Holy Crap, I’m a Disciplinarian?

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!”

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