The Battle Of Balance

By Fred Engh

We all remember the sports we played in backyards and on playgrounds growing up. The first order of business was dividing up into equal teams so we could have fun and an evenly matched competition.

Interestingly, that’s one of the continual challenges for recreation agencies these days, too—creating balanced teams. Only it’s become much more difficult with the constant flow of kids coming into programs. Some show up with lots of skills and playing experience, while others are dipping their toes into the competition pool for the first time.

Add in the parents—who are carefully monitoring every decision and, of course, evaluating which teams they perceive as having the competitive advantage—and setting up balanced teams can pose a real challenge for youth-sports administrators.

Drafts, tryouts, blind draws—there are plenty of options in play these days. I checked in with some Certified Youth Sports Administrators (CYSAs) to get their insights on how they approach the challenge of balancing teams in their programs: 

Chris Shaffer, Recreation Director for the Windsor Area Recreation Commission in Pennsylvania: My organization holds player evaluations once the children reach a certain age. We find that team balance is not normally an issue until around the age of 8. Until this age, we give more consideration to parent requests to have their child placed on a specific team with a specific player and/or coach. I personally believe that this helps to keep the players interested. Once they reach a certain age, they will only be interested if they actually enjoy playing the sport. Even taking these requests into consideration, we still try to have a good mix of different ages and skill sets for each team, although we do not use a formal evaluation process. Once the players are playing in games that actually have umpires, referees, score-keeping, etc., we hold an evaluation process that allows us to build teams based on an actual skill set. An example is our baseball league, with three divisions at each age group (A, B, and C) that are designed for teams of different skill sets. The A division is for the most-skilled players; B division is for the semi-skilled players; and the C division is for the least-skilled players. All of the players “try out,” although we call it an evaluation because all players will make a team. This allows us to get each player on a team playing with and against players of similar skill. I make the teams up after a group of volunteers and I assign a score to each child after running through drills. When we have multiple teams in the same division, we build those teams equally. For example, if we build two B teams out of 20 players, the top 10 players will be split evenly between the two teams, and the remaining 10 players will be split evenly between the two teams. It is important that you do your best to make sure the teams are as even as possible so each team has an equal opportunity at success.

The biggest issue we deal with is that no evaluation process is perfect. One team always ends up a little better or a little worse than another team. It’s not for lack of effort but rather the different variables that go into it. One team may receive a player who had a great evaluation but doesn’t perform as well as we initially thought, while another player had a poor evaluation but turns out to be the best player on his/her team. The most important thing we can do is to try. If we sincerely try and parents and coaches see that we did our best, it won't matter if the teams aren’t perfectly balanced.

My advice for all administrators of youth-sports programs is not to allow parents to dictate the way you run your program and build the teams. You are responsible for ensuring a positive experience for everyone who participates. Most of the time, parents are asking for what they feel is best for their child. We, as administrators, are responsible for making decisions we feel are in the best interest of as many young people as possible. Also, understand that you will have to make decisions you feel are in the best interest of the program but may not be in the best interest of certain children. This is OK. Please also understand that the saying, “You can't make everyone happy,” is absolutely true, especially in youth sports.

William Pochop, Sports Coordinator for Starkville (Mississippi) Parks and Recreation Department: The issues I’ve run into aren’t necessarily built around whether or not teams are even, but parents who just cannot cope with their child losing. You can have two evenly matched teams and officials who don't miss a single call, yet a lot of parents simply will not accept or admit the shortcomings of their team or child, and therefore need something or someone to blame. One thing administrators can do is to have required parent meetings at different points in the year to discuss program and department philosophies, as well as procedures for league management, teambuilding, etc. These can sometimes turn into public forums where parents feel they have the right/responsibility to provide feedback or input. The important thing is to make sure parents are heard, but to maintain an administrative standpoint that lines up with the national standards for your programs. A 5- to 6-year-old group should be primarily focused on the kids having a positive experience. However, it feels ridiculous to ask if the teams are actually even—the kids are 5 and 6 years old! What actual gauge can you use to properly spread “talent” across a 5- and 6-year-old league?

In my 5- to 6-year-old league, the teams are co-ed, with around 6 or 7 players per roster. We play 4v4 half-court on a 7-foot goal with a 25.5-inch ball, and the score is not kept. It’s an adorable train wreck, but the kids have a blast. The team size, number on the court, goal height, and ball size are all geared to aid players in development, as well as to give kids maximum touches. Some regulations say to play 3v3, but 4v4 works just as well; 5v5 seems to be too chaotic. There are small steps every administrator can take to improve their programs that are easily visible to the participant and parent that show an effort for improvement. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, but all wheels need improvement. If it ain’t broke, innovate!

At this age, it is important to focus on friendships, fun, and exercise through each activity and let the competitive nature of sport fall by the wayside. This is why I go back to the parents and their mindset. It doesn’t matter if everything goes right sometimes—some parents simply want the success of their child to be dependent on the result of the activity. If the result does not define success by their desired definition, they have to blame someone. Again, this is why it’s important to talk to parents about the league philosophies, goals, and policies.

Fred Engh is founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at fengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at emartinez@nays.org or (800) 729-2057.