Archive for April, 2010

“What’s The Most Important Thing About Being a Baseball Player?”

April 30, 2010

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. 

Elbows, Elbows, Elbows! Pic courtesy of TJ Arrowsmith

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.

It may not look pretty from the coach, but the cheering thing pays off. Courtesty TJ Arrowsmith

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.

It's not whether you win or lose, it's what you consider winning to be.

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.

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On Coaching, Kids, & Conflict

April 23, 2010

For a peacenik parent like me, sports—especially team sports—is a bit of a prickly issue.  To me, the thorniness of it is because sports is an inherently schizophrenic arena when it comes to conflict.  On the one hand, it is an amazing opportunity to teach, learn, and feel connected to the “team” ethos.  Unlike more single-oriented sports like golf and tennis, having the overall result of a contest be based on not only the performance of one, but all is the perfect paradigm for learning cooperation and understanding.

On the other hand, the inherently competitive nature of team sports pits your team against the other team.  It’s “us” vs. “them.”  It is therefore extremely easy to make the connections to contests not as games, but conflicts.  I have heard on many occasions announcers of baseball games saying, “what this team needs is a good fight to get them bonded together.”  Certainly players and coaches alike use all sorts of military-type analogies for their sport.  “I’d go to war with him anytime” is one of the common ways a player will say they like a fellow player or coach.  Indeed, one could look at competitive team sports entirely within a military ethos, and many successful teams and coaches do just that.

Perhaps I was just lucky that I got my start as a coach leading the arms control community’s squad—The Mighty Doves—in slow-pitch co-ed softball during the 90s.  I really had very little choice but to stress the positive and cooperative aspects—I don’t think a group made up of adults at organizations like Peace Action, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the Institute for Science and International Security would take well to a drill instructor routine.  But, even with a really strict focus on fun, TMD developed a rivalry with…wait for it…Greenpeace.  The irony of a team called The Mighty Doves getting into fisticuffs with Greenpeace (initiated by certain staffer at Peace Action that will remain nameless…) is certainly not lost on me, and made me acutely aware of the potential conflicts that are inherent in sports as I turned in my Mighty Doves jersey to start working my son Gus’ t-ball team.

“CoachN” has now been coaching Blastball (t-ball played with one base that honks when you step on it, a riot), t-ball, coach pitch, and now kid pitch baseball for five years now.  Glutton that I am, I’m coaching both Gus’ baseball team (the Grays, named after the Negro League’s Homestead Grays, who used Griffith Stadium in DC as their “Home Away from Home”), and Gunnar’s t-ball Mets.  I’m certainly not a perfect coach.  I’ve been called “relentlessly optimistic” and I lose my voice after just about every game due to “active encouragement.”  I probably meddle too much with the kids, when I should just let them be sometimes. 

But with my faults, parents seem to think I’m pretty good at it, and I think what makes my coaching applicable here is that I do it very much with Dudley Weeks’ “conflict partnership” in mind.  My two primary goals as a coach are simple—to have the kids love baseball enough to want to come back and play again, and to learn how to be a good teammate.

It’s the latter I’ll focus in on my next post, as my successes and failures may be helpful for both coaches and parents to help steer their kids’ sports experience in a positive direction.

KidTips With Doctor Mom

April 23, 2010

As parents, something I’ve heard, and myself experienced, is that wish for our children to exceed us.  Part of that may well be from the immigrant ethos that in many ways built America that the parents pave the way that their children would have the opportunities they did not.  My grandparents certainly did that for my parents.  My father’s parents were working class folk.  Lou was a little candy shop owner and his wife Mary, an émigré from Austria, was actually quite brilliant, and may have been a pharmacist back in her homeland, but was shut out of career opportunities here by the time and her status.  They worked hard and provided the opportunity for my father to go to college and become a college professor in entomology—a pretty big deal.

