Archive for October, 2013

Coach’s Corner: The Post-Game Chat

October 30, 2013

Grays HuddleIt’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.

Coach’s Corner: Teaching Your Players to Whiff

October 24, 2013

“A great hitter makes an out 70% of the time.”

That’s the old cliché that supposedly “says it all” about baseball.  And there is a lot of value in it.  It shows the difficulty of the game (I still contend that the single hardest thing to do in all of sports is to strike a pitched baseball), and the value in learning to deal with failure—or more accurately to help redefine what success is.

Will never forget his "Taming the Monster" in Game 3

Will never forget his “Taming the Monster” in Game 3

That said, there was a wrinkle on this old piece of wisdom that helped me look a bit differently not only at helping kids hit, but on my personal style as coach.  For those that know me, it will come as no surprise that this sage advice came from the mouth of a New York Met.  Bobby Ojeda (aka Bobby O), a 1986 hero and current analyst for the Mets’ SNY network, was examining the approach of Lucas Duda, a burly power hitter mired in yet another slump.  He felt that Duda was losing his aggressiveness and was spending too much time trying to work the count.

That kind of “Baseball 101” commentary isn’t going to win any Emmys, but what he said next was somewhat revelatory for me.  “He needs to swing-and-miss more,” Ojeda said.  “Because a swing-and-a-miss is not a bad thing.  A batter learns from it. He gets a sense of what the pitcher is trying to do to him, and where his timing is.  Indeed, the worst thing a batter can do for his timing is sit and look at a bunch of pitches.

Scorecard KNow, I have stolen a fantastic piece of advice from one of my fellow coaches, whom I heard in a game say to a batter, “The first two strikes are free.”  He meant that a batter shouldn’t get down on himself with a swing-and-a-miss, or a taken strike on the first two.  I’ve spun his advice a bit differently, and told my batters that, “The first two belong to you.”  Same basic idea, but I feel that if the batter feels like for the first two strikes, it is he who is in control of the at bat, not the pitcher, it puts her/him in a better mental position.  And as we know from former Mets manager Yogi Berra, “Ninety percent of the game is half-mental.”

But never in my almost 40 years of baseball did it ever occur to me that swinging and missing might actually be a good thing.  But not only does this make a sense from a baseball perspective, it is a fabulous life lesson for young players.  Whether it is developing a successful swing or successful vaccine, ultimate success is grown from a “test-adjust-test again” method.  So a swing-and-a-miss is not a failure, it is an attempt at success that, while not successful that time, can be learned from, refined, and put to better use.

Yogi always looked best in the blue and orange

Yogi always looked best in the blue and orange

I’ve put this philosophy to work already with my little guys with some really good initial success, as one of our issues in this early kid-pitch phase has been watching third strikes go by.  It’s natural in our league, for when you get to ball four, instead of a walk you get the coach to come in and pitch to you, which is a comforting and usually less difficult task.  So in practice, I developed a “foul ball” drill where you were ALWAYS batting with two strikes, and the goal was to actually foul the ball off, not to put it fair.  I did my best to throw pitches inside and outside so they’d learn to swing at anything close and how to pull the ball foul on inside pitches and slap them the other way on the outside ones.  I love to the kids about how much I LOVE foul balls, as it’s the kind of counter-intuitive reasoning that makes baseball such a fantastic teaching tool.

But, sometimes, my pitches were WAY out of the zone.  And sometimes they’d swing at those, too.  But rather than say, “Ooh…don’t swing at those,” as is my instinct, I instead said, “Great, you learned something with that swing, didn’t you?  Great job, now you know.”  I’ve taken that philosophy into the games as well, cheering for “GWs” or “Good Whiffs.”  For even on a strikeout, there was something learned for the next at bat.

Now, there’s a whiff when your swinging, and a whiff when you’re coaching.  I’ve had more than a few of those.  Next I’ll give you an example and how I took this philosophy to turn an uncomfortable conversation into a home run for teamwork.

The Terrible Necessity of Loss

October 23, 2013

It wasn’t the fact that his voice had dropped three octaves in the past six months.  Something in his voice sounded different.

“Mom?  Dad?  I think Star is sick.”

I’ve heard that voice almost every day for the past twelve years.  Delighted and distraught.  Worried and wondrous.  Crazy and crestfallen.  Pained and petulant.  But this…this was different.  This was the sound of concern.  But not the “I’m worried about my test” or “I’m nervous about today’s game” kind of concern.  The deep monotone went deeper than the words in conveying that something was wrong.  Something that may not be able to be put right again.

Kir and I followed Gus upstairs and looked into the tank.  One frog, Comet, the younger of the pair, stroked in nervous circles, even more active than her somewhat hyper norm.  On the other end of the spectrum sat Star, the more curmudgeonly of the two, who spent most of her time brooding inside the miniature sphinx sunk in the depths of the cloudy water.  But instead of her normal squat, she was splayed out in the corner, almost on her side, a flipper resting oddly upward on the side of the tank.  When Comet rocketed by, the elder made a slight twitch, but no more.

There was little room for doubt.  Star was dying.

She had come to our home on a fluke.  Gus was in 2nd grade and for science, the teacher had bought one of the “Grow-A-Frog” tadpoles and they watched it grow.  Of course, once the experiment had reached its amphibian conclusion, there was that pesky question about what to do with the actual life that evolved before them.

And yes, we felt so “lucky” when we heard the exciting news out of that ecstatic seven-year-old that he had won the frog lottery.  Star was coming home with him!  With our permission, of course.

A grin of breathless anticipation.  Giant blue saucers blinking, begging.

Resistance was futile.

