Balancing Act

By John Engh

One of my favorite topics to discuss in youth sports is the idea of having balanced teams. Making a youth-sports program successful and creating a league with as much parity as possible are probably two of the biggest challenges, but also can be the most rewarding.

Youth sports are supposed to be fun. Ever since the National Alliance for Youth Sports began asking the question back in 1981, the answer “to have fun” was always number one—not winning, but fun. I would argue that kids have far more fun in a highly competitive game that comes down to the wire and losing than winning by a blowout versus an inferior team. Give me a league where all the teams finish close to a .500 win percentage, and I will show you a league where kids have a lot of fun.

We Have A Problem
I’ll never forget the first time coaching my son in baseball. It was a T-ball league for kids under six. As with most leagues, the roster starts with your own child and then a child of one of your assistant coaches. And just like most leagues for young children, all the top players were being coached by their parents. There were two exceptions in this particular season of our league:

  • My son wasn’t a top player.

  • The top player in the league didn’t have a parent who was coaching.

And when I say he was the top player, I mean he was far and away the best player in the league. So, because the draft order was determined by player-evaluation results, my team received the top pick, and we took that player in a heartbeat.

That was the moment I knew there was a problem with the system. My competitive nature kicked in and suddenly it was about winning for me and creating the best team I could build around my new star. I heard the other coaches talking about some of the second-year players and how they knew their parents had talked them into tanking their evaluations. It was no longer about drafting balanced teams and all about trying to draft the best team.

The thought that T-ball coaches pride themselves on winning games in a league for five-year-olds is very disturbing to me. And that was truly the experience I had in this particular league. There were four teams with great records and six with fairly bad results in the games. So, basically, almost every other game was a mismatch, and those games were not usually fun for anyone.

Ultimately, the system in place was determined by parents who had children in the league and not by administrators who were only concerned about making the league the best it could be. Having evaluators who were not involved with the drafting process was one suggestion that was implemented soon after. And it made a huge difference. Sometimes, just the slightest shift in policy that puts the focus back on what’s truly best for the kids is all it takes to salvage a program and resurrect the fun. Check out how these Certified Youth Sports Administrators handle balancing teams in their programs, and use their insights to help enhance your efforts:

William Pochop, Athletic Supervisor for the Starkville (Miss.) Parks and Recreation Department: We hold a basic player assessment and auto-assign teams based on specific criteria. I set up basic fundamental drill stations. I have my staff at each station demonstrating the expected drill result, and rate the players as they go through. I have a detailed rating system of 1 to 5 in what to look for from each player. For each team, we only guarantee the coach's child, assistant coach’s child, and/or team sponsor’s child. We get local businesses to sponsor the teams to increase league funding, and they often have a child they want on the team they sponsor. I experienced drafts with no assistance as a first-year recreation professional, and it was a nightmare. Veteran coaches knew I didn’t know any of the kids, so they steamrolled the process. I figured that was because of my lack of experience, so I tried a draft five years later. Same result. I haven’t had the best experience involving coaches. Too much chatter happens about a kid being bad or slow, and I don’t appreciate that. Knowing what I know now, having experienced both a draft and auto-assignment of teams, I whole-heartedly believe auto-assignment is the way to go. Establish set criteria for round-robin drawing, and let the computer go. We use Sports Illustrated Play as our league-management software, and it has a built-in, round-robin, criteria-based auto-assignment tool. Professionals fall back on the National Standards for how they run their programs, and they can fall back on a computer for how teams end up the way they do.

Lacy Freeman, Recreation Programmer for the City of Mesa (Ariz.) Youth Sports: Due to the large size of the city (450,000+, 133 square miles) with only one parks and rec youth-sports department, we are limited with our options. We cannot do drafts where kids could end up anywhere in the city, as we don’t feel it’s right to ask parents to drive their child 45 minutes across town to practice for a recreational league. Part of our niche is that we promise families that players will practice as close to home as possible. We have families with two to five kids in the programs, so running them all over the city would deter them from signing up. We form teams in the fairest way possible, given these circumstances. All participants are allowed to request one friend upon registration, which we try our best to accommodate. We do not allow coach requests, except for their own child. We also do not allow full teams to register together. We take these measures to help deter stacked teams. Our Youth Sports staff builds teams with the following parameters: first is a friend request; second is a current elementary school; and third is a middle-school zone. If there are not enough kids or coaches in an area, we combine with another area. Though some teams inevitably are more talented than others, all teams are formed the same way using the same parameters. Occasionally, we see some slight unbalance, but it’s usually due to the kids in that area having a stronger presence in that sport in the neighborhood and school, which is out of our control.

Jeffrey Bernstein, Director of Simply Sports (Manhattan, N.Y.): We make the first session of the season an evaluation day. Our coaches rate every player as advanced, intermediate, or beginner in that group. We do allow each child to make one mutual request with another child, and then we take all of the ratings and build balanced teams. We divide the advanced players, then we divide the beginner players and then we fill in with the intermediate players. If a mutual request is made by the two best players or two weakest players, we tell the families we cannot honor the request, as balancing teams is the first priority.

Rance Gaede, Recreation Superintendent for the City of Tamarac (Fla.): We hold evaluations at the beginning of a season, before teams are developed, to rate each player on basic skills of the sport, as well as athleticism. For those who participated the prior season(s), staff members evaluate players continuously through the season. Teams are then constructed using those scores. For sports in which physical size may play a role, a height measurement is also taken and factored.

John Engh is executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at jengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS Member Organization, visit www.nays.org, email nays@nays.org or call (800) 729-2057.