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.
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?