Tag Archives: youth baseball

The Art of the Extra Minute

If there’s something I’ve learned in my time working in Corporate America or in coaching wild little weasels in youth baseball, it’s that the people in charge can often lose sight of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their leadership or guidance.  It’s really not all that surprising because most people don’t spend oodles of time in their days considering how others perceive them.  This is partly because… well… who the hell would spend that much time obsessed on such a point?  In addition, no one should be so purely “other-focused” that they never account for their own personal tastes, talents and desires.

That being said, there is a tremendous amount of value to be gained for anyone who is a manager, leader or coach to consider how their leadership is delivered and received.

A leader may have a weekly staff meeting with her team where she feels completely at ease, free to have an open discussion.  However, does the team feel the same way?  Maybe, maybe not.  One leader’s place of restful sanctuary is another team member’s “More face time with the boss where I have to play the part…”

image

As a baseball coach, I try to think about things from the kid’s perspective as best I can… and Lord knows I probably fail at this much more often than I succeed, but I think the effort is the big part.

It’s the art of taking the extra minute.  That extra minute to think about your methods in relation to your players is hugely helpful.

For me it’s been about thinking about myself as a Little Leaguer.  I was seldom a confident player back in those days – far more concerned with messing up than playing well.  Hell, I can remember playing a game as it was getting dark, rain was coming down and I was hoping the pitcher, TJ, would strike me out.  True story.

Hence, my extra minute is to remember that there are a lot of kids who aren’t naturally gifted athletes and for whom standing all by themselves at the plate with everyone watching them at a baseball game is a daunting experience.  Kids for whom their coach looking them in the eye and saying, “Hey, you just go up there and go for it. All I care is about you trying hard – that’s it.” might be the difference between them enjoying the game and not.  Or the coach letting them know that making an error or messing up or doing something “wrong” because they tried too hard is totally OK.  Sure, you try to have them learn from that moment, but you can’t just light them up or else they’ll shut down for good.

And even if you don’t coach youth baseball, these same lessons apply at work, in your church, with your charitable group, etc.  Your presence and position will affect those around you in ways you likely don’t notice or think to consider.

And all you need to do is develop the art of taking that extra minute.  It won’t fix everything, but the self-awareness it brings is certainly the most important first step of them all.

My Philosophy: A Post 25 Years in the Making

I remember telling my parents in the Spring of 1987, my freshman year of high school, that I was going out for the baseball team.  Now, they never said anything specific to me about it or made any attempts to dissuade me from trying, but I always had the feeling they were a bit uneasy about it.

Why?

My older brother was always an excellent athlete… but me?  Not quite so much.  I had a generally unremarkable Little League career, didn’t play baseball on the middle school team and there really wasn’t anything to suggest my trying out for the high school team would end in anything but my being cut and coming home devastated.

Somehow, some way… I made the JV team.  We didn’t have a freshman team back then like many high schools do these days.

Fast forward ahead to this photo in the Spring of 1990, my senior year at Avon High School and the varsity baseball photo:

Avon High School - Varsity Baseball 1990

There I kneel in all my handsome best and pretty proud to play for a team that would end up ranked #2 in the state.  We lost our first game, won 18 in a row and lost our last game in the state tournament to a team we should have annihilated.

This photo explains a lot about my personal philosophy on coaching and actually explains a hell of a lot about me generally.

I played on the Varsity team my junior and senior years of high school with my prime motivator being really damn simple: Don’t. F**king. Screw. Up.

Inspirational right? Almost akin to a battle cry on a bloodstained field of battle from days of yore.  But in reality?  It was the truth.  I was far more concerned about the wrath of my coach if I screwed up than the potential amazing outcomes that would come from playing loose and free.  Now, what kind of fun could THAT possibly be?

It came to a head during the final game of my senior year as we lost in the state tournament (as a #2 seed, mind you) to a team we outclassed in seemingly every way possible.  I had probably 3 errors in the field that day and my baseball playing career ended with my coach pulling me out of the game and saying to me as I was directed to the bench “My God, Kuz… everything is an adventure with you out there today.”  My athletic pinnacle it was not.

