Archive for May, 2010

Happy Birthday! Now Go Kill Each Other.

May 28, 2010

I’m getting a late start on my blog today as I needed a little bit of my Friday “me” day to start thinking about Gus’ birthday party, which is June 21 (he’s a summer solstice baby and Gunnar is autumn equinox—we joke that Kirsten would be worshiped if we were Druids).

Banned in the Nathanson household

Now I could certainly look to take Gus and his friends to the ballgame, head out to the local laser tag arena, or make the trek to Chuck-E-Cheese.  Such a thing, however, would be considered a shanda—a disgrace—to my family.

You see, Dr. Mom set the bar VERY high for birthday parties.  I’m a December birthday, which made baseball parties out-of-the question in the traditional sense.  But my mother wouldn’t let that stop her.  For my 7th birthday, she simply cleared out our unfinished basement, used chalk to make the baselines, and has us design our own uniforms with markers on t-shirts, and it was “Play Ball!” for my birthday.

Trip to the putt-putt course?  No way!  Instead she went to the local science museum in Atlanta, the Fernbank Science Center, and created a scavenger hunt that all my friends did, racing around to find the answers to all the questions in order to win prizes in the end.  I still remember my friend Stephen Greenstein coming up to me at school the next day and saying, almost bemused, “You know what, that party was actually really, really fun!”

I thought the baseball jersey was a nice touch

I’ve picked up Dr. Mom’s mantle, and firmly believe that a great home-made birthday party is more than just a celebration—if done right, it becomes one of those moments in time your family captures forever.  As you can see, I still look back on Dr. Mom’s birthday parties as seminal events.  I wanted to at least try do the same for my boys.

The dilemma for the peacenik parent comes when the party that your child most desires is something that, at its core, means children beating the living daylights out of each other.  It’s hard to think of a Star Wars party that doesn’t involve light saber dismemberment of some sort.  Or a Harry Potter party free of cruciatus curses.  Or an Indiana Jones party that doesn’t involve, “You throw me the idol, I throw you the whip.”

To my mind, there are two ways with dealing with that issue if you would prefer to have a party that goes a bit beyond “here’s a foam stick, go hit somebody” (not to say that’s not really, really fun sometimes).  One is diversion—which is easier, but often effective.  “You want a Star Wars party?  Well, that’s great, but wouldn’t a water-slide party be even more fun?!?”  With the infinite variety of party activities out there, there is often one or two that really tickle your kid’s fancy but doesn’t make you feel like you’re running a boot camp.

A team effort to find the kingdom of the chocolate skull

It’s the second technique that goes more toward Dudley Weeks’ Conflict Partnership model.  It takes a little more thinking, but in many ways I think it’s really more satisfying for both you and your child.  The wonderful thing about some of the best pop-culture stories that engage and entertain our kids is the fact that even the most violent of them are not entirely violent.  Be it Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Transformers or pretty much any of the testosterone-laden boy entertainment, there are virtually always pieces to the story that are really cool, but are not the “bloody parts.”  By focusing the party on those elements, you can bring an element of cooperative teamwork to even the most “us vs. them” dynamic.

I’ve now done Star Wars, Pirate, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and Star Trek parties for Gus from ages 4-8.  My experience may be helpful to those parents who want to give their kids what they want, but perhaps not exactly how they were expecting to get it.  So I’ll spend the next series of posts talking about these parties (and a couple of Gunnar’s, too) to help give you a few ideas about how to draw from your kids wishes, pop-culture, and some of the central tenets of conflict resolution to help create more than birthday parties, but family milestones.  Of course, I’d love to hear from any of you some of your best birthday party ideas.  I have to say I’m struggling a bit for Gus’ party this year, which he wants Marvel Super Heroes.

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“On The Line!”

