I am in the throes of my third stint as baseball coach for the little town of Lincoln, Vermont. My third and youngest son is eight. I’ve coached all three of my kids through the little league system. My youngest is finally out of Tee-ball, but not quite ready for the kind of baseball where the kids pitch to other kids. We call this the Farm League, sort of the minors division of minors.
This is the age when the coaches pitch the ball to their own players. When you need to explain that the reason first base is called first base is because that is the first base you run to when you hit the ball. This is the age when, if a catch is made in the field, any catch, parents from both teams cheer and yell encouragement. The age when the kids come running off the field after the game and say, “Did we win?”
In other words, there is way more cute than there is skill going on out on the field, and I love it. This is the age when a coach who is not paying attention can really ruin the sport for a child. It pisses me off and so I’m doing something about it. This is my strongly worded letter to all little league coaches and parents of young ball players – don’t forget: baseball is supposed to be fun!
There are plenty of great coaches out there who do a great job and volunteer their time and expertise to help train the next generation of players. This is not tirade against what is going right. I have seen enough ugliness in my teeny-tiny corner of the sports world, however, to know that there is a problem, and I want to try to address it.
My dad tells me of a time when he was growing up, in the 40s and 50s, when all the kids in the neighborhood would gather in the sandlot – no benches, no bleachers, no backstop, and no adults – and they would play baseball. Fast pitch hardball. If you were little, you watched, learned, chased foul balls, and waited for the time when one of the older kids said, “Get your mitt.” The fathers were all working and pretty much stayed out of it. There was a natural pecking order and you learned the game by just showing up, watching, and taking your lumps.
Those days are long gone and have been replaced by turf fields, grandstands and lighted sports complexes, scheduling committees, and select leagues. Rule books and umpires and parents yelling at coaches are the everyday features of the game. How has this happened?
Well, it’s because we love our kids. Those sandlot days were rough and tumble. Kids got hurt. They got bullied. The facilities were... well, there were no facilities. I don’t want to get all nostalgic for ye-olde-days-of-yore because I don’t think it was necessarily better. The biggest difference I see is that baseball isn’t something kids really do on their own anymore. It is an activity that is organized and run by adults. The problem with adults is that they forget what it was like to be a kid.
I played little league for one year when I was 11. The coaches I had were amazing. They made us all feel special, they gave us each nicknames – mine was Zimbob. They took us to pizza parties and the beach. I don’t remember anything about the baseball except the uniforms were yellow and the hats were maroon with a big C on them because we were sponsored by Crown Toyota. I remember getting stung by a bee out in center field, and I remember one time I got out by trying to stretch a single into a double.
The details are all lost in the haze of youth. More than anything, though, I remember that I had fun. The next year my mom “forgot” the day for registration and I missed out on playing. Years later I learned that she would rather have had a tooth pulled sans novocaine than to sit and watch 12-year-olds play baseball. I guess I can’t blame her, but my chances at making the major leagues were seriously inhibited by my non-participation in little league.
Which brings me to the next salient point for all you dads out there wanting to see your sons step up to the plate at Yankee Stadium. It’s great that you envision a bright future for your kid, but please understand that 99.99 percent of the kids out there are never going to play professionally and most are just trying to learn the game and have fun. You don’t have to make everyone around you, including your son, miserable by arguing that the umpire missed a call.
The stakes have gotten too high. There's too much pressure and not enough fun. No wonder youth sports, especially baseball, are on the decline.
So here’s some advice from a guy who’s been coaching youth baseball for over ten years to make sure your kids have fun:
Let the coaches coach, let the umps ump, let the kids hit and run and catch and learn and make mistakes without you trying to control the situation from the stands. If you want to get out there and coach, or volunteer in some way, great, do it. But please, it's not helpful or pleasant for anyone if you share your opinion loudly from the stands on what the people on the field are doing. It's confusing for the kids when they see adults bringing their adult perspectives to bear on their activities.
Baseball is a really complex sport. There are tons of weird rules and situational learning that needs to happen in order to even play a game. There are layers and layers of understanding that go into knowing what to do, when to do it, and how to do it well. If you emphasize winning over learning then you create a situation fraught with stress and aggressive competition. At some point, say the point when boys start seriously thinking about baseball as a job, that this may be appropriate, but at the early stages it does nothing but make the game a drag.
Let me share a story from my coaching guru, a man named Chuck, who was my eldest son’s first little league coach. Chuck never yelled. He was always calm and kind to every kid who ever put on a glove. He emphasized safety first and fun second, and everything else was somewhere down the list. One game after the kids ran in off the field and were getting ready to chant the ubiquitous “2-4-6-8…” cheer for the other team, my son asked him, “Hey coach, did we win?” and he said, “Well, you guys came in second.”
All the seven- and eight-year-old kids were psyched. “Yeah, second place! High five!” Second place was good enough for them, and it was off to the store for an ice cream and to enjoy the rest of the sunny spring day. Chuck knew that it was enough for them to have played and have fun at that age. In the grand scheme of their lives, the final outcome of that particular contest was less important than their participation.
Keeping the proper perspective is the key.
Skills. Youth baseball should be about learning skills. How to catch. How to throw. How to hit, run, slide, tag, steal, etc. The games give the skills context. The score is a device we use to create tension and drama – a little artificial significance to a moment – but let’s not lose sight of its actual meaning. Put into the larger context of life, these moments – even sports at the major league levels – are spectacles.
They are constructs. We agree on a context and a certain set of rules and we agree to wear certain colors and cheer for a “team.” These are all parts of an artificial container for the real goings-on. The human exchange and interaction that we experience with sport is unique and wonderful. Striving to condition one’s body and mind to be fit and strong is noble. Learning how to win and how to lose are important life skills. This is the meta text for youth sports.
Never forget that, first and foremost, we are humans in relationships with one another. The quality of those relationships should be what we strive to perfect, and there are not very many more powerful influences on a young person than that of a coach or a teacher. If you play your part right, you can make a huge impact on a child’s life, like my coaches did for me. Someday, those kids will grow up and perhaps coach their own kids, or your children’s children. It’s a big responsibility. It can also be a whole bunch of fun.
It takes a village!
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