Spring is in the air. The birds have returned, the grass is getting green and the sun is hanging in the sky a little longer each day. That can only lead to one thing. Little League baseball and softball practice is about to begin.
I took a walk the other day past the ball fields near my house and I saw a young coach attempting to get a practice in before sunset. I stopped and watched because being the sports junkie I am, even watching 6-year-old girls practice softball is better than taking a walk for exercise.
It only took about 15 minutes until I started laughing to myself. The young coach was obviously as much as a sports fanatic as I am and this was probably his first attempt at coaching. I applaud his efforts and desire to give back to the youth of the community, but his actions made me laugh as I reflected on some of the things I did as I learned the art of coaching youth sports.
The one thing that took me the longest to learn was that I was the only one on the team who lived and died with wins and losses. The trait of hating to lose at anything has made me successful in most of life's endeavors, but makes it hard to accept a 7-year-old missing a fly ball while the winning run scores. I would never yell at the child but I would torture myself with the thought that I should have spent 15 more minutes working on fly balls with the kid.
One memorable loss came early in my coaching career. We were playing for the 6- & 7-year-old girls softball championship and lost on a close play at the plate. I was sure the sun would never rise again. I saw the youngest player on my team crying her eyes out. I thought, with pride, that she gets it. She can't stand to lose. I went over and put my arm around her and told her not to worry, we'll get them next year. She told me that she was crying because she wouldn't be able to play in the dirt behind the fields anymore because the season was over. It took several more years till I understood that she really got it.
It didn't matter what the sport - basketball, football, softball or baseball - I approached coaching the same way I played the games. My philosophy had always been to never accept defeat. My favorite saying was, "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser."
I would never have been in one of those leagues where it's all about fun, we don't keep score and nobody wins. What's the point?
My first head-coaching job in youth football came at the expense of a 6-to-8-year-old Peewee squad. I played football at a lot of different levels and considered myself to be in the same class of Vince Lombardi, on his good days. I had hundreds of plays and defensive formations to make us successful. The first week of practice we worked without equipment and things seemed to go smoothly. We ran the same three plays 400 times, but they were finally getting it. I stressed that they should all read their playbooks over the weekend and practice with their fathers so as not to forget the stuff we worked on. I really expected this to happen. I knew I was going to spend my weekend getting ready for the next week's practices. (I told you it's a sickness.)
Monday was our first practice in full gear and I was really excited -- we finally get to hit each other. Nothing builds character like getting run over by a 75-pound 8-year-old. We started our practice by stretching. This brought my well-organized schedule to a grinding halt. I was faced with the realization that half my team couldn't get up off their backs without rolling over because the helmet was too heavy. I wasn't quite prepared for this aspect of practice.
Somehow we survived that season. In fact, parents of former players still speak about several of my pre-game pep talks - the father saying it was great and how pumped up we were, followed by the mother saying we were both nuts and reminding me of the restraining order to stay away from her child. It was pure fire and brimstone. I don't know how those little kids didn't get it.
I coached for several more seasons until my daughter moved on to middle school and I became a spectator. I missed being with the kids, but I started watching other coaches that I thought were successful. I got quite an education. The best players usually don't make the best coaches. There are people out there who don't consider sports the end-all, be-all, and because of that, it's not the most important thing to them.
I thought this was a foreign concept. It seems that the best youth coaches realize that kids have many interests and that part of the job is to give them an opportunity to experience the sport while helping them achieve success. To steal a phrase from recent NCAA commercials, "Almost all young athletes will turn pro in something other than athletics."
I decided that if I ever coached again I would attempt to work this philosophy in with all the drills and methods. I vowed to never scar another generation of 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds. I would coach teenagers.
The opportunity came to me when my friend asked me to take over the defensive coaching responsibilities for his 10-, 11- and 12-year-old football team. It was a marriage made in heaven. I didn't have to deal with the parents, the kids at this age wanted to be there and they are on the edge of manhood, so I could really get the testosterone flowing. These kids wanted to learn, were manageable, and hadn't reached the age where they had an attitude yet.
We were successful from the start and this only fed the monster. The kids got excited, and when you're winning, every word you say is gospel. At this level, you only have about 15 kids on a team, which means that the same kids play offense and defense. During one particular game we were down, 6-0, and the offense was struggling. In fact the offense gave up the only touchdown - on an interception. The kids were down. I called timeout and went out to the huddle. When I came back to the sideline the kids were yelling and raring to go. My friend, who coached the offense, wanted to know what I told them. I said I told them that our offense stinks and that if they wanted to win the defense was going to have to score.
He looked at me in disbelief. He was shocked that I said his offense stunk but couldn't get over the fact that it was the same 11 kids on offense and defense and that they didn't realize I was telling them they stunk. I knew they didn't care who I said stunk, they just needed someone to tell them that they believed in them. In their minds someone had to be blamed - I took it off their shoulders and blamed the offense. They were on defense right then and would accept anything I said about the offense as long as they were not to blame. It is a key to the male mind; as long as we can blame the problem on someone else, we will do whatever we have to in order to fix it. It worked. We spanked that team 21- 6.
I learned several valuable lessons during my time as a volunteer coach but two will stick out in my mind forever. If your kids are having fun and know you believe in them, they can accomplish anything. And it doesn't matter if you win or lose as long as the snack bar is open after the game.
I think I finally get it.