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.
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…