Should All Sports Have a Mercy Rule?

Dr Nelson Cortes vs. Tristan Mayglothling
White desk lamp beside green plant

John Mills: Hello and welcome to another episode of Sports Debate. I'm your host, Dr John Mills and today I am joined by Dr Nelson Cortes and Tristan Mayglothling. We are talking about: should all sports have a mercy rule?


John Mills 0:40:    Let's provide a little bit of context. In the States, for example, with baseball and in rugby here in the UK, there have been trials around, basically stopping one team from winning by a considerable margin, let's put it that way. So in the states in in Little League Baseball, I think it's something like if you get six home runs in one innings down whatever you call it, what is the term? Yeah, somebody helped me out when they said something about baseball. Yeah, and I was right, I should have trusted myself. But for me innings is cricket, and I was thinking, is that right? Basically, if one team is leading by six home runs by the end of that innings, then the game is effectively called at that point and then I'm not entirely sure how they play out in Little League Baseball. But in rugby, for example, I think if one team is leading by seven tries at the halftime point, I think has been trialled at different times and things, then again, the game is called. Gents who is arguing for what side tonight? Who believes that we should have a mercy rule?

Tristan Mayglothling  1:56   Yeah, that's me. I believe that we serve a mercy rule, particularly at youth level, I might add.

John Mills 2:01:   Heads or tails. Nelson, I'll let you call tonight: Tails. It is tails. Would you like to go first or second?

Nelson Cortes I will go Second.

John Mills: All right, Tristan, over to you.

Tristan Mayglothling 2:14: I believe you should have a mercy rule in sport, particularly at youth level for a number of reasons, but the main two that I'm going to look at are the experiences that people get from losing, and the challenge of doing your best is not really a factor when you're 40 points down on a rugby game and you've only been playing for 35 minutes or something like that. The second thing is our generation, and by our generation I mean people that are in their 30s and 40s didn't have the other options that kids now have, apart from sport. So we had an N64 maybe or a Sega Mega Drive, or we had climbing a tree. The kids now have far more opportunities to be immersive, they can basically play sport without leaving their sofa through their consoles. They have social media that we just didn't have. And so I think the my second concern about not having a mercy rule is participation levels of kids in sport already is a concern, particularly in state school sector in the UK. I would say that, I don't know what learning can occur from kids getting walloped and then coming back the next weekend getting walloped and it continuing. I also don't know how much learning can take place if you're the one that's doing it. I don't know that it's very satisfactory. So in my sport, rowing, you'd see something like Henley Royal, which is a one on one event, you wouldn't race flat out if you're winning, partly because you're trying to conserve energy, but also because it's just not necessary. Once you get a lead of a certain amount, you don't need to continue to race. It's sort of frowned upon slightly and I think it's the same if you have a have a coach on the side, who their team is dominating and they're, you know, driving their team on even though they're 10-0 up in football or soccer or 40 points up in rugby, you think, who is this for? Is this for the kids, what development they're getting out of this? Are they going to stay in the sport? any sport? And yes, there's an argument about resilience, but I think you can be resilient, You know, come away from the mercy rule and go, Okay, well, next week our aim is to not have that happen because we need to be a bit better rather than just, you know, you got beat and 100-0 like the New Zealand team beat Tonga by that amount recently. Who benefits from that?

John Mills: Thanks, Tristan. Nelson?

Nelson Cortes 5:24:   So, no, I think you made great points and I think we need to start looking at the origin of the rule, or the regulation, which was to spare embarrassment. I just think we need to look slightly to the other side, however, which is, it can also promote the idea that losing is shameful or degrading, there's no significance in the development or the game itself. I think what we should be looking at is, how can we prepare these youth which I agree with you, this role should be more focused on the youth through appropriate development of sportsmanship and competition and dedication and seeing the loss as an opportunity for improvement. I think in certain populations, it can also emphasise the disparity that already exists by saying, alright, we already show you you're no good. So in fact, based on some research, increase the risk of pity feeling, which I don't see as a benefit in the development of youth, as well. So maybe, and I think you mentioned these, John, at the youth level, should even scores be kept? Because are we really looking to the winning? Or are we looking to the development of the youth? I think if scores are kept, while I and I do understand the meaning of the mercy rule, we should also be cognizant that it can have the other effect, specifically in certain groups that might already be at a disparity level from representation. So those are my initial arguments for why.

