The Coach’s Line Between Silly & Serious

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.

3 Responses to “The Coach’s Line Between Silly & Serious”

  1. Susannah Says:

    I think we’ll have to move to DC when the kids are ready to start playing ball…

  2. mrnathanson Says:

    If that’s what it takes to get y’all to come back, consider them coached! 🙂

  3. Becoming a Ballplayer | Stop Hitting Your Brother Says:

    […] the kids graduate from tickle monster base races and Ninja Hitting, a coach’s job evolves as well.  At first, we just want the kids to love the […]

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