In major league baseball when a club drafts a kid out of high school or college that is not the refined product or doesn’t have a “can’t miss” label hanging around his neck he is usually assigned to that club’s team in the instructional league. Not only does the instructional league teach these youngsters or “projects” as they are sometimes called, how to hone their skills but how to adapt to life as a professional athlete as well. I’m going to say, and it is just a guess, that a large majority of the players on the major league rosters right now started their career in the instructional league.
I think that youth league sports of any kind should begin with a true instructional league. By that I mean that these little guys should be taught the most basic fundamentals and never worry about winning, getting a hit, or making a catch in an over-emphasized game played by little boys and girls. In the other sports as well, just the basics should be taught to those kids.
When I moved my family to Comanche in 1990 my two oldest daughters ages 12 and 10 at the time had played little dribblers basketball in Aspermont from where we had moved. They would practice and then would play those over-emphasized games where parents could work themselves into a hair-standing frenzy in the first minute of the game. Unfortunately if you had ever seen me at one of those games, you would have known exactly what I was talking about.
The second year that we were in Comanche, my middle daughter had turned 11 and in the fall was looking forward to her second year of little dribblers basketball in her new home town. Comanche girl’s basketball had a rich tradition and that tradition has only grown since 1990. So little girls in this town are expected to grow up wanting to be Maidens with a goal of making it to the state tournament.
As usual she and I were wondering whose team she would be on and if they would have any chance of success. That question was put to rest when a good friend of mine named Charles Williams, who had a daughter in my daughter’s class, came by my house one evening with a plan for the girls in the sixth grade. I knew that Charles had played high school basketball for the Indians and loved the sport as well as being very knowledgeable. In fact he was still very involved in playing pickup games one night a week at the gym with anybody else in town who wanted to torture their post high school bodies.
Charles presented me with an idea that involved all the girls in that class who wanted to play little dribblers. That idea included all girls showing up at the practice gym at the same time. We would not select teams as was the usual practice. He would ask parents who had some knowledge of basketball to get involved by being willing to coach a certain part of the game. That include one parent or couple teaching dribbling, one teaching lay-ups, one teaching rebounding, and on and on with all the fundamentals being covered. I completely bought into his idea as did the other parents.
At the end of the practice the girls would all be taught a couple of plays and put into the positions that best fit their skill set. After the practice Charles would divide the girls up into teams. Every week the girls were on a different team from that group. As is always the case there are a couple of girls who are pretty dominant at that age. Charles made sure that they were not always on a dominant team that would automatically insure victory week after week. During the course of the year even the dominant players would have to experience struggle and how to deal with losing or working extra hard to preserve a victory. And the girls whose skills had not developed as quickly as others and was accustomed to losing or having limited playing time would be placed on a dominant player’s team and be able to enjoy success as never before.
Charles would schedule a tournament for the girls every Saturday and all three teams would be entered. The girls were so used to one another that when each of the other teams played the kids could actually sit and cheer for their fellow classmates/teammates because they had built a genuine appreciation of one another. They also knew that they might be on their team the next week and would depend on the same support.
Rarely did Comanche win a tournament; however, most of the time one of the teams in that little “instructional league” would be in the finals. And many times, and especially in the case of Charles, parents might end up coaching a team that their child was not playing on because one of the coaching parents could not be there. So every parent just naturally became attached to all the kids.
Winning and losing was never discussed even though it had its place in that league. One kid was not hailed as a standout and most of the time during the next week’s practice every little girl was praised for something that they had done well. Negativity was never an issue.
As that class of girls grew up not all of them continued to play basketball and they were also combined with other classes as they went into high school. But the basic fundamentals and the core principles of teamwork remained. When that class of girls were juniors they made it to the state tournament, losing in the first round. The next year they became state champions.
Please don’t misunderstand and think that what I consider “instructional league” will guarantee a state title. But it will guarantee that kids learn how to play the game properly and learn to appreciate the game and what it stands for more easily. The talent level of that group of girls along with the consolidation with other talented classes is what produced a state champion. But I will say this: that class of girls was the core to the championship and while not all of them got on the court in every game, they did in workout every day. I’m not sure that the starters on that team faced many teams that were tougher than the second team, thus making them ready for the really tough games.
I firmly believe that this concept will work in any sport in any youth league. It will take a visionary such as Charles Williams to get it organized and make it work but the rewards will be plenty. I can readily attest to the fact that it was pretty nice on some occasions coaching one of those little dribbler teams that did not have my own child on it. I, as a parent, learned to love those other little girls and appreciated what they brought to the table every game.
If the pros, with all their talent at hand, believe that instructional leagues are necessary at that level then surely it would make sense to do it for the beginners. But most of all it would take the petty jealousies, the ever-surfacing egos, and the will to win at any cost out of a game designed for the joy of children. Teamwork and appreciation of teammates and coaches would be the rule of the day.
Here’s hoping every child in youth sports this summer will have the best summer ever! And just as much, I hope that every parent or grandparent will have the same type of summer or season. If it’s not happening, think about the “instructional league”.