Archive for February, 2015

Becoming a Ballplayer

February 26, 2015

 

Not sure what lesson I'm teaching here, but this little fellas still playing ball!

Not sure what lesson I’m teaching here, but this little fellas still playing ball!

It is quite fascinating as a coach to toggle between my preschool classes and my work with older kids.

For my very little ones, my job as a coach is to teach them to love the game of baseball.  Find ways to make the basic skills of throwing, fielding, and hitting into something relatable and memorable, so that when the game of baseball gets “real” they will have both the fundamental skills to develop, and the attachment to the game that is enduring.

Once 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 game.  But when outs start to count, and not everyone gets a trophy at the end, we need to start teaching them to respect the game that they have, hopefully, come to love.

Most youth coaches will tell you that, given the relative attention spans of your average elementary schooler, when teaching a lesson, the key is to KISS (that’s Keep It Simple, Stupid).  For those of you who have read my posts before, you might know that’s something of a challenge for me.  But with the help of my fantastic co-coaches and borrowing liberally from others, a couple of years ago I put together our first set of player guidelines.  Being the Blue Wahoos, we called it “The Wahoo Way.”

The Wahoo Way is a set simple principles were what we expected from our players, and this list was the first thing up hanging in the dugout before every game.  We coaches constantly reinforced that while others may do things differently, we do things The Wahoo Way.  It became a great shorthand both for praise and criticism.

Finding a "Way"

Finding a “Way”

Last summer, I built on the shorthand of our Wahoo Way for my summer Aces 9u travel team.  I did so in two ways.  First, in our “Way of the Ace” instead of giving very simple principles, I instead used the acronym to give buzz words – Attitude, Competition, Effort, Sportsmanship.  And as you can see here, rather than simple sentences, we got more descriptive as to what those expectations were.

After all my players read this, we all, coaches and players alike, signed it.  One of my co-coaches from years past suggested this to me, but last year was the first time I actually used the idea of a signed pledge.  I would highly recommend it to every coach, and I really found that taking the time to discuss the pledge as a team, and then signing as a team brought a sense of accountability and commitment that was a fantastic way to start a season.  Just like The Wahoo Way, our signed pledge was up next to our lineup sheet on the dugout fence every single game as reminder that everyone “bought in” to the way we were doing things.

Hear the book is excellent as well.

Hear the book is excellent as well.

This winter, my 10-year-old’s basketball coach gave each player a copy of an article called Toughness by ESPN’s Jay Bilas.  Despite the fact it was more geared toward high-level high-school and college players, he asked them to read it for discussion at the next practice.

Both the piece itself, and Coach Jones’ request for them to read it were a huge eye-opener for me.  The article spoke brilliantly to what real basketball toughness meant, getting away from the chest-bumping and instead showing all the small ways, physical and mental, that turned a player into someone who really understood, appreciated and played the game right.

But what really struck me is the fact that Coach Jones didn’t simply keep it simple, but challenged the kids to read something more sophisticated, but meaningful about the game.  For there comes a point when if you want to teach kids truly lasting lessons in sports, you need to challenge their mind as much as their body.

After thanking Coach Jones for the great article, I said that I hoped there was something like it out there for baseball.  He responded that if there wasn’t, I should write something given my knowledge of the youth side of baseball.  I thought about it, fiddled with the idea, ran it by my coaches, and finally came up with something that I felt might be valuable and approachable to a youth baseball player as he (or she, no women on my team this year, unfortunately) starts to think about the upcoming season.

A few weeks ago, I challenged all my players to make an offseason fitness commitment.  I asked them to do as many pushups as they could, as many reverse crunches as they could, and sit in a catcher’s squat as long as they could.  Their goal is to be able to do 5 more pushups, 10 more crunches, and sit in the squat 15 more seconds at our first practice than they could when they first did them.

While I thought that was important, it was really the setup for what came next.  For after challenging their body, we sent them this letter and our new “Grinder’s Guide” to challenge their minds  Our central message–it’s time for them to think about the difference between playing ball and being a ballplayer.

We urged parents to read it together with their kids and discuss it, and be prepared to talk about it at our first practice coming up in a couple of weeks. And while I’m sure not every player will understand it all—heck, some may not even read more than what’s in bold—I believe that by not always keeping it simple, but bringing the brain into the game, you give players the opportunity to grow in way transcend the game itself.  To me, that’s really what coaching is all about.

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Say it Ain’t So, Chicago

February 15, 2015
My first year--still dreaming of glory.

My first year–still dreaming of glory.