May 21, 2010

Yep, I stole that idea--won't be the last time, either. Courtesy TJ Arrowsmith

Many of the things I’ve noted that I do as a coach are decidedly unoriginal.  Much like my storytelling, I tend to get my ideas from other, smarter people, and then put a little twist on them.  The chairs idea that I talked about in my last coaching post, for example, came directly from Dave Brown, a great guy who coached my big boys’ first Blastball team.  I just added the taped down names with logos to the seats, and voila, I’m a genius…

Susie T (a frequent SHYB commenter!) gets the Doves slap of the cap back in the day

The one thing that I do that I haven’t seen other coaches do, but really seems to work is my “on the line!” routine.  The origin of this traces back to my Mighty Doves days once again, as after each game, I singled out a particular star, had her/him take a knee, and regaled them with poor poetry extolling their amazing day in the field.

For the younger ones, I’ve made one significant adjustment.  After we give our “good game” high fives to the other team, I say “Indians/Mets/Grays…ON THE LINE!”  They all dash down the right or left field line depending on our dugout that day, and line up.  One by one, I go through each, and tell them one thing they did particularly well that day.  For my older guys, I have inserted the “slap of the cap” for the one two, or three players that deserve particular merit.  The boys have taken over that tradition, and tackle the winner(s) and pelt their smiling, cringing faces with hat slaps.  Sometimes, this turns into a game of cap tag.  It’s really evolved into something the boys love.

I ALMOST got hitting lessons from him when I was a kid, but he's helping me out now as a coach

For my t-ball aged players, I have added star stickers they get to put on their hats, borrowing from Willie Stargell’s “Stargell Stars” that he put on players’ hats during the late 1970s.  These “Stengel Stars” (named now for the 1st manager of the New York Mets, Casey Stengel) are awarded in different colors and sizes for great offense, defense, team play, and spirit.  After each player gets a star, all the players yell “Let’s Go Mets!”  No slap of the cap yet–at this stage I think it’s better for every player to be an equal winner.

No matter what sport you might coach, or what sport your girl or boy might be playing, I cannot recommend this enough.  In many ways, the “on the line!” has replaced the importance of the win-loss to many of my kids.  That is the post-game result that they really care about.  Even when we win, most of them cannot wait to get on the line—to get validated and have fund with their teammates.

You don’t have to remember every detail of the game to make this work, though the more personal you make each comment, the better.  And because you are rewarding not just play, but attitude, there is room to compliment each and every one.  So, no matter what the final score is, each player, and the team, leaves with a positive.  Sometimes it’s getting them to leave that’s the trick—those cap slap tag games can go on for a while if you’re not careful…

I’ll be making other posts about coaching, but this concludes my focus on the subject.  I hope my experiences—for better and worse—can be of use to others.  Coaching has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me.  I’ve made lots of new friends, from passionate parents to my incredible co-coaches, learned a number of things about myself, and, I think, had a chance to bring a love for baseball, and a “power with” view of team sports, to some wonderful kids.  If you’ve ever thought of trying it yourself, don’t miss the opportunity.

How To Train Your Dragon to Get a Sequel, and Opportunity

May 21, 2010

I’ll be getting back to coaching in just a bit, but I was at first irked, but then very excited about the news from Variety that DreamWorks is planning a sequel to How to Train Your Dragon.  As you might remember from my review of the film, I felt is had many good points and was a story well told, until one word at the end really ruined it for me.

When I first heard the news of a sequel, my cynical side came out and said “ah, great, more patting of the little slave/pet dragons.”  Then I headed over to Wikipedia and looked at synopses of the books to see how the story continued in the series.  Much to my surprise, as I read the synopsis of the original How to Train Your Dragon book, the film is almost entirely different.  Cressida Cowell, the author of the book, said she approved of the changes and still felt it “kept to the spirit” of her book.

I disagree—from what I gather, I think the movie almost did her book one better.  Before the “P” word, the movie really helped paint the dragons as equals to humans, where from what I gather, in the book dragons like Toothless were quite comfortable in their subservient role.