John Mills 7:39:   Okay, thanks very much. Let's take a very short break there. And when we come back, we can open up the arguments between the panel.

John Mills 7:54:   Okay, welcome back. So thank you both for presenting your opening arguments. I'm going to throw it over to you, Tristan, first to counter any points that you wanted to raise from Nelson's opening arguments?

Tristan Mayglothling 8:10:   Yeah, I think the idea of competition is really a good thing. I think that we learn an awful lot from it. But the whole premise of competition is that we strive together, that's what it means in Latin is to strive together and I don't know that you're striving together if one team is that much more dominant than the other but and again, I think we're talking about youth level, really. And I think you enter a level of competition, what you think is about right, so we're probably talking about year group, or a certain age range, in each sport that they compete in. I think that you would expect that they're sort of around the same level, and that the mercy rule, it'd be great if it's there, but not used, because that means that the ability is spread across, and the development is there for a lot more people rather than one team, or one individual making a difference. So I think we could have the mercy rule there, but then strive towards not needing it, rather than saying it shouldn't exist. And then my second point is just I think, as adults, we would level ourselves say we were going for a job, we would level ourselves for a job that we think that we have a chance of getting, and that we can compete against the equal level people rather than we wouldn't go for something that is way above our experience or something like that. If we're saying that we would do that, as adults, I think for kids, we would expect that there's some level of competition and equality there even if you're trying to beat your opposition. If that's not happening, then you just call time on it.

John Mills 10:03:   Okay, thanks, Trist. Nelson, did you want to come back on any of those arguments?

Nelson Cortes 10:13:   Yeah, I think to a certain extent, we are talking about the same concept. I'm just arguing that probably, we also need to look at the other side of the Mercy rule, the negative effects of having it also Trist mentioned about, you know, competition and being, I think you said Trist, and then correct me if I'm wrong, in Latin means everyone strives to be greater or better. But I think, as I mentioned too, you know, usually these youth leagues are split by year group or age, whatever it might be. But if there are such disparities, one could think if that's the best criteria as well, which can be a different topic of concern, but from the mercy rule in itself and the way the question is posed, if all sports should have, I think they not all should have because even though we try to improve the kids and the development, its own development or part of its own development, and I know I'm not saying you need to be via the negative so you're going to lose I'm going to develop you but it's part of the development and also the winning team learning out to embrace not in you mediation standpoint towards the losing team, but as even not everyone is at the same level, how can we all contribute to other people to become better is important and if you are going to, because I also look and if you are going to stop someone from you already suffered six goals or whatnot, what is really the message that he is also sending to the kid like the youth, like when they get on it the game go, Well, 15 minutes is there for tickles? You know, there is a side that while and it's our balance to do but there is a side that we might not be looking at, because it might also ashamed the kids that after six minutes they go back home.

John Mills 13:23:   Hello, I just wanted to take a quick moment to thank you for tuning in to this episode and to mention a couple of ways you can get in touch with us. The first is through our website, which is You can also contact us via our Twitter account, which is sports debate pod. And we really, really appreciate any feedback, any comments you've got for us or any questions. If you like the podcast, please subscribe via whichever platform you use to subscribe to podcasts. If you can leave feedback that is great too, because it helps other people to find this. Right. Let's get back to the episode.

