TORONTO - With mercy rules sometimes limiting the number of goals, runs or points tallied in children's sports, many associations are seeking to shift the focus towards developing skills among young athletes — and away from the score.
Aaron Thompson coaches a squad of 12- and 13-year-olds in the Mississauga Southwest Baseball Association. Under Ontario Baseball Association rules, there are two mercy rule thresholds: a 10-run difference after five innings and an 18-run difference after three innings.
"I think the general consent is that it's a good thing," Thompson said of the rules.
"I don't ever hear anyone complaining about having to call a game after being down 18 runs after three innings or even 10 after five. It's almost inevitable at that point what the result of the game is going to be, so it just kind of preserves the feelings of the players so they don't have to continue with the game."
The Ontario Soccer Association maintains no scores or standings for players under 12. David Lowe, chairman of Gloucester Dragons Recreational Soccer, said scores are recorded for players aged 13 and up in their league, with an eight-goal mercy rule in place.
He said coaches are offered many suggestions on how to shift their approach when winning by a sizable margin, like repositioning players or having kids kick with their weaker foot.
"We want coaches to have that mentality where (they say): 'After I get up three or four goals then I affect some change in my team so that we don't hammer the other team,'" said Lowe.
While scoring remains the objective, "it's not score or win at all costs," said Lowe.
"We would like everybody to participate and everybody to have fun in the league, and everybody to develop."
Daryl Leinweber, executive director of the Calgary Minor Soccer Association, said there's a 5-0 mercy rule in every game played. While the goal differential can exceed five goals, 5-0 will be the score posted, he noted.
If a team is regularly losing or winning games by 10 or more goals, the association can move them to another division.
"If we're seeing where some of the teams are starting to run up scores of 10 goals, we really need to talk to the coach and say: 'Maybe there's a better way to coach the team," said Leinweber.
"You take a look at the different measures of success on your team. Maybe it's the number of passes you make prior to scoring the goal. Maybe it's where you change positions within your team and your defence gets to play forward for a while.
"There's a whole opportunity for learning. It can come in the game — and it's not just the score."
Even with mercy rules in place, there's still potential for sizable gaps on the scoresheet.
An April matchup between two New Jersey high school baseball teams made headlines as it resulted in a rout for defending state champion Buena who defeated Pleasantville by 52-3.
The 10-run mercy rule for New Jersey high school baseball games doesn't kick in until the fifth inning, and Buena scored 20 runs in the third inning alone.
Pleasantville coach Erick McAllister told the Press of Atlantic City that his team never quit and that the Buena players were gentlemen in the win. A later rematch between the teams resulted in a 20-2 Buena victory.
Thompson said he's been coaching for about 13 years and has experienced both sides of lopsided results — and tailors his approach accordingly.
"If you find success and you continue to hit, that's good. But you take a respectful approach while scoring. You go conservative. You don't look to exploit the other team when you're up 10 runs," he said.
"If they're struggling, if they're showing weakness, you don't try to take advantage. That's not really in the spirit of the game."
In the face of a tough loss, Thompson recommended giving young athletes small tasks that are achievable and highlighting successes.
"And then, whether they win or lose, they have a sense of accomplishment."
— With files from The Associated Press.