Toothless could figure out there is something rotten in the Isle of Berk

This major break from the book is a wonderful opportunity to turn that last line, showing that even Hiccup doesn’t think of dragons as more than pets, into the central story line and tension for the sequel.  I could see a wonderful plot where the dragons, who at first enjoyed living side-by-side with the Vikings, start to chafe at being told what to do and where to go all the time.  Even Toothless, who loves Hiccup dearly, sees the problems, but is having trouble getting Hiccup to see it, too.  Set that up against either another all-dragon tribe, or a bitter Viking who was exiled by Stoik that entices the remaining dragons with freedom from rules—if they will only help them destroy Berk and all its human inhabitants. 

Most go, and a very few dragons stay.  When the attack comes, the Vikings strategy fails—even Hiccup’s plans.  Berk is in trouble, and about to be razed to the ground.  Hiccup finally realizes that the only one who knows how to stop the dragons are—the dragons.  And only by learning to become partners—not keepers—with the dragons, are they able to save their land, and bring the dragons they once loved back into the fold.  Indeed, the solution may end up being not fighting at all.

You get tension, war, dragons doing their deadly things, and you get a wonderful moral tale in the end about understanding the value that every creature has when you treat it with respect.

Oh, and DreamWorks, the answer is yes, I’d be happy to script it out for you.  And I have another great script called The Adventures of MightyDove for you while we’re at it (I’ll be blogging about that one another time).   Call me…

Holy Crap, I’m a Disciplinarian?

May 14, 2010

Go, Gunnar, Go! Courtesy TJ Arrowsmith

“I need to tell you that [our son] has thrived under your coaching.  His parents and his school are not as discipline focused as you are so we were not sure how it would go, but it has been amazing and we are learning from you that he does better in a more structured, task-focused environment.  We are very grateful.”

– A T-Ball Mets Mom

I begin with this quote not to toot my own horn (okay, there’s a little bit of tooting, I’ll admit), but more to tell you that this is not the first very kind mother of a kid I’ve coached that has use the word “discipline” to explain my coaching style.  And I have to say, it always surprises me, because I perceive myself as anything but a disciplinarian.  The word engenders a kind of seriousness, a kind of ferocity, a kind of push to conformity that I absolutely abhor.

But I must reluctantly admit that is a key part of my coaching style.  For that, I must credit my sister, Melanie.  Before she became the high-powered health-care lobbyist here in DC that she is today (as well as being an amazing Mom to my awesome 3-year-old nephew, Sam) she was an middle-school teacher in a school at Half Moon Bay on the other side of the country. 

Mel now focusing her considerable teaching skills on little Sammy

When I visited her from college (I was going to school in LA), I had a chance to go with her for a day and see her teach.  Seeing her work the class tirelessly and with a mix of high praise and constant instruction, she asked me after the day was over to “grade her” on a 1-10 scale.  I gave her an 8—she was not pleased.  She asked why I gave her a “B” and I noted how serious she often was—she wasn’t just “the fun teacher.”  What she said to me has lasted a lifetime.  She said, “kids may not know it, but they crave structure, because they just don’t know enough yet to create parameters for themselves.  They may think you’re the “cool teacher” if you let them do their thing, but you’re doing them no favors in school or life that way.”

Well, at the tender age of 21, I thought she was full of crap.  At 40, I have realized the absolute and utter wisdom of that.  Melanie didn’t crack knuckles, but she focused them on having fun through what they were learning.  This not only kept the “class clowns” focused more on their work, it allowed those fully invested in what they were doing to feel validated.  So, Mem, I revise my score to a 9 – would have been a 10 but you didn’t have popcorn for the class when you watched the movie 😉

Coaching is, to my mind, teaching, as I’m sure you’ve gathered.  And that fun through what you are doing is a key to keeping kids both entertained and focused.  So, indeed, my tolerance for “non-baseball” silliness is very low.  This is an especially hard thing in baseball, because it is not a constant action sport, especially on offense as you wait your turn to hit.  To me, that makes it all the more important for a coach to keep the kids focused. 

So we’ve talked about the fun, but here are some tips on the “focus” side from that mean ole’ CoachN:

Courtesy TJ Arrowsmith

It’s about the team: Kids at about any age can start to understand the difference between being an individual and being part of a team.  Making them understand that they’re here to do something really fun, but fun together can help them understand what cooperation is all about, and it also sets things up right from the very beginning that you as a coach expect for them to behave in a way that helps the team and that behaviors counter to that are not acceptable.

