the game.’ I told him that it was unfortunate that the club had taken such a hard line stance because he seemed to be someone I’d like to have coaching my kids. And like in the previous example, the players were preteen. Still, if the club’s philosophy was only about winning and he wasn’t in line with that mindset, there was no advice I could give him other than to find a recreational soccer club and take his desire to teach youngsters there. Youth leagues are always looking for volunteers, I told him, and I even searched through our database of clubs and referred him to one nearby.

So yes, it is a good idea to know what you’re getting into before you sign up. Ask about playing time and positions before you write the check. If the team doesn’t guarantee that everyone will play and rotate to different positions and yet you still sign up, then don’t complain if it doesn’t work out for your child.

And with all of that said, what kind of 5th grade girls basketball team is SO competitive that some girls just are not going to get to play unless the team is ahead by 20 points? I’m not a basketball coach but I guarantee you I could win some games and still make sure everyone got in for a few minutes, no matter how unskilled they were. In fact, win or lose, I couldn’t imagine coaching both halves, making substitutions, and looking at little kids on the bench but never once putting them in. If everything this mom was telling me was accurate, competitive or rec, shame on those coaches.

And as for the young guy who just wants to coach soccer skills and isn’t as concerned with winning, I feel sorry for the club that decided they didn’t need him. Because based on the brief email correspondence I had with him, they lost a good man. It is amazing how often in youth sports we can’t see the forest for the trees.

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 He can be reached at