And so Star became a part of the family.  We explained to Gus that this was his frog to take care of.  We would fill in for him if he was away, but otherwise Star’s fate would be on his hands.  Earnest to a fault even at that young age, Gus took his charge seriously.  He fed her to the letter of the instructions, and watched as she continued to grow.  He asked for a larger tank for his birthday as he felt Star was cramped by her small school tank.  And when we read up on the frog and found that they were social creatures, he made the decision that he wanted to grow Star some company.  That’s when we received the mysterious box with nothing but a small bag of water inside that I threw away, realizing just before the garbage many came that it might just have a tadpole inside.

He had spent five years looking after this animal, his first real charge.  Before that he had the odd carnival-won goldfish with the two-week average lifespan.  I think we managed to get a couple of months out of one.  The flush down the toilet was quick and painless.  But for a 12-year-old, 5 years is pretty much your entire life.  Those baby and toddler years would be no more than fantasy save the embarrassing photos and video.  And those pre-K years are spotty at best.  Elementary school is when memories truly take root.  Those memories persisted every day when a few miniscule specs of food drifted their way down to the bottom of the water toward his grand dame.

“I don’t think she can make it back to the top of the tank to breathe,” he said.  These were water frogs, but needed the occasional trip to the surface.  “And she’s so skinny,” his voice dripping that that most wonderful, contemptible of emotions—empathy.

I flew to the Internet as Kir comforted him, noting that dealing with loss is an integral part of owning a pet.  I Googled “Sick Grow-A-Frog” and gleaned enough information to confirm that at five years, Star had reached the average lifespan for her kind.  It also noted that for a sick frog, a transfer into some fresh water can be helpful.

And so I dusted off Star’s old, small tank—the place where she first came to us.  I rinsed a handful of white gravel and patted it evenly at the bottom, then splashed some distilled water until the tank was a third full.  Then it was a turn with a more murky fluid, as I plunged an old Orioles souvenir cup into the larger tank and gently captured Star.  With a carful pour I dropped Star into her new, old home.  Gus immediately sprinkled a few grains of food in, hopeful that perhaps with the contrast of color Star might more easily be able to find sustenance.

“I think that’s the best we can do for her now,” I said.  “We’ve made her as comfortable as we can.”  Gus nodded silently and got himself ready for bed.  As Kir and I left the room with a kiss on the head and a stroke of the hair, that middle-school voice warbled, “Good Night” – the deep concern beginning to crack through the determined monotone.

In the morning we peeked anxiously into Gus’s room, and found Star was still with us.  Indeed, she seemed to be moving a little more.  Kir and I both cautioned him not to get too excited, but if she showed some signs of progress that there was some medicated food available we could order.  He went off to school not exactly a bundle of joy, but not singularly preoccupied, either.

A few hours later I went to check on Star and found her in a surprising position.  She had managed to get upright, her eyes peeking over the top of the film of water.  Two flashes of thought ran their way through my mind at that moment.  One was “I wonder how much that medicated food costs?”  The other, a little less base, recalled a moment with my dear Grandma Mary in her last days.  We visited her in the hospital, watching as she lay there, a slip of a woman haloed by flow of tousled white hair.  And, for just a little while, she came back to us.  Having been fed through a tube for days, she sat upright and talked to us.  The doctor asked if she’d like to try anything to eat, proffering Jell-o and broth.  She responded with a clarity we hadn’t heard in weeks:

“An egg.”

We all laughed, and the doctor smiled and said, “not quite yet, Mrs. Nathanson.”

She left us just days later.

Gus came down that evening, eyes wide like a Second Grader, but this time with not beginnings to be found, but endings.

“I think Star died.”

We rushed upstairs, and there she floated, flat on her back.  There was no think about it.  Star’s ascent was that last bright flair.  A final feast of chicken our old cat Peter had before we had to put him down.  A hearty laugh of my Uncle John as he gave me tips on how to win over this new girlfriend I had named Kirsten while cancer overtook him.  A Christmas hug my Father-in-Law Andy gave me before cancer stole him from us.

An egg.

Kirsten rubbed his back and stroked his hair.  I carried the tank that once held that little tadpole out of sight.  And there was a new noise.  Gus cried.  But much like his deep monotone, it was a different cry than I had ever heard before.  It wasn’t getting hit by a pitch or insulted by some bullies.  It was the knife of loss etching its first real scar on his soul.  For even though he still remembers his Pappy Andy and felt the pain of his passing—this death was his to own.

Gus took a few days, allowing the sorrow to dilute into sadness, and decided to dispense with anything too drawn-out for Star’s resting place.  He did want her committed to water, but a swirl down the toilet seemed a bit too callous.  So he and I crossed the street, a small Ziplock bag with enough water to make Star look like she was still swimming, and slipped her down the storm drain to float away to the local river.  A simple “Goodbye Star” was all he wanted to say, and it was back to homework.  The pain wasn’t gone.  It would never be gone.  But it had begun to index itself, tucked among first grand slams, Straight-A report cards, and a day when he brought a small tank home with the first life that was truly in his hands.

Now Gus faces another decision.  A frog the owner no longer wants is looking for a home, and Comet could use a new friend.  When I ask him about it, I see the struggle etched on his face.  He wants to do for Comet what he did for Star, but to bring another life means invariably handling another death.  It is an experience he is, understandably, reluctant to repeat.

Aren’t we all.

And yet we go on, risking pain because of that most lamentable, essential human condition – the need to love.  It is a terrible and crucial truth.

Pets are a portal to that critical life lesson.  No, not portal.  They are a shovel.  They dig the hole in which greater loss will be cast in.  They dig away at the childish notion of the eternal.  But all that is dug out is not lost.  Instead, it builds a mountain of memories and responsibilities that temper the pain of a moment with the joys and headaches of living life, day-by-day.

Goodbye Star…

…And thank you.