It’s about the game: Fun is key, but how you’re having fun is just as important.  Now, I love baseball.  I love every little nuance, I love seeing all the players move without the ball, backing up, ready for a play that may not even happen.  I understand that not everyone shares this obsession, most certainly young kids just learning about the game.  But there are still lots of ways to have fun as a kid with baseball—cheering, swinging, crabbing, and running from tickle monsters.  It is a coach’s job to find the fun in the game and bring it to the forefront.  It’s also the job to keep the kids focused on that fun, and not wandering elsewhere.  Giving both disciplinary reminders (“keep your heads in the game!”) and instructive ones (“hey, if you were watching, you’d notice that the pitcher is releasing the ball up high, so you need to look for it there”) is a tough job, but one that really seems to pay off.

Draw the line:  Make it clear what you will or you won’t tolerate.  What kind of fun is great, and what kinds hurts the team.  Lather, rinse, repeat often.

“Three Strikes”: I can’t tell you how much this helps both me, and the player.  By using this system, especially with younger players, it helps me to remember not to discipline a kid for a first infraction, which is important.  But it helps the player to understand that if they’re to make mistakes, they shouldn’t make the same one multiple times.

Ya gotta punish sometimes…:  Kids need it sometimes, as it tells both them, and the team, that there are real consequences.

Tip for t-ball: personalized chairs, cheap, easy way to keep kids exactly where you want 'em. Courtesy TJ Arrowsmith

…But keep it light: Infractions should be taken care of, but the punishments should be fleeting, especially at these ages.  Sitting a kid down away from his teammates for a few batters, or part of an inning is usually enough to let them know you’re serious.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually forced a player to miss an at bat, but I have taken them from the bench and told them they weren’t going to hit. 

Explain yourself, and give, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th… chances: When I have to consequence a player, I always ask “Do you know why I’m doing this?”  I have rarely met the girl or boy who didn’t have the exact answer.  I then ask them “Can I trust you to turn it around, and be my hero today?”  Again, I have rarely met the kid who wants to let coach down.  If they do?  Lather, rinse, repeat…

Reinforce the turnaround:  Simple, but key.  Praise the living bejesus out of the kids doing it the right way—especially (but not exclusively) the ones that have discipline issues.

Courtesy TJ Arrowsmith

Be in love with their baseball fun:  While a coach needs to direct the kids focus on the game, give them the space to be creative.  When they come up with a special cheer, join in and reinforce that positive.  When they start to “do what coach does” and instruct other players, love them for it, while gently prodding them to keep focused on what they’re doing.  Follow their game-related suggestions.  If they have figured something out about a pitcher or their position, tell them to let the whole team know.  They more of this they do, the more invested they are in the team, and help make it better.

You’re not perfect, so admit it: There is no doubt that you can go overboard on either the discipline or the fun side of coaching.  Lord knows I’ve done both.  I had a new player on my big boy’s team this year that didn’t really understand my instructions because I was “coaching in shorthand” as my co-coach told me.  I realized that I was being too hard on him, and at the game later that week, I took him aside and I apologized.  Apologies are not a sign of weakness, but a sign that everyone, even coaches, make mistakes.  I find apologies from coaches something that helps to cement a bond, rather than deflate an authority figure.

So there you go.  Next, a little tip on what seems to be the most popular of my team-oriented tactics.  What I call “On The Line!”

The Coach’s Line Between Silly & Serious

May 7, 2010

When your hand can be a prop--you're gooood...

Has anyone heard of the Great Zucchini?  He’s a D.C.-area legend.  A proverbial “guy’s guy” who happens to be the most in-demand children’s birthday party entertainment in the national capital region.  I read a great article on him a couple of years back in the Washington Post Magazine.  The secret to his success?  Simple.  Kids love it when the grown-ups are the butt of the joke.