Grandpa Nat with Dr. Mom and the kids circa 1975--the man could make a serious chinese cookie

My mother’s parents were a baker and a travel agent (hmm, wonder where I get that sweet tooth from?).  Wonderful people who helped provide the opportunities for their kids.  My aunt Libby and uncle Paul became teachers, both giving back amazingly to their communities for decades.  My mother, Linda, bucked the still pervasive sexism of the time in the medical profession and became a developmental pediatrician.  Doctors that deal in the developmental and behavioral abilities of children are not a dime-a-dozen, and women in that profession, especially at the time she chose it, are rarer still.

This little trip down memory lane brings me to my essential point here:  my Mom is smart.  When I told her what I was up to with SHYB, she said that she’d be happy to provide some occasional advice on the issue of parenting and development here.  Given she has a 6 month waiting list for appointments, I thought this would be like giving parents some “better than WebMD” access to expert advice, so I swallowed my “NO, IT’S MY BLOG!” pride and said, “please.”

So every now and again, I’ll be linking to some articles my mother suggests, or passing on some advice for us parents.  I’m going to call them KidTips, because, well, it’s cute.  I’ll get it started with an email she sent me on something I really hand thought about, but with two boys playing baseball, caught my attention—kids and hand trauma.  Here’s what she had to say:

Hi Scotty, Went to a brilliant lecture this morning on orthopedic hand injuries in children and thought with your hard playing kids, these are some important points.

  1. If there is a bruise over an area of discomfort, assume there is a break in the bone.
  2. Xrays are often unremarkable even with a break especially if it is in the growth plate.
  3. Tap over the suspected area, don’t squeeze, if a tap is uncomfortable, see a doctor.
  4. Wrist sprains that involve the “snuffbox” the area on the wrist between the thumb and index finger, can seem to get better but have a fracture that, if not treated can lead to arthritis in the wrist.
  5. Ligament injuries need to be worked, tendon injuries need to be stabilized.
  6. The younger the child, the more likely a protective cast, rather than buddy splinting is indicated.

Hope you don’t need this information, but here it is.  Love you.  Mom

Brilliant doctor, but the matzo balls at this year's seder? Sinkers.

Mom also sent me a link to an article I’ll be blogging about a little later on, but that gives you a sense of the great, and not immediately thought about tips that she can provide.  So, as George W. Bush (or at least Will Ferrell’s version) would say, “You’re Welcome, America!” 

By the way, you can learn more about my Mom at her website.  In case she ends up getting too big a head about all my kudos, I want to note that her Matzo Balls have never been as good as my Grandma Mary’s.

Where How To Train Your Dragon Went Wrong

April 16, 2010

"Let My People Go!"

Well Spring Break was a great one for the Nathanson clan.  We had a wonderful stay in Atlanta, where my mother whipped up her usual Passover magic, this time doing the Seders in full costume!  Gus took on both the roles of Moses (Seder 1) and Pharoh (Seder 2), and Gunnar stuck with the less heralded but extremely important Aaron role.

After lots-a-matzo and a fete for my Aunt Libby’s big 65th, we headed down to my Mother-in-Law Solveig-Lynn’s house in the Florida Keys.  Sun, swimming, baseball played with coconut bases, tarpin feeding, kayacking, and, in case you’re interested, the best Key Lime Pie that I’ve ever had (the Conch House in Key Largo).

When we needed a break from the sun and sand, it was nice to have one of the few movie theaters in the Northern Keys nearby.  I was shocked to learn that this little theater actually had the 3D version of the new DreamWorks movie How To Train Your Dragon available.  We decided to pop in and see it on our last event there, with Gus buying treats for his Keys girl Jenny—first time buying a girl popcorn at the movies!  Big moment in parenting!

Okay, I said I’d talk about the movie, not give you a “Dear Diary” – so here we go.  I will keep everything until the end relatively spoiler free.  The story sets up as a “long ago” tale of Vikings (already making this a hit with my boys with their Nordic roots) on a nasty-rocky Island of Berk, stubbornly fighting an age-old war against all manor of species of dragons who plague their village.  In typical “fish out of water” style, our hero, Hiccup, is smart and sensitive—very un-Viking—and the anthesis of his macho father Stoik the Vast.

