Coaching the coach

In the next few weeks, kids, or rather their parents, will be registering to play on baseball and softball teams this spring and summer. They’ll stand in lines before folding tables in community centers or local restaurants, answering questions from serious adults they’ve never seen before.

That can be an intimidating scenario for adults, let alone for 4 or 5-year-olds. Throw in the lack of confidence in athletic skills that’s inherent at that age and you’ve got a serious opportunity for anxiety. Let’s not even address Dad’s mention of how great the beginning of his athletic career was. That’s not helping, Big Guy.

Despite Mom and Dad’s best intentions, and even when the kids are eager to join and play, joining a sports team for the first time, or any time, can be daunting no matter the skill level.

When my sons were younger and starting out, I was determined to be only a supportive father at the ball fields. No lectures about “this is how you should do it.” I would be available to help if they asked, but otherwise I’d stay on the sideline. That worked until the league was short on T-ball coaches.

When I was a kid, about all we did all summer – and for a good part of the winter – was play sports. Granted, it involved a bunch of friends loosely putting together random games in the neighborhood, not the structured organization that youth sports are.

I figured that I was going to be at all the games anyway, I had a good attitude and some patience and I loved sports. Besides, what could be better than spending a few hours in the park, under a sunny sky, watching 4-year-olds run around, laugh and learn?

Now this is the part of the story where you’re looking for a “however.”

I thought I’d start the first practice with something easy and fun. After all, these kids have already gone through the trauma of signups, the worry about keeping track of a new baseball glove and the social anxiety of standing around with a bunch of other 4-year-olds, most of whom they didn’t know.

I didn’t open with an inspirational pep talk. I didn’t glare at them and call them maggots. I didn’t channel Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s coach, Comet: “I’m not only your coach, I’m your friend. Right? Right!”

We started by practicing running around the bases, something they’d all be doing every game for the next few weeks. That way, they wouldn’t have to worry about whether they could catch a throw, lift a bat or take a swing without poking their eyes out.  Besides, I didn’t think it would be challenging to teach the kids to run the bases.

So I lined up the kids at home plate and explained that they would run toward first base, round it, run to second base and so on. It was pretty clear to me; made perfect sense.  I called out for them to start the drill, heading down the baseline and rounding the base.

As the first player approached, I told him to “touch the base.” Well, he did exactly as instructed. He stopped, leaned over and put his finger on the bag. Then he looked up at me as though to ask, “what next?” as his teammates piled up behind him.

My message might have been clear to me, but it wasn’t to the little dude. I failed to assess my audience and tailor my approach to that group. So who was learning: the kids or the coach?

I didn’t start my endeavor as a learning experience. But I kept my eyes and ears open and picked up pointers from the team, proving that valuable input can come from any source, even young and inexperienced.

We eventually got the base-running figured out because it seemed like we scored the league limit of 5 runs every inning. One of the things I took away from that spring I still reference today: It’s all about the juice box.

That’s what appeared to be the main concern for the players by the end of the season. No matter whether they made an out or dropped a fly ball, they were focused on the postgame snack. Come to think of it, that’s a good approach for adults to take every day.

And there’s no “however” in this story. I had a great time. While coaching my 4-year-old son’s team, we had a few games that overlapped with my 5-year-old son’s team on the next diamond. I could stand in the outfield and instruct our team while keeping an eye on my other son in his game.

The kids ran a lot, laughed a lot and I hope learned a lot. Surprisingly, I did the same.

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