Incentives matter: Equal play time in youth sports

Do young rec players play chaotically because they are inexperienced and immature or because of equal play time rules?

Like many youth sports coaches, I’ve discovered that there is no better reward than game time to promote the application of fundamentals and sportsmanship.

I “herded cats” while coaching in a rec league with equal play time rules. It was tough to teach the kids what seems like the simplest parts of the game and they repeated basic errors for far too long.

But, I hadn’t considered that it was the equal play time that caused it. I chalked it up the kids’ immaturity and inability to see the bigger picture consequences of their actions. For example, some players just didn’t seem to think they needed to mark-up, even though they had been repeatedly burned by leaving their man open.

Once we grew out of the equal play rules, I did what came natural and made lineup choices to reinforce the fundamentals.

If a player stopped doing the basics, like marking up, I would sub them out and let them know why. If someone applied the fundamentals — whether or not they were good at it — they stayed in longer. My philosophy was, win or lose, game time was meant for players to practice what we taught them.

I didn’t realize how effective this was until a recent kerfuffle on my team caused me to second guess those lineup choices and go back to equal play time rules.

A parent mistook my subbing order as ‘unfair punishment’ for his son missing practices. He left the game with his son and quit the team. I wasn’t punishing his son. I was giving the people who had attended the lesson the past few weeks a chance to practice it.

I’ve learned in the past that to teach team-play concepts, you need everyone on the field to have gone through the lesson or it’s harder for everyone to learn it. I’m sure that parent wouldn’t want his son taking a math test over a lesson he missed at school without first covering that lesson.

I found over the next couple of games, though, that I was a second guessing a lot of my lineup choices because I wanted to avoid another incident like that. I kept questioning, “how will his parent interpret this?” I found that second guessing distracting and stressful, so to avoid it I went back to equal play rules so no parents could complain that their kids weren’t getting play time.

Over the next few games I watched the team devolve from playing the best I’d ever seen them play, to playing the undisciplined, individual, sloppy playground ball that was characteristic in their rec years.

A parent made the comment — They looked like 6 year olds in rec. She was right.

That got me to thinking.

Not only had the kids quickly devolved from applying fundamentals that they had progressed on over the two previous seasons, but most became unresponsive to our coaching, as well.

That parent’s comment made me realize that they had lost the most effective incentive that encouraged them to apply fundamentals and listen to coaches — play time. They got to play whether they played like we were teaching or not, and over the course of a couple of games they (sub consciously) figured this out.

Game time became “theirs”. Rather than doing what was best for the team, they wanted to make something happen for their own glory during their time. And, of course, when half the team are being glory hounds, they don’t do the basic, boring stuff like marking-up and the team implodes.

This experience made me wonder if equal play rules are the main reason kids play sloppy in rec ball. Perhaps they’d learn the fundamentals faster by having the direct consequence of staying in the game or not based on their application of fundamentals.

So, the next time you see a sports team implode, consider that it may not be that the team is just performing poorly. Perhaps what you are seeing is a result of distorted incentives.

Taxpayer-subsidized grins

Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution, links to a piece about the increase in spending on college athletics.

Anyone involved in youth sports in the last decade might have noticed the emergence of large, multi-level sports clubs, playing in multi-million dollar sports complexes all designed to host large quantities of organized competition for young players to become seasoned masters in their sport and attract the attention of college recruiters.

Having your kid get “signed’ to a college team — no matter how small the college, or how un-followed the sport — is the new crowning achievement of childhood that brings ear-to-ear grins to the faces of parents.

Take away taxpayer-provided college athletic subsidies and that crowning achievement of childhood and the industry that has sprouted to help parents achieve that ear-to-ear grin goes away.

Arnold Kling also comments on college athletic spending.

A million dollar question

Thanks to Mike M for posting the following Youtube clip (audio) in the comments of this post. It features a discussion between a caller, Lucy, and hosts on a radio talk show.

In many discussions on welfare I’ve run into the argument from supporters that nobody would choose the paltry sums and stigma of welfare over working. I didn’t realize it before, but they were arguing from their personal preference bias. What they really meant was that they would not make that choice.

They failed to account that not everyone is like them and everyone doesn’t face the same opportunity costs.

Lucy says she and her family live off welfare. According to her, she receives various forms of welfare totaling about $1,300 per month. Her parents were on welfare. She doesn’t begrudge those who work, that’s their choice, and she doesn’t see herself as a bad person for depending on the system that is there to help her.

She mentions that if she takes a job, she’d have to pay for daycare for her three kids and lose some of her welfare benefits. She’d be worse off. Incentives matter.

Lucy also does us a favor by asking an insightful question.

What if someone offered you a million dollars, no strings attached?

Lucy’s question gets us over the hump of the personal preference bias. Suddenly the unimaginable situation where somebody chooses welfare over work is replaced with something that my discussion partners can more readily identify with.

A million dollars would be hard to turn down, even if it was coming from other taxpayers. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to convince yourself of the good you could do with it. And, maybe you could. Who knows?

But, that’s not the point. The point is that incentives do matter. We should NEVER forget that.

