In the space of a year, Mike Matheny went from coaching a Little League team to coaching the St. Louis Cardinals. In each of his first three seasons as manager, the Cardinals have made it to the National League Championship Series.
This experience makes The Matheny Manifesto unique. It’s written from the perspective of a successful MLB player and manager, but at it’s heart it’s a book about youth sports– how to coach kids, how to parent kids, how to enjoy playing sports as a kid. Far from a sort of “here’s how you can get to play in the major leagues” it’s actually a bold and scathing criticism of Little League teams and other youth sports treating T-Ball as if it was “The Show.” He argues that the current “win every season at all costs mentality” is harmful in the long term to the development of players and is harmful to the character building process that youth sports should provide.
He is scathing in his criticism of coaches who treat elementary age students like professional players– prioritizing winning over letting players learn new positions and skills, disproportionately playing their “stars” and marginalizing their less skilled players as much as possible. This criticism is surpassed by his disdain for youth coaches who yell at their players, publicly shame their players, cuss at their players (or do any of these things to opposing teams or umpires.) He complains about managers who encourage their players to cheat, as if winning a Little League game is more important than teaching little kids that cheating is okay if it gets you what you want. (Matheny would have hated my YMCA hockey teams…)
Matheny also had strict expectations for parents. The Matheny Manifesto is based on a 5 page document which Matheny wrote to parents before he began coaching Little League. It detailed his values, and the way those values shaped how he would coach, and how those values shaped his expectations for parents. If parents didn’t like it, Matheny would direct them to another team their kid could play for instead. In at least two cases. Matheny kicked a kid off his team because their parents continually broke the contract. Some expectations of parents were:
- Not criticizing the umpires. Ever. Matheny argues that umpires at every level have bad days, but to publicly berate a volunteer (often a high school student) is entirely mean-spirited and teaches our kids to whine and complain throughout their lives when they don’t get their way.
- Not lobbying for their kid to get more playing time or play more at a specific position. I feel sorry for the two kids who got removed from the team because their parents couldn’t follow this rule. While Matheny would prioritize talent a little in end-of-the-year tournaments, during the regular season he gave equal playing time and equal opportunity to try positions (unless he worried students would injure themselves playing first base or catcher) to all his players. He argued that elementary school and jr. high is too early to dedicate students to a specific positions, that specializing in specific positions (and specific sports) leads to higher injuries over time, and that marginalizing weaker players so that you can get a higher seed in a Little League tournament is stupid.
- Not shouting out advice from the stands. Matheny didn’t want any back-seat coaching. But actually, this rule existed to ease the amount of pressure on students. For this reason, Matheny wouldn’t even allow parents to shout encouragement while a student was batting. (You could shout “good job” after the at bat, but not during.)
At times, I felt that Matheny was too strong on a position. But I would gladly submit to his rules to have my sons play for him– not so they could play ball with a major leaguer, but because Matheny is precisely the sort of role model I hope my sons will have. I have also known many coaches and parents who would benefit from some of Matheny’s suggestions.
The whole book is full of anecdotes of his playing time, from his backyard through Little League, College, his professional career, and his managing career (both Little League and the MLB). It’s a great read for anyone who loves baseball. As a passionate Christian, Matheny shares frankly how that impacts his career and values, and he does so in a way that should be appreciated by most readers. I especially appreciated how naturally Matheny shared the gospel by telling his own stories. I highly recommend this book to baseball fans, to anyone who coaches any sport, and to parents of young athletes.
Brandon Ray Boulais
BloggingForBooks provided this book in exchange for an honest review.