Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Team Selection - In who's best interest?

Winter sports are coming to an end and the spring weather turns our thoughts to outdoor games. Whether it is soccer or baseball or lacrosse or track & field or ball hockey or tennis, clubs and leagues are trying to wrap up registrations and start the team formation/selection process. And now the fun begins!

The team selection process for house league and recreational sports should result in well-balanced teams, where players are distributed equally by skill. No team should be filled with superstars, nor should any team be filled with beginning players. At the end of the season, it's not much fun if you've won all your games or, even worse, if your team lost all the games.

The entire season is much more exciting for players, coaches and spectators if all the matches are close and at the end of the year, all the teams are bunched together. When games are close, players want to attend. Ideally, the last week of the season should determine play-off positions.

Most people have no idea how their childrens' teams are formed, but are very vocal about the lack of balance every year. Frankly, unless you're part of the league "inner circle", you won't have much knowledge of this secret system. I say secret because most leagues don't want you to know how teams are formed. They may mention a "draft" or "drawing of names". What leagues don't want you to know is that usually one person, a Convenor or Director, is responsible for putting teams together.

Outrageous? What if that Convenor has a child in that age group. And then you look at how the teams are formed and the Convenor's child is on one of the stronger teams. Now how do you feel? Sadly, this Conflict of Interest is the norm in house league sports.

The Convenor's personal agenda, whether or not they have a child in that division, will always determine the distribution of players. If one person has that much power, bad things are guaranteed to happen to at least one team, if not more.

What if a league decides on a random drawing of names? Will that lead to better skill distribution and balanced teams? Random selection may remove the risk of bias, but it certainly does not lead to the proper distribution of talent. Without dividing players by talent and then drawing names, it is impossible to create balanced divisions.

So what does work? It's a combination of things. First, start with player evaluations. These can be completed by the coach at the end of the previous season. Or an evaluation session can be held where the current coaches evaluate all the players based on established criteria. The group approach removes most individual bias.

Athletes should be ranked 1 to 5, at least. Each player can then be given a rank from 1 through 5, as an average of the skill scores.

The Head Coaches need to meet with a facilitator, such as Convenor or Director, to draft the players. In our most recent hockey draft, for instance, each Head Coach selected one Assistant Coach and one Trainer. Each of their children were placed on that team and their ranks recorded. Therefore, if the draft round was 5 ranked forwards and the Trainer's child was a 5, that team skipped a selection.

Player names were put into hat based on their position and rank - all of the forwards from 1-5, defence 1-5 and goaltenders 1-5. For teams who needed a goalie, each coach drew a name. The first round was complete.

To start the second round, it was decided that the teams with the weaker goalies should select from the top ranked defence first. The defence were distributed so that each team had an equal allotment of ranks. The round round of the draft followed the same procedure with the forwards.

This draft process left players in the hats. As everything was entered into a spreadsheet, each team had an average score. Player ranks (without names) were put into the spreadsheet to fill each team's roster and determine how many players of which rank each team would need to draft. For instance, if a team was allotted 15 players and they had 12 players currently drafter, that team would need to draft 3 players. Rank numbers were dropped into the average score calculation so that team's average could be compared to the other teams in the division.

At this point, coaches were able to make trades and roster adjustments to ensure that, on paper at least, each team was equal. These trades also allowed for coaches to make moves that would benefit their team - for instance, if they had drafted a player who they knew would not fit with others on the roster.

While this process sounds complicated, it actually took less time to roster a six team division than any previous year. Coaches all left the room happy with their rosters; each felt they had a voice in deciding their team.

At the end of the season, the difference between first place and last place was 8 points after 78 games played. There were 20 tied games and 50 games were decided by 2 goals or less. Parents and players were unanimously happy with their season. The coaches all considered this to be the best year ever due to the number of competitive games.

In contrast, a division of similar size where the teams were selected by either random distribution or by the Director, featured a 20 point difference between first place and last place. The last place team only won one game all season while the first place team did not lose at all. From 78 games played, there were only 6 tied games and 26 games decided by less than 2 goals!! Almost 60% of the games were decided by more than two goals!

