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Subtle Biases Against The Team


I’ve been involved in youth sports for a few years now, as the Elder Sprog has been a three-sport team player for long enough that a collage of all his team pictures is too big to fit on a single wall.  The Younger Sprog is not as enthusiastic about team sports as the Elder, but they’re both currently doubled-booked in baseball and basketball, so take “not as enthusiastic” with that in mind.

Kids leagues start now at ages so young that there’s no reality to the idea that they’re playing a team sport at the youngest level.  Any AYSO parent can attest that the U-5 and U-6 age divisions… well, they’re a bit more about getting out in the sun and having fun with other kids in your age bracket than they are anything resembling soccer.

Which is fine, really.

In fact, I generally support the idea that an introduction to team sports in the general leagues like Little League and AYSO should focus on the social activity combined with some basic exercise and let’s leave the hyper-competitive parents to their own leagues.

When things start to get somewhat trickier are in the 8-10 age bracket.  Typically kids in this age slot are roughly comparable in terms of physical ability, coordination, and endurance.  In your average league, you’ll have 6-8 teams of 8-14 kids (depending upon sport and league setup), and in an 8-10 bracket that will give you fairly balanced teams with the one or two standouts where “the kid who was just okay last year” actually hit a growth spurt earlier than some of his or her peers and is now a lot better than they were the year before.  Out of such things, championship teams are made.

But here’s where you start to see the first glimmerings of the subtle bias of people wanting their kids to have a particular sort of experience.

And that particular sort of experience is not “learning how to play a team sport”.

Ages 8 and under, almost nobody who isn’t some level of crazy really cares deeply if their kid is the goal scorer on the team.  They don’t care if their kid wins the free throw competition or can pitch through the league mandated maximum pitch count and actually get strikeouts.  They just want their kid to have fun and get some exercise and maybe start to get the beginnings of understanding about what it means to be on a team.  Cheering for the goals happens, of course… that’s where it starts.  Where the seed is planted.

It gets worse when you cross the border to 8-10.

You hear it, as a coach.  “That kid doesn’t pass”.  “That kid shoots too much”.  “My kid never gets a chance to bring the ball up-court”.

They’re almost always spot-on criticisms, to be sure.

The kid they’re talking about usually does pass far too little, or they’re a glory-baller.  Working with the “that kid” is a hard thing to do as a coach, because “that kid”?

That kid is usually the one that practices all the time at home.  That kid is usually the one that has the biggest competitive drive.  That kid is very often the best shooter on the team, or the best goal-scorer, or the best pitcher.  That kid is the kid that will streak across right field and dive headfirst to make the sort of play that makes you say, “That kid has a lot of heart” (that kid usually plays with their older siblings, and they’ve learned to play hard because everybody wants to beat their older sister or brother.)

Teaching “that kid” how to be a team player is tough.  Lots of coaches don’t do a good job of this, so it’s a fair criticism of youth sports on the whole that sometimes coaches get too obsessed with winning just like “that kid” gets too obsessed with winning, fair point.

But let me tell you, if you’re trying to build a good sense of team?  The parent that comes to you and says, “That kid is ruining my kid’s experience”? (because that’s what the subtext is in all these conversations, to be sure.)  That parent is very often the parent of a kid that is just as much of a problem when it comes to the goal of teaching kids how to be team players.

Their kid is the daisy picker.  Their kid is one of the ones that is really unfocused.  Their kid is the one that needs to be told, over and over again, to pay attention. Their kid is the one that never practices, or complains too much about how the refs aren’t calling the game fairly, or who won’t follow through on a play.  Their kid is the one that is horsing around with three other kids when you’re trying to run the free-throw drill.  Their kid is the one that wants to be a glory-baller themselves.

Before you start getting defensive and loading up the haterade for the comment thread, let me be clear: there’s nothing “wrong” with these kids. This is actually a pretty substantial percentage of kids in the 8-10 bracket.  It’s not abnormal; if anything, it’s far closer to normal than “that kid” is.

The Elder Sprog doesn’t practice enough.  The Elder Sprog complains too much about things being fair, he’ll occasionally stop in the middle of a game to gripe at the kid he’s guarding while the play runs past him.  He’s always one of the kids horsing around in the layup drill instead of waiting for his turn.  He’s the one that has to be encouraged all the time on the bench to watch the other players out there in the game.  He gives up at the shot and stands there watching it instead of hustling for the rebound.