That moment has always stuck with me, even now 25 years later and completely affects how I approach every kid I get the privilege of coaching.  My philosophy is simple: kids who are relaxed have more fun and play way better than the kid who sees his first at-bat of the season as a life-or-death struggle.  As ridiculously simple as that sounds, the trick is being mindful on this point and consistent with every kid you coach.  I acutely felt that awkward and self-directed pressure, so for me, it’s really easy to stay on task.

And in fact, I think this is something I seek to do all the time anyway now.  When people feel comfortable, they’re just in such a better place as a friend, work colleague, family member or even just a stranger you bump into in line at Starbucks to get a coffee with a complicated name. (Caveat: I love me some Sbux and will fight you to the death if you try and swipe my gold card)

My advice?  Find a person who looks out of sorts and see what you can do about it.  It’s actually ridiculously easy because all you need to consider is the fact that YOU have been there too.  Why not fix it for someone else?

Rhyme, Reason and The Things That Drive Us

 Little Slice of Heaven

I’m likely going to be taking a bit of a baseball and coaching theme with my posts in the near future. This stems from both the fact that Little League coaching begins soon (I find out my team on Saturday) and that it’s a rich source of inspiration for posts. Kids have an uncanny ability to teach adults a lot if those adults are paying attention.

It reminds me of a conversation a year or so ago while helping out with All-Stars practice one day and one of the players, Shamus, strolled on up to me as I watched a drill. He stood next to me for a few moments, watching the same drill and the following conversation ensued:

Shamus: Hey coach… are you married?

Me: No, Shamus, I’m not.

*brief pause*

Shamus: Got a girlfriend?

Me: No, Shamus, I don’t right now.

*longer, more thoughtful pause*

Shamus: Gettin’ kind of late…

You can’t make this stuff up. Hence, the wisdom of the youngins.

What I’m thinking most about with the season so close to starting is what drives me as a coach. The biggest piece is the fact I coach my nephews and have been doing so for 7 or 8 years, ever since my older brother was volunteered by his lovely bride and… well… he wasn’t going to do it solo. Suddenly, Assistant Coach Kevin was born!

But what about beyond that? What am I trying to accomplish? What’s my goal? My mission? My philosophy? Gosh darn it, don’t I have a vision statement with a 5 year plan developed by Wharton-educated consultants?!?!?  *ahem*  Wow… that got scary for a second.  Thankfully, I’m back and I can answer these questions fairly simply:

I coach with my Little League self in mind as much as I possibly can with the dual purpose of helping my players get better and (more importantly), enjoy the hell out of playing baseball.

THAT right there is my mission statement.

I think of my Little League self because I was never the most confident of baseball players, although I had some ability that could have become something nice if got out of my own way. Instead, I probably spent a lot of time thinking I would never be like my older brother who was fantastic at baseball, would end up being All-State in high school and playing in college.  I can actually remember a time when I was in 4th or 5th grade where I was at bat, it was raining and T.J. Church was pitching to me… and all I kept saying to myself was “Please just strike me out.” Yup… that truly happened and I can almost feel that pit in my stomach just thinking of that moment where I wanted to be anywhere but at the plate trying to hit. Not a great moment, but one indelibly burned in my memory.

I never, EVER want a kid that plays for me to feel that way, not even for a moment. I can’t even totally say why I was feeling that way – my parents were always really supportive. I just felt miserable out there and wasn’t having fun, at least not on that day. I would do better when I got to high school and played baseball all 4 years… but I often suffered from the greatest shortcoming any young athlete can have:

I was far more worried about messing up than the upside of laying it out there, possibly achieving something magical or great and feeling the joy of doing well. That’s a missed opportunity and I don’t want it repeated under my watch if I can help it.

