Why Coaching for Development ONLY (Rather than Winning) is a Setup for Disappointment

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Angela here…this is just an observation throughout my years as a travel baseball parent. Of course there are plenty of exceptions. You might not agree with me and that’s okay. Feel free to share your own perspective in the comments. 

I get too many reader questions from parents who are disappointed with their kid’s experience on their young travel team, usually age 8 to 12 or so. 75% of the time, this letdown has something to do with the coach initially telling them that his (or her) primary focus is on player development, rather than winning tournaments.

At first, all is going well. No pressure, just teaching solid mechanics and giving equal playing time. As the months go by, the coach begins putting more emphasis on tournament outcomes….ie winning. The better performing kids begin seeing more playing time, while kids who haven’t progressed as quickly are riding the pine. The coach might even bring in a guest player or two and has the audacity to award these team-wreckers more playing time than some of the dedicated members who’ve been there from the start.

By season’s end, the team has racked up some trophies with the lowest ranking players not seeing much field time. Parents begin wondering what they’re paying for and feel like the coach has pulled a major “bait n switch” on them. These parents, if they haven’t left the team already, are beyond infuriated upon hearing that the coach is holding tryouts for next season and that their kid will have to earn the spot that was already his on a team that’s supposedly “developmental.” What happened? What happened to all the team members progressing together under the training of coaches who are focused on creating solid ballplayers instead of winning cheap, plastic trophies?

Well, here’s what I think happened.

The coach overestimated his power to develop solid ballplayers in the limited time he had to work with them. Let’s face it. Coaches aren’t magicians. On average, they have four to five hours per week with 11 or 12 rambunctious, distracted kids of all different backgrounds, levels of athleticism, talent and baseball IQ. Some take weekly lessons with an instructor and do lots of work on their own. Some play catch and hit balls with parents everyday in the backyard. And then there are some who never touch a bat and glove between practices. Logic tells us that the ones who practice more on their own, with knowledgeable adults who can help them, are going to progress more quickly than those who are relying on all the magic to happen during their two practices per week.

After a few tournaments with everyone receiving equal playing time, and a losing record (but that doesn’t matter. Remember, it’s all about development), team morale begins to slide a little. The players (and parents) can’t help but notice that the team isn’t winning games. And that’s no fun.

Here’s the thing. You can tell kids that the score doesn’t matter until you’re blue in the face. But it still matters to them. Because the most compelling measure of a team’s success is the scoreboard. The players begin to view themselves from the perspective of losing. They’re embarrassed when friends at school who are on higher performing teams ask how their weekend tournament went. The more developed team members particularly begin to get frustrated because they feel like their efforts are being sabotaged by those who aren’t producing, and they’re starting to wonder if this team is the right fit for them.

Parents are beginning to grumble, wondering why they aren’t seeing any wins if all this “solid development” is going on.

And the coach is starting to notice what a delicate balancing act it is trying to keep his stronger players from getting bored and disengaged while giving one-on-one attention to those who are still mastering the basics. He doesn’t want anyone to fall behind, but he doesn’t want to lose his team leaders either.

The shift: With morale declining and parents becoming more vocal with their opinions, the coach begins to feel pressure to bring home some trophies. In order to do this, he can’t risk giving the under performing team members too much playing time. (He’s sort of hoping that riding the pine will give them some incentive to work harder.)He hates to be that way. But honestly, a couple of the kids just don’t seem to care whether they improve or not. They don’t appear to be phased by repeatedly striking out or missing routine plays. Yet their parents are some of his biggest critics. He overheard one of them complaining that their kid worked his butt off but since he wasn’t in the inner daddy ball clique, he didn’t get the playing time he deserved. Worked his butt off? Really? And what daddy ball clique????

The coach thinks of other things he could be doing with his spare time instead of having his every move and decision judged. Do they have any idea how much time he spends planning for and thinking about that team?

Toward the end of the season, two of his strongest kids have to miss a tournament, so he recruits a couple of guest players from other teams. He’s heard good things about them and is looking forward to seeing what they can do.

As predicted, the guest players score runs early and are solid additions in the field. The team is winning and the crowd is pumped. What a great feeling! So the coach leaves the guest players in. He knows he’ll have Hell to pay with some of the parents, but others will be psyched about the win. (He’s constantly having to weigh his instincts against his toughest critics’ potential reactions.)

As predicted, the moms and dads of the players sitting the bench are beyond livid, and rightfully so. How could this coach, who is supposedly so “invested” in his team, favor two kids who aren’t even on the team over his own players? This is NOT what they signed up for. Their kids have shown up on time to every single practice. They make their monthly payments on time. And, dammit, they aren’t paying all this money for their kids to sit the bench!

By the end of the season, the coach has decided to take his core group of players to the next level, to really compete against the other teams in their age group. He’s going to make some cuts and hold tryouts.

He’s learned a LOT this season. Most of all that it was unrealistic of him to think that in just a few hours a week, during a single season, that he alone could transform all 12 of his players into solid, mechanically sound athletes with a passion for baseball. He tried. But he’s only human with a finite amount of time. He’s not a professional coach or a child psychologist or a motivational speaker or an athletic trainer. He’s just a dad who knows a bit about baseball and loves working with kids.

READ The Boy Who Was Called Uncoachable

In spite of how it ended, this coach will take away some valuable lessons.

  1. Even if you claim to be all about development, you have to win some games. Because winning does matter, regardless of how much you say it doesn’t.
  2. Don’t make unrealistic promises to parents. And DO NOT set up any “pay to play” expectations. They’ll come back to bite you. Next season, stress to parents what they can and should do to help their kids make the most progress on the ball field. It doesn’t all happen during practice.

  3. Developing every kid you coach into a great ballplayer with passion for the game, is sort of like communism. It sounds great in theory, but ends up being pretty unrealistic. Some of the kids who didn’t perform well for him may flourish and become excellent players under someone else’s coaching. Rather than over promising and trying to appease dissatisfied parents, he’ll encourage them to find a team that’s a better fit for their kid. There’s no shame in admitting when it’s not a match.

Editor’s Note: Angela here….Every team, regardless of their win/loss record, develops its players to some extent. There is no “either/or—development vs winning.” My 16-year-old son is a pitcher for his high school varsity team. He’s still developing every time he steps onto the mound. It’s called experience.

He received the most instruction (development) on his first travel team, Full Throttle Baseball in Dublin, GA. They had a very strong roster and brought home an incredible number of trophies. But no one would ever accuse Coach Allen of being a trophy chaser rather than teaching his kids to play to the best of their abilities. At the beginning of each season, he held tryouts. Past players had to earn their spots again and one or more of them were let go. Coach Allen understood that he wasn’t the perfect coach for every single kid. Admitting this and releasing them to find a team that would be a better fit was simply a part of the process. 

People these days get caught up in the semantics of “development vs winning.” Please forget that line of thinking. It’s just not accurate and relying on that mind set too much will lead to frustration. 

*The featured photo above isn’t related to this article. It just had a trophy in it, so I used it. 

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Angela Weight

Founder and publisher of Travel Ball Parents.com, Angela Weight is still a little shocked to be running one of the most popular youth sports parenting sites on the web. Click the ABOUT US tab to read her story.

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