John Mills 14:36:   Yeah, so thanks for that. Thanks for coming back. In this part, we just generally going have a bit of a conversation around these topics now, just so we can kind of dig a little bit deeper into everybody else's arguments. I kind of want to throw a little idea in just a little bit of food for thought. Really based on both of what you're saying, I think you will probably both agree that actually is adults are the problem in this scenario, in the sense that I remember when I was a young child, and as long ago as it seems, if things became unfair, whilst we were playing unstructured play on the playground, we would sort it out ourselves. So you'd say, Oh, it's not fair, you've got Dave, we need Dave, you. Yeah. And you would just contend, it would be a dynamic thing where the teams are constantly in flux and changing. And I think part of the problem that you're describing here is, so this, there's two things so there's a, the structure of the teams themselves and the fact that they are fixed rather than more dynamic. And two, this idea of that we have to stop a game, because the mercy rule has been activated. For me, I don't think that's necessarily true. I think, again, that's kind of an adult way of putting, putting onto kids to say, Well, no, based on the rules of the game that we have to finish now and go home, I think I think that's a little bit of a straw man, really, because I think if he was just get out of that, if we were to get out of the way kids would just play, and they would have fun, and they would regulate themselves and they would continue to play. I think it only seems to be adults that are proposed naturally, that once you activate that mercy rule, that's the end of things your kids would just carry on. Also take the point around pity and developing humility. But I think you can almost just still think you can almost do that with a mercy rule. Because you could still, you could still celebrate that that six nil after six minutes. I think the word gregariously, you could be voice dressing in the participants face the opposition's face, or you could be humble and you could be respectful, and you could be a good sports person. So I don't think that necessarily, I don't think the Mercy rule would necessarily influence how the opposition response or reacts to that I think that that would maintain regardless of the outcome. So there's a couple of points there that I just kind of wanted to throw over to both of you to get your get your input on to basically maybe I'll start with Nelson, because I guess my position really is partly criticising some of the arguments you've made. But also I do think we all agree actually around that. It's it's the parents, it's the ethics that are getting in the way here. So is there anything you kind of want to come back on and things I've said.

Nelson Cortes 17:54:   I think you're right, the parents, the coaches, that want to win, and especially the year that, you know, these youth leagues you pay, so if you when you bring more kids, you bring more kids, you bring more money, so on and so forth, right? And because I agree with you, if you let kids play and then structure and I remember the same, we will always find a way to balance it out and be competitive. And not just in the game. And I would just point out as well, while you said the competition, the winning team, or not have such big behaviours. Ideally not. I have seen quite a few teams, the winning side and the mercy rule being applied, not behaving in the most sportsmanship, like, and that's why are where my comments come from.

John Mills 19:07:   Do you think the mercy rule would have any impact though? Or are they going to still act in the same way whether they win six nil when it's ended, or if they win 21 nil after a full game is completed? Because I think that's that's the point I was trying to make that actually people that are going to act like that are going to act like that, regardless of whether it's called a point or let play through to completion standards.

Nelson Cortes 19:33:   The way I am, I'll prefer to lose by more. But knowing I took all the time to give it all that I had, rather than not having the chance of recovering after adjusting or keep trying the remaining 60 minutes off the game or whatever it is, minutes are left, because the opportunity was removed because of a score. And that's why in the introduction, I said, should we even be looking at scores at the youth level right?

John Mills 20:22   I think the only thing I would say about that is that so when I, when I analysed the results to come up with the six goals for youth football, I went through a whole season fixtures, and in that fit in that season, there was zero cases of a team overturning a six goal deficit. So I that's why I reached the point of six goals, because absolutely, you would not want to take away the team's opportunity to turn that around. But I felt that six goals was well, in fact, the data supported the fact that six goals was very, very unlikely to be overturned. So it was that point at the stage in this league, there were some cases where the teams were losing 21,22, 23 nil. And actually, my argument was, in other sports, say martial arts, if the player is out, if the if the, if the fighter is unconscious on the floor, the referee would step in and stop the fight, right? And after six nil without reply, that's almost like you're on the ropes, you’re not letting your you're providing any mercy up, which is obviously the point where it's by not stepping in, you're almost just letting that fight to be punched, punched, punched, even though they're not actually fighting back anymore at that point. I'm trying to I was trying to illustrate the point that, that actually, we wouldn't, we wouldn't allow such behaviour in other sports. But actually, when we reach the point where they're not fighting back anymore, even if they're it doesn't have to be a fixed mercy rule, even if the referee and the coach you'd like in an ideal world, the referee, and the coaches would just say, we've probably had enough now, don't you think, but that's not the mentality of, of coaches and parents of parents in these environments.

