Baseball is a funny game. While a team sport, it is at the same time one of the most individual of games. In very few team games to you get a start where the defense has the ball, has to throw it to the offense, and only the offense can start the play with no interference from the defense. That’s the essential nature of the pitcher/batter combination—very much a mono-y-mono confrontation at the center of a team sport.
The more individual nature of baseball makes it an even more challenging game to coach and really preach teamwork. But, at the same time, it’s actually a fantastic game to teach the intangibles of teamwork, and what they can mean to performance.
As I noted in my last post, I’m not a perfect coach. I am still learning to try and clearly communicate with my parents the things I expect from them and their kids—sometimes I ask them to be mind-readers, and that doesn’t help anyone. But some things I seem to do well. In the next series of posts, I’ll be giving a tip a post, with some specific examples, about what seems to work for me. Here’s the first.
Ask surprising questions, give surprising answers, and lather, rinse, repeat ad nauseum. Much like we do, kids often go in with preconceived notions about how they’re supposed to do things, even at a young age. Telling stories that end up with unexpected questions are a great way to involve players and get them to understand why you are stressing something.
Here are a couple of examples of this. First with my 5-6-year-olds, I ask “what is the most important part of your body for running fast?” Invariably, I get “legs!” “feet!” or “noodle!” I then say “nope, it’s your elbows!” The kids are fascinated, because it just makes no sense. I then explain to them how their legs work in sync with their elbows, so the faster they chug their elbows, the faster their feet will move. We run the bases before every game focused on our elbows, which is a site to see.
The other example is with my older ones is a story from when Gus and I went to an overnight baseball camp. Our team was doing a base running trial, and everyone ran the bases as fast as they could (the 90 foot variety, so those little lungs were puffing at the end). When the first player took his second turn, Gus started to cheer for him. Everyone was just watching the first time, but we all followed Gus and cheered for each player the second time. I then ask the players when I’m telling this story, “Do you think the runners got ran faster or slower on their second time through?” Most say “slower” and are surprised when I say “every player ran faster the second time through, and we were the only team that got faster the second time through.”
When I ask my players what that means, one will usually come through with my point, “when you cheer for your teammates, they do better.” Because the answer came from one of them, rather than from me, it feels more like a conversation rather than simply instruction—and kids just seem to retain a lot more that way—I think we all do.
This brings me to my #1 question that I use and repeat every year, every practice, and every game: “What’s the most important thing about being a baseball player?” That is a question that I have been asking my players since they were five years old. The responses I usually get are “hitting the ball!” “catching!” or “noodle!” The answer I always give? Supporting your teammates. But I go one further than ask, I reward and applaud good cheering as much as I do good play. I constantly remind my players to support the batter, the pitcher, and each other.
That kind of constant support, and focus on your teammates has two major positives, to my mind. First, it teaches a cooperative spirit; thinking about something other than just themselves. That’s obvious. What’s less obvious is that it gets the players focused on each other, rather than the opposition. This to me is an essential way to get kids thinking about playing team sports with an eye less toward “us vs. them” and “we’re here to do the best we can possibly do.” I think this becomes especially important once real competition begins, but if you preach it to the kids from t-ball on, it becomes second nature. It doesn’t (and, I think shouldn’t) remove the competitive nature of the game, but it makes the competition focus inward at doing your very best, not on defeating the competition.
I remember a game this past fall, our first kid pitch season, when our young lot went up against a team clearly ten times better than us. As we went into the last inning down 20-1, the boys started cheering on the top of their lungs “NO OUT RALLY!” and clapped in unison. Against this juggernaut, the cheers quickly went to “ONE OUT RALLY” and “TWO OUT RALLY!” But they were screaming for each other, cheering and laughing. When we shook hands when the game was over, we looked and acted like the team that had won. One of my parents came up and said “I have never seen a team lose by 20 and be that happy and active all the way through!”
But by focusing on what we could do, and sticking with each other, we turned a bad loss into a fun day at the park. In that, we all won.