Coaching and adaptability

I’ve been coaching my youngest son’s baseball team for over a month now. It’s had its ups and down, certainly, but I’ve learned a few things along the way. A few thoughts:

You can lead a horse to water… – The schedule I was given is very light on practice. We essentially got one practice, and then the rest of the time it’s games. This are 6- and 7-year-olds. They’re still trying to get a handle on the basics. They need practice, not just games.

The city allows extra practices if you want to do them and can find a place. I started scheduling extra practices, even though it meant missing some of my own children’s games. But the turnout was terrible. My own son has been to every practice, of course. Otherwise I’ve only had one other kid show up regularly. That boy needed work on the basics, though, so it became largely a private lesson, with my own son getting bored because the stuff we practiced was old news to him.

The last practice I had three show up. I finally realized my practices were not effective. With even a few kids there I couldn’t really work with each kid individually, no matter how much they needed it. We also couldn’t really work on team-play, as there simply weren’t enough kids. I decided that the kids just need to get their parents to help them practice the basics at home, and that I’d get some help during the games so that I could spend time working with the kids on team skills during the games. No more extra practices. I can only do so much.

Small teams have their advantages – Our team’s roster had seven kids at the start of the season, and one dropped the first week. I don’t think they divided the rosters evenly, because most teams we’ve played have the full nine–or more. I think I’ve had all six of my kids show up once. Most of the time we’re fielding a team of four.

And that’s great! I watch the teams with nine players, and there are kids who go the entire game never having touched the ball. Not so with my team. If we’re lucky we have a second baseman, but since most kids can’t hit well yet we play first and third with a far-infield shortstop and a “pitcher” pushed toward first. Pretty much every hit sees half our team get their hands on the ball. Since we don’t keep score and don’t track outs, just bat each player each inning, my team gets at least twice the fielding experience in a game as our opponents.

The small team size also means I can pay attention to every kid, give them pointers, and direct each play. We don’t get in fights over the ball hardly ever, as usually there is only one kid even close to any given hit. The kids can run to get the ball without worrying about colliding with their own teammates. My team is learning very quickly as a result.

Parents make a difference – The one thing I do envy the other teams over is parental involvement. They usually have at least one parent helping out, taking a lot of pressure off the coach. He or she (we do have one female coach in our “division”) is able to spend more time with the kids on both offense and defense, whereas I can only do that with defense.

I’m pitching to the kids when we’re at bat, so even though I can see what they’re doing wrong I can’t take time to fix it. Sometimes the other teams are generous and their coach steps in to help, but most of the time I’m on my own.

We do have parents come to the game, but with only four or five kids showing up there are not many parents to choose from. Most of the time it’s the mothers, and they often have other children in tow who need attention. I have one father who has volunteered to help, but he’s only there about half the time. The one thing I hope to improve is getting more of the parents involved.

Individual practice is invaluable – I have several kids who have never played before. One is from a Bosnian immigrant family, so he’s not really even seen  baseball played before. If I work with him he gets better, but unfortunately he can’t get much practice at home. No one there knows how to play.

I have another player, a quiet, freckle-faced girl who is probably shorter than anyone else on the team, who just started playing. She’s got a fair amount of natural talent, and she’s not afraid of the ball, but more importantly she’s got a family that practices together. They take over the field after games for more practice time. It shows.

Even though she missed half the games early in the season (schedule conflicts), she’s quickly becoming a star player. She seldom needs the tee when batting. She throws well and accurately. And even though her hand isn’t big enough to really manipulate her glove and grab the baseball, she almost always gets her glove on the ball when it comes to her. That practice time she gets at home is paying off.

My son is a good kid – I was a little worried about how he would behave having his dad as the coach. And there is a level of familiarity he’s not had with coaches before that sometimes lets him think he can get away with more. But, except for practices, he’s quite focused and serious on the field. He listens to me.

He’s probably my best player (see the previous point–we’ve spent a lot of practice time with him), but he is incredibly patient with the fact that many of the other kids don’t play at his level. One game he got too enthusiastic and started trying to play the entire infield by himself (and not doing half bad, actually), but after I took him aside and reminded him the other kids need practice, too, he went right back to being a team player.

He’s also determined. By halfway through any given game I’ve usually got half the kids complaining about being tired and wondering how much longer we’ll play. I never hear that from Richard. I suspect he’d play for twice that long, if we could, before he’d start to complain. He likes being out there, and only after the game on the way home will he admit to being tired.

I’m not just teaching baseball – For some of these kids I’m one of the few male role models they have. At least one of my kids is being raised by his mother and grandmother (we don’t now for sure, but evidence points to his father being killed in the military). I can see that he just eats up every scrap of attention I give him. It gives me pause to think just how much he might be watching me. I only hope I’m teaching him the right things.

Sportsmanship is important, too. I think it’s important that the kids see me demonstrate it. I try hard not to make the other team “the enemy.” I try to be friendly and respectful to the other coaches. I compliment the other team’s players. And I try to recognize my team’s accomplishments. I try to treat them all fairly.

I’ve had to learn by watching – I never played organized sports growing up, unless you count the two weeks when I went out for junior varsity football my first year in high school before I realized I wasn’t aggressive (or large, or mentally tough) enough. Most of what I’ve learned about coaching has come from watching my own children’s coaches over the last year. They’ve had some excellent coaches, and every one has been different.

It’s taken me some time to settle into a style and routine that works for me. Last night was the first game I really felt like I was on top of things. But I came away from the evening feeling quite satisfied. It can be very rewarding when you realize you are making a difference.

I’m reminded of my older son and his experience with baseball last year. One of the coaches saw some potential in him and worked with him a little on the side. That positive feedback, coupled with his increasing skill, increased his confidence considerably. This is a boy who struggles with confidence and self-esteem.

But not on the ball field. This year he’s probably the best player on his team. He hits well and consistently. He knows how to play each position, and clearly has his head in the game. His fielding has improved considerably.

Probably one my proudest moments in recent history was last week’s game. The other team’s coach seemed a bit more competitive than others and in their last inning rather conveniently didn’t keep track of the outs very well, insisting they had one more out left. Our coach acquiesced, and the game resumed. The very next batter smacked a hard line drive toward third, where Walter was playing.  He calmly stuck out his glove and snagged it for the out.

Last year he would have ducked the other direction. This year he’s consciously trying to make plays. That’s the influence of a good coach. It may not have seemed like much to the coach, but to a parent who aches from watching a child struggle with confidence it’s a big deal. I’ve had some good examples to learn from. I hope I’m making a difference, too.

One thought on “Coaching and adaptability”

  1. I think you were very brave to start coaching. It’s not easy being out there and being responsible for the team. But you are doing a great job and I’m proud of you.

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