Nelson Cortes 22:21   I respect that it's based on research and all the data that you have done tremendously. But if someone is six, zero, rather, if they don't have the mercy rule, they might not win. But if they end up six, four, it might be a significant improvement or achievement for the team, relative to what they have been doing. And, and that's why it's not purely on the winning or lose side. But it's on the achievement and the progress even that that team might achieve. By removing that opportunity by saying it six zero. I'm going to enforce the mercy rule the game is over. We might be removing that opportunity not to win, but 6-3, 6-4. And for that specific theme that in itself might be a victory.

John Mills 23:30   No, I think that's I think that's, I think actually, we're all right, we're reaching that point where actually, where I think the best solution would be like I said that if we could just evaluate case by case basis, because if you do see the team is fighting back. And they are trying and they still have hope, then yeah, you won't want to remove that hope. But if they are defeated, and they're still 60 minutes to go. It's almost a kindness, right? It's like an old dog, like put it out of his misery at some point. You know, Tristan, sorry, we've hijacked I saw you had your finger up at one point now. If you want to come in there,

Tristan Mayglothling 24:10:   that's okay. I was just thinking that we have our context, I think often goes into football and we've talked about rugby and ball sports. And interesting they're all timed so there's no natural mercy rule it's just who can get the most out of that period of time. But actually I feel that we have a mercy rule in an awful lot of other sports so there are three types of sports that the Olympics timed prefers past the post and judged and actually a large amount of sports like tennis for example. It's just first past the post if you if you're so if I play Novak Djokovic he's going to be pretty quickly and there's no mercy rule in terms of if he wins six love, six love, six love. It's not like we get to two sets of I haven't won a point and we stopped the game. It just We go until the end of the match. And that's it. And you sometimes see that in professional sport where a player is losing by that amount, and nobody's calling for it to be done because they know this is heading towards this period of time where it's not going to continue. They're not going to win 10 set six love, and it's just going to endlessly go on. I think the football thing I find quite interesting is often you'll see a football match, where you have subs and you expect to have extra time to be played or injury time. And we get the minutes quite often, as discussed, shown at the 2012 euro final between Spain and Italy. Spain a four nil up you can see as the goalkeeper for Spain actually asked the referee just to stop at 90 minutes as that was no, we don't wish to continue going on. Which I think if I think there is plenty of examples of a natural mercy rule in sport that perhaps doesn't exist in team sports, and my suggestion with no research, but my suggestion would be that the presumption is that team sports will sort of level themselves out. So that is the variable that will provide a mercy rule and then we add other layers to it like age group or weight group or something like that. And, and so I think the mercy rule would be there as a backup if those things fall down. But I don't know that we've spoken enough about all the other examples of just a natural mercy rule where that's it, you're you, you lost, you weren't good enough and come back another time.

John Mills 26:48:   And I think it's a really interesting point, I think my focus is always is always very much framed through. Whereas we're all with our right frame for context and our experiences. And my view is definitely coloured on this just because of years of being a youth football coach and seeing teams and seeing players and coaches, just completely demoralised by the scenarios that I'm describing, so So yeah, no, I think that we have to, we have to be careful, I think we have to be more open to learning from other sports in terms of the way that these kind of unwritten rules are implemented. Certainly, certainly, I think, again, the governing bodies of various different sports, and it's not just football. There's, there's plenty of dynamic team sports out there that are exactly the same as this, but actually, there are different unwritten rules like you were describing between sports. And yeah, I guess it's interesting to think about how those could be applied in different contexts. And likewise, how we can learn from how other sports can learn from each other more broadly. One thing I wanted to ask you, before we start wrapping up, both of you, again, is you've kind of talked about this idea of distributing talent, that actually part of the problem here is that in some sports teams are almost allowed to hoard talent. And actually, if we could distribute that talent more and increase the competitive level, certainly at a youth sport perspective, actually, we might not find ourselves in such a situation where one team is dominating another kind of, how do you think that might work in practice? I think it was, I'm not sure which one of you actually mentioned this idea of distributing talent more. And yeah, I just be interested to hear how you think it might actually work.

