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The Slaughter Rule

I've had athletics on my mind a lot recently. About once a year during late fall, when post-season field hockey play gets rolling, I start digging through old boxes of photographs and recalling some pretty amazing teammates, coaches, and memories. In a way, I lived through the high school experience twice - first as a teenager myself, and then again coaching high school athletes throughout my twenties and thirties. It always feels bittersweet to re-live the glory days in my imagination...highlighting the once-in-a-lifetime successes, and allowing the more agonizing, disappointing moments (like the time I missed a stroke I never missed in a State Finals game) to gently fade away into the shadows.

This year especially, for a variety of reasons, I have found myself fixating on a situation I've endured on many occasions and from all vantage points - player, coach, and parent - both on the winning and losing side. Maybe you've been there, too. I've been thinking about those dreaded mismatched competitions where one team is clearly superior in experience, skill, and speed, while the other team is woefully underdeveloped and still lacking basic fitness and competency in the fundamentals of the game. It's painful to watch and not much fun to coach or play - for either side. I know because I've been there. In my mind, I'd be thinking miserably, "Someone make it stop. Blow the final whistle already, and end this thing."

So my question is: what is the best and most noble way to handle an athletic competition where one side is just getting pounded, and the other side has barely broken a sweat? I've heard about, witnessed, and tried myself a number of approaches for situations when the two teams are not well-matched, but it seems like there really is no perfect solution. Someone always feels cheated, humiliated, or maligned.

You can do everything possible to even up the competition.

This might include deconstructing the starting lineup so players are not in their usual positions and second-string players are brought in from the bench for some extra playing time. Center forward playing sweeper. Goalie playing midfield. Freshmen subbing for the seniors. Newbie coming in for the captain.

If the referee and opposing coach allow, the coach of the dominating team might also voluntarily remove a number of her players from the field or court, prohibit them from scoring, or require that certain tactical obligations be met before a shot can be taken. For example, I used to tell my field hockey team that they were not allowed to use reverse stick at all, free hits had to be aerials or a drop backwards and switch of the field, or they had to pass at least three, four, maybe even five times in the scoring circle before taking a shot on goal. I would fastiduously tally our unforced errors as a way to hold my players accountable in what was otherwise a less demanding experience than an informal practice warmup.

There were a few games where none of this was enough - our opponents still could not even get the ball past the 50 yard line. Every minute of those games feels like an eternity. And so now many leagues have what is called, "The Slaughter Rule," or sometimes, "The Mercy Rule," where a significant lead (usually by halftime) of a certain number of points immediately ends the game, no matter how much time is left on the official clock. It can be simultaneously a gladly-received and nauseating way to end a game. Like, what was the point of that?

The downside: are these interventions really any less demoralizing than running up the score? It's not like players and spectators don't notice what's being done. And is this fair to the team who has done the work with passion and diligence and has shown up to compete, only to be told they should not excel or play to their full potential? How do effortless victories like these prepare a competitive team for legitimately challenging matches where one bobble or careless error could cost your team a critical win?

You can play with excellence, and practice accepting victory with humility.

In noncompetitive games, I put a quick damper on any of my team's post-goal celebrations, unless it was something unexpected or remarkable - like a player's very first goal, or some difficult team maneuver we had concocted in practice that happened to work out beautifully in the game. Otherwise, players returned to the starting lineup after a goal without much ado. In these kinds of games, it felt more like an shameful embarrassment to score than an achievement. Sort of takes the thrill out of the experience.

I can remember instinctively coaching the opposing team's players from the sidelines, trying to help them get a leg up here and there, or explain the reasoning for a ref's call, and often wishing that these girls would somehow school one of my own players, if only just to keep things interesting and meaningful. As a coach, you want your team to be tested! For that is the only way they can improve.

We always shook hands at the end of the game, and when it felt appropriate - we congratulated the coach and players for progress and noteworthy plays. But it usually felt very awkward, and there were times when our best efforts to be gracious were still perceived as haughty conceit. Say nothing...condescending snobs. Say something encouraging...patronizing jerks. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. As a coach, I never did find a great way to handle these situations. Whatever I did, someone found a reason to criticize.

I suppose really the best solution, if and when it's an option, is to transition your team into a more challenging league. And so now we have year-round travel teams with extremely gifted yet tiny elementary age competitors and an ever-elevating level of play. Our family has been trying this out this year with our 9-year old, and it definitely has its perks and drawbacks. But even at this level, we have still experienced some significantly mismatched competitions. Some were handled reasonably well, and others left a sour taste in our mouths. But when you get right down to it, there is just no easy answer.

Parents, players, coaches, spectators...what insight do you have for me?

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