The mercy rule is a time-honored tradition in youth sports. As the name suggests, it was created to give losing teams the mercy of not getting the score run up on them. A nice sentiment. But while the rule may be magnanimous in theory, many argue that, in practice, it actually does the opposite of its intended effect and makes kids feel, well, worse. Is the mercy rule working or could it actually be hurting feelings and preventing kids from learning valuable lessons?
Different variations of the mercy rule exist in a variety of youth sports. For instance, youth basketball, football, and soccer have the continuous clock. But the true mercy rule is most commonly used in Little League baseball and softball. Little has made it official, stating in its rulebook that if a team is ahead by 10 runs after four innings, the losing manager is obligated to concede victory. The thinking behind this is that if a team is down by that many runs or more, it’s safe to assume that team will not be mounting a comeback. So, why not just end the game?
On the surface, the rule makes sense. But according to Robert S. Herbst, it ends up hurting players on both teams.
“I’ve never seen the mercy rule actually do any good,” explains Herbst. “I know it’s meant to not make kids feel bad but kids know from an early age whether or not they’re good at something. The mercy rule, frankly, emphasizes disparity instead of sparing kids’ feelings.” Herbst is not just your typical enthusiastic sports parent, he is a 19-time world champion powerlifter who has somehow found time between lifting inconceivable amounts of weight to be a youth sports coach for more than 30 years, including hockey, basketball, baseball, softball, and lacrosse.
Herbst is not just your typical enthusiastic sports parent, he is a 19-time world champion powerlifter who has somehow found time between lifting inconceivable amounts of weight to be a youth sports coach for more than 30 years, including hockey, basketball, baseball, softball, and lacrosse.
Herbst has many reasons he believes the mercy rule is bad for youth sports: it prevents comebacks, it doesn’t let bench players get time in games, it undermines the spirit of competition. But his main point is that the rule prevents kids from understanding the importance of dealing with losing.
“We need to let kids play out the games fully, otherwise they can’t learn that failure is a part of life,” he said. “There is now almost a stigma with losing. Losing shouldn’t be shameful. It’s a part of life and it’s okay. Learn from your mistakes and get better.” For Herbst, there is no benefit in teaching kids to be afraid of failing and whether or not it was intended, and the mercy rule does just that.
A story: Herbst was once the coach of youth soccer team in a league where you were not allowed to lead by more than four goals. In fact, if you took a five-goal lead, you automatically forfeited the game. When his team quickly went ahead by four, they were forced to spend the rest of the game purposefully avoiding goals or risk losing a game. Because of this, he says, his players were “running around like chickens with their heads cut off. And it made the game less fun and rewarding. In fact, the next few games the players were off because of it.”
Mike Fox, who has coached 10 to 11-year-olds in lacrosse and baseball for two decades in Narberth, Pennsylvania, shares Herbst’s feelings. “The mercy rule does not exist to help the kids,” he says. “It does, on occasion, change the way the game is played.” Fox says the mercy rule keeps kids off the field and makes them less likely to participate, especially those who aren’t normally starters. “Removing the mercy rule enables the rest of the team to participate, get playing time, and have experience when they need to be called upon in the future,” he states bluntly.
“For most kids, youth sports is mainly an opportunity to gain experience,” adds Nicholas Chauvenet, a former soccer and baseball coach and current golf coach at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. “They want to play as much as possible. I don’t believe in just declaring the game is over. The team losing typically will be as frustrated as the winning team because getting to play is fun, even if you are losing.”
Chauvenet, however, is less extreme than Herbst or Fox, admitting that there should be “rules in place to make sure teams cannot humiliate their opponent.” He does not, however, think the mercy rule is the most effective way to keep kids from getting embarrassed.
“What we really need is better coaching,” Chauvenet explains. “That is where most of these problems come from. Most youth coaches are just volunteers who don’t have the experience or understanding of coaching so they put the kids in these situations where teams can run up the score.”
Still, Chauvenet acknowledges that the general lack of funds in youth sports makes it highly unlikely that coaching will improve anytime soon so he has a more radical solution for preventing running up the score: don’t keep track of the score until junior high.
“Let them have fun and learn the game,” Chauvenet says. “The competition will be there naturally but we don’t need kids thinking about the score until they’re older.”
It’s a radical idea, but Fox has seen it in action and believes taking away the score is better for young kids.
“In the baseball and lacrosse leagues I coached in, all kids up to the 10 to 11-year-old ages participate in house leagues where scores are not publicly kept,” Fox explains. “At that age their benefits from playing sports — aside from the physical activity — is the socialization. The game is almost secondary.”
All the coaches believe that youth sports should, first and foremost, focus on learning fundamentals and having fun — two things that are not often the case when the score becomes the most important thing for the players. Doing away with keeping score could help solve that.
But such a rule change isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Until then, the mercy rule will remain. Remember, it was made with good intentions: a safety net to ensure sportsmanship. But, perhaps the best type of sportsmanship is to shake hands and say good game, no matter the score.