30 second time outs

Friday, March 27, 2009

Who plays what position? And When?

In coaching, especially at the youth sports level, what position a player has an opportunity to play is always a hot topic. In basketball forwards want to play guard, shooting guards want a chance to play point guard. In football, players desire to play offense rather than defense and everyone wants to be the quarterback, running back or receiver. In those youth sports, coaches often "stereotype" players into particular positions. I had a 10 yr old on a team while working a basketball camp, and after going through several substitution rotations, the 5 biggest players on the team were on the floor at once. The best of them asked me, "who's going to play point guard".. so I answered that he should. He replied, "I'm not a point guard... my coach says I'm a center". My response was, "There's no such thing as a 10 yr old center!" And he played point guard, doing quite well, I might add. In "Positive Coaching in a Nutshell" jim Thompson writes,

"Some kids mature early. If you have a big kid, avoid the temptation to limit him to “big” positions—lineman in football or under the basket in basketball. Many big kids end up being normal-sized when they mature, and you can do them a big favor by having them learn positions and skills that don’t rely on size for success."

This dilemma is especially true in baseball where the positions of inflield/outfield are so different - both in activity and perception. The perception is that the outfielders are the less skilled players (and at times they are). The distressing problem with that is the player sometimes "buys into" that perception and begins to "feel" like they are inferior. This possibility creates a situation that needs to be handled with care for coaches... and parents.

The first thing to consider is the players safety. My son is 6 yrs old and playing organized baseball for the first time. Frankly, I would rather not see him anywhere right now besides right field... deep, Deep, DEEP right field! I'm not sure that he's prepared to handle an accidental line drive off some 8 yr olds bat (and let's face it, most line drives at that age are accidental). It is the responsibility of the coach to provide maximum opportunities in practice to develop the skills necessary to improve in those areas, with appropriate breakdown drills. The coach should relentlessly pursue the development of each and every player so they are able to play any position. Anything short of this effort is unacceptable. Coaches should demand as close to 100% effort as possible from their players... and players deserve 100% effort from the coach towards their development. The developmental progression may go from ensuring a players safety all the way to being adept at playing an infield position. During this entire process it is important that the coach continue to "Fill the Emotional Tank" of the player and make them feel like a an integral part of the team - regardless of what position or how often they play. When the player becomes more proficient at handling a position in a game or scrimmage situation, the coach needs to look for times in which this can happen. Mismatched or blowout games are an ideal time to give kids a chance to play a different position. In an inning where the opponent is at the bottom of their batting order might be a good time to give at try, as well.

By moving players around and even allowing your "infielders" to spend some time in the outfield while you are are giving the "outfielders" a chance, you are also doing the "infielders" a favor by allowing them to learn and play a variety of positions. My oldest son was different than the "big-kid" syndrome mentioned earlier. He happened to have a late growth spurt and grew out of the middle-infield positions he played in his early years. By giving him the opportunity to occasionally play other positions, it prepared him to play first base in his later years and became an outfielder while playing in college. It was not such a big transition for him, because he had been exposed to all of those positions while playing as a youngster.

Coaches should also make a point to mix it up and have different players start/sit so particular players don't get "categorized" early as non-starters/subs or even infielders/outfielders. In a "continuous batting order" non-starters might even bat closer to the middle of the order to prevent them from being inactive for the first 45+ minutes of the game. Players who are not competing should have duties and activities to keep them engaged and an important part of the team (playing catch/running in between innings, charting pitches, etc). That being said, it is important to note that some players also *earn* playing time with exceptional effort and commitment. It is a great lesson for those players to be rewarded for that, to encourage them to continue, while others might strive to get "rewarded" too. However, not all of the life-lessons learned in sports are rainbows and butterflies, so players could also lose playing time with a lack of effort and/or commitment (within organizational guidelines)

This was a topic on the Positive Coaching Alliance's Youth Sports Nation Blog with an ultimate Response by PCA Founder Jim Thompson:

"Playing time is probably the biggest source of frustration and anger among sports parents, which is saying a lot.

An Unarguable Point
Kids love to play. They don’t like to sit on the bench. Moreover, most of the benefits of playing a sport are tied to competing in games. Kids who sit don’t benefit as much from sports as kids who play. I don’t see how anyone can argue with this.