He’s my kid and I love him to death, but he’s out there to have fun first and foremost.  And second and third-most.  He cares about winning, but in the sense of “it’s more fun to be jumping around with my teammates after the game than it is to be trudging through the handshake line”, not in the sense of “I have to get this rebound and get the ball to my teammate or we are going to lose.”  And since youth sports really should be fun, it’s hard to refocus that without putting a damper on the “fun” part, so that’s a tough job as a coach.

We work at the balance, it’s a tough job.  Sometimes I do a better job of it than others.

But I will say this: he’s a little bit better of a team player than “that kid” is.  “That kid” that people complain about.  And he’s a little bit better of a team player than “your kid”, the one who isn’t getting a chance to score “because that kid is a ball hog”.

He doesn’t get many shots, because he’s not aggressive enough.  But he plays pretty solid defense, because one of the things he does is actually listen when I am shouting, over and over through the game “Don’t defend the *MAN*, defend the *basket*!  STAY BETWEEN YOUR MAN AND THE BASKET!”  He doesn’t get boxing out yet, but he listens when I’m yelling “BOX OUT”, and he tries.  And that means that the shots he does get are usually pretty open, easy shots.

So my advice here is… check your subtle bias against “that kid”.  If you want “your kid” to get a few shots, don’t worry as much about “that kid”.

Help reinforce the idea “you need to listen to your coach”.

It’s a kid’s game.  Most coaches want every kid to feel like they’re participating and most coaches want all of their kids to learn something about team ball.  And if all of the kids have their parents hammering home the message “you need to listen to your coach”, everybody will get more chances at glory, not that this matters.

The most useful thing your kid is going to get out of team sports isn’t a chance at the sort of glory people think about as glorious, anyway.  To hell with glory.

The most useful thing kids get out of team sports is understanding, fundamentally, that they’re playing as a unit.  It’s their first introduction to having to complete a goal while interacting with a bunch of other independent thinkers all of whom are varying levels of qualified at the job they’re tasked at doing, all while having someone yell at them they’re doing something wrong, with folks cheering for them, and for the other side, and sometimes the rules aren’t enforced fairly.  It usually comes with a donut or an ice-cream or something afterwards, win or lose, so it’s not just like life, granted.

Here’s a snippet of one of my favorite examples of showing folks how to play team ball:

The 1996 UCLA Bruins were the defending NCAA champions.  A good number of the players on the 1996 squad went on to play some level of professional basketball (not all in the NBA like Jelani McCoy, and some had less than stellar NBA careers, but they got paid to play ball in a pro league, and that’s notable).  To the best of my knowledge, nobody on the Princeton team was drafted or played pro ball at any level.  If you can ever find a video of the full game, it’s worth watching.

The Princeton guys can’t jump as high as the UCLA guys.  They can’t dribble as fast as the UCLA guys.  They aren’t as good at shooting the ball, they can’t break down opposing players 1 on 1 from the outside.  They aren’t as good man-to-man defenders.  You split up these two teams into a bunch of 1-1 matches in the playground, and the UCLA team will probably win every single 1-1 match-up by a fair margin, eat ’em alive.

The final score of the game was 43-41.  By any normal estimation, a close game… if all you read is the box score, anyway.  If you watched the whole game, you saw a Princeton team beat the crud out of a physically superior team by mentally taking them entirely out of their game.  The ’96 Bruins averaged 76 points a game that season, and they never, ever had a chance to get anywhere close to playing their normal game.  At every turn, the Princeton guys stymied their attempts to get into the normal flow of their game.

It was a 2 point blowout against the defending national champs.

That’s a bit of glory, right there.  And nobody remembers the names of any of the kids on that team, I bet (maybe Sam, he’s nutty about basketball).  That’s… not really glory.  Or is it?  Who cares?

I tell this story to the kids who play on my teams because no matter how good you are, physically, at playing a sport… eventually you’re going to come up against someone who is bigger than you, stronger than you, faster than you, and better at the fundamentals than you are.  They’ve shot more free throws than you have, and they’ve got the crowd cheering them on, and you just can’t beat them one-on-one.

That’s when effective teamwork can make it so that you’ve got the advantage of taking easier shots and forcing harder ones, and you can win anyway.

In the 8-10 age bracket, in a league of 80-140 kids, there’s maybe a half dozen who are actually really good team players.  It’s always amazing to see these kids.  They might need some coaching about the fundamentals, they might need to unlearn some bad habits.  They might be wiseacres in practice, they might need focusing just like the daisy pickers do.  But put them on the court, or on the field?

