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Suburban Dad: Keeping Score of Youth Sports

Little in youth sports elicits more eye rolls and derisive laughter than this: when it comes to little kids, we often don’t keep score.

I coach Little League baseball and the more competitive CYO basketball. In both, we don't keep score for first and second grade games. The prevailing assumption is clear: most want to take a pipe wrench to the policy. “You’re coddling them,” parents snort.  “We keep score anyway,” the kids bray.

How is it that so many parents and kids can be so wrong?

Forgive the brusqueness, but I don’t have a shred of doubt.

To press my point, I spoke by phone with Jim Thompson. Thompson is essentially the better angel, the conscience of youth sports. He founded The Positive Coaching Alliance, a well regarded non-profit founded at Stanford University, and works to improve the tenor of youth sports nationwide.

Kids may keep score, he notes, but most of the time they are in a “dream world,” with each side leaving the field of play thinking they won. I can attest to that. I once coached a loss by about 20 runs that some of my knee-high charges tabulated as a blowout win. Sure, they kept score. But there was roughly a 30 run spread between their perception and reality.

That little kids naturally leave a field feeling like a winner, even at the expense of gross miscalculation, should be instructive, Thompson said, adding: “At that stage, all you want them to do is have fun, like the sport and come back for more.”

But the policy is not only formulated with kids in mind. Take the adults.

Without the pressure of a score, coaches tend not to run quite as competitive, Thompson said, and stand more willing to even out playing time and give their knee-high Carmelo Anthony’s the chance to try different positions. Moreover, other parents are less likely to complain when the score of a big loss is not staring them in the face. Without a score showcased for all to see, emotion is tamped down all around, an essential accomplishment in modern youth sports.

Besides, even if everyone is secretly keeping accurate score with a perfect mental measuring stick, making clear that raw run count is not a priority can serve to subordinate the collective competitive drive that many six, seven and eight year-olds just aren’t read for.

What about the internal logic that drives much of the disagreement with the no-score policy? Don’t we have to expose kids to stark realities, with coaches using verbal claw hammers to drive them to victory, in order to prepare them for the world of high school sports and a high functioning life?

If the alternative to treating first and second graders “like they are on a death march is to coddle,” said Thompson, “Then let’s coddle.” Focusing too quickly on results at too young an age, Thompson said, “Drives them out of sports.” He added the “well-meaning if wrongheaded notion that you have to be nasty to breed tough, resilient kids” is misguided. Resilience is either internal or learned in increments--and never from a youth coach with flared nostrils, having at you because you are a first grader on a team down 12 with a minute left.

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