Why the mercy rule should be eliminated in youth sports

Why the mercy rule should be eliminated in youth sports


By Jake Karton

Last year I coached the Tigers, a 5th-grade house basketball team in Arlington, Va. By halftime of one of our games, the Cheetahs had outscored us 22-4. For the entire second half, the scoreboard was turned off and the clock continued to run during free throws, through time outs, and when the ball went out of bounds; points in the game when the clock is normally stopped. At first I thought this was simply a result of technical difficulties, but was quickly reminded about a specific variation of the mercy rule in which concessions are made to hide the fact that a team is losing. I headed back to the bench to tell my players, who immediately started wondering if they had done something wrong, or should feel bad about how they played. At that point I first started to understand the many negative impacts of the mercy rule, not just in basketball, but in all of youth sports.

The mercy rule is generally a regulation that ends a game when a team is beating their opponent by what league officials consider to be an insurmountable amount. The regulation was created to benefit younger athletes by sparing them the embarrassment of a lopsided loss. Instead, the rule promotes the idea that losing is shameful, degrading, and has no significant value, and often restricts player development because coaches focus solely on the score, rather than the most important aspects of youth sports: competition, dedication, improvement and sportsmanship. However, there are benefits to the mercy rule, as it can prevent injuries, specifically in contact sports between teams of different athletic abilities. Although, through proper sportsmanship, perspective and education, many of these harmful injuries can be avoided, and the mercy rule, consequently, deserves to be mercifully eliminated.

When a game ends or is altered because of the mercy rule, young athletes are sheltered and protected from the realities of competition and taught that losing can and should be avoided. However, there are many benefits to losing. Mike Robinson, a professional basketball player in the U.S, and overseas, and an all-American at Purdue University, explains that “losing is a good thing. If you don’t lose you don’t know what you need to improve on. There is no shame in losing, especially when playing a better team, but there is shame in giving up and not giving everything that you have.”

Sports provide a fun, exciting atmosphere for young athletes, but can also prepare them to overcome adversity in life.

“Losing is part of understanding you’re not going to win everything in life,” says Nick Chauvenet, a high school soccer coach in Virginia.

“By pulling kids away and saying ‘no more,’ you’re not letting them get better. You’re hindering them, because it’s not like life anymore,” agrees Robinson, who adds that there is honor in losing with proper sportsmanship, and finishing out a game no matter how large the deficit. The mercy rule fails to prepare athletes for challenges they are going to face in the real world, and undermines the concepts that prompt one to work hard and accept losing as a learning experience.

“The best athletes learn how to win by learning how to lose,” concludes Douglas E. Abrams, a nationally recognized youth sports expert, author, lecturer, and hockey coach of 40 years. Therefore, when athletes are restricted from learning how to lose because of the mercy rule, they are also restricted from developing. Additionally, Abrams believes the mercy rule can be worse than losing for young athletes.“I think that ending games prematurely can be as embarrassing as the scores themselves,” he says.

Drew, who plays on the Tigers, agrees. When asked to compare getting “blown-out” to having a game shortened by the mercy rule, he was quick to respond. “The mercy rule is worse, because you are not even allowed to keep playing,” he said.

It is time that we recognize the harm caused by the mercy rule, and advocate for change by teaching athletes to learn from defeat rather than hide from it, to understand that losing is neither shameful nor embarrassing, to embrace competition of all levels, and to value the positive life lessons gained through all of youth sports.

The institution of the mercy rule has also prompted many youth coaches to try to end games as quickly as possible by only playing their best players; therefore undermining the importance of proper sportsmanship, learning, and competition. “Youth sports programs are no longer about meeting the educational, developmental, and recreational needs of children but rather about satisfying ego needs of adults,” notes John Gerdy, author of Organized Sports Do Not Benefit Children. Coaches should be morally obligated, as leading members of the athletic community, to stress proper sportsmanship and provide opportunities for players on both teams to improve when they have a large lead.

For example, some soccer coaches impose “challenges of leg strength, like the attempted field goal [attempting to hit the crossbar of the goal], and of discipline, like mandatory minimum numbers of passes,” to allow their team to improve while making sure to be good sports. During blowouts, Chauvenet replaces his starters, which gives back-up players an opportunity to gain experience, and allows the losing team to face a lower level of competition. And Robinson, who is an assistant high school basketball coach, has appropriate strategies.

“Sometimes you have to treat it like practice,” he says. “We have to better ourselves, but not embarrass the other team. We work on what we do, and improve.”

In addition, athletes, especially at a younger age, are often only looking to have fun and improve for the future, and value simply playing more than anything else.

“What I like about basketball is you get a feeling of accomplishment when you’re on the court...we may be losing now, but one day we’ll start winning,” high school basketball player LeAnne Armand told the New York Times.

“I would always rather play out the game than stop it, even when we are getting crushed,” says Keegan, another 5th-grader on the Tigers.

Coaches, parents, and leaders in the youth sports arena owe it to the players to emphasize the importance of participation and sportsmanship, allow them to play the games they love, and consequently eliminate the mercy rule.

The mercy rule, despite its negative effects on the principle aspects of youth sports, does successfully prevent many injuries in contact and collision sports. Specifically in football and ice hockey, games are not dictated solely by the skills possessed by either side, but also by the size, strength and physical makeup of the players. Therefore, it becomes a safety hazard when a team, in a physical environment, is pinned against a competitor on a completely different physical level.

“I favor mercy rules when league officials find them advisable to help promote player safety in contact and collision sports,” says Abrams, who sees both positives and negatives in the regulation. Moreover, when teams are losing by a large amount, they sometimes focus less on the score and more on “cheap-shotting” opposing players; hitting them in an attempt to cause injury.

I played AA ice hockey in Northern Virginia for four years, and experienced this many times from our opponents (of course our team would never do anything like that). Players often become upset with the fact that they were getting crushed, and therefore solely look for these opportunities to hurt the other team. This is where sportsmanship and leadership from the parents, coaches and league officials plays a vital role in the mercy rule discussion, for players need to learn how and why to play with respect. While ending games early will prevent cheap shots and injuries, a focus on sportsmanship and education can have the same positive impact, while also allowing young athletes to continue playing the sports they enjoy.

The mercy rule was instituted to protect younger athletes by sparing them the embarrassment of a loss. However, the regulation has only promoted the argument that losing has no genuine value, and athletes are prompted to ignore defeat as something that can and should be avoided. The mercy rule also restricts player development as many coaches focus solely on winning, and consequently undermines the most advantageous aspects of youth sports: competition, dedication, improvement and sportsmanship. Nevertheless, there are benefits to the mercy rule, for it can often prevent injuries between teams of different sizes and athletic abilities in contact and collision sports, although through proper sportsmanship and education these injuries can generally be avoided.

The mercy rule deserves to be eliminated, and hopefully will be, at least in time for this year's 6th-grade house basketball game against the Cheetahs. 

Jake Karton is a high school junior in Arlington, Va.

Mercy Rule Basketball Coaching Sportsmanship Adversity Failure Winning Losing

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