Coaching in Lopsided Games

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Welcome to this edition of the ‘Coach Doc’. I’m Dr. Wade Gilbert, coach education advisor to Human Kinetics.

A controversial coaching issue that occurs in every sport is the issue of lopsided games. Three such examples from basketball garnered national attention in recent weeks, one in New York (117-8), one in Michigan (80-0), and one in California (161-2). Every year a cluster of similar stories makes national headlines. One of the most talked about examples occurred in 2009 when a girls’ high school basketball game in Texas ended in a score of 100-0. In that case the coach of the winning team was fired and the team forfeited the win.

Comments I received from experienced coaches and administrators who reviewed drafts of this commentary agreed that almost every coach, if they coach long enough, will experience a lopsided competition – either as the winning coach or as the losing coach. Even coaches of professional and college teams encounter lopsided games.

Some of the more notorious examples include:
• 1901 Michigan football team outscoring opponents 550-0 over the course of the season with one win of 128-0
• 1949 Canadian men’s national ice hockey team beating Denmark in the world ice hockey championships 47-0
• 2002 Australian men’s soccer team defeating American Samoa in a World Cup qualifier 31-0
• 2010 Georgia Tech women’s collegiate basketball team downing Tennessee State 82-11
• 2012 American college basketball game in which one player scored 138 points in a game his team won by 85 points

The knee-jerk reaction every time this occurs is to blame the coach of the winning team for ‘running up the score’. Most recently the coach of the winning team in the California high school basketball example was suspended for two games based on this judgment. Yet, it appears that in most cases that the coaches made a genuine effort to slow-down the game by keeping starters on the bench or changing game strategy in the second half.

One thing is clear, reactions to these situations are emotionally charged with people trying to force coaches into one of two opposite positions – either it is an acceptable life lesson for the athletes or it is morally and ethically reprehensible and against the spirit of the game. What is a coach to do in these situations?

Lopsided games are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Like any event, it is the way in which it is interpreted and used that determines whether it is a valuable lesson or a demoralizing failure. For example, coaches could use lopsided games as an opportunity to teach athletes about respect and empathy. During breaks in the game athletes on the winning team could be asked to reflect on what it would feel like to be on the other side of the score, and what they feel is an appropriate course of action for the remainder of the game.

In competitive sport the games serve as tests, much like the tests that we all regularly face in life – whether in school, work, or personal life. What then, is the purpose of a test?

Tests are defined as procedures intended to establish the quality, performance, or reliability of something. Sport tests, or competitions, are necessary for providing coaches and athletes with critical feedback on the gap between their current skill level and target skill level. We have to be careful about trying too hard to protect our athletes from failure. Coaches have a responsibility to (a) prepare their athletes for the tests and (b) use the tests to adjust how and what they teach in practices, with the goal of improving performance on future tests.

Notice the emphasis is placed on improved performance, which can be measured in many ways other than the final score. For example, the coach can set a goal with the team to close the margin of victory next time they play a superior team. More importantly, coaches should have performance, or process, goals that they can use to help their athletes focus on aspects of the test that are within their control. For example, in basketball coaches can develop a simple checklist for assessing how well athletes follow their pre-shot routine when taking free-throws or how well they execute in-bounds passes.

Similar types of process goals can be identified for any sport. In fact, this is exactly what I do when I work with coaches. Some examples of competition process goals with high school coaches include:
• 70% or higher free-throw shooting as a team in basketball
•Less than 3 errors per game in baseball
• At least 8 shots on goal in soccer
• No more than 2 double faults on serve per set in tennis
• 3 or fewer offensive penalties in football
• 2-putt or less on 6 of 9 greens in golf

Inevitably during discussions about lopsided games, instilling a ‘mercy rule’ is proposed as a solution. Many sports already have so-called mercy rules. For example, in the youth sport leagues where I coach there is a 5-run maximum per inning in baseball, and when there is a 6 goal differential in soccer the losing team is allowed to insert one more player into the game. Many high school sports also have implemented so-called ‘mercy rules’ to mitigate lopsided games. A common practice is to use a ‘running clock’ in later parts of a game. Is there a place, or need, though for mercy rules in higher levels of competition such as varsity high school sport?

The overwhelming majority of coaches I speak with are not in favor of mandatory mercy rules. I would tend to agree, preferring instead to increase open and regular dialogue about this issue and how to handle it when it occurs. For example, in high school basketball one option is to simply end the game at halftime if it is clear that the game is out of reach and the players – on both teams – are not benefiting from continuing the ‘test’. This is exactly what happened in a 1990 high school girls basketball game in which the halftime score was 102-4, with future hall of fame athlete Lisa Leslie scoring 101 points in the first half.

Depending on the situation though I believe we owe it to our athletes to consider other options rather than simply ending the game and sending everyone home. Using the example of basketball, coaches could use the second half to hold mini-scrimmages with games to a set point value (first team to 10 wins) or time limit (5 minute games), then mixing up the players after each mini-scrimmage. To increase athlete participation, mini-scrimmages could be played half-court. Coaches might implement rules such as a required number of passes or every player on the team must touch the ball before a shot can be taken. To find the right challenge-skill balance coaches might create different levels of pressure by altering the number of players on each team, playing mini-scrimmages of 6 vs. 5 or 4 vs. 3. Finally, coaches could simply use the remaining time as a practice, with each coach using different areas of the court.

If coaches are properly educated about their role and the core values that underpin sport, and are also encouraged to respect and communicate with their fellow coaches, then lopsided games can be addressed appropriately by the coaches in the moment. For example, during a natural break in the game such as halftime, in between innings or periods, coaches should be encouraged to discuss the situation and find an appropriate compromise.

This is a prime example of why athletic directors must view ongoing coach development as a core responsibility. For example, dealing with lopsided scores could be a topic of discussion at annual or bi-annual coach meetings. Much like games are tests for the athletes, they also are tests for coaches. Collectively we should use these moments of adversity to reflect on how we prepare our coaches to perform optimally and ethically in these tests.

Lopsided scores have always, and will continue, to occur at all levels of sport. Let’s not forget that competitions in sport are designed to test us. These tests, including lopsided ones, provide us with invaluable feedback that quality coaches turn into teachable moments for closing performance gaps – in sport and in life.


Dimengo, N. (2013, March 17). The 50 most unbelievably lopsided blowouts ever. Bleacher Report. Retrieved from (2009, January 26). Coach says team played with honor. Retrieved from (2015, January 17). Coach suspended after 161-2 win. Retrieved from

Farrell, P. A. (2015, January 29). This is real: Cass Tech girls hoops tops Osborn, 80-0. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from

Gilbert, W. (2015, January 28). Demonstrating core values and clear purpose in coaching. Retrieved from

Gilbert, W. (2015, February 25). Putting athletes’ interests first for more powerful coaching. Retrieved from

Taylor, K. (2015, February 25). Reconsidering the notion of mercy after a basketball rout in Brooklyn. The New York Times. Retrieved from

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