So that drives me and it’s really why this entire coaching experience means so much to me. I think a lot about how that felt for me as a kid and, oddly enough, the kids I will be coaching this year will be in exactly that same age range as me during that day in the rain.

No matter how I need to scramble out of work early for a game or changing up my weekend schedule because of games… it just doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. Hey, don’t misunderstand me – I am not some noble saint for taking this position. I do all of this because it’s just so much damn fun – I get at least as much out of it as the kids do. It’s not really work. It’s not a grind. It’s just… well… fun.

Here’s to the start of the upcoming season with a watchful eye towards the why of coaching… maybe the most important aspect of all.

Trust Not The Eyes, For They May Not See.

Simple beauty

This is a pretty special time of year for me. Part of it has to do with the vigorous shaking off of the chill of Winter and opening my arms wide to pull Spring into my sweet, loving embrace. Come to me baby… come to me. That’s only part of my fond feelings for this mid-March period. The bigger piece is that Little League baseball coaching is again on the horizon and I couldn’t be happier about it.

The process kicks off the same each season: a bunch of well-meaning coaches spend the better part of a weekend in a middle school gym rating 8-12 year olds on their ability to field, throw, pitch and hit. It’s a bit of a circus every time, but I think that’s half the fun of it. Just kind of reveling in the mayhem of it all and catching up with the other coaches I haven’t seen in a while.

But my favorite part of the entire evaluation process isn’t just hanging out and joking around with the kids as they come through my station (which was hitting this year). Actually, my favorite part is when I find out I’m completely, utterly and totally wrong. No, really.

As each kid walks up to your station, there are only so many I actually know from years past. Because of this, I tend not to know anything about the baseball abilities of most players until they begin their drills with me. And you know what happens as they walk up? There is that flickering moment in the mind where every coach tries to guess how this kid will be. It’s something we do in all aspects of life, right? Heck, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about these kinds of snap judgments in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Nothing unusual in this and really nothing controversial because no one with any sense in their noggin would make a determination just based on a first impression of a kid walking into the gym. That would just be flat out stupid.

But some kids roll in with a lot of confidence and swagger. They have a snazzy and expensive bat, snappy batting gloves and are sporting an all-star shirt from the previous year. Some kids come in a bit tentative and nervous – these are the kids I try to put at ease as quickly as possible because… well…. I was that kid at that age when it came to baseball and sports. I bloomed late athletically.

Then some kids don’t fit the part of a baseball player at all. They aren’t wearing anything you would see a kid put on to play any sport, go to gym class and so on. Heck, they may be wearing an outfit that looks like something they would wear to the mall or the movies. They walk into the station, look through the bucket of bats available for anyone who didn’t bring one and then step up to the tee to take a few swings.

And that’s when some real magic happens and I am reminded again to never, ever, EVER assume anything on a kid before seeing him do his or her thing. I absolutely love it when the kids who “don’t fit” whatever preconceived notion there may be for a youth baseball player come in and smash the bejeezus out of every ball they see. It puts the biggest smile on my face and I revel in the fact that, if I had any guess to the contrary, I have just been shown to be 100% wrong.

It’s so great to see the kids who defy conventions of any kind… who don’t fit the idea of how they are “supposed” to be, whether in baseball or school or any other activity. The kids who just love something and it shows. Heck, my favorite players to coach aren’t necessarily the superstars with the amazing physical gifts. I have such a great time working with kids who just love to be on baseball field and playing a game. That’s all it takes to win me over.

So trust not the eyes, for they may not see… at least not at first. Break those biases down. Strip them from your thoughts when they rear up. And if you have any moments where you catch your assumptions being shown to be misguided? Cherish them. Because that’s where the real fun starts.

Analysis and Attitude – Coaching Through the Tricky Parts

While I cannot speak for all other bloggers, I know one of my complete obsessions with my own blog is checking out Google Analytics to see how my blog is performing: how many visitors I am getting, what sites they are coming from, how long they spend on the site and what keywords they have used to reach the site.  It’s pretty cool how you can slice the data a bunch of different ways to see what in the world made someone: (a) come to your site; (b) stick around and (c) look at some particular pieces of content.

