By MARK BENTON
The numerous youth football leagues across Western New York have just completed another season. And there were teams more successful than others as apparent by their final won-loss record and possibly a championship trophy. Hurray! But at what level in youth sports does winning take precedent over the development of ALL of the players on the team?
In one youth football league, teams must put 11 players on offense and another 11 on defense throughout the game thus giving 22 players a chance to compete. Another league has a rule built into place where only a handful of players are allowed to play on both offense and defense from the opening kickoff until the final whistle. Again, most of the players are given a fair chance to get into the game.
However, there other youth football leagues across Western New York that permit the coaches to use their reserves for a specified number of plays such as a minimum five play per game rule. Once the five play limit is up, regardless of any success, it is back to the bench for the "second stringers" until next week with the possible exception of the score being lopsided. As one youth coach stated to me; "It's all about putting the best players on the field and winning."
Sad, but true.
But go back and read the mission statements for every one of these youth football leagues and you will find virtually the same mantra. "The sole purpose of youth football is teach sportsmanship and help develop the skills of each individual regardless of their talent level."
A recent proposal by several parents in one of the five play per game leagues would have the reserves from one team play against the reserves from the other team during the first quarter of every game. This would allow every player an ample amount of playing time when the game was far from decided. It would also make these players feel part of the team, win or lose. Coaches, who prioritize winning would then have to devote more attention to all of the players during every practice regardless of their skill level that would in turn match the league's mission statement.
Unfortunately, proposals such as the one above that makes sense in the reality of youth sports will most likely be met by opposition and voted down. Remember, youth leagues are controlled by a board of directors comprised of coaches and their relatives. When they perceive less time for their own children who are most likely already on the first team, a well thought out response that would help to "even the playing field" is often discarded. It is not about all of the kids, it is about their kid.
Little League Baseball adopted a rule several years ago that every player bat at least once and play two innings in the field during each game. This rule is followed all the way through the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., each summer. Regardless of the skill level, every player will be guaranteed to play in 33 percent of each game. But in the confines of the five-play rule in certain youth football leagues, it equates to about 8 percent of the game. Basically, you are asking these young athletes, many playing the sport for the first time, to attend practice for 12 hours a week so they can play less than three minutes in a game.
Again, the discrepancy in playing time falls right back into the lap of the league's Board of Directors and the coaches. While many (not all) coaches at the youth level will preach that they are there to teach the fundamentals and sportsmanship, the bottom line for most of these coaches is winning.
No coach at any level is there to lose. But at the youth level, where every coach is a volunteer and a promotion to the next level (high school) is almost non-existent since most are not certified teachers, the attitude towards winning at all cost can be just as prevalent as the pros.
The ultimate goal for every youth football league should be teaching fundamentals and sportsmanship while providing an equal opportunity for all players to participate and improving their skills.
Mark Benton is a Gowanda resident.