Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

Ping Pong, Baseball, and the Art of (Non) Competition

February 8, 2016

Ping Pong

“My recommendation.  Lift weights.  Heavy weights.  A lot.”

That’s what my older son’s coach told him at the post-season dinner that ended his first season playing high-school level ball.  He didn’t make the JV team as an 8th Grader, but was invited to play fall ball; an unofficial version the area high school teams playing in the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League.  The coaches are not the high school staff, as they are not allowed to coach during the fall.  Instead, a group of former players in their teens and twenties volunteer to lead the squad.

These young guys all still love to lift, and lift big, and that’s been the gospel in baseball for a while now.  I remember in my injury-interrupted efforts to play college ball, the first thing my coach told me to do when I hit campus was to hit the weight room.  Indeed, strength training has now become a standard element of elite ball, as despite the fact that baseball has a more ecumenical reputation for focusing on performance rather than size, first impressions still matter.

And big guys get the benefit of the doubt.

So it was something of a revelation when Gus’s former travel coach, a seasoned veteran who has been helping kids in the area develop for the better part of two decades now, threw a wrinkle into the traditional off-season grunt fest: he recommended the kids play Ping-Pong.

I had never thought about it before, but the second I read those two words, it was a light-bulb moment.  Both for offense and defense, quick hands, anticipation, and tracking the ball are crucial to a developing baseball player’s skill-set.  And while I agree that getting stronger is important, neither strength nor speed are truly the foundational skill for quality baseball players – it’s quickness.

We asked our boys if they’d be interested in a Ping-Pong table as their combined gift for the holidays, and I was surprised that they both almost instantaneously agreed.  So I found a good deal on a nice table at Costco that fit in what was until December our indoor baseball/football/wrestling/light saber fight space.

Ping-Pong was huge at my high school, and I’m a fair tennis player, so I’ve always been pretty good.  And my skills have held up I garnered family bragging rights as I not only cooked our Thanksgiving dinner solo, but also managed to bag the trophy at the first annual Table Turkey Tourney over Thanksgiving.

And this brought me to a bit of a conundrum.  At the moment, I’m still better than my boys at the game.  Both my fellas have a competitive streak; certainly not a bad thing in itself.  And while I would sometimes let up a bit, I refuse to simply lose on purpose – they won’t get any better or learn any lessons from it (okay, maybe with a little drop of ego mixed in).

But at first what I found was that even after close matches and my noting that they were getting better (and they were), they really didn’t want to play me anymore.  When I coaxed them to the table, they would either get frustrated and either play angry (slamming the ball at my head) or just not take it seriously (slamming the ball at my head).  While they would play each other on occasion, our grand experiment (and investment) looked like nothing more than a holiday fad.

Determined to stem the tide of ambivalence, I thought I had found a fun “power with” way to bridge the competition gap.  I had suggested to my little guy that instead of playing against each other, we see how long we could hold a rally.  He was into it, and we had a nice 10 minutes trying to best our top number.  But as I dreamed of what a wonderful blog post I would be writing about “power-with Ping-Pong,” I found in fairly short order that that there was a downside.

For as we improved at playing together, our efforts to push each other with angles and pace diminished.  We held back, hit more softly, and aimed as much as we could for the middle of the table.  While it was fun, it was clear that the developmental end of the game was being thwarted by the cooperative one.

Once again stymied by, the answer I was searching for presented itself through that wondrous instrument of education: television.  My little guy, not normally huge tennis fan, does love the idea of sports greatness.  And after Serena Williams’s run at the Grand Slam last year, he was very interested in watching her begin a new quest.  So as Gunnar sat on the sofa and watched the Australian Open, my big fella toyed with the Ping Pong paddle; the tennis serving as a Pavlovian call to action.  I asked him if he wanted to play, and a deep throated, “Sure” warbled forth in lukewarm agreement.

But when he started to rally, it wasn’t with any seriousness.  Rather, he began to grunt like a tennis player every time he swung.  I started to become peevish immediately as the balls flew straight past the table (and at my head).

But this time, instead of going into “Coach Mode,” I caught myself.  One of the things I sometimes forget as kids – my kids included – is that getting a little silly is important at any age.  Any game, at the end of the day, needs to be a game.  We want our players to work hard and get better, but what’s the point if it’s not fun?

And so I pulled out my very favorite tennis grunt in history, the high-pitched “Wha-Unh!” squeal of Monica Seles.  And we stood there at the table, paddling, grunting, and giggling over our ridiculous contest.  We didn’t keep score, but we ended up having a number of epic rallies; the non-competitive competition allowed me the space to push him without him feeling like he was being pushed.