Proper skill distribution is the key to any successful house league program, regardless of the sport. If all teams are competitive and games are close, players are more likely to attend games and practices. We still have to teach our children to win and lose with grace, but they all deserve the opportunity to enjoy the elation of the win and the heartbreak of defeat.

After all, It's Only House League Sports!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

There's a lot of Learning Going On!

Previously, I discussed the parental component and how important that is to influencing our childrens' attitudes towards sport, I'll look at the next most influential person in any young athlete's development: the coach! Like parents, there are good coaches and bad coaches. Unlike parenting, many sports require their coaches to undergo some form of training.

So let's look at what a coach is . . .

According to Merriam-Webster, a coach is:
one who instructs or trains <an acting coach>; especially: one who instructs players in the fundamentals of a competitive sport and directs team strategy <a football coach>
In House League sports, I would suggest we also add mentor, mediator, time manager, first aid responder, sports psychologist and motivator.

Now, if a coach is "someone who instructs or trains", should we assume the coach possesses some knowledge of the game? If we were discussing competitive sport, then yes, the coach more than likely has an advanced knowledge of the game. But we're talking about house league sports, where coaches are always volunteers (coaches aren't "appointed" or "hired", as they would be for competitive teams).

As volunteers, knowledge of the sport is rarely a requirement. Many leagues are simply grateful for a warm body to lead the players in a team cheer and manage their playing time. But, this isn't always the case.

All hockey in Canada is governed by Hockey Canada, which has created the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP). This program has components for recreational/house league, competitive and High Performance. Each provincial association, for instance the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA), administers the training and monitors progress. It's up to the local hockey leagues to ensure they comply with Hockey Canada and their provincial group in regards to who gets behind the bench. There are other requirements that we'll save for another day.

Sadly, hockey seems to be the rare sport where certification is a requirement to be behind the bench, even in house league! A quick search of soccer, baseball, lacrosse, football and dance reveal there are no prerequisites to coaching those sports. Each of these sports are adopting the NCCP, which is a requirement for competitive coaching, but are not enforcing it for house leagues.

Another sport that requires knowledge and certification of its teachers are the Martial Arts. To be recognized as a sensei or teacher, one must achieve a third-degree black belt, or sandan. You may assist the sensei as a senpei, but are not allowed to lead your own dojo until you have achieved some level of competence. (Wikipedia article)

I firmly believe that you have know the sport you are trying to coach, in order to be a successful coach. How can you teach children a sport if you, yourself, do not understand what you are trying to teach? How do you explain the dynamics and intricacies of a game if your collective knowledge has been gleaned from SportsCentre?

The answers lie somewhere between the three organizations noted above. Hockey requires a coach to know how to coach, martial arts require a coach to know how to perform, if not master, the skills and most sports need someone to step up and lead the way.

There is a place and a roll for everyone who wants to help out. Organizations just need to help people get to the point where they can provide the most help.

After all, It's Only House League Sports!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Attendance Conundrum

In the previous blog, I threw some parents under the bus. Thankfully, it's just a speed bump on this particular path. Rough road, this House League sports topic. So let's jump into the next great negative before I change gears.

The "A" word. Not the "A" word we call our coaches for not playing our kids enough, nor the "A" word we may call the person who forgot to pick up our child on the way to the field.


Why so big? I've found players' attendance at games, practices and other team events to be one of the biggest differences between House League and Competitive teams, aside from the obvious skill and money.

Hydration is always important! And thirsty players tells the coaches they are working hard!!

With Competitive athletics, players are expected to attend every team function: game, practice, fundraiser, supporters' event, etc. Penalties range from missing playing time to financial penalties to physical punishment (gotta love push-ups!). And for the most part, competitive athletes learn to be punctual and respectful of the coaches and trainers.

With House League athletics, attendance is neither compulsory nor expected! As a coach, I have learned to hope that players will arrive on time for games. The level of hope decreases for practice attendance. You would think that by paying substantial fees for their child to participate in organized sport, parents would be more inclined to encourage and/or force their child to at least show up. Let the coach handle the child's performance once you have reached the game.

It doesn't seem to matter what the sport is or where it is being played, there are a few common indicators that can help coaches determine the participation of their players.

