Inside Pitch Magazine, July/August 2022

The Hot Corner: Remember Why High School Baseball Exists

By Tom Doyle, longtime high school coach and athletic director

Player in black jersey with purple helmet sliding into second base with arm raised while defender is turning to throw ball towards first base It’s time to forget about “level playing fields” and refocus our energy. High school parents, coaches and administrators are always concerned about creating and maintaining “level playing fields” for their athletes. High school baseball is obviously no exception, and a tremendous amount of energy goes into this seemingly worthy goal. In fact, most rules in our state high school handbooks are a direct result from this attempt to equal things out. 

But can “level playing fields” really exist? Is is really possible to balance the level of athletes between and create equal competition between public and private schools? Between private schools and Catholic schools? Between urban and suburban schools? Between large and small schools? Between small schools in agricultural communities and small schools in cities?

The answer, quite simply, is of course not. Basic differences between these schools ultimately create fundamental divergence of their athletics teams, which is a major overriding factor that makes sports great. 

Those of us who are involved in high school athletics must dig deeper and remember why we advocate for the games we love. What got you into coaching? Why do you spend so much time working on your craft and with your teams? And why do you think high school sports even exist? 

My answer to that question is straightforward. High school athletic programs exist to give our youth a safe, social outlet to exercise their bodies in addition to their minds. High school sports serve as the classroom where our athletes learn more about themselves, about competition, and that life isn’t fair. High school sports should teach us that hard work pays off, that the team is more important than the individual, and that it is possible to both win and lose with class, dignity and respect. These are life lessons that are very much needed to be a well-adjusted and successful adult.

It is my observation that the focus on “level playing fields” has resulted in mediocrity throughout the high school sports landscape. Initiatives to narrow the talent gap between the haves and have-nots have resulted in school class sizes, roster regulations and limitations, rezoning and redistricting entire neighborhoods of families, and much more.

These initiatives prevent the aforementioned life lessons from being taught or even understood.

It may not be a popular sentiment, but it is an inevitable fact that life isn’t fair. No matter how hard you work, or want something, or think you deserve something, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. High school sports should offer a safe place to learn this. After our students graduate, whether they attend college, join the military, become a full-time homemaker, or enter the workforce, they will need the lessons high school sports should have taught them—you won’t always get the job or move up the ladder as fast as some of your peers. You will encounter someone that is simply better than you in certain instances. You must be able to get up, dust yourself off and get back on the proverbial horse. 

So again, is it wise to exert such tremendous energy into our attempts at equalizing competition? It is not. It’s time to forget about “level playing fields” and refocus our energy elsewhere. 

If high school sports are to thrive, coaches need to refocus their energy on building and maintaining a positive team culture, on keeping kids involved and coming back to their respective sports, and on developing the valuable life lessons we all know sports can provide.

Coaches must learn more about leadership best practices, about how to handle different personalities and temperaments. This is important because personality differences lead to various behaviors in athletes, parents, and coaches. By understanding and working with these differences—instead of against them—conflict will decrease and performance will increase.

Coaches must lead with a positive mindset, build up their players’ unique strengths, minimize their weaknesses, and utilize goal setting and training strategies that welcome different personality types. Making the commitment to coach in this manner has to be a conscious effort. It doesn’t just happen. It will take training, time and energy. But take it from me and my near-half-century of experience—it’s worth it! 

We have all heard of the phrase, “they’ll care how much you know when they know how much you care.” Coaches who can develop the ability to “connect” with their athletes and demonstrate that they understand and appreciate their personality styles and their differences will find that their teams will run through a wall for them. They will develop the habits that include accountability, work ethic and perseverance. They will strive to develop their skills and talents beyond expectations. 

The most successful coaches I’ve had the pleasure of competing with and against not only knew how to teach all aspects of pitching, hitting, throwing, fielding and running, but they also know how to push all the right buttons by motivating and empowering their athletes, simply by genuinely caring about their players. 

By refocusing our energy on these concepts, we will actually be able to help our players as people first and athletes second. As a result of being validated at the individual level, young athletes develop the confidence to pour into their given sport in terms of commitment. In turn, their love for the game will grow as they continue to pick up meaningful lessons along the way. 

When we revisit why athletic programs exist in our schools, we find that the real reasons have nothing to do with whether the playing field is level or not. In fact, we find that “level playing fields” could even hinder the true goals of our athletic programs. I spent 23 years as a high school athletic director, and I am confident in my stance that any amount of energy that is exerted in an effort to make your final scores and win-loss records more even is a waste of time. 

Let’s get refocused on why we advocate for high school sports, baseball in particular, and forget about the idea of “level playing fields.” Our student athletes, their parents, and our coaches will be better for it. Accept that high school sports will seem unfair at times. That’s life, right? 

“Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is. With a new game everyday. And that’s the way Baseball is.” ~ Bob Feller

Tom Doyle worked in high school athletics as coach and athletic director for 47 years. He lettered in both baseball and football at Colgate University, and coached both sports at the high school level. He served as an athletic director for 23 years and is in the Washington State Athletic Directors Hall of Fame. Doyle is a certified True Colors Facilitator and has authored two books: True Coaching, designed for coaches using True Colors to understand the personality and learning style of their athletes; and, The Sport Parent Manual, which is written for parents to help them understand how to participate in and enjoy their daughter’s or son’s athletic experience and let “the players play, the coaches coach, and the umpires ump!”

Inside Pitch Magazine is published six times per year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt association founded in 1945. Copyright American Baseball Coaches Association. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior written permission. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is impossible to make such a guarantee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers.