It really doesn’t matter what level we’re talking about, whether it’s rec league or majors. It doesn’t matter what age you’re playing or where in the country you play youth baseball. Winning at all costs is a problem across youth baseball, at every level.
Now, don’t get it twisted. Winning is important. Every time you step on the field, the goal should be to win. You are doing all that you can to score the most runs and limit the other team from scoring — so that you can win. It’s a competition, after all.
But, it’s a delicate balance. And I understand that achieving this balance isn’t easy. Far from it.
But too many coaches (and parents) have a desire to win at all costs. Winning at all costs is bad for youth baseball.
Allow me to explain. Winning at all costs includes things like…
1. Putting Arms at Risk
We’ve all seen it. It really doesn’t matter whether tournaments have pitching restrictions or not. Unless it’s Little League (which has very good pitching rules), kids can get abused at the tournament level.
They’ll throw 40 pitches in an inning. Or 100+ pitches at a young age in a game. They’ll throw too much on back-to-back days or even in two games in the same day.
These kids may even mention that their arm is sore, and the coach will have him pitch through it. As a coach, I actively encouraged my players to tell me how they felt. We did not mess with sore arms. You simply did not pitch.
Yes, there’s a difference between soreness and an injury, but the difference isn’t always clear. You should avoid throwing pitchers when their arms are sore, but you should also be careful not to overextend them and create sore arms in the first place.
Why, of course, does this happen so often? Because coaches allow the overwhelming need to win the next game to control what they do. If you truly care about these kids, you’re more concerned about them pitching next month and next year than winning that game right now.
2. Intentionally Breaking Rules
This includes all of the big stuff. Coaches add kids to their roster illegally due to age or because they were never approved. Coaches have kids wear the wrong jersey to get around roster or pitching rules. Basically anything that involves knowingly breaking the rules because you care more about winning.
Let’s be clear: I’m not referring to the unwritten rules of baseball. These “rules” aren’t rules at all. I’m talking about the rules that are in writing, that everyone knows — and that you, as a coach, should know.
Don’t allow your desire to win to cloud your judgment.
3. Burying Kids on the Bench
I know that I’ll get disagreement on this, but let me be clear: I don’t care what level you play. You don’t need to bury a kid on the bench.
I get it. Playing time changes in high school. But it doesn’t need to be like that in youth ball. And, no, you’re not “preparing them for high school” by limiting their playing time in youth ball.
If it’s a youth team, you have a responsibility. Each kid is on your roster for a reason. Otherwise, you are admitting that you made a mistake by asking them to join your team.
Play them — all of them.
It doesn’t need to be equal. But you should commit to developing each and every kid, not just a select few who give you the best chance to win.
This may result in winning less often. But, these opportunities will give your weaker players important experience. And it will make you a better team long-term.
You don’t have to explain your reasoning because I probably had the same excuse at one time. I remember when I was far too driven to win, resulting in burying kids and only batting nine. I’m proudest that we batted our entire roster in every game at 14u. And we were good.
I’ve never understood youth teams that carry 14, 15, or 16 players. Arguably, even 12 or 13 is difficult. I don’t care how good you are trying to be. If you aren’t planning to play a kid, don’t add him to your roster.
They can fight for positions. They can earn spots in the lineup. But give all of them useful reps.
4. Refusing to Challenge Your Team
These are the Trophy Hunters. There are some coaches who are so scared of losing that they won’t challenge their kids.
If you almost never lose at AAA, play Majors. If you almost never lose at Majors, play up an age.
Keep moving up until you start losing. Not just once every few tournaments. You should not win every tournament. You should not run rule your competition in championship games. If you are, you’re not challenging your players and they aren’t getting better.
Your players need to see teams that are better than them to provide perspective and motivation.
It’s funny. Two of our best Spiders teams were at the 14u level. One of them won seven tournaments and rarely lost. The other won one tournament and went .500. While they were similar, we simply challenged one of these teams far more with better competition.
Yes, this is also an example of how I’ve grown as a coach. I, too, was far too concerned about winning.
5. Failing to Teach the Life Lessons of Loss
If you are doing everything you can to avoid losing, you are missing an opportunity. There is something very valuable about failure and loss.
Things will not always go our way. We will not always win. How will we respond to it?
Do we just get angry, blame others, and shame our players? Many coaches do. They work out of a place of fear and shame. They don’t know how to deal with failure.
Or do we learn from it? This is an opportunity to show how you treat your opponent respectfully, during a win or a loss. It’s an opportunity to accept responsibility instead of making excuses. If all you do is win and succeed, these lessons are difficult to spot. You get complacent.
But baseball is a game of failure. You will get out. You will make mistakes. You will lose. Teaching players how to handle and learn from that loss should be a central job of the coach to teach life lessons and skills.
It’s a Meathead Mentality
This win-at-all-costs approach is a meathead mentality. It’s immature. It fails to see the value of the process, of development, and of life lessons. It fails to put youth sports into proper context. It’s just not that important.
Winning at all costs means looking past so many opportunities to learn and grow because you’re hyper focused on one, singular thing. It’s damaging to these kids. It isn’t helpful. It won’t make them better players or better people.
It’s ultimately selfish. Typically, it starts with a coach whose ego is so fragile that he must win and can’t personally lose.
Coaches: Understand Your Role
It’s hard. We’re competitive. But, try to have some perspective.
This is a game. It’s kids playing a game.
Winning can be a primary goal while not consuming you. You set the example. Encourage competition. Be the best you can be.
But there are so many boxes that you must check while developing these kids that have nothing to do with winning.
Parents: Take a Step Back
Parents have a lot of stress. They want what’s best for their kids, but it also clouds your judgment and can make you look foolish.
Stop living vicariously through your child.
No one cares what your kid’s stats are or how many tournaments your team won. All of this will be forgotten very quickly.
Make sure that your child is developing, getting better, and growing as a human so that he is best prepared for high school and beyond.
Everything else is secondary.