Outside of the sheer numbers piece of total unique visitors (I love this one and just want it to go up all the time), I really love the keywords.  It never ceases to amaze me the searches someone used on a search site like Google to find humble little Fierce and Mighty.  For instance, for the time period between May 26 and May 31, I’ve had people come to my blog for “dealing with toxic people”, the “prowler” and a variety of connections for people looking for guides on handling youth baseball.  I think my favorite youth baseball one is “youth baseball moms how to deal with crappy coaches”.  Umm… I’m hoping that wasn’t a parent of one of my players… but then again, ya gotta admit it would be pretty funny if parents of some of my players came to my own site for advice on how to deal with my (ALLEGEDLY) crappy coaching.

IMG_1213_2.JPGSo let’s get back into the coaching piece for a bit, mostly since I am really enjoying doing posts on my thoughts on being a youth baseball coach.

I think if there is one huge challenge any youth coach faces, more than teaching skills, setting rosters, structuring drills or managing an actual game is setting the proper tone and attitude of the team.  You really need to get to the kids early and stay utterly consistent in your message to them from the first practice to the last moment of your final game.  But how exactly does one do this?  I think I’m finally seeing what it takes to pull this off after a lengthy period of trial and error… and this is probably something that applies more generally to teams than just kids… but for now, I will focus on our getting our precious little angels to stop yammering for 10 seconds to pay attention to the baseball game.

  1. A common theme, shared among all. The coaches really need to be on the same page with what the approach they want to take with the kids.  My brother and I have a pretty good idea of how we want to approach our team, so that does help.  We want them to improve and play well and have fun.  Do we want them to win?  Of course, but only towards the bigger goal that they will get more excited about the game when they are doing well as a team.  The pure accolades associated with winning a “title” or something at this age is not our real goal.  Sure, it would be nice, but I will take the kids having fun over that any day without even a 2nd thought.  To some nutjob coaches out there, that makes me a loser.  To all those nutjob coaches out there, I would simply respond… with nothing.  Y’all ain’t it even worth the effort of my fingers to type something.
  2. The more, the merrier. This is one I almost cannot stress enough: the younger the kids, the more coaches you need.  Period.  I will not debate this.  If you are dealing with all teenagers, 2 coaches can probably be sufficient because, at that age, the kids can actually stay semi-focused at practices and in games.  But coaching 14 or so 8 and 9 year olds?  You need to have at least 4 coaches to make things close to workable.  The reason for this is simple: they have incredibly short attention spans and are always looking to act like goofy little lunatics with their buddies.  While this is sometimes kind of funny, if you don’t keep it on a short leash, things become unworkable for the whole team VERY quickly.

    With a group of coaches, it’s easier to divide kids into groups and minimize the amount of standing around time or “SAT”… ok, there isn’t really a true acronym for that, but I made it up… umm… and may never use it again.  I just felt like doing it.  Cut me some slack.  But as coaches, you simply need to be proactive about getting other parents involved as either coaches for practices or just to help monitor the kids on the bench during games when you are trying to focus on the actual in-game coaching.  The alternative is spending all your time telling  Reggie to take the gum off his nose, Charlie to stop kicking the dugout gravel into coach’s glove and Thomas that throwing the empty gum wrappers behind the bench was not what you meant when you said you didn’t want trash in the dugout.  I want to point out that while the names were changed to protect the… *ahem*… innocent, all of these things happened last game.  I kid you not.

  3. Getting it back when you start late. This is one I feel like my brother and I seem to focus on too much in that we don’t get the attitude set the way we want early and consistently and then struggle a bit to bring the boys back to the task at hand.  Now believe me, it is not that hard to lose the kids if you are not following the first 2 tips, but that being said, I am not making excuses.  Just an observation.  So what do you do when you find yourself 5 games into the season and your exquisitely crafted plan of 9 year old baseball domination falling apart before your very eyes?

