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!

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