Good Coaches Get Kids into Games
It is a tenet of good coaching that you get kids into games! Period. Whether there are any external rules for minimum playing time or not. Whether it is at the high school or highly competitive travel team level or not.

Good coaches get kids into games! They may be creative about how they get kids into games in high-stakes situations, because Double-Goal Coaches™ do want to win. But good coaches—Double-Goal Coaches™—get kids into games! "


There were also some further thoughts and good discussion comments that you can read here.

Now, the parent has some responsibility in ensuring that this is a positive and productive experience for the player too . With my 6 yr old son, rather than worrying about the "stigma" of playing outfield, I try to stress the importance of his position. If he is able to stop the occasional hit that gets to right field the hitter is held to a single. However, if the ball gets by him it could be a triple or a home-run. On a groundball to the infield, if he is in the right spot and backing up the first baseman in anticipation of an errant throw he might prevent a runner from taking an extra base. Even a single to left-field should trigger him to back-up the impending throw to 2nd base - in case that one is a bit off the mark. Now he thinks right field might be one of the most important positions on the field! It's also a bit ironic that in the highest level of baseball, the better outfielders actually play right field.

Again, in "Positive Coaching in a Nutshell" jim Thompson describes this scenario,

"I was assistant coach on a strong baseball team with a terrible outfield. I offered to work with the outfield to give us a better chance at the championship. Our outfielders were discouraged. They knew they were the weak link, and that other players resented them for al- ways screwing up. They were disheartened and needed to be pumped up. I held special practices “just for the outfielders.” My initial motivational speech: “The other teams have kids playing the outfield who don’t want to be there. They don’t realize the outfield is the key to winning the big games. All the teams have pretty good players in the infield. But we can be the only team that also has a great outfield. When you play against the better teams, they hit more balls to the outfield! In the big games, the outfield is the key to winning.” Our outfielders began playing with pride, and improved even more than I could have hoped for. In a key game, Jeff, our centerfielder, staggered up against the fence and caught a towering drive, like “a prizefighter who had taken too many blows to the head,” in the words of one parent. Another time Brian chased down a foul fly after a long run from left center field. Matt caught three fly balls in a row, more than he had caught the entire season up to that point. Seeing their potential turned this group of kids into a tough group of fielders who helped win a championship."

My youngest daughter, Brittany, was an All-Star throughout her youth, but maybe never considered one of the *star* players. Because her biggest role on the team, quite often, seemed to be to lead those dugout softball cheers, after the game our conversations were mostly about how much fun she had and the silly idiosyncrisies of some of the girls, rather than over-analyzing the games. 
 
She eventually made a High School Varsity Softball team that had been to the semi-finals twice and the finals once in the previous four years. So they were pretty good and she was probably the 3rd best outfielder for the team that was ranked in the Top 10 all season. However, the coach realized that if she started in the outfield he would be left with no speed, literally, on the bench and would have had no flexibility if he ever needed a pinch-runner in a crucial situation. There were a few relatively slow runners in the lineup - so she at least got an opportunity in most games. But it was rare that she got a chance to hit or play the outfield.
 
The next season she was the starting centerfielder. In the car one day driving home she shared her experiences with an up and coming speedster who we happened to be giving a ride home. This player was in the exact same position as Brittany was the year before - and was getting frustrated with the lack of opportunities.
 
Brittany told her that while she, obviously, wished she played more during her junior year, it was an honor to be considered the best at a particular skill (baserunning) and that she decided to embrace that role. Any time any of the "slower" players were to bat in an inning, she would go get her helmet on and begin stretching - fully expecting to be put into the game to fulfill her role. In between innings, often, she would run a couple of sprints along the sidelines to stay loose. And she realized that EVERY time the coach put her in the game it was a CRUCIAL spot and SHE was an important run.  The season ended with her on second base as the tying run in the semifinals once again. She is positive to this day that if the girl at the plate had gotten a single rather than striking out she would have scored the tying run from second base - because she was prepared. She took that confidence in her speed with her to college, as she switched from team sports to running cross-country and track.

Navigating the youth sports landscape is one of the more difficult things for a coach or parent to handle... but it can be so rewarding for the youngster when all parties involved keep each individual players interests at the forefront of every decision they make. Please try to do so.

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