First, let's assume that practices are fun, engaging and the players are learning something. The coach's performance is another discussion.

When a team is doing well, win or lose, as long as they are competing and games are close, players and parents are very willing to attend team functions. They are usually early. I say usually, because we all have the one or two players who arrive five minutes before the start of the game, fully dressed and ready to play (that's another topic).

Let's say the same team starts to lose matches. While competitive teams practice harder on their deficiencies, house league players stop coming to practice! If losing becomes a habit, some players stop coming to games. This snowballs to the point where the team gets into such a huge hole that the path to climb out is blocked from the negative hubris that has been following the players.

It is possible for a coaching staff to pull a team from the abyss. It can be a daunting task and not all coaches are up for it. But they should always try.

Another common issue with House League sports are the children who are spread too thin. You know the one: she plays league volleyball, has piano and dance, tutoring and then because a friend asked her, is now playing ringette. Somewhere, something has to give. It may be any one of the sports or the music lessons. It's great that you want to expose your children to as many different things as you can to expand their horizons, but these parents don't realize the potential damage to the league team that is counting on that player to be there.

Coaches have to change their plans for the line-up. Or change the entire game strategy, depending on the player. Players expect their teammates to attend every game and practice or they question their own commitment. Parents look at the depleted bench and wonder what they got their child into. Lack of attendance hurts everyone.

I know of a team where the top goaltender missed every second game. This goalie was so good that the coach was able to play some of her better players at their natural forward position when the goalie was there. They rarely lost a game and were always competitive. The other goalie wasn't as strong and the coach had to change her line-up to prop up the goaltending issue - most of the better players had to play defence just to keep games close.

Obviously, the team didn't perform as well every second week and the players and parents were quickly able to determine the reason. The second goalie was never blamed but felt poorly. The players who were asked to play defence resented every second week. Eventually, more players started to skip every second game. Needless to say, it was the last year this child every played goal.

An extreme example? Yes, but it details how lack of attendance can negatively impact more than just your child. Really, no child should be that involved in interests to sacrifice one for another.

The question parents now have to ask is: How can I get my child to participate no matter the team's standing? Barring conflicts with other players or coaching staff, children just need to be told they are going. Debate is for adults, not six year olds. Parents can ask their children to put in their best effort. Parents can suggest re-evaluating the sport at the end of the season. But because so many people are counting on that player to be there for games, please make the effort to get there and be ready.

After all, It's Only House League Sports!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

It all Starts at Home

I believe that most parents first enrol their children in sports which they, the parent, are most familiar. Rarely do parents enrol a child in sports thinking the child will become the next Sidney Crosby, LeBron James, Tom Brady, David Beckham, et al (The Williams sisters from tennis being an obvious exception). This may come from a cherished childhood memory or perhaps the parent still participates. Some parents place their children in sports they never had an opportunity in which to participate: martial arts, volleyball, competitive cycling and skiing are a few sports that are more available over the past twenty years. And the best parents, those that truly have the best interests of their child in mind, will expose their children to both the known and the unknown, without pressure to compete, only a gentle nudge to try.

Almost all of the horror stories you hear or read in the media centre around crazy parents. This simply illustrates the double-edged sword that is parenting: we want the best for our children but sometimes go too far in that pursuit. Sadly, there is no test or exam to determine who will and who won't be a good parent, nor is their a magic handbook we fall back on in trying times. We learn most of our parenting skills from our own parents, remember a couple of points from extended family and pick up a few tricks from friends' parents. Mass media will also contribute to many parents' strategies in raising their children. The greatest hope here is that you, as a parent, have learned from the mistakes made by these influences and have developed strategies to overcome said mistakes - you need to put your own flavour on parenting.

The way you parent sets the stage for everything in your child's development, including their participation in sport. Parents who encourage their children to help out in the home and share responsibility tend to have children who work with their teammates for the good of the team; parents who do everything for their children and don't allow these children some accountability for their actions tend to have children who are more focused on individual accomplishments over the good of the team. Bold statement? Perhaps, but consider the following "typical house league" players:
  1. Player one is very skilled. She leads her team in points and also has the highest plus/minus (difference between goals scored for and against while playing) on the team. The coach always praises her for effort to back check and assist the defence.
  2. Player two is also very skilled. He leads his team in goals. He has a few assists and a negative plus/minus. This player is usually found "cherry-picking" and rarely, if ever, in the defensive zone.
The common difference between the two players, in my experience, is the parents. As a coach, I always talk to the players and their parents to learn about what type of person each player may be.