    I’d like to say I have an easy answer for this one… but I don’t.  It really is a matter of acknowledging that at any point in the season, you can say “OK, enough is enough” if you really and truly mean it.  Our teams have always tended to bloom a little late because it took my brother and I a little while to get everyone back on board.  The funny thing about that is that even if it happens late in the season, it’s very cool when it happens… not because your exceedingly fragile coaching ego has been saved from further bruising, but when the kids finally do “get it”, they begin to play well and have fun.  We actually had a bit of this happen in our last game.  The opposing team came out swinging against us and knocked the ball all around the top of the 1st inning.  How did we respond?  Hell, we came out and knocked the ball all over the place in the bottom of the 1st.  Was this because they saw it was possible?  Was it some secret bit of magical coaching pixie dust that got us back into the positive end of things?  Damned if I know… but it was fun… and the fun is what counts… keep reminding yourself of that.

OK, that’s enough for now.  I started this post at JFK yesterday before my redeye flight to London, got less than 2 hours sleep, rolled right into my conference, finished that up for the day, had dinner and I am now attempting to finish this post with a semblance of rational thought.  I have no idea how that went – you be the judge.  I gotta get to sleep… but I do have a few thoughts I plan to share soon on this trip to London and also on my non-baseball playing nephew.  He needs some blog love too.

Things I’ve Learned from Coaching Youth Baseball – Part 2

After writing yesterday’s post on the things I’ve learned as a youth baseball coach these last 4 or 5 years, I got to thinking (which should worry all of you… it certainly scares the bejeezus outta me)… there’s probably more than 3 things I’ve learned.  Sure enough, as I drove into work this morning, KA-POW!  More things popped into my dome.  Thankfully, I use the super handy Evernote program on my Android phone to record some voice notes to remind myself later.  If you have not read a bunch of my posts before, I am fully lovestruck for Evernote.  If you have an iPhone, Android phone or Blackberry, I highly recommend it.  I will also point out that if you have not read a bunch of my blog posts before… umm… I kind of go on tangents.  Strap in tight – I am all over the place, my friends.

Anyhoo, I came up with three more things I’ve learned and that I hope are generally applicable to more than just coaching a bunch of snot-nosed little… *ahem*… I mean angelic little darlings who would never, ever (a) goof off on the bench; (b) be looking at their shoes when a ball is hit at them; (c) care more about gum than seemingly anything in the world; or (d) thinking that wearing a cup is the funniest thing of all time.  Seriously… they will not stop trying to tell you “Coach!  Coach!  I’ve got my cup on!” and rap the cup with their knuckles so I can hear it. *sigh*

And now the points to ponder:

1. At some point, you will “live through the kids”. This is not nearly as bad as it sounds, at least not in my case.  We all know those coaches who are hellbent on turning little Johnny or little Jane into the all-world superstar that they never were able to be (which of course was due to dumb coaches, rotten luck and the entire world conspiring in a grand Machiavellian scheme to prevent their athletic happiness).  That’s not what I’m thinking about here.  This is more wanting those kids on your team to get even a sliver of a shining moment because either (a) you have had it and know what that can mean to a kid or (b) you have never had it and know what THAT can also mean to a kid.

I will use my own athletic career as a case in point.  When I was at the same age as the kids I coached, I was definitely not very confident in myself athletically… at least not in an organized sports sense.  Screwing around with my friends was one thing because it was just fun and without pressure.  But in a game with uniforms and umpires and parents and concessions?  That’s a whole different matter.  I can so distinctly remember being up at the place during a Little League game at Sperry Park in Avon, Connecticut with a kid on the mound I was intimidated by.  I just wanted him to strike me out to get the at bat over with.

