What’s in a Nickname?

Rapture at 99 cents a pop.

Rapture at 99 cents a pop.

Now that I’m “coaching for a living” so to speak, I’ve adapted one of my favorite traditions—the post-season party—to a post class celebration where every player gets a certificate of achievement and a prize (usually a “fuzzy fly” puffer ball like we use in class to learn how to keep our eye on the ball by letting it hit us in the nose).  Throw in some juice boxes and bunny crackers, and you’ve got yourself a gala affair.

But what I’ve found most fun is a new wrinkle on the post-season award; giving them something they really need as a ballplayer—their first nickname.  Before this became an official part of the program, the nicknames I gave to some of my players just came out organically.  As my players and parents will tell you, I’m a bit of a stickler for getting my kids to cheer for their teammates from the bench.  I find it keeps them focused on baseball and on the team while they’re waiting their turn, and, as I’ve told my kids in, “The Tale of Gus and Coach Grumpy Pants” (a tale I am writing up and will post here), when you cheer for your teammates, the whole team really does get better.

But simply cheering “BO-BBY!” and “SAR-AH!” over and over can get a bit tedious, so to mix things up, some of our players had natural nicknames.  There was “LU-CKY-LUKE!” “GUN-NAR-MAN!  “SWEET-PETE!” and “GO-GO-AN-TO-NI-O!” to name a few.  But, as a history nerd on top of a baseball one, my very favorite of all time is “TIPPECANOE-AND-TYLER-TOO!”  For as long as he was on the field with me, he became known as “Tippe” rather than Tyler.  It’s always fun to call a kid by a nickname, see her or him turn around, and know that it’s stuck.

Of course, in the case of many of my students, this nickname may well be the first and last time that they hear it.  And, for that reason, I actually spend a little more time than I probably should thinking it out.  Some come pretty naturally as they just roll with the name like Sweet Pete.  But, in this case, I want to make sure that each nickname actually says something about the player, trying to reinforce something positive I saw in them not only as players, but as people.

I can’t say each one is a home run, but some of my faves have included :

  • “Rock”: Strong and solid at every skill, always listening, and someone you can depend on to be there and do his best every time.
    “Whip”: Yes, a great arm, but she’s also always thinking, looking to answer my questions, and help others understand what we were doing in competitions.
  • “Dream”: She plays like a dream, but she is so joyful about everything (“Oh, that sticker is just SO shiny and new!”) that she lives life like it’s a dream.
  • “Magic”: My resident skeptic who chided me when I went to get stickers from my “magic bag of tricks” that there was no such thing.  I told him that I saw magic each and every time he focused and showed me what he could do.  The best kind of magic is baseball magic.
You knew I had to get a Met in there

You knew I had to get a Met in there

Yes, sure, I realize that these may be one-and-done, but there’s something about a nickname, especially a resonant one, that seems to capture the imagination in a way very little else can.  Whether it’s the joy of “Say Hey” Willie Mays, the singular talent of Stan “The Man” Musual or the importance of Tom “The Franchise” Seaver, a nickname is often worth well more than a thousand words.

Indeed, when I went to pick up my son at extended day right before spring break, I ran into two of my former students.  When I quickly made the mistake of calling them by their given names, they were very fast to correct me.  “No coach, call me Dash!” one said.  I made my humble apologies to Dash, and traded fist-bumps with “Great Nate.”  In turn, they reassured me in clamorous unison that they were, “STILL PRACTICING BASEBALL!” and regaled me with so many details of their spring teams that I needed to drag myself out of there to get my guy to his practice.

No doubt, those are the moments that make coaching worthwhile.  Especially given one of those kids really had some trouble staying focused in my class, and on several occasions I needed to discipline him and sit him out for a bit.  To me, that’s proof positive that, as I noted in this post, you can combine discipline with fun, and even the kids that you feel aren’t “getting it” may be getting it more than you ever expected.  But I think that nickname helped to cement all the positive aspects of his time in my class, helping to reflect back on what he did with pride and fun.

And all with just one word.

I think as a coach, there’s real power—power I didn’t expect to have—in that.  This makes it a very interesting and potentially effective tool for every coach to help reinforce individual, positive attributes about the player very quickly, while keeping within the context of teaching a team game.

In my next post, I’ll return to nicknames with the story of the only two players who got the very same moniker—“Cap.”

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