How Not to Build Fair Teams in Youth Sports

Our 2022 Little League Baseball season is off to a rocky start. This is my first year managing in the Majors Division (for 11 and 12-year olds) and we’ve lost all 7 games. Along the way, we’ve been outscored 110 – 9. You read that right. Our run differential is -101 runs. We’ve been run-ruled in every game, but one. We’ve been shut out in five of the seven games we’ve played. OK, you get it…anyway you look at it, we’ve been getting crushed all season. We are the team at the bottom of the standings below.

Those of you who know my philosophy know that our team’s won-loss record is not the ultimate measure of success for our season. However, it is the most obvious measure to our players and their families. Moreover, while winning isn’t the ultimate measure after a game (I like to go over team goals after each game), we do try to win each game we’re playing. Not winning any games at all, and losing the way we have been can’t help but be demoralizing to our players.

Is it fair for my team to play teams that are essentially, in a recreational league, stacked?  Five of the seven games we’ve played have been against teams that are made up mostly – and in the case of one team, completely – of travel and select players. Our last game, my players only got one at-bat each while the other team batted around several times. That doesn’t seem fair. How did we get here? The answer is the way the teams were built by the league.

Team Composition – Play With Requests

The league we are in honors what are called ‘play with’ requests. These can be players (and often their parents) asking to play with other players or on a specific coach’s team. Coaching the way I do has always led to players and their parents asking to play on my teams again the following season. Such was the case with our team this year. We had three players on our roster based on these requests. Sounds good, right? Well, what if an entire intact team submits play with requests to play with each other and for a certain coach? What if that intact team is completely, or even mostly, composed of travel/select players?

That is the situation I found myself in when it came to selecting players for my team this year. Coaches were asked to evaluate players who tried out. These tryouts weren’t about whether a player would make a team or not – this is a recreational league, everyone who signs up gets on a team. These tryouts were to demonstrate each player’s skills and abilities to determine whether they could play up in an older age division. I participated in the tryouts and made several notes concerning players would I would be interested in drafting.

Team Composition – Player Draft

I was notified prior to the draft that I had been assigned the three players who had requested to play with me. Good news. Further, I had been assigned four additional players based on what league officials said was an effort to balance the teams. One of those players I found out was a travel/select player. His skill level and ability is extremely high – I had given him the highest scores during the tryout. That left four players I would be drafting. As I prepared for the draft, I noticed that three of the teams in our six-team league already had their rosters set. They wouldn’t be drafting because their rosters were full. I didn’t realize it at the time, but their rosters were already set because of travel/select player play with requests.

My draft strategy was to grab the players I had scored the highest at the tryout. I figured that was fair as the draft order was set such that all the teams would fill their rosters in a random order. Further, as I assumed the other coaches would be drafting in a similar way, the resulting rosters would have a mix of skill levels – at least for the three teams that were actually drafting. At the draft, I took what I later found out was another travel/select player. He was young for our age division, but had shown significant ability at the tryout. I then drafted two players following my strategy. The last player I drafted; I actually took because of familiarity. We had had him on our team in the Fall league and I decided to go with a player (and family) I knew over new ones.

The Results

The results are what you might have guessed based on the way the league constructed the rosters. Notice in the standings graphic above that there is a clear distinction between the top three teams and the bottom three teams. As the schedule played out, the three teams that are composed primarily of travel/select players have routinely crushed the three teams not built that way. So what? Well, we have heard from other teams in the bottom three that they had players quit because of the lopsided contests. The lack of competition not only isn’t fun for the team getting beat, but is bad for their development. In games where we are getting run-ruled, the games are shorter. Live game reps are the best way for players to demonstrate their increased ability. Only playing three innings and batting once limits my players’ ability to grow.

A BETTER WAYWhat Would I Do Differently?

No travel/select players in a recreational league

I’m not sure why travel and select players are playing in a recreational league. In our area, their seasons coincide; so it’s not the case that this is their only opportunity to play in the spring/early summer. I guess they play to get increased game play – although as you can see from the standings, some of that game play is not very competitive. Little League baseball is a recreational league. Let the players not playing on travel/select leagues have the opportunity to play competitive fair baseball. However, this rule can’t be implemented in Little League. As Tom Farrey recounts in his excellent book Game On, Little League was challenged on their prohibition against dual participation in 1992 and “quietly backed down two years later on the advice of lawyers”.

Enforce Fair Team Composition Policies

If you can’t have a policy against having travel/select players in a recreational league, then the following additional policies should be in place to ensure fair team composition:

  • Limit play with requests. Establish a general rule that no team can have more than four play with requests. This should allow for the coach’s kids to play on the team (remember, I always had two) plus a couple of others who are playing with their friends or for a coach they really like playing with.
  • Draft to fill remaining roster slots. Using a snake draft format (i.e., 1,2,3,4,5,6,6,5,4,3,2,1,1,2,3,…), coaches would fill their remaining roster spots by picking from the players not already placed based on play with requests.
  • Balance the number of travel/select players on each roster. To keep from having teams that are ‘stacked’ with travel/select players, ensure that no team can draft a travel/select player until every other team has the same amount as they do. For example: if at the time of the draft Team A has four travel/select players because of play with requests, they cannot draft another travel/select player until every other team in the league has four travel/select players. This would contribute to more evenly distributing the most skilled players.

Our league’s most recent parent welcome letter includes the following:

Our goal is to provide a positive environment to develop sportsmanship, character, and athletci skill among our baseball and softball youth. We put an emphasis on fundamentals, particiation, development, teamwork, safety, family involvement and fun.

I would argue that their team composition policies run counter to what they hope to emphasize. Specifically, the way teams are built actually reduces players’ participation, development, and most importantly fun. Following my team composition recommendations would go a long way towards achieving their stated goals – and the goals of all youth recreational sports leagues, in general.

Published by Chad Millette

I am a father, a husband, a retired Air Force officer, and a dedicated youth recreational sports advocate.

2 thoughts on “How Not to Build Fair Teams in Youth Sports

  1. Great article, Coach. I have gone through a similar situation with a youth football team I coached getting placed in a level that maybe 25% of our guys were sized for, and my son’s select basketball team. The drubbings we had and are going through are a result of some teams being in levels they can dominate at.
    It comes back to my question with other parents as we see our kids get discouraged; What’s the goal, playing very advanced kids in levels they aren’t being challenged in these pre-high school leagues?
    At some point a lot of people all took youth sports from a development opportunity to a business opportunity and monetized their own desires/egos for some kids to leapfrog others in sports. Their egos are attached to their athletes, and as you saw, the players success is 95% due to their ability, not the coaches. Thank you for writing and sharing this!


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