So for me, “living through the kids” is wanting absolutely none of the kids who play for me to go through that – it was awful for me as a 4th grader to feel that way.  Baseball is a game that, certainly at this level, is meant to just be fun.  Period.  As a coach, I want them to improve their skills, but that’s secondary to them enjoying playing the game itself.  There is an aspect of practice and discipline that goes along with this, for sure.  I want them to have fun playing baseball, not being obnoxious sitting on the bench and trying to jam gum up their noses.  This is not about my dreams or ambitions or desires or any of that – this is first, foremost and solely about the kids and their enjoying a game with memories I hope they always keep with them.

2. Your own personal success will be 10X less interesting than the success of the kids and the team. One of my big sport loves is playing soccer and I am the captain of a very competitive co-ed soccer team that plays around the Hartford area on Sunday mornings.  While our team has fun and we enjoy hanging out together, we play hard and play to win.  When we don’t, we don’t much care for that… at all.  This past Sunday, our team lost a 5-3 game on a very weak effort on our part.  There was absolutely no fire, no hustle and it was as if we decided before the game we were going to lose, so why bother the next 80 minutes anyway?  Needless to say, my outlook is not terribly chipper following a game like that.

But you know what?  That afternoon, the Dodgers went to work and racked up an 8-0 win (which I only found out yesterday was a shared no-hitter between our 2 pitchers).  The excitement of our kids to put together such a good game was enough to wash away any bad feeling I had about what transpired earlier in the day.  I can barely describe how great it felt to watch my nephew absolutely rip a double and be the first base coach pumping my right arm to send him to second base.  So.  Damn.  Cool.

Colin at Bat - 2010 Minors.jpg

I think that’s when you know you are working at and leading something that matters – when you really don’t care about a single accolade that could possibly come your way, but you completely immerse yourself in the joy the team feels for doing well.  I love being a part of teams (whether when I was in school or now in sports and at work), but it’s rare to taste almost transcendent moments like this.  If you do… and certainly if you are able to do this in a place where they actually PAY you… hold onto that with all you’ve got.

3. There is a deeply transformative power to athletics… and it’s amazing when used properly. This probably one of my favorite things about sports or fitness or any kind of athletic endeavor – when done properly, there is a tremendous opportunity for transformation that is completely life-altering.  Sound far-fetched?  Then take a little stroll with me as I explain.

As I wrote above, I was not always the most confident kid athletically.  Sure, I played baseball through high school and had some moments, but I never felt relaxed enough during game situations (certainly not at the varsity level in high school) to do my best.  I would hammer the ball in batting practice, but only show maybe one-tenth of that in a game situation.  You know when I began to blossom a bit in terms of my own athletics?  When I started lifting weights seriously.  Why?  The magic of weight training (and why people who start it and get into it never, EVER want to quit) is that it gives you back what you give it.  Lift smart, rest properly and eat well?  You will get in better shape… and you will feel pretty damn good about yourself.  I know it helped me a ton.

And that brings me back to youth baseball.  I am actually seeing some of this same transformative effect taking place a little bit as well.  I will keep this as vague as possible, but there is a kid this year who I think is beginning to have a few of these moments himself.  He’s a fairly quiet kid and I remember him playing youth baseball a few years before.  When he came into the team this year, something was a little different.  We would practice some hitting off the tee and there was some extra pop in his bat.  Then, during practice one day, one of his teammates complimented him on making a nice play in the field (kids can amaze you sometimes with how kind they can be – I was there to see it happen and it was very cool).  Then, during our big win on Sunday, he steps up to the play and completely rips a line drive for a hit.  As quiet as he tends to be, you could not mistake the enormous smile plastered on his face as he stood on second base.  Now, I notice him looking a little more relaxed with his teammates and joining in with them as more a part of the team than he was before.

Look at that timeline for a second – piece-by-piece and moment-by-moment, something has built a little bit.  I have no idea or expectations where that will go from here… but you know something?  Right now, he really seems to be having fun and feeling pretty good about himself.  Will this push him to become a confident and charismatic captain of industry one day?  President of the United States?  A professional luger?  No idea.  But these are the exact kinds of things that can be the catalyst for something pretty wonderful for him and I hope that’s the case.  And personally?  Kids like this and moments like this can often be much cooler than having some kid who is a complete ringer come in and blow everyone away with their superior athletic ability, making it look so easy.  I like those moments too… well, if that kid is playing for me, mind you… but I am a sucker for that underdog making good.