Saying that you believe nobody would ever choose something that you don’t think you would choose (though you might if you faced similar incentives) isn’t a good argument. It just shows that you haven’t thought about it beyond your current situation.

Near the end of the audio, one of the hosts also makes an insightful comment about incentives. Lucy’s million dollar question sinks in for him. He asks, If your money was cut off, would you go to work? Lucy replies, Yes, I’d have to.

He then says:

…the government puts a gun to my head with the promise of imprisonment if I don’t pay taxes. Does anybody put a gun to your head to take that money?

Lucy answers, Nope. With this he brings the distorted incentives of punishing producers and rewarding non-producers to life.

I would have asked a follow-up questions. Are there any expectations attached to receiving this money? Likely answer: Other than having low or no income, nope.

Which gets to a subtle and unhealthy incentive distortion in society.

There seems to be a condoned attitude where the producers can be roughed up. Pay your taxes. Don’t complain. Complainers are greedy and soul-less.

But, as Lucy, confirms, such treatment of the recipients on the other side of the transfer payment is not condoned — even when they happen to be in situations like Lucy’s where they appear to be smart and capable, but unwilling to carry their own weight.

It’s as if expecting them to be grateful and to say thank you is too much to ask. As if saying ‘thank you’ would be demeaning.

Round and round

This excellent post from Don Boudreaux, reminded me of my less worthy attempt at this in 2012.

This is the dynamic in a nutshell:

1. In a freer health care market, the costs of being unhealthy or uninsured is borne by individuals. This provides strong incentives to stay healthy and insured.

2. In #1, some people will still fall through the cracks. Some because of bad choices they made, but others because of unfortunate circumstances.

3. Attempts to solve #2 that involve anything other than encouraging people to make better choices creates moral hazards* that cause even more people to take less responsibility for their health and not buy insurance. This increases costs for those who pay.

4. The same compassionate people who wanted to solve #2 try — with no apparent awareness of this — reproducing the natural incentives in #1 to stay healthy and insured by dictating both. This appears in mandates that sound like, If we’re paying for you health care, then we have the right to tell you how to live your life.

We already see evidence of this in New York City with bans on salt, trans fats and large, sugary drinks. New York was already well down the Obamacare path, which is why New York City was one of the first areas in the U.S. to show signs of #4.

Here’s an example from Japan. I see evidence of this starting here. My employer, for example, is now collecting my BMI and waist size and will soon want to start tracking my exercise activity.

Of course, the First Lady’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity are also initial steps in the direction of #4.

*Moral hazard – A moral hazard is created when some measure taken to reduce risks, increases the risks people are willing to take.

One example of this can be seen in football. Wearing helmets sounds like a logical safety measure, but has resulted in players hitting each other harder and even taking measures (like doping on steroids to build muscle mass) to hit ever harder.

The link to the post about the BMI penalties in Japan provides an example of moral hazard in medicine.

How distortions shape expectations

I recently suffered an injury to my foot. I got in to see my doctor the next day. They took and x-ray and confirmed no broken bones, just damaged soft tissue that should heal in a few weeks. I saw the x-ray image less than 2 minutes after it was taken. I was amazed at the clarity.

I expected to pay hundreds of dollars from my HSA account for that care, since I had not reached my deductible for the year. But, I thought it was worth it to know that I had no broken bones. I was pleasantly surprised to receive the bill. The total cost for the doctor visit and x-ray: $83.

Some say, sure, that’s the rate your insurance company had negotiated. I say, that’s closer to the rate you’d see in a competitive market where more costs are paid by patients out-of-pocket and that’s similar to what we pay plumbers and HVAC repairmen for a basic service call.

But, our expectations are different for those services, shaped by decades old market distortions of tax-deductible employer plans and third-parties paying the bills.

We might grumble about paying for plumbing or HVAC repair, but we haven’t adopted the expectation that some third-party insurance company pay that cost for us.

Incentives matter: Work and welfare edition

The Wall Street Journal has a must-read interview with Bob Funk, CEO of Express Employment Services — a $2.5 billion employment services agency. There’s also a good companion piece, Won’t Work for Food Stamps.

Funks covers some key points from a report his company plans to publish on Monday called, The Great Shift.

Here are snippets:

[Funk believes] “anyone who really wants a job in this country can have one.” With 20 million Americans unemployed or underemployed, how can that be?

To land and keep a job isn’t hard, he says, but you have to meet three conditions: “First you need integrity; second, a strong work ethic; and, third, you have to be able to pass a drug test.” If an applicant can meet those minimal qualifications, he says, “I guarantee I can find employers tomorrow who will hire you.”

He thinks the notion of the “dead-end job” is poisonous because it shuts down all sense of possibility and ambition. One of his lifelong themes, Mr. Funk says, is that “a job—any job—is by far the best social program in America and the ladder to success.”

The primary jobs problem today, Mr. Funk says, is that too many workers are functionally unemployable because of attitude, behavior or lack of the most basic work skills. One discouraging statistic is that only about one of six workers who comes to Express seeking employment makes the cut. He recites a company statistic that about one in four applicants can’t even pass a drug test.