After my seventh grade season was over, my coach came up to me and said, “Scotty, what are you doing this summer?”  Well, I did the same thing every summer; jetting up to New York to be with my father.  Coach pursed his lips and said, “Oh, that’s too bad.  I was going to name you to the All-Star team, but I can only name two players and you need to be available the whole summer.  Why don’t you talk to your Mom about it.”

The All-Star team.

The words reverberated through my very soul.  I had heard about it for years.  A couple of past coaches had said that I had been among their top choices because I always hustled and was good defensively, but there always seemed to be a slugger and pitcher ahead of my curve.

Being a painfully shy, introverted kid, I was not one to even consider rocking the boat.  My parents were divorced and summer was my one big chunk of time with my Dad.  The mere notion of not going to New York in the summer—missing out on my trips to Shea Stadium or being stuffed until overflowing with edible love by my grandparents—those just seemed out of the question.  And so I turned down the offer—as it turns out my only offer—to play summer travel baseball.

baseball-little-league-world-series-west-region-vs-great-lakes-region-850x560I bring up this story because of the difference between what happened to me back then, and what is happening now in the system that produced the summer triumph and winter pain of Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League World Series team.

When the accusations came down about Jackie Robinson West coaches conspiring with state and regional Little League officials to knowingly falsify the borders of their league so that they could bring in those few extra players to help get them “over the top,”, Rex Huppke, columnist of the Chicago Tribune, said what many people were feeling:

There’s a sickness in youth sports in America, lurking just under the surface.  It’s a pathetic need among some adults to live vicariously through the success of children, and that need gets fed no matter what the cost.

The problem with that reaction, one I shared at first blush, is that it speaks to the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself.

Eight_men_bannedIndeed, it is akin to another Chicago baseball scandal of some renown.  For while Major League Baseball immediately addressed the surface issue of gambling and baseball, suspending the 1919 White Sox involved despite their escaping criminal conviction, it would take the game another half century to address the fundamental inequity of the Reserve Clause that gave owners almost slave-like control of their players fates.  It was this that allowed owner Charles Comiskey to treat his players like chattel; creating desperation and resentment that led Joe Jackson and his seven co-conspirators into the arms of the mob.

And, much like the suspending of those eight “Black Sox” was a Band-Aid to address the immediate offense, so too is Little League’s decision to punish the immediate wrongdoing—in this case creating collateral damage in the young men who did nothing but play their hearts out and represent the game of baseball in a way that paid tribute to the legendary name that their league adopted.

If you look more closely, however, youth baseball has a Reserve Clause-like issue of our own.  Huppke’s oversimplification of the problem with youth sports being “those grown-ups” actually does a disservice to a needed discussion, as it implies an, “It will always be this way…sigh.” kind of resignation.

I believe the more fundamental issue here is not jerk parents or jerk coaches.  Instead, it is the structure of youth baseball itself.

When spring rolls around and your local league opens its doors, the expectations are very different from what we are seeing with the Jackie Robinson West saga. Why?  Because everyone who signs up gets a chance to play ball.  That is what youth baseball is supposed to be all about—allowing kids a chance to start a lifelong relationship with our game.

What this often means as a practical matter is that players who might still close their eyes before they swing the bat are paired with kids that will one day play high school, college, or even pro ball.  Indeed, both leagues where I live, Arlington Babe Ruth and Arlington Little League, are constantly looking to tweak their systems to find the right blend between allowing kids to play with their buddies, and making sure that the teams are as competitively balanced as possible.

Many of these kids aren't playing baseball anymore, but I don't know one of them who is not still a fan.  THAT is youth baseball at its best.

Many of these kids aren’t playing baseball anymore, but I don’t know one of them who is not still a fan. THAT is youth baseball at its best.

This creates a special dynamic for youth baseball.  Unlike from what I have seen from youth basketball, soccer, football, or hockey, it is very difficult for a single player to simply “take over” a game.  The star player can’t bat every time to the plate; he or she usually gets up once out of every 11 or 12 times.  Most local leagues place strict innings limits so the star pitcher can’t be on the mound for maybe half of a game, if that.  Mandatory innings played rules ensure that no matter what skill level, players don’t sit the bench for more than one inning at a time.

The result is something that makes youth baseball an incredible experience.  Kids at every skill level learn that they must depend on each other.  They can see right before them that denigrating the weaker players on their team has a negative result that impacts them directly.  At its best, youth baseball teaches empathy, and the value of contributing to the best of your abilities.  It is teambuilding in the very best sense of the word.