Nelson Cortes 28:59:   I'll add just something really quick if I can jump to that. We are talking about talent. And I'm taking that and if I'm, if I'm wrong, please correct me answer skill on the sport. But one thing that our research found, these youth leagues are often by like age group 12, 14 is a league for example. And what we found is a 14 is very different than a 12. So in terms of anthropometrics, body II, by the way, and we found that the upper range of these youth leagues, were winning, just by body advantage, if we did not measured talent in terms of skill on the sport, but just by morphological development. And that was one thing. We refer to as maybe we need to look not only to these skill, but also these anthropometric characteristics to split the league rather than pure. Because at this stage, they grow at very different rates to even two 12 year olds are not alike, just based on their developmental. And that was a finding that we had, in terms of why there was so much discrepancy in these dominant teams.

Tristan Mayglothling 30:44:   Well, I think on team sports, I certainly from my experience of rugby and football, you have some success, and you have some good players, and then that attracts other players. And it might not attract the best players because they might already be there. But you're going to then attract other teams best players who will then compete for a place on the bench or, you know, they might start some games. And I think in team sport, we have things like divisions, where we presume that each team in that division is of a similar level. But if you're the best, if you're in the top division of the, you know, under 11, football or rugby, whatever. And that's, there's nowhere else you can go actually it then becomes like we've already talked about adults start ruining it, because it then becomes what we need to win. And we need to keep winning, and then we've won for five years, and we need to keep attracting this the best people. Because let's face it, you never win anything without good people, good athletes. So actually, it all becomes a bit of a bun fight to get the best athletes. But at what point is there a saturation of those best athletes all being in the same place? And what can we learn from allowing some of those best athletes to stay elsewhere and develop in that team and develop? I always think athletes get better, largely because they're around people that are better than them, and they can see it. And that's quite hard to do. If you then sweep all of the talent up and put it in one place, that's great for that team, or those couple of teams that have that. But actually, that starts to limit how good other players or other teams can be because they just can't see how good you need to be.

John Mills 32:40:   If you're effectively describing buyer banding in the sense of we there was a video a couple of years back going around on social media of a rugby, a young rugby player who was clearly like three times the size and weight of all of the other kids that he was competing against and was just literally running through people. And me watching I was like, why is why is this being allowed? Why are you letting these seven year old kids be absolutely bulldozed by somebody with the physicality of a young man? It's just not safe. Somebody should be like, looking at it from a health and safety perspective. But everybody, I think I was in the minority. Most people were like, well, what an amazing kid the next Jonah Lomu. It seems that sometimes we're on different wavelengths entirely with some people in sport, right? around how to approach these things. And yeah, it's interesting, you're talking about relative age effects as well, in terms of that if you're older in your age group, so even if it's even if it's not multiple year groups, within a league, even if it's just within years, we still see that if you're born in the in the fall months, so autumn, actually, you have a have an advantage over those children that were born in the summer months, because you are going to mature faster, you are going to likely be bigger and stronger earlier until you get to a point where all this stuff starts levelling out. Okay, well, I think we are getting into the realms of a completely different discussion there. So thank you very much for your time this evening, gentlemen. I'm not gonna call a winner on this one, because actually, I came in with the perceived idea that actually, mercy rules were a one size fits all solution. And actually, I don't think necessarily they are I think, actually providing another kind of threshold isn't necessarily the answer. It's an easy solution. But actually, I think we should be working on trying to get people to use their common sense and make rational decisions with child welfare and engagement in mind rather than putting their own needs above the kids development. So I can't I can't call a winner on this one. I'm still, I'm still not against mercy rules. But actually, I think both of your discussions and Trist and towards the end, I felt a little bit like you were swinging on that fence as well. I wasn't sure which side you were arguing for. So yeah, no, no winners tonight. We call that one a draw. I definitely don't think that mercy rule should be thrown out either. I do think they have a place and it's just about finding a balance whereby actually a combination of common sense, some kind of structural implementation when needed, is probably the best solution. So thanks very much.

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