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Let 'Em Play
November 4, 2010 - Scott Muska
I remember playing in a basketball championship game when I was 12 years old. We lost.
(I understand you probably don't want to hear about my adolescent athletic experiences any more than I want to write about them -- especially since it's not even a triumphant one. But trust me when I tell you there is a point I've become surprisingly passionate about and, being the narcissist that I am, I figured a personal anecdote would be my best way to get it across.)
The game was close, and it had to be settled in overtime. In my school district's youth leagues, there was a rule that every player on each team had to play at least one entire quarter, and this didn't change for the playoffs. My coach abided by this rule, and that's one of the many reasons I respect him. To this day, he is still one of my most influential role models, despite the fact that he would put the fear of God in me every time I shot a scoop shot instead of a lay-up by loudly informing me that I was not Allen Iverson. The opposing coach was one of those Dads who was re-living his childhood vicariously through his son's little league success, and found a way to cheat the system. I wouldn't be surprised if this guy was sitting in his home right now polishing his son's trophy, actually.
I'm ashamed to admit that after the game I thought about how we probably would have won if everybody hadn't had to play. This was because back then, for a few days, whether or not I won or lost this championship was of the utmost importance to me. I am deeply ashamed of myself for thinking this way, even at that age.
Now? I could absolutely care less. Winning a basketball title in the sixth grade would have had no long-lasting effect on my life, just like losing didn't. (Actually, I got some sympathy hugs from some of the chicks in my grade who had come to cheer us on. Losing's not always that bad.)
I hadn't thought about this game for years, until I woke up a couple Mondays ago (Oct. 25) to see William Kibler's article about suspending must-play rules for the little league playoffs in the area. There had been a parental complaint from a woman whose son was disappointed when he didn't get to play his mandatory six minutes in basketball playoff games last spring. The Central Blair Recreation and Park Commission upheld the policy, which has been in place since 1988. One of the reasons they gave seemed legitimate to me: teams with more players were at a disadvantage. I guess that makes sense, but I would think the leagues would be able to find some way to work it out so the teams had a pretty consistent number of players. Apparently, when the must-play rule was in place in the area, coaches would allegedly "offset that disadvantage by discouraging lesser players from showing up," the commission staff said.
When I read that sentence, I actually got upset. I think I felt my blood pressure escalate a little bit, like it does sometimes when I'm in a hurry to get someplace and a person is going below the speed limit in the passing lane.
What kind of person is such a loser that they care so much about winning a peewee game that they'll tell a little kid not to show up? It sends the message to me that this coach is a terrible person who shouldn't ever be listened to or taken seriously, but what kind of message does that send to the kid? It can plant the thought in his head that he's not good enough, and maybe he's not, but you really can't know that when a kid is 12. What happens when you do this to a kid because he's tiny and uncoordinated, but then he hits a growth spurt and is standing at 6'7" in ninth grade and doesn't want to go out for the team because some idiot destroyed his love for basketball when he was in grade school? Maybe this was why my high school basketball coach who ran the league kept the must-play rules intact throughout playoffs. You never know when the next Dikembe Mutumbo's going to come your way. Or maybe it's because he is a generally good person.
Now that I'm older, I feel like I can step back and put myself in the position of some of the kids I played with. If they hadn't been allowed to play in that game, then it might have had some negative effects on them in the future. If my coach had in some way tried to encourage them to skip the game, it would have probably been much worse, and I don't think that's something you'd forget about easily. I can't imagine going to every practice and game, and trying just as hard, if not harder, than anybody else on the team (some of us were arrogant back then and didn't think we had to give 100 percent during practice, because we were talkin' 'bout practice, man) and being benched throughout the playoffs at such an impressionable age.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a very competitive person, and I hate losing. I always have. But sometimes there are more important things than winning, and little league sporting events fit into that category. Most kids want to win at that age, but the lessons they learn from playing sports are much more valuable than whether or not they're champions, especially in the long run. At that age, it should be about teaching them the fundamentals of the game, and some of the components of sports that spill over into real life, like gamesmanship, hustle and the ability to work well with others. I can't fathom a coach who wouldn't understand this, but they're out there. I've seen them and been involved with them, and I've heard about them on the news. Some dudes are crazy.
For a minute, I thought I was crazy. I decided to call my old coach, Ed Boyd, and ask him what his thoughts were on the matter. I wish I could adequately describe Coach Boyd, who coached me from fourth to sixth grade and who I've remained very close with since (I've said he's like a second father to me on many occasions and meant it), but it's tough to do. The energy and competitive nature he has exuded for as long as I've known him can only really be called intimidating, but that doesn't really do it justice. Believe me when I tell you that the man does not savor losing, or take it lightly. I remember one time during practice I made a remark about how I thought we were going to lose an upcoming game and he almost shot me. But, instead he sat down the entire team and gave us a very inspiring talk about never giving up or counting yourself out, and remaining confident no matter what. (The next practice he brought us each a sheet of paper that said "The decision between winning and losing is often decided before the game." It's still posted on the bulletin board in my childhood bedroom.) We did end up losing that game, but it doesn't really matter, because the lessons I learned from what lead up to that loss taught me some things I still value today.
When I asked his opinion, he said it was definitely a tough question, especially if you ask a coach in the middle of an intense game, but that he thought every kid in that age group deserved the chance to play at least a little bit.
"You know me, Scotty. I love to win," he said. "But you know what the greatest part about coaching you little guys from the time you were 10 to 12 was? It was watching you guys all grow up together and improve on your own, but also as a team."
The way it is, he said, is that on every team you have a few kids who you think will probably move on to play after elementary school, and you have the other kids who probably won't.
"For those two or three years, all the kids should get to enjoy it, when having fun and learning is what it's all about," Coach said. "They should all at least get into the game, so you can all win or lose together as a team."
Then he told me a story about my friend Jaime, one of the kids who never played another game of organized basketball after we lost that championship game. I'd forgotten all about it, but at one very crucial point in the game, Jaime dove after a loose ball and saved our possesion.
"That was probably one of the best plays he made, and just to see how happy and pleased with himself he was for contributing like that was rewarding," he said.
If there hadn't been a must-play rule, he might not have gotten in at all, but I have a feeling Coach Boyd would've gotten him in there one way or another.
I was a lucky kid. I learned a ton from my childhood basketball coach. Stuff I haven't unlearned and still use daily. I won't say that every coach is going to be as good or affecting as Coach Boyd, because he leaves some tough sweatpants to fill. But I think kids should at least learn a little something from their coach that they can use, and that they should look back fondly on their little league experience. They shouldn't have to recollect that time their coach told them to stay home from the game so the team could win, and they shouldn't have to remember hoisting their first championship trophy when all they did was clap on the sidelines.
Let 'em play. It'll do them some good in the long run, and that's what it's all about.