From my experience, you tend to lose kids when they become the clowns.  The “class clown” tends to distract the rest of the group, and that boy or girl is so impressed with their own hilarity, what you are trying to teach them is going in-and-out of the proverbial ears.

But the site of a grown-up doing something silly is, to my mind, magic to children—especially kids in the 3-6 year-old set.  Rather than distracting, children find it absolutely engrossing.  “Do it again! Do it AGAIN!”  they yell as they watch you be a goof. 

And that’s where the silly works SO well for coaching.  To get kids’ muscle memory working for anything from running the bases to the complexities of a baseball swing, they need repetition.  Now, a select few kids will from an early age be able to focus on simple skill building and love it.  But most parents can tell you that their kids need to be really engaged to do something over and over again.  That’s where the good Mr. Zucchini’s advice comes in so handy.  Here are a few examples of what I have done as a coach with my t-ball and Blastball kids (4-6 years-old) that’s worked pretty well:

I'm no Zucchini, I need propsTickle Monster on the Bases:  Getting the kids to learn to run the right direction around the bases was a bit more of a task than I had first expected.  And running is just so, boring.  Well, one little orange hand-puppet changed all that around.  I found tickle-monster when Gus was just a baby, this fuzzy puppet with big white eyes and five finger-sized tentacles.  Learning to run with elbows flying high?  Tickle Monster would chase behind them making “nummy” noises, eager to tickle the player who forgets her/his elbows.  Going the right direction?  Well, Tickle Monster was there to get giggles from any runner straying from the right path.  Base running practice went from a chore to the kids going “AAAWWWW!” when I told them it was time to do something else.

Do the Twist:  Hitting is complicated.  Your body has to do SO many different things in relative unison—all in a fraction of a second.  While it was helpful to break the swing down into different parts (stepping forward, “pulling the bow” to get the bat back, and throwing your hands at the ball to level the swing), the hardest part is getting kids to understand how to open their hips and use their body to get in the right hitting position.  So what simple thing can get a kid thinking about her/his hips?  Why a little dance called The Twist.  What the kids really seemed to love was not that it was a dance, but CoachN twisting like a maniac with them.  While some of the kids still like to do about 30 seconds of twisting before each swing, by making it fun, we’ve now added the hips to the swing of a dozen 6-year-olds, and that’s a big hurdle overcome early.

Do the Crab:  How do you get a kid to understand that they need to keep their glove to the ground and move laterally at a ball?  I mean, it’s really not a natural thing to do—at least not for humans.  But for crabs, that lateral move is easy, and CoachCrab is a perfect teacher.  Doing a crab race with the kids, seeing if they can keep up with CoachCrab keeps them wanting to move and groove in that very silly, but very necessary defensive position.  I haven’t tried a crab hat, but I’m thinking that would be a perfect addition.

Lose the Game:  Whether it’s a crab race, tickle monster, or twist ‘till you drop, kids love to beat grown-ups.  So remember if you’re setting up games like that—let the kids win—it bolsters their confidence and makes them want to do it again.

Serious and silly can coexist--even on the same play. Courtesy TJ Arrowsmith

As the kids get older, and the game gets a little more serious, it may be time to put away childish things a bit, but that doesn’t mean the Krazy Koach becomes Mr. Serious Pants.  One of the key uses of the silly technique I’ve found effective with older kids is when they’re playing around and you have to discipline them (I’ll talk a little more about that in my next post).  I’ve found that when they’re joshing around and losing focus, I need to get on that a bit and get them back in order.  That usually creates a bit of tension.  To break it, I find an effective thing to do is to mimic their actions in a playful way.

A good recent example was when one of my kids on the 8-year-old team started a cap-slapping fight with teammates during an inning.  I wanted them to focus, so I told them to stop and get their heads into the game.  They started to tense up, knowing they were “in trouble.”  So I said, “and if you all have your hats down, then I can’t do this.”  I then went straight down the bench and slapped all their caps down around their eyes.  They yelled and giggled, and I was able to say, “now let’s get back in the game” and they were able to do so and stay loose.  As we Grays say, “F&F”—Fun and Focus.

Next, a bit more on the focus part.