If you’re a kid playing youth baseball, it can be both the biggest thrill and worst nightmare all wrapped into one. Emotions are amplified. A roller coaster of excitement one moment and disappointment the other. The game changes with one pitch, one inning or one play. With it, there must always be a level-headed leader steering the ship; the motivator and the one who inspires. But at the same time enforcing discipline, confidence and building character in his players. That’s what a coach is there for. But I have news for you; that coach needs to be very special. After all, we’ve all seen coaches over the past 20 years in youth sports. The art of coaching has deteriorated? There’s now a lack of respect for players, their parents and the officials. Coaches suggest it’s their way or the highway. Give me a break. Look, not all coaches are great coaches. For instance, yelling at kids because they make errors is just not a good coach. That’s my opinion, but put it in perspective. If you make a mistake, do you want to be embarrassed further?
How about public humiliation tactics on a misplayed ball? You’ve seen it happen to kids… do not tell me you haven’t. How about those coaches benching less talented players 4 to 5 innings in a Rec game. They don’t trust their players, BECAUSE THEY HAVEN’T WORKED WITH THEIR PLAYERS. Does anyone find that wrong? I do. To that I say ‘Get lost.’
The reality is, there is ‘coaching’, and then there is coaching correctly.
I recently read an article in The Player’s Tribune, a website formed by founding publisher Derek Jeter and while there are hundreds of interesting articles and personal stories from every type of athlete out there, I was taken by a small nugget in a much larger piece about the Core Four. If you’re not familiar, the Core Four was a name given to Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. Four men who all were called up to the Major Leagues around the same time and in 1996 had a string of championships that will forever be remembered in sports history. The New York Yankees won the crown with these 4 athletes in their clubhouse in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. Joe Torre, their manager, led the charge.
But it was the struggle before that, the trying to make it to ‘the Show’ that I found fascinating. They spoke of their determination, the importance of teamwork, hard work, respect and most of all, their friendship. What I found next delighted me. Here’s a short exchange from that article:
What made Mr. Torre a great manager for a team like ours is that he had patience, and he instilled that quality in all of us. That was especially important in New York because the expectation level is unmatched. If you’re a young player and you’re struggling there, it’s easy to unravel because the media will let you know about it. But he understood we were still learning. He let us know he was on our side. The last thing you want to see if you’re struggling is — when you come back to the dugout — the manager throwing things in the air, screaming and moaning. But Mr. T would always remain calm.
Always even-keeled. If you made an error, he’d be the first person you looked at, but his expression never changed. That let us know he had our back.
… I agree that his calm demeanor definitely rubbed off on us. If the manager wasn’t freaking out, why should we? It gave us the ability to relax, and also a lot of confidence when we did play well. Whether we were winning or losing, his managing style was consistent.
The one thing that made things easy is that Joe was good about talking to us. “
Here’s the reality; these are professional athletes on the biggest stage in sports. Throw in the Yankee pinstripes, and here’s a manager that, even at this high level, understood that development and nurturing needed to happen to bring out the best in his ball players. And so, he was patient.
It was touching and admirable. And it had me asking questions in my mind.
Where did this nurturing go in youth baseball?
When did coaches lose sight of this powerful style of coaching?
I’ve seen everything from a kid getting chewed out behind the dugout, to an 11-year-old boy getting gutted after dropping a pop fly. I even watched a boy, my own son get ripped publicly at third base after he missed a sign during a 12-0 deficit. That’s right, my kid’s team was getting spanked and he missed a sign. When he finally stole 3rd, he was screamed at by his coach. And for what? One run doesn’t equal twelve. Here’s more context; the game was in the 6th inning, no one else was on base, and there was one out. Needless to say, as a coach, you need to be smart enough to know that signs are off. It’s time to just have some fun out there.
Now my own kid has enough strength in his frame to know it’s just noise. He’s still playing baseball. Those others? They quit the game. Why? Because there was no protection, meaning, they didn’t feel as if they were needed or wanted or even supported by their coach. That’s right, kids quit when they no longer have a desire to play baseball because their coach loses sight of what’s truly important. That coach wants a trophy. He doesn’t want it for his team… he wants it for himself. And if he DID want it for his team, there would be a lot of encouragement and trust and support… and that’s the difference.
Coaches need to guide, not amplify a kid’s missed ground ball by yelling at him “for letting his team down.” (Yes, that’s a real quote from a really dumb coach, and I witnessed it.) A good coach will have a discussion after the game, maybe even the next practice. Maybe that coach will even ask him, “How you doing, kid?” Why? Because it’s not about winning at 8 or 10 or 12 years old. It’s about growing as a player in skill and confidence. It’s about those words that Jeter said when he spoke so highly of Joe Torre: “The last thing you want to see if you’re struggling is… a manager throwing things in the air, screaming and moaning. But Mr. T would always remain calm.”
Be calm. Explain the situation, make sure the kid understands there’s more baseball to play and “We’ll get it back.” Patience for kids that age will provide not only a solid environment for that player, but over time, they will find that a coach that still pats them on the back let’s them know that that coach still believes in them.
You want more? That coach should throw them back out there in that SAME position the next inning. That’s right, the same place they made the error in the previous inning. Why? Because sooner or later, that kid will find his moment, and when he does, he won’t look back on the time he was publicly humiliated. He will instead look back on that time his coach gave him another shot.
Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Pettitte are four of the most recognizable athletes in sports and they became that way because of hard work and because of coaches that guided them along the way. But what helped them the most was a solid, patient and understanding coach who did his best to make sure his young players didn’t give up on themselves. He had their back like a good coach should.
Reading Jeter’s article today, I began to think about so many embarrassing moments I’ve witnessed over the years in youth baseball. They all rushed straight to mind. Many of those kids left baseball because they didn’t feel supported. Others stayed because over time, the right coach stepped forward with an eagerness to help his young players believe.
If you want great ball players, it is my belief that ripping them to shreds in front of their peers after an error won’t get you anywhere as a coach. It also makes that kid fear worse than he did before. You never want a kid to be afraid to fail. You don’t play baseball that way. Sometimes saying nothing at that moment and remaining calm goes further because when the time is right, that athlete can reflect on that mis-play and learn from it.
If you’re coaching, be a leader, not a dictator. Get eye level and let them know “You tried, but I still need you big guy.” Trust me, you want your players to remain willing and able to perform. You do not want them shutting down because you dressed them down in a public forum.
Sometimes that positive nudge will show that twinkle in their eye again. Many times, it brings their confidence back to life. All the time it lets that youth player know you believe in them no matter what. And it’s my belief, that when that happens, dreams do come true for those ball players.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Derek Jeter.
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