The youth baseball culture has turned drastically different from when I was a kid. A lot of coaches now want that ‘automatic’ team, 12 ‘studs’ at 12 years old to win a meaningless championship. And, if one of those kids makes an error, strikes out, misses a sign, forget it… that kid could be publicly humiliated or benched and eventually plays less… and for what? So Papa Coach can get a trophy and be known as the one who brought a youth baseball team to a town or Club championship… really? REALLY?
I never want to root against a player or coach trying to obtain victory. Believe me, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. After all, whatever team it may be, you have to appreciate the grind and the determination of kids or pro athletes out there, but I was recently looking at video from Game 7 of this past World Series, and there were a few lessons not only for aspiring young ball players to pay attention to, but for coaches out there too, those coaches under the impression that our kids need to be perfect on the baseball diamond.
Three specific plays come to mind, and mind you, this is on the biggest stage in sports.
The first one was when Cubs shortstop Addison Russell flipped the baseball to second baseman Javier Baez. They were attempting to turn a double play, and as anyone in baseball knows, it’s about speed. Baez tried to bare hand the ball on the toss from Russell, and he’s done that play hundreds of times before that night, but in Game 7, Baez actually muffed it, and was unable to get a single out.
The next was a simple charge from Addison Russell who needed to grab the baseball and make a play. As he charged a ground ball coming toward him at short and while his bare hand was out to receive it, he fumbled it and was never able to make that play.
The third play was when Javier Baez was at the plate. Jason Heyward was at third base and on 2 strikes, and the suicide squeeze on, he attempted to bunt the ball, but instead it went behind the plate, essentially striking out and ultimately not doing the job to get the run in from third base. A critical moment… but that’s baseball.
Now think about this for a moment. These are professional ball players. Did they get benched after mistakes were made? Nope. They continued to play their positions and manager Joe Maddon continued to put trust in his players. Did their team win? Yup. The Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908… a historic feat.
In other words, in a Major League Baseball game with millions watching… a World Series for the ages on the line, the world did not stop, Joe Maddon did not ream his players in front of millions of fans, and trust me when I say this, there was a lot more on the line then bragging rights between a few local towns in your community. And so I have to ask; Why? Why in the world is it suddenly OK in our society to publicly humiliate a child trying to learn this game of baseball when he makes an error or strikes out swinging? The high stakes set in place in youth baseball were set by all of us and it is my opinion that we’re “doing it wrong” as my kids will tell me if I need to take over my wife’s duties in the house if I’m off and she has to work.
I have witnessed some pretty crazy stuff as my children have been involved in more competitive baseball over the years. I remember seeing a boy drop a ball in the outfield. Yes, it was routine, and yes, he should have caught it, but he didn’t. As a spectator, you feel bad, but that kid feels the worst, and so, why amplify it? 9 times out of 10 you know the parents, they sit next to you for 10 to 15 games a season in their lawn chair, and so you say nothing, because the tension in that moment is enormous for everyone. What happened next was incredible. The coach walked out after the third out ripping that kid in right field. I mean, seriously, HE DIDN’T EVEN LET HIM GET TO THE DUGOUT. This of course brought the kid to tears and next thing you know he was benched for the rest of the game. That boy was 11 years old. Now we all know what’s happening here, right? That coach has to win that game, because that coach will receive a bonus from his employer if his team wins. And so, there was too much at stake for that particular coach. But none of those kids know this. For many, this is just a game.
That team lost that game. The boy never returned to that organization and found a team that actually trains their kids to be better ball players, not hole fillers. Thank God that kid’s dreams weren’t crushed that day. But there are plenty around the country that just give up. The pressure was too enormous, the coaches were over the top, and the idea of being perfect, even at 11 was law for those coaches. It’s my feeling that it’s kind of silly.
Kids need to follow dreams, folks, and when they find that coach that takes the extra time with every player and teaches, the opportunity and the success for those kids can be endless.
We were all kids once. Many of us wanted to play professional baseball. Nearly all of us didn’t, but now there’s a new crop of kids with that same dream and they need support, motivation, encouragement and growth. But in this day and age, they’re not getting it. Who are we as their superior to determine how far they should get in their young baseball career? We should be teaching them to shoot for the stars, not to bench them to “teach them a lesson” about making errors.
I call it the Growing Years, because there needs to be a period for a young player where they are consumed by nurturing, training and teaching until they hit the big field. Once they do, my rule of thumb as a coach is to get them up to speed, but let them play the game. Actually PLAY IT, and conversations and tweaks come later, after the game, at the next practice. Yes, you still teach and motivate on a 60×90 field, and maybe the tone’s tougher and forceful because hell, by then, if they can’t hit a baseball, you can guide them as a coach, tweak them if needed, but they need to now take all the knowledge they have learned over the years and apply it. You can be stricter now; they are older players… teenagers, not a young kids still being molded.
But those little guys? 8, 10, 11 years old… they need direction. They need to learn the game, understand that making a mistake is a stepping stone, a lesson to learn so you don’t do it again and grow from it. Every play in this game at that young age is about learning. Make a mistake, learn from it. Did you just get a nice hit? Why? What worked for you? Forget the see the coach’s sign? Why? Pay closer attention. Everything these kids do in this game at a young age is a growing moment… and you as a coach MUST grow them into ball players. It is your duty.
Mistakes will happen, even as a pro ballplayer. Help your young players learn to make less of them. Errors will happen. Teach your players how to improve their skill so it cuts the percentages of failure. Strikeouts will happen. Guide your players to keep their eye on the ball, to drive the knob through the zone and swing hard and quick. Use that Tee and do it over and over and over again until that swing is exactly the same every time. Muscle memory is your friend. Assuming they know how to play, that they know the signs and can play perfect every single time is exactly the wrong way to coach!
Oh, and no bonuses. You coach this game because you love it and want to get kids up to speed to become better athletes. If you’re coaching because you will get extra money for a championship, I have one thing to tell you… “You’re doing it wrong.” You’re the exact reason why this game is less popular now than when we were kids, because you’re not in it for them, you’re in it for you. You’ve lost sight of the big picture.
Keep kids motivated and loving this game. Keep them coming back. That’s the Youth baseball I remember. We need to get back to it.
-Rob Monaco, Father, Coach & Baseball Commissioner