They know how to play team ball, which is something some professionals don’t know how to do. They have court vision.  They have spatial sense that comes with vector calculus at an intuitive level.  They don’t focus on just the ball, or just the goal, or just the opposing player… they know that where they need to go is right to this spot, which is the spot where the opportunities are greatest and the vulnerabilities are least.  They don’t have to be told to cheat to their left on defense against a right-handed player, they don’t need to be told where the open spot on the court is.

And every once in a while they’ll turn the ball over because they will see a play in their head and they’ll throw the ball to where they would go, if they were their own teammate, and they don’t realize that the other kid on the team doesn’t have the intuitive grasp of the game that they do.

But we can work on that, too.

(image credit: a fellow basketball nut.  Used with permission.  Look at that box-out, would you?  Textbook.  Body-to-body, elbows up, #25 has no chance at that rebound.)

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10 thoughts on “Subtle Biases Against The Team

  1. I could probably tell a bunch of stories here about my kids’ experience in team sports and my own, but I would just be making the same points. This is just a really, really good post that covers about every angle of the issue needed Pat. Really enjoyed reading it.


  2. I remember that game, and that tournament (note who won it) very well. It was definitely fun to watch, and one of my favorite upsets of all time.


    • Everybody I was with was in awe during that game. The height of my basketball nerddom, when I had time to pay attention to college and pro ball. And everybody really didn’t want UCLA to repeat that year.

      For the record, I aced the round of 16 in the Southeast Regional in my bracket that year and everyone was mad at me for correctly picking Princeton over UCLA (then I got clobbered in the next round anyway so my chances of winning the Madness fell precipitously.)


      • Princeton also got clobbered in the next round, which shows how inspired that one performance was.

        UCLA had chance anyway. Two of the best teams of the decade, and possibly ever, were in that tournament.


  3. My best man came up to visit a couple weekends ago. He and his family live down San Diego way these days. He brought his 11-year-old son, and I fed them, and my buddy and I emptied a bottle of the Isle of Islay’s finest while staying up too late catching up. I say we stayed up too late, because the next morning, we packed up the kid and took him to the Soccerplex up here where state-level championships were going to start in the kid’s age bracket.

    These kids had skillz. Not as awesome as the skillz on display when national teams meet, but they could do more than dribble and kick-and-hope. Some of them had good enough control to pick a corner of the goal to shoot at and get it close enough to on target as to be threats. Some of them had that intuitive vector calculus, that intuitive “where’s my teammate going to be” thing. But yeah, most of them seemed to want to keep the ball when they got it, rather than work it back and forth amongst the team. The team that did the work the back-and-forth passing won, and they won precisely because they were passing more and taking shots before my friend’s son’s team could reset its defensive formations in response to the shifts.

    Another thing that occurred to me, though, was how thankless the task of coaching such a team was. My friend was full of simmering resentment after the game, because the coach played the wrong kids (meaning the coach didn’t play his kid enough, for a reasons that I guess were defensible enough for a sports bar level of argument) and because the coach hadn’t taught passing. I figured, “This guy is probably volunteering his time to coach all these kids, and he got started doing it because he thought it would be fun and his kid is involved and he wants to do something good.”

    So with fourteen boys on the team, and only eight playing at a time, that’s six sets of parents on the sidelines all simultaneously racking up “You should be playing my kid more than you are” resentment points… plus seven more sets of parents simultaneously racking up “You should have coached the kid with the ball to pass that ball to my kid” resentment points. He can only avoid criticism when the team is on defense. In which case all fourteen sets of parents are going to criticize him for playing the kids too defensively.

    Dude can’t possibly win.


      • “It could be worse, he could ref.”

        there’s a good documentary on d3 college basketball that spends a bit of time with two refs. watching them deal with abuse – and i’m not talking “oh c’mon ref!” type stuff, which would seem to come with the territory – but straight up, all four quarters, “were you born blind because god hated your mother?” type vitriol. it’s kinda funny at first, but after minute two you wonder why anyone in their right mind would volunteer for that.


  4. When I was growing up and playing little league and such, we didn’t have these problems…we had problems with parents, one in particular, that was always berating the kids and telling the coach to play her kid ’cause he wouldn’t drop the ball like that “johnson kid” or that he was a better player and we needed the win.

    She was a class act.


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