So you've been asked to manage a kid's baseball team and now you think the Major Leagues are a phone call away. Before delusions of being John McGraw have you contemplating your ticket to The Show, here's a little secret you need to know ...
Game Day is all about the players
Or, stated another way ...
Practices belong to the coaches ... Games belong to the players
If you love teaching and demonstrating and showing and running drills over and over and over again, and if you love watching children achieve to the highest level they're cable of, you have the basic tools to succeed. But, you must also appreciate the secret.
As young minds and bodies are developing, there is a delicate balance between learning new skills and fear of failure. My step-son, whose senior high school basketball coach called “the finest athlete I have ever coached”, fell off his bicycle the first time I tried to teach him to ride when he was six. He refused to get on a bike again for two years because some of his friends had witnessed his mishap. When he was finally ready to try again, he jumped on and was immediately doing wheelies like he had been born on it. I was ready to teach all along but I had to wait until the teaching environment allowed him to learn the new skill without the fear of failure. If I had pushed him, he may never have ridden again.
Many new managers in children's baseball believe that the depth of their character will be judged by the success they have on the field. It will, but not in the manner that they thought it would. The truth is, it's not about your win/loss percentage, it's about the effect you have on a dozen or so children. I lost my first managerial game in rookie ball by a score of 36 – 0. After that, I didn't lose a game for two years. It wasn't because I became some kind of a genius coach overnight, it was because I discovered the importance of preparation and understood the futility of getting in the way.
Eventually I realized that I love the practices more than the games. The games are pageantry! The players arrive in an adrenaline-fueled rush, exploding with excitement and anticipation. They practically burst with pride as they scamper into the dugout in their freshly laundered uniforms and join in the camaraderie with their teammates. Their parents and grandparents and siblings and uncles and aunts all fill the stands and cheer until they are rosy-cheeked and hoarse. Yes, this is their day and their only job is to have as much fun as possible. The other days belong to me and my job is to prepare them to play to the best of their potential. That's why I, as a coach, love practice.
And, there's more to the secret. Don't spoil their joy of the game by yelling at them! Don't correct a player during a game - don't chastise a batter's stance, don't lambaste your pitcher's stuff, don't rebuke an outfielder for missing the cutoff or a baserunner for attempting to stretch a single into a triple. Do enhance their joy by supporting them! Do manage the game - do flash them elaborate signs, do throw down a bunt or a steal (where rules allow), do make substitutions and pitching changes. But, when they make mistakes or use poor mechanics, just make notes and address these problems at practice. Allow the players to play the game and work on the fundamentals at practice. That's why they shout, “PLAY BALL!” instead of “WORK BALL!” at the start of every baseball game. When I learned this, my life as a baseball coach (and manager) became bliss.
When an adult yells at a player under great duress, like when he or she is trying to do the hardest thing in sports – hit a ball with a bat, all the player really hears is, “Honk-a, honk-a, honk-a, honkity-honk”. At best, the instruction is ineffective; at worst, the player may be humiliated in front of his or her teammates, friends and family. The trauma of this can drive a sensitive young player right out of the game. It is much more rewarding to wait until you are at practice where you can calmly address whatever needs addressing. The player will be able to focus on your instruction and have a better understanding of what he or she did wrong and how to do it properly. This learning environment provides you the options of repeating your explanation or trying a different approach or, my favorite, running drills for hours at a time. You can't do that during a game.
Of course, all of this would be useless if, during the game, some parents hurled their own never-ending string of commands, directives, criticisms, instructions, advice, abuse and commentary from the stands to their baffled, befuddled and bewildered children on the field. This behavior is certainly upsetting to the players but it is also counter-productive to your program. Such misguided comments as, “choke up on the bat”, “hit it over the fence” and “relax – come on, let's go”, all work against the program. I never teach players to choke up (they should select a proper sized bat), even Ken Griffey doesn't try to hit it over the fence (he employs fundamentally sound mechanics on every swing and a lot of his hits do end up over the fence) and the sheer act of yelling at their kids upsets them (no one relaxes when they are being yelled at). Therefore, I have a meeting with all of the parents and instruct them on the philosophy of, “Games belong to the players ...” I invite them to holler the timeless favorite, “YEA!” and leave the rest of it to me.
This is not a commentary on the issue of winning versus losing. There are two teams. A game will be played. There will be a winner and a loser. Embrace the emotions of the experience. Be happy when you win (you don't have to feel guilty) and sad when you lose (there is no shame in weeping like a two year old when your team loses the League Championship on a balk). You have feelings. Use 'em! Just separate the play of the game from the work in the practice. That's what it's all about.