Mismatches, Blow-outs, and Mercy Rules
By Doug Abrams
During the inter-semester break, yet another youth league blowout hit the headlines. The Fresno Bee reported that on December 26, Fresno’s Clovis West High School overwhelmed Rivera High-Los Angeles, 114-9, in a girls preseason basketball tournament in Huntington Beach, California. Clovis West led 42-3 after the first quarter and 74-3 at halftime. Eight Golden Eagles players each ended the game with more individual points than the entire Rivera team.
The Bee article’s web version reported that Clovis West “destroy[ed]” Rivera with “the biggest blowout in Central Section history.” After evident criticism directed at Clovis West, a follow-up Bee article by Marek Warszawski assumed a more restrained tone a few days later.
Warszawski said that the Golden Eagles showed restraint by ending their full-court press during the first quarter, by putting every player into the lineup without overplaying the starters, and by playing a looser defense in the second half. Clovis West’s coach told the Bee afterwards that “we never have nor will be ever intentionally rub someone’s nose in it,” but that the game “could have been a 200-point win – had we wanted that.” Warszawski reported that Rivera’s coach did not request invocation of the league’s “mercy rule,” which would have begun a running clock late in the game.
The Clovis West-Rivera game highlights the controversy about how youth coaches, players, and parents should prevent and manage games whose scores spiral out of control. Recent headlines from coast to coast have concerned lopsided games not only in basketball, but also in football, baseball, softball, and other sports.
In many state high school athletic associations and youth leagues, mercy rules seek to hasten the end of especially one-sided games. Once a game reaches the prescribed score differential, the general approaches are either to run the clock in sports such as football and basketball that depend on time, or to call the game prematurely in sports such as softball and baseball. Sometimes the losing team holds the option whether to invoke the rule.
Proponents tend to defend mercy rules as safety measures because blowouts often stem from mismatched size and talent that invite injury, particularly in contact and collision sports. They also argue that mismatches inflict undue public embarrassment to the team on the short end. Proponents say that running up the score demonstrates lack of sportsmanship.
Opponents of mercy rules tend to argue that teams should not be shielded from even lopsided defeats because winning and losing are each part of the youth sports learning process. A solid defeat, opponents say, might even spur the losing team’s players to strive to improve their game. Opponents also argue that invoking a mercy rule can embarrass the underdogs even more than a lopsided final score can. Coaches of strong teams tend to argue that when “mercy” is not forced on them by rule, they can teach players self-control by adjusting their lineups and game plans.
Sometimes the soundest – but often, the most ignored – first step is prevention. In interscholastic sports and youth sports leagues alike, mismatches normally do not happen by surprise. Unless one roster is suddenly depleted by illness or injury, mismatches are often predictable from imbalance that surfaces during the preseason period or early in the schedule.
Weaker teams can sometimes prevent mismatches by scheduling games carefully with teams of similar ability, but sometimes teams cannot determine their own schedule or placement. A high school, for example, might have to play in a particular division for such factors as geography, the size of the school’s enrollment, or lack of sufficient divisions to permit truly competitive placement.
If a team cannot influence the schedule, it may be able to join a division in which it will likely be competitive. But I have seen youth teams that chronically lose by lopsided scores because parents and coaches, acting for their own egos, set up the team for failure by committing to, say, the A Division rather than the B Division.
In some youth leagues, teams are encouraged or required to play preseason “declaration games,” exhibition games that enable league officials and coaches themselves to determine each team’s most appropriate placement. Despite the games’ worthy prevention efforts, I have seen coaches scheme to maneuver their team into a weaker division by underplaying their “big guns.”
Teams sometimes enter tournaments or play open “club” schedules without candidly assessing their own ability level compared to those of likely opponents. If a team fills a schedule by taking on all comers, some of the “comers” may be quite strong.
When prevention fails for one reason or another in interscholastic and youth league sports leagues, mercy rules depend on tough calls. I know responsible people who support these rules, and I know responsible people who oppose them. I do not question either group’s motives or intent. At the end of the day:
I favor mercy rules when leagues find them advisable to help promote player safety in contact and collision sports. When one football team trounces another by 75 points, for example, significant size and weight disparities likely helped explain the outcome. These disparities can also increase risk of injury to the members of the outclassed team. In 2013, an Arizona high school football player died from a traumatic brain injury suffered in the fourth quarter of a first-round playoff game that his team lost, 60-6.
I do not support mercy rules as measures to help spare the underdogs’ sensibilities. I believe that with proper support and guidance from their parents and coaches, kids can absorb one-sided defeats. I also think that unless the underdog seeks to invoke the mercy rule, ending games prematurely can be as embarrassing as a lopsided score itself. In the big picture of things, players on the losing end will be fortunate if the mismatch turns out to be their only major disappointment on the road to adulthood. Besides, it does not hurt kids to learn that some teams are simply more skilled than others, and that hard work toward improvement remains a worthwhile goal. Most successful athletes learn how to win by learning how to lose.
In the absence of safety concerns, I would prefer to trust both teams’ coaches to manage one-sided games and use them as learning opportunities. Lopsided losses test a coach’s capacity to teach the players resilience and optimism in the face of adversity. Because adulthood brings frequent adversity, the lesson is worth teaching in sports, when the stakes are relatively low. With the parents’ support, talented youth coaches can deliver the right message if they are given the chance.
Coaching through one-sided wins can be as challenging as coaching through one-sided losses (and I have been on both sides of the fence). At least in my experience, most coaches of strong teams do not betray the trust to maintain the losers’ dignity in a mismatch. Most coaches know that without losers, there can be no winners. Most coaches do not seek to humiliate an adolescent opponent, and they feel a sense of embarrassment when the score begins to get out of hand. Perceptive coaches also recognize that winning big can sometimes lead their own players to arrive at the next game overconfident, mentally unprepared, and primed for an unpleasant shock when the tables turn.
The stronger team’s coach can take reasonable measures to help control a lopsided score by fielding second- and third-stringers, who normally do not get much playing time (and who lose playing time altogether when a mercy rule short-circuits the game). The stronger team’s coach can also adjust the game plan. When my youth hockey teams found themselves on the top end of a lopsided score, for example, I usually asked our players at the bench whether they wanted to continue running up the score, or whether they wanted to slow things down without appearing to embarrass the opposition. They usually chose the latter approach, and their choice created a greater learning experience than a predetermined mercy rule would.
Our defensive players would then play forward, and our forwards would play defense, another learning experience because versatility strengthens any hockey team whose roster might be short some day from illness, injury or family commitments. I would encourage three or four passes in the offensive zone before a shot, useful because youth hockey players can always use more practice with their passing, especially in game situations. Sometimes we worked on new plays and patterns that we had not had much chance to try in games.
Fair Chances and Foregone Conclusions
In any league, one team will finish at the top and another at the bottom, but games challenge players most when both teams sense that they have a fair chance. In my 42 years coaching youth hockey, my teams occasionally won big and occasionally lost big, but the most invigorating games were ones whose outcomes were not foregone conclusions.
Sources: Clovis West Wins By 105 Points, Fresno Bee, Dec. 27, 2015; Marek Warszawski, Clovis West Girls Have No Reason To Apologize For 105-Point Win, Fresno Bee, Dec. 31, 2015.