Guest Post From: Ray Lokar
Managing mismatched games is always an issue in youth and high school sports. Often there is great disparity in the skill level of players, goals of each team, first round tournament match-ups of top vs. bottom seeds, or imbalanced leagues that cause many of these games to occur.
In youth sports, even when leagues give their best effort to balance teams, invariably there will be a team that stands out above the others. Sometimes these matchups just happen, but when given the opportunity, coaches should try to schedule games against teams that will present somewhat of a challenge. While padding the schedule with wins may seem attractive, playing teams of inferior talent will actually hinder a team's development. All you need to do is look at boys' and girls' high school basketball box scores around America and you'll see examples of these lopsided scores far too often.
There may be times when these games happen because teams try to "schedule up" and test themselves against some better competition and other times ...it's just "one of those days." We saw one of those kind of games on ESPN recently in a matchup of two teams in the National Top 20 poll when St. Anthony from New Jersey took on DeMatha from Maryland at the HoopHall Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts. St. Anthony is led by the legendary high school coach, Bob Hurley, and DeMatha is one of the most storied high school basketball programs in the nation.
Even though it was an anticipated matchup of two highly ranked teams, things went south early with DeMatha missing several shots they might normally make while St. Anthony was hot. It was 18-0 before DeMatha even scored and St Anthony finished with a 75-25, 50pt victory. Alan Stein, the strength and conditioning coach at DeMatha, said, "Despite the margin of our loss on Saturday, our two teams are much more even than they appeared. We just played as poorly as we could of and they played as well as they were capable - a lethal combo for us!" In spite of the score getting out of control early, both teams in these games needed to continue to compete as if it was still a tight game in order to get the best experience out of the competition.
This is often a more difficult situation for the winning team than it is for the team getting beat. The losing team should always take their attention off the scoreboard and concentrate on their own personal mastery of the sport. Positive Coaching Alliance suggests teams focus on the "ELM Tree of Mastery." ELM is an acronym that stands for Effort, Learning, and what I call Mistake Management. If the only thing that is important to players and coaches is that they give their best effort, try to execute what they've learned, are able to manage their mistakes and play without the fear of making another one - then they are taking the right approach regardless of the score.
The tough thing for the winning basketball coaches in this situation is figuring out a way for their team to get everything out of the game that they can, without humiliating the opponent at the same time. It's important to remember that at any point in time the shoe could be on the other foot and to be nice to people on your way up - because they're the same folks you're gonna see on your way back down.
A good rule of thumb is in the first half, feel free to do your thing, play your game - almost anything goes as far as strategy is concerned. But if the lead starts to get real big, remember your regulars may not be benefiting anyway, so play your substitutes a little more. Mix up some lineups and play a couple of subs with the starters. You may find a diamond in the rough. Try a player at a different position. You may get a pleasant surprise. If you happen to know ahead of time it might go this way, it's a great time to reward someone and give them a start or an opportunity to try that position they've been working hard to become proficient at.
When playing against teams or players who are not quite as talented, it is still important to play at YOUR very best. Anything less is almost as disrespectful to the sport - and yourself. Do not drop your level of play simply to defeat the opponent by a smaller margin. Compete against your own personal best every time out, and try to achieve that standard. To do that and respect your opponent, there may be some additional strategies that you employ.
In the second half (or at least in the 4th quarter), adjust your strategy to practice specific situations that you may face somewhere down the line against a stronger team. Use the game almost as a practice for future opponents. The key point is to explain this to the players so that they realize that they are not letting up but actually working on strategies that will make them better.
I loved winning by 15-20 pts. That point differential doesn't demoralize the opponent and lets you work on the parts of the game that you need to improve to beat the good teams. That was a safe enough lead not to blow it in the last couple of minutes, yet big enough to get all subs in the game. When it's below 10 pts - anything can happen so that's a bit harder to do. Who cares what you do against inferior teams, you'll beat them anyway! Practice what you need not just to win the game - but to beat the best teams you may face that season.
Even a Hall of Fame coach at an elite high school basketball program like Bob Hurley, recognized the need to respect his opponent. In the fourth quarter of their huge win, St. Anthony played no starters against DeMatha, and were a little more deliberate in their style of play. Even though the result was still 50 points, this respect for the game is one of the reasons why books and documentaries have been made about Coach Hurley.
Next time we'll take a look at some of those specific strategies basketball coaches can take to ensure players on their teams continue to improve even when the margin is large against a team that may not be as talented - and point out how those strategies might keep the margin of victory down and provide an opportunity for their team to improve. Until then, maybe you can comment and leave your thoughts about ways to handle the situation or a personal story on how you've seen these one-sided games handled - either good or bad.
Stay tuned for Part II of Maintain Good Sportsmanship in Youth & High School Sports Using "Mismatch Etiquette" where Coach Ray Lokar discusses strategies to use when faced with mismatched contests.
"Ray Lokar, Lead Trainer for Positive Coaching Alliance, provides today's article. "Coach Lok" will be a frequent contributor to "The Athlete's Sports Experience". You can follow Ray at: http://twitter.com/coachlok