A leap of faith after Hiccup discovers Toothless ain't toothless

A turn of events has Hiccup freeing, helping to heal, and ultimately befriending “Toothless” – one of the most mysterious of species of dragons.  In time Hiccup and Toothless learn about each other, how to trust each other, and ultimately how to work together.  Hiccup then learns more about how all species of dragons really act, and their real motivations for stealing all the Viking livestock they can get their hands on.  When Stoik discovers what Hiccup has learned, he wants to use that knowledge to destroy all the dragons over Hiccup’s objections.  As you might expect, Stoik’s bravado is highly misplaced, and only Hiccup, his young friends, and their dragon allies can save the Vikings from destruction.

Toothless, I must admit, is slightly cuter than the Horta

All-in-all, a well told tale, with what I though was a moral play very much akin to the Star Trek “Devil in the Dark” episode that I talked about on an earlier post.  One very clever device that they used in the tale was to give all of the adult Vikings this sort of Scottish highland accent (let by Gerard Butler of 300 fame as Stoik), but gave all the kids American accents.  This helped give a more distinct sense of separation between the motivation of the kids and adults, and, at least for the American audience, made the kids in the crowd feel more identified with their compatriots on the screen.  Add in some pop-culture kind of references, including one of Hiccup’s companions classifying the dragons the way our kids know their Bakugan monsters, and you have nice generation-gap underlay to the whole thing.

The animation itself was also very good, though I have to say I’m still not “getting it” when it comes to 3D.  I see the added depth that the technology gives, but it seems more distracting than integral to most of the movies I’ve seen.  It still feels more like a gimmick than something that really adds to the film itself.

So, the movie was riding very high with me right up until the very end. [SPOILER ALERT] Hiccup is able to save the day, but is nearly killed for his efforts.  The final scene starts with him waking shakily from his travail in his bedroom, and immediately his dragon friend rushes to his side in delight.  It very much reminded me of the scene in Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo wakes in Rivendell after being stabbed the magic blade, and having his Hobbit friends all rush to greet him.  The scene continues to show that the dragons are now living side-by-side with the Vikings, sharing Berk together rather than fighting each other.

Hiccup bestrides Toothless, and takes off with all his friends, soaring in peace over their town as the curtain closes—but not before one last line that changed my impression of the whole movie.

Not where the dragons should go

To paraphrase the final line, Hiccup says that while his town might be a hard place to live, the one redeeming value is at least they have the coolest pets.  While I recognize that this movie was called How to Train Your Dragon, the “pets” word stunned me.  At first, the Vikings had been at war with the Dragons, thereby putting them on an even ground with the humans.  These were two species and societies at war with each other—there was never a sense that the dragons were somehow inferior to humans.

Indeed, the whole buildup of the story seemed to be how Hiccup and this dragon found a way to become partners, akin to the Eragon dragon tale, but in a more interesting way because the dragon could not speak, so they had to find their way together without a common language.  The kids learned that the “animal like” ferocity of the dragons stemmed often from fear.  The end of the film before that last line seemed to indicate to me that two very different species had learned to live together in peace.  But instead, the tale ends that the dragons were not the equals of the humans, instead they were just poor creatures that needed to be tamed and could now live nice lives under the watchful protection of their human masters.

What a waste.  A wonderful opportunity to show respect for differences becomes a tale of the enlightened man’s superiority over the savage beast.  Now, it’s certainly a far better lesson than “might makes right” but with that one word, a crucial lesson about respecting someone for who they are, not what they look like or what they can do—or can’t do, was lost.  Indeed, that line really brought back a lot of the references that pro-slavery and segregation whites had for black people before the Civil War and subsequently in the post-reconstruction South—that African Americans were just fine, but simply naturally inferior.  So the white man’s role was benevolent master.  Unfortunately, that’s where the Viking/Dragon relationship ended up because of that one word.

I would not dissuade you from going to see this–there’s a lot to like in this film–but I would suggest, that if you agree with my point on this, that you think about using it as a teachable moment.  Gus and I discussed it after the movie, and I asked him whether he saw the dragons as pets of the Vikings.  He said, “No, the dragons are just as good as the Vikings.  Toothless was Hiccup’s friend, not his pet.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.