It’s not only players that need to learn from their swings-and-misses, but the coaches, too. So I wanted to note an experience from this past season that started off pretty poorly, but evolved into something I think really helped reinforce one of the core life-lessons that sports can teach kids: teamwork.
Over seasons past, if there’s one thing I’ve learned is that when the game is over, parents really want to get their kids out of there. I get it, lots to do—homework, shower, food, bed, other sports, sleepovers, or maybe the parent actually has something she/he would like to do that doesn’t involve their children (gasp!). My parents have been insanely patient for years as I do my “On The Line!” routine after most games, and I wouldn’t want to press my luck any longer.
So I save our talk about the game we played for the next practice. After warmups, we all gather, take a baseball knee, and take stock of our previous effort. I’ve played on teams where this conversation was all one-sided, as the coaches went-on-and-on about either what we did right, or more often, what we did wrong. Frankly I never felt particularly inspired after those conversations.
So instead, this season, I’ve tried to turn the conversation over more to the players. And so both for my 9-year-olds and my 12-year-olds, I asked them to each tell me one thing we could improve on, and one thing we did really well. I thought it was the perfect way to get the kids really thinking about the game, and feel like they are having a conversation, not just being spoken at by grownups.
Well, in both first attempts, these conversations were spectacular failures. As I went around, players were reluctant to say anything bad at all, and when they said something good, it was something generic like “Uh, I thought we hit pretty well.” The sound of crickets chirping (which were often audible during the many awkward silences) was probably more inspiring than what was being said. It also just took WAY too long to get through and the boys were itching to just stop talking and play baseball.
With that titanic whiff, I knew that I needed to adjust my swing. So at the next practice for my little guys, we all took a knee and I said, “Let’s just talk about the good things. Everyone tell me what we did well.” This time, there was more conversation, “I got that great hit!” “I threw a no-hit inning!” “I made that out at shortstop!” Without exception, each and every statement was self-referential. Certainly not surprising, but it started to lapse into something closer to a competition for who did the most to help the team. Not where I was looking to go. So a little more contact this time, but definitely a foul ball.
When the practice for my big fellas came ‘round and we started our talk, I adjusted again. “I want everyone to tell me one good thing you saw another player do in our last game,” I asked. At first, I could see the look of shock on their face, as if I had sat them down on a baseball field and asked them a trigonometry question. The hypnotic song of the cricket was just gaining steam when one of my players peeped:
“Uh, I thought we hit pretty well.”
It looked like Strike Three for CoachN, but right after that, another player noted the really great double that Kevin hit. Then a comment about a shutout inning for Evan, and another about Ian’s big play at 3rd. The conversation finally started to flow, and, by the end, we had spent 15 minutes going over just about every big play in the game. And with each positive comment, you could see not only see the look of satisfaction of the player getting called out, but how good the player that was making the compliment felt about doing it. Suddenly, everyone wanted to say something nice about another guy, because it made them feel good, too.
I was curious to see whether this would translate to my younger players, and, sure enough, the same thing happened. And the next week, when they were really in the rhythm of it, you could tell that they prided themselves on being able to remember key plays others made. So when someone made the more general platitude, “I think we all really played good defense,” it meant so much more given the context of our conversation than it did when it was just “Good Thing/Bad Thing.”
The only other adjustments I’ve made to the post-game chat now is that I call for the “5 Top Things” as sometimes the boys get so into it that it bleeds into our practice time. I’ve also put my coaches in “Devil’s Advocate” position, as we point out during the cavalcade of positivity some of the things that we can do to get even more awesome than we were the game before. And, of course, after everyone talks, if a kid who made an play we didn’t talk about is just dying to mention it, well, sometimes you just gotta strut…
In sports, competition is so ingrained that I often think in competitive terms even with team-building efforts. In our warmups, we split the kids into two groups and have them compete for how many grounders with good throws they can field in a row. Then there are foul-ball hitting contests (something I’ll talk about in another post) where additional points are awarded to the team who hit the most foul balls with two strikes on them. But here, in this case, this is a team exercise which is really an “everyone wins” experience where the win comes from making someone else feel good.
As any coach will tell you, it’s worth all those whiffs when you walk into that one good home run. And this one, to my mind, is a no-doubter.