I've been blessed with fair number of Player Ones. They don't always excel at everything, but they always put their best effort into everything they do and are usually rewarded for their efforts. These are the type of players that coaches fight over as well want that unselfish, hard-working, team player. We'll take this player even if they don't yet have the skills, because the key word is yet. This player, due to their make-up, will work hard to learn and will absorb most of what the coaches teach.

Player Twos are every coach's curse. While their offensive abilities are a gift, they are driven only by the pursuit of the goal/basket/home run/touchdown/etc. If you break down their assists, almost every assist is counted from a rebound of a missed/saved shot or an errant shot that does in off a teammate. Defence is not part of this player's vocabulary, unless stripping the puck or ball from a defender who ventures too close is considered defence. Every year I have a few Player Twos on my team, which usually results in me having less hair - from either yanking on my head in frustration or plucking the grey hair!

Another key difference between the two players - the elephant in the room - is the compensation/reward provided to each player by their parents. Youth athletes are commonly rewarded with ice cream, soda, cookies and yes, even money. Player Ones are usually rewarded for their effort and applying themselves to the team; Player Twos are usually rewarded for scoring goals/baskets/runs/touchdowns/etc. I usually see other Player Ones when I've taken my own children for ice cream. The Player Twos - I have watched parents hand over cold, hard cash as child leaves the arena/diamond/field.

The last thing I am trying to say is that Player Ones are good kids and Player Twos are bad kids. This isn't about who the child as a person is - it's about how the actions of the parents affect each child. I have seen Player Ones turn into Player Twos because they don't perceive their teammates to be exerting enough effort and I have seen Player Two turn into Player Ones because they learn that the pursuit of individual accomplishments isn't always self-satisfying.

However, the key to any child enjoying the sport in which they participate always starts with the attitudes at home. If we, as parents, simply recognize our childrens' efforts when they apply themselves and encourage fair play and teamwork, our children will become better for it. They will be more willing to listen and learn from their coaches, they will be more respectful of the officials' rulings and, above all, will be happier at the end of the game, win or lose.

After all, It's Only House League Sports!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

House League Sports Defined

Before we get into any details, let's look at how to define "House League" sports:

House league should be a fun place where kids learn a sport; where both winning and losing are acceptable; where sportsmanship and fair play are paramount; where teamwork is encouraged; where skill development is age and ability appropriate; and above all, it should be FUN for Kids! Kids should want to come back and participate.
Let's also look at what is not consider to be "House League" sports:
House league should never be a place where competition and winning are promoted over all else; where playing time is associated with effort during games and practice; where goals/points for and against decide anything - if it's results-oriented, it's considered "Representative" or "Competitive" or "All Star" or "Travel" team.
Over the next few articles, I'll weigh in with my interpretation and supporting rationale for each of the above points.

Grab a coffee. Let's talk kid's sports!

Welcome to my newest blog!

First, some background. I've been involved in House League sports for over 35 years. As a player, coach, referee and other volunteer, I've seen a lot, but certainly not all. Each trip to the arena, pitch, field, diamond or whatever venue rarely surprises and never disappoints. Sadly, I'm not referring to the action on the playing surface, which can go either way. I'm talking about the action on the sidelines, in the stands and off the field. And that's why I started this blog. Hopefully, I can reach the right people.

It's Only House League (Hockey, Soccer, Baseball, Football, Track, Dance, etc etc)!!!

Now that that's out there, allow me to explain. First, read this article from CBC. If you want more, Google Crazy Sports Parents and have a read. I`m not going to rehash the stupid antics of emotionally-charged soccer moms or the rants of baseball dads - this Blog will address different topics and how leagues and coaches can address and fix these problems. I`ve also got some great ideas for league administrators to make their leagues better.

After all, House League sports is all about the most important people in our lives: Our Children!