And that’s why playing sports matters.  May we never lose sight of that and if any of you catching me getting adrift of that, consider this license and permission for a swift smack upside the head… figuratively.  None of you people better be tryin’ to place a hand on me.  I have mongoose-like quickness and ninja-like skills.  You’ll regret it…

Things I’ve Learned from Coaching Youth Baseball

I still remember it like it was yesterday… the day I got the call from my older brother to inform me I was now the assistant coach for my nephew’s tee-ball team. Let’s bear in mind that this was never something I actually asked for – it was more like, “Look, Sue signed me up for this without asking me… so I did the same to you. First practice is on Saturday.” That was a few years ago (I honestly cannot remember how many… 4? 5?) and thus began my saga into the world of youth baseball.

It was all pretty simple at the start. When dealing with 5 year old kids playing baseball for the first time, there really is not much on the finer points of the game. You do your best to prevent a rugby-like scrum on every single groundball because everyone wants to be in on every play… plus 5 year old boys think nothing is better in the whole wide world than a dogpile on one of their buddies. Good times.

Fast forward to today. My brother and I are now the coaches in the Minors for one of the town’s baseball leagues and this is potentially our last shot at coaching my nephew. Next year he may be in the Majors where there is a set group of coaches year after year, so our chance may be gone (unless we switch leagues entirely… which is possible).

I think I’ve learned a few things along the way and I’ve been thinking about how these lessons may have more general applicability than how to wrangle 8, 9 and 10 year old boys into line for 2 hours of practice or games. At least I hope I have… because making kids run or giving them bubble gum to quiet them for 5 minutes might not be the kind of thing your average person can use in their daily life (unless they are part of the same youth coaching fraternity).

So here’s what I’ve learned over the last few years:

1.  Keep them engaged.  Always. I list this as #1 because as a youth baseball coach, this is easily the biggest challenge.  In soccer and other constant motion sports, you can have everyone running around and staying active.  Baseball practices can involve a lot of standing around… and I think y’all can guess how well that works with 3rd and 4th grade boys.  Can you picture it?  A lot of chasing each other around and trying to swat your buddy’s hat off with a glove or looking at planes flying overhead and such.  *sigh*  In the same way, I think anyone who needs to lead a team has to do the same.  Everyone needs to feel they have a role and a purpose to play, whether they are 10, 20 or 50 years old.  If you feel stuck in the proverbial right field of batting practice all the time (i.e. the spot where the fewest hits tend to land), your mind will wander to 1,001 other things.

2.  Remember the eye-black.  Yesterday our team (the Dodgers) pulled off their first win of the season to even up our record at 1-1.  The first game of the year was ugly… just so very ugly.  It’s never good when the furthest you advance a runner is second base and of the 18 outs recorded against you in a 6 inning game, 17 were by strikeout.  That’s gonna leave a mark, people.  Well, Saturday night I was at Dick’s Sporting Goods and I saw they had eye-black sticks, so I picked one up.  I popped out the eye-black just before the game started, called out “Who needs eye-black???” and boom!  Kids were ready to rock.  I eye-blacked almost all of them up and one of the kids would only do it if I put it on.  As someone with zero fear to looking a little goofy for the sake of the team effort, I readily complied.

All smiles and eye-black after a big win

We ended up winning the game 8-0 on a huge 6th inning rally.  It was awesome.  The kids were going nuts, I was going nuts, parents were going nuts, etc.  Nothing like winning to get everyone on the same page.  “So what in the name of all that’s holy does eye-black have to do with anything applicable to life outside of baseball???”  OK, if that was truly your reaction, you need to take it down a few notches.  Like pronto.  Don’t ruin the mood of the emotional and moving photo of me and my nephew above with your negativity.  Sheesh.  The nerve… umm… where was I?  Oh, right.  General applicability.