“In my 40-some years in this business, the biggest change I’ve witnessed is the erosion of the American work ethic. It just isn’t there today like it used to be,” Mr. Funk says. Asked to define “work ethic,” he replies that it’s fairly simple but vital on-the-job behavior, such as showing up on time, being conscientious and productive in every task, showing a willingness to get your hands dirty and at times working extra hours.

He fears that too many of the young millennials who come knocking on his door view a paycheck as a kind of entitlement, not something to be earned. He is also concerned that the trendy concept of “life-balancing” is putting work second behind leisure.

Funk admits to a prejudice (emphasis added):

“I guess I’m a little prejudiced to the immigrants and especially Hispanics,” he says. “They have an amazing work ethic. They don’t want handouts and are grateful to have a job. Our company has a great success rate with these workers.” This focus on work effort is seldom, if ever, discussed by policy makers or labor economists when they ponder what to do about unemployment. To most liberals, the very topic is taboo and is disparaged as blaming the economy’s victims.

The author of the WSJ piece includes some eye-opening stats to back Funk’s claims. There are 47 million people receiving food stamps, 14 million people collect disability benefits and with unemployment insurance extended to 90 weeks, Funk calls these:

…[the] vast social welfare state programs that have become a substitute for work. There’s a prevalent attitude of a lot of this generation of workers that the government will always be there to take care of them. It’s hard to get people to take entry-level jobs when they can get unemployment benefits, health care, food stamps and the rest.

The companion piece shows the sharp rises in such social welfare programs. The cost of food stamps has more than doubled since 2008 to $83 billion and one in seven Americans receive food stamps. The government spends ‘roughly $40 million a year…to convince to enroll’ in food stamps.

“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”

The Wall Street Journal had two good commentaries on Obama’s latest pitch to use more government to fix problems caused by government — that is, his recent speeches on college education.

1. From Obama State University, this one is a page out of Hugo Chavez’s playbook:

 “We’ve got a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt,” said Mr. Obama, without a trace of irony at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The same man who three years ago forced through a plan to add $1 trillion in student loans to the federal balance sheet over a decade said on Thursday, “Our economy can’t afford the trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt, much of which may not get repaid because students don’t have the capacity to pay it.”

Naturally, the President blamed somebody else and demanded more authority over higher education.

Mr. Obama specifically blamed colleges and universities for charging too much. “Not enough colleges have been working to figure out how do we control costs, how do we cut back on costs,” he said. His solution is for the federal government to rate colleges on their effectiveness and efficiency, and then to allocate federal subsidies to the schools that Washington believes are providing the best education at the lowest cost.

Chavez and Obama don’t understand (or admit to understanding) that incentives matter. They distort incentives then blame the problems that result from those distorted incentives the folks who respond to them.

It’s not that colleges haven’t been working to figure out how to control costs (actually, some are, but we haven’t widely accepted the for-profits just yet), it’s that they have no incentive to do so.

Well, Obama is now proposing incentives, I can imagine some will say. To them, I respond, imagine how much credence you would put into a Federal government’s rating system for restaurants. My guess is that no matter what those ratings say, you’re still going to trust your gut and what you hear your family and friends say.

This is also from the article:

Mr. Obama is trodding a well-worn political path. Politicians subsidize the purchase of a good or service, prices inevitably rise in response to this pumped-up demand, and then the pols blame the provider of the good or service for responding to the incentives the politicians created. Think housing finance and medical care. Now President Obama is attacking colleges for rationally raising tuitions and padding their payrolls in response to a subsidy machine that began in 1965.

That’s when the feds launched a program to make college “affordable” by offering a taxpayer guarantee on student loans. Federal grants and loans have been expanding ever since and it’s no coincidence that tuition prices have been rising faster than inflation for decades. This week the White House noted that since the academic year ending in 1983 tuition and fees at four-year public colleges have risen by 257%, while typical family incomes have advanced 16%.

2. Richard Vedder: The Real Reason Colleges Cost So Much

Here’s something I’ve noticed when visiting my own alma mater:

Many colleges, he notes, are using federal largess to finance Hilton-like dorms and Club Med amenities. Stanford offers more classes in yoga than Shakespeare. A warning to parents whose kids sign up for “Core Training”: The course isn’t a rigorous study of the classics, but rather involves rigorous exercise to strengthen the gluts and abs.

Or consider Princeton, which recently built a resplendent $136 million student residence with leaded glass windows and a cavernous oak dining hall (paid for in part with a $30 million tax-deductible donation by Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman). The dorm’s cost approached $300,000 per bed.

Universities, Mr. Vedder says, “are in the housing business, the entertainment business; they’re in the lodging business; they’re in the food business. Hell, my university runs a travel agency which ordinary people off the street can use.”

My alma mater has a fantastic turf field complex for its students. It has an indoor/outdoor mini water park resort. The dorms look like alpine ski lodges. It has an arena for women’s basketball and one for men’s. The commons area rivals high-end shopping mall experiences. And, yet, they still have the nerve to call me weekly asking for money. No thanks.