A World Series manager’s “manifesto” to parents goes viral. Several years later, it’s become the playbook for defeating the win-at-all-costs mentality plaguing youth sports.
"I always said that the only team that I would coach would be a team of orphans…[because] I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents."
So started what soon came to be known as The Matheny Manifesto. A frank 5-page, “either you’re with me or you’re not” pre-season letter to a group of youth baseball parents, written with the usual candor its author – former MLBer Mike Matheny – has always been known for.
At the time, the 35-year-old catcher had retired after 13 seasons in the bigs. The hard-nosed style that led to fans calling him “The Toughest Man Alive” (see video below) also led to the concussions that would end his career. And he had not yet become the wunderkind successor of the legendary Tony LaRussa. The one who would go on to manage the St Louis Cardinals all the way 2012 World Series in his rookie season.
Matheny had turned down multiple pleas to coach his son’s St. Louis-area baseball team during that time after retirement. Eventually though, he would relent…under one condition.
“You as parents need to be the silent, constant, source of support.”
Read: Drop your kid off and let the coaches handle things. And when you’re at the game, take a seat and enjoy watching your child play. Quietly.
“I believe that the biggest role of the parent is to be a silent source of encouragement,” Matheny wrote in his letter.
“I think if you ask most boys what they would want their parents to do during the game; they would say 'NOTHING'. Once again, this is all about the boys. I believe that a little league parent feels that they must participate with loud cheering…which just adds more pressure to the kids. I will be putting plenty of pressure on these boys to play the game the right way with class, and respect, and they will put too much pressure on themselves and each other already.”
Matheny took the Cards to the post-season in each of his first 3 seasons.
Many were struck by Matheny’s straight-forward language. Some were irritated. “Who does this guy think he is?”
But none of them were confused as to where the new coach stood.
Youth sports needed to get its priorities straight. A win-at-all-costs attitude threatened to steamroll the joy of the game like the baserunners that once beared down on Matheny during his catching days. But true to his hardened playing style, he now stood tall against the bullrush of fanatical parents, entitled kids, and a heightened pressure to perform over all else.
The lessons that went beyond the game were getting lost, he thought. And in 2,556 words, Matheny explained to parents what needed to be done to give those lessons precedence.
I think if you ask most boys what they would want their parents to do during the game; they would say 'NOTHING'."
Those that bought in (and plenty didn’t) started sharing Matheny’s words with other parents outside of St. Louis. The Manifesto caught fire. It blew up on the internet, becoming the charter document for a movement focused on returning the game to the kids. And recently, the St. Louis skipper turned it into a book of the same name.
The book, according to Matheny’s website, came from parents asking him to expand upon the thoughts of the original letter.
“It is about respect, ownership, self motivation and no-nonsense sportsmanship, that all go into the definition of character displayed on the playing field. To provide some of these parents and coaches with an alternative method for using sports as a means to help grow kids would be a privilege, and in some sense, a responsibility.”
It doesn’t have to be 5 pages of impassioned prose. And you definitely don’t have to write a book about it. But having a simple list of expectations for both parents and players to sign before the season starts is key for managing expectations and dealing with conflict if/when it arises.
Some may balk at your request, but most will probably welcome it. Proof: Last Fall, an ESPN survey revealed that ⅔ of youth sports parents were concerned about winning being taught over fun. Over 80% of parents listed the “quality or behavior of coaches” as a concern in the same survey.
A code of conduct speaks not only to a parent’s concern over what their child will be learning, but to your quality as a mentor, as it shows you have the athletes’ best interests in mind. A few examples of what other youth sports organizations are doing can be found here and here.
And for more ideas on cultivating a healthy, positive environment for your athletes, check out Sport as a Force for Good right here.