While it was probably (although you never know) not the eyeblack that brought home the victory, it was something that got the kids to feel like real baseball players and to do together as a team.  I was more than willing to do it as well because: (1) I totally dig eye-black.  No joke.  and (2) I am a very firm believer that no good leader will ask his troops/players/employees/etc. to do anything he himself would not do as well.  That’s a sure-fire way to come across as an elitist fraud… and believe me… kids can root that out about as well as anyone.  For anyone else in a team environment, little goofy things like this can bond people together a bit and that should never be underestimated.  I was a supervisor at one time in my career and my team was just begging and pleading to have our staff meeting off-site.  While a small thing to do, everyone was so excited to do it.  Small things matter.

3.  It’s youth baseball.  Repeat that over… and over… and over. I feel really fortunate as a coach with the parents of the kids on my teams.  Truthfully, they’ve been really good about their kids, they come to the games to cheer and have always been really appreciative of the efforts my brother and I in coaching their sons.  That’s the good side of the equation.  The bad?  Hoo boy… where to begin?  While generally speaking there are a lot of good, committed coaches I have encountered, there are also some people that actually disgust me.  Seriously… not just annoy me or make me perturbed, but cause genuine disgust.

I’ve seen coaches who, when playing against us and are up 10-0, actually try to get extra players up in an inning beyond the maximum hitter count per inning allowed… and then made it seem as if they didn’t know the rule.  Really?  It’s a new one to you eh?  That’s odd given the fact you were the first place team and had not allowed a single run in your first 5 games.  Gentle reader, let that fact soak in for a second… 3rd and 4th grade boys who are prone to all sort of tomfoolery, yet his team had not allowed a single run in 5 games.  It’s almost impossible to conceive.  Huh… and I thought the teams were supposed to have a fair distribution of talent.  Silly me.  So we get the unusually loaded team (and this is not the top division of the overall league, mind you) that is looking to get pile it on while being up by 10.  Classy.

Or the coach who when his team is leading 6-0 argues about the one good play our team makes that game to throw one of their kids out at the plate from the edge of the outfield.  He complains that same kid making the throw interfered with his runner (umm… what?) and so he yells out onto the field, “OK guys… just be sure that next time you knock him over.  That’s baseball!  That’s baseball!”  Again people… 3rd and 4th graders.  But hey, this is the same coach who, after a few of our kids did not pay attention about where they were walking as his pitcher warmed up, told his pitcher “It’s OK… just hit the next kid who walks in front of you.”

It took all of my willpower not to get into this guy’s face after the game.  It’s bad enough for him to teach these things to his own kids, but our players hear this too and wonder, “Is this what we’re supposed to do?”

Bottom line: It’s youth baseball… it’s not high school and it’s not college and it’s not the minors and it’s not MLB.  The kids play to learn and have fun.  I coach because I enjoy teaching kids about baseball and I especially enjoy coaching my nephew.  If you cannot step back at times and gain perspective, you’re a lost cause.  And we all do this in our own lives in so many different capacities.  We have a report to do for work that is certainly important, but it’s not worth coming home aggravated and stressed about and acting like a beast around your family and friends.  I do that, you do that, we all do that… but that never makes it right.  I like to use the “When you’re 85 years old” analogy in these cases.  It’s simple and effective – when you’re 85 years old and chilling out on a rocking chair on your front porch, just watching the clouds roll by… is it going to matter to you more that you more that you were a really good technical program manager at your company or that your family and friends adore you?  It’s an easy question (good God… I HOPE it’s an easy question) for anyone to answer and yet how many of us don’t take that into account in so many daily decisions we make?  *raises hand*

I could go on and on about all of this, but these are the 3 big ones I’ve seen.  If you’ve never coached anything, I definitely urge you to give it a shot.  You may not feel qualified, but you’ll learn what to do and the kids will have fun… and in the end, isn’t that the most important lesson of all?