Is that always how it happens in practice?  Of course not.  But that is the expectation.  A coach or a parent or a player has to work to make the experience ugly.  It certainly happens—I’d guess anyone who has played or had a child play a youth sport has seen it happen—but that really does tend to be the exception rather than the rule.  In many respects, this part of youth baseball remains very much unchanged from when I was a skinny little kid getting his one all-star invite some three decades (or maybe a bit more) ago.

In the spring, all the kids on that Jackie Robinson West squad played on a local league team, too—you have to in order to be eligible to play in Williamsport.  But when the local season ends, the baseball travel season begins.  And that is an entirely different animal.

Travel baseball flips the whole youth sports paradigm on its head.  No more “everyone can play.”  Instead the concept is that you are taking the best players in an area (or, as in the case of Jackie Robinson West, maybe a little more than an area…) and pitting them against other areas’ best kids. This concept creates an inherently different vibe.  For while the attentive coaches and parents can work to keep the focus on player development, teamwork, and friendly competition, the fundamental premise of travel sports elevates winning to a primary level.

Without a shadow of a doubt, I have seen more poor behavior among coaches and parents in one season of coaching travel ball as I have in all my seasons in local leagues combined.  Coaches that kick their 10-year-old kid off the pitching mound for crying (really, that happened).  Parents threatening to “go get their gun” when an umpire misses a call (really, that actually happened).  Coaches using a typo in our team’s lineup card to take a big hit away from one of our kids, and strutting off the field like they are some modern day John McGraw (I still can’t believe that one happened).

But the issues with travel baseball run deeper than just swinging open the door for hyper-competitive behavior among parents, coaches, and players.  I have also seen what travel baseball has done to undermine the value of local leagues.

When I was growing up, each local league coach selected the two top players on their team for the league all-star team.  This put real value on not only your skill, but impressing your coach enough to make him want to choose you.  This reinforced that “team first” attitude no matter what your skill level, as a talented but selfish ballplayer could get passed-over (and I saw that a couple of times when I was playing).

Last year, when I was put in charge of organizing the “B” summer travel team for my local league, I was told that I needed to have a tryout because everyone who expressed interest needed to have the opportunity, and we had almost 50 kids who were interested and we were taking only 15.  So I tried a hybrid approach in which we evaluated the kids and came up with a preliminary pool, but then consulted with the kids’ coaches to get some honest feedback.  That did make a difference, as several kids who were on the cusp of making the team were left off because of coach feedback about their hustle and sportsmanship.  It was a difficult, sometimes acrimonious process, but in all I thought it was a good one.

That, however, is not the process that my league is using this year.  Why?  Because all the other travel teams in the area were selecting their players for the summer team that previous fall.  This gives these teams a chance to play fall ball together, train over the winter, practice in the spring, and feel like a fully solidified team in the fall.

Finish Strong (and silly)!

Finish Strong (and silly)!

There is no doubt that such a system gives a group of kids a competitive advantage.  My Arlington Aces ended up on a big winning streak at the end of our summer season, and were the first B Team to make the finals of our local tournament.  But it took us the first 2/3 of the season for the coaches to really get familiar with the team, and for the team to feel like they were a team.

So now, both the A and B teams for our league are trying out in the fall as we don’t want to lose the “arms race” to the other league travel teams, not to mention the “club teams” that are independent of any league sensibilities.  For more on that point let me recommend Andrew McCutchen’s brilliant piece Left Out. Once we’ve selected these kids, we of course want to give them every advantage the other teams are getting.  That’s nice for the kids who make it, but by doing this it makes the house league seem like a superfluous requirement that the better players just have to do.

Indeed, I have heard a number of our travel players over the years scoff at the house games as “just practice.”  Having to play for the non-travel coaches and with non-travel players becomes an annoyance, and the best of what local league baseball can give to all players is diminished in the process.  At the end of the day, the players most likely to carry the lessons that house ball beyond the youth level are now, due to the structure of the game, least likely to truly inculcate them.

What those who led Jackie Robinson West did was a symptom of the larger disease that is the increasing “professionalization” of youth travel baseball.  And as one involved in that very phenomenon, this incident has caused me to take pause of what I am doing, how I will be coaching, and how my league approaches travel baseball.  For while I’m very proud that my son “made the team,” I have made sure that he knows that his pals on our Blue Wahoos team are counting on him just as much as his travel team is.

I’m not sure there is any simple solution, but perhaps by understanding the problem a bit better, we can seek paths that better enable the game of baseball to work for our kids, rather than the other way around.