The Day Leah Didn’t Play


 A friend of mine posted (by his own admission, a rant) on his Facebook page regarding the fact that his daughter (and only his daughter) did not play in her school’s team basketball game, spending the entire game on the bench, in what was the last game of the season. When he asked the coach why his daughter (who I will call Leah) wasn’t played he was told that the “other team was playing to win,” so he chose to bench the girl because he thought the game might be “too intense for her.”

Now, as a coach, I understand the compelling nature of competition and that the stakes are often high in final games of the year. But consider this: the game in question was for a group of 6th grade girls.  But wait, there’s more: these 6th grade girls  were the B team.

Yes, a game in which 11 and 12 year olds who are not skilled enough to make their schools’ A team involved four technical fouls being handed out, one player being ejected, and bad will between the opposing teams’ crowds such that two mothers nearly went to physical blows.  But, to me, the worst part was that there was one little girl who never got a chance to play.

Did I mention that these two teams hailed from Catholic schools? Because they did. While I am not an expert on Jesus would do, I am fairly certain He would not think this was behavior consistent with His expectations for His followers. Or that excluding a child was the right thing to do.  But that is another story…

I tell this anecdote not to embarrass those who exhibited poor behavior in this game (though they deserve to be embarrassed).   Instead I share it to underscore how adults set up systems for youth sports that should be a good for the young athletes participating but instead are the opposite. Kids who want to get out and participate in sport are prevented from playing and discouraged from continuing  the sport because their skills are not up to par.   Even when schools then create B teams (or sports leagues create non-all star groupings) so that kids who are not as big, strong or skilled still get to play the game, those leagues get co-opted by adults who want to build their egos off the backs of children.

Does anyone else see what’s wrong with this?  While her dad is a friend of mine I don’t even know Leah, and I am blind with rage.

Look, I am not even suggesting that all kids need to get equal playing time, but to get no playing time?   That seems counter to the idea of having a B team.

But this is not just limited to Leah.   There are the larger implications. Almost one third of American children are overweight, with 1 in 5 heavy enough to be classified as obese. We know that in addition to diet, exercise is the best way for children to control their weight. We also know that 70 percent of kids who are in sports will quit by the time they are 13, never to play those sports again. The number one reason they quit: the sport is no longer fun.

Anyone else see the correlation here? Our kids are fat, and we make playing sports no fun.  Well done, adults, well done.

Again, I am all for kids learning to suck it up, dealing with not being the best and having to earn playing time.   Fair is not always equal and that is a lesson that kids need to learn.

But there are lessons that the adults who administer and coach youth sports leagues and the parents who lose perspective on what the purpose of youth sports can and should be:  youth sports are not professional sports and adults need to place their egos in check in favor of developing all of the kids on their teams, not just the stars. Sports leagues, especially school based ones in grade schools, need to focus on skill building and fitness, not championships.

I am confident that this will not be the last game Leah suits up for. Not because she isn’t discouraged, but because I know her parents will insist she keep playing despite her lack of court time. But I wonder how many other little girls (and boys) like Leah are discouraged from pursuing sports because the need to win is placed ahead of the development of the athlete?

Coaches and parents, please remember: there is a difference between youth sports and professional sports and the development of all the children should be a central goal for the kids’ leagues. And to you, Leah, as your dad so eloquently said, “don’t get bitter, get better.” Keep working and pursuing the sport you love.

Ok, now my rant is over, too.  Thanks for listening!