Gunnar, fascinated by the absurdity, but always the literalist, demanded to know if I was doing an accurate Monica Seles impression.  My wife had just come in, and showed him how well I screeched by finding an old Seles-Graf match on YouTube.  After affirming my skill, he demanded to join in, and a new family tradition was born.

The boys either play each other, their friends, or me must about every day now, and rarely do we keep score.  Instead we compete without competing, focusing on the fun.  The result is that both boys can now far more easily respond to balls with more pace.  Even if they hit the ball out, just by getting to it, they are showing that their reflexes and eye-hand coordination are improving.  Even though some video games do have an element of reflex and eye-hand coordination training, they really can’t match real-world physical interactions (at least not yet—virtual reality may have something to say about that soon).

I saw the proof that this training translates just this past weekend at my 11u travel team’s winter workouts.  I was running the pitching machine and had turned up the speed higher than they had seen it all off-season.  Gunnar, a solid if unspectacular hitter on my B-Team last year, stepped in and simply out-performed about 2/3 of the guys, including about half of the A-Team players.  It was clear that his ability to judge and react was profoundly improved with a couple of months tracking and chasing Ping-Pong balls.

So whether it’s a full-sized table or just one of those portable nets you can spread across in the dining room (but watch out for that chandelier!), I highly recommend Ping-Pong as an offseason training tool.  The Seles squeal is optional, but highly recommended.

15 Minutes and a Big Bag of Crap

September 30, 2015

I’m extremely proud of my big fella for many reasons, but for today, let’s talk baseball (shocker, I know).

That District title t-shirt has gotten a LOT of wear

That District t-shirt has gotten a LOT of wear

He’s used his experiences of just missing making the team not as excuse, but as motivation to make himself a better ballplayer.  This culminated in his making his first “district team” outright over the past summer and having a bang-up season with the bat, behind the plate, and on the mound.

Okay, that was just a little parental chest-puffing, as it’s what happened this fall that really got my attention.

As 9th Grade began, he was again selected to be on the “A” squad for the 14u travel team.  He’s made it—he’s where he has always wanted to be.  But then another opportunity presented itself, as his high-school team has a fall squad as well.  Very few kids who weren’t on the spring JV or Varsity squads ever play on this team.  Indeed, the coach of the team when he invited Gus to work out with them was very careful to state that there was likely not going to be room for him.

Given the amount of baseball rejection endured over the years, including not making the JV team when he tried out last spring, Gus could have easily—and justifiably—just said that he’s going to play plenty of baseball with his other team, and that with adjusting to being in High School, he’d just stand content on where he is.  Indeed, as a concerned parent not wanting him to overwhelm himself, I myself was leaning in that direction.

Sorry Nats fans (not sorry).

Sorry Nats fans (not sorry).

Not only did he accept the invitation to work out with the High School team, but he chose to miss the Mets-Nationals Labor Day game (you know, back when the Nationals were in a pennant race?  LET’S GO METS! Sorry can’t help myself) in order not to miss a single practice, even though he was told that just making one of the three would be sufficient.

In the end, he was indeed invited to play with the team, and is working his keester off to balance his academic demands while playing baseball six days a week.

And the point of all this is?

Gus sucks at catching pop flies.

[Insert sound of record scratching here]

I know, after heaping on all that praise, why am I focusing on what he struggles at?  Am I that kind of coach and father that is simply never satisfied and always picks on the weaknesses?

I really hope not.

But, ever since having his finger sliced open by the stitches of a ball on a pop fly back in 4th Grade (I know!  What are the chances? He needed four stitches), Gus has struggled with infield fly balls.  And whether it’s learning how to lay off a high fastball, stay in front of a sharply hit grounder, or, yes, get the right break on a pop fly, every single ballplayer, no matter how accomplished, has weaknesses in their game.  And practice is the time to focus in on those weaknesses.

But what kind of practice?

Indeed, after Gus had a fantastic game with his “A” squad a couple of Saturdays back, going 3-3 and having a great defensive day behind the plate, he still missed a foul pop fly at first base.  His coach complemented his overall game, and noted that his struggles with popups made him “look like a bad player” even though it is clear he is a very good one.

That’s when his coach sent him this video, one I think every player and parent should watch:

This video speaks to an essential truth, it is very difficult to become a better ballplayer just practicing those couple of days a week that even most travel teams do.  For my 11u team, it is especially difficult, as we’re limited to only one practice per week in the fall.

But this shouldn’t apply to my big boy, right?  I mean, he’s practicing or playing five or six days a week.  So he should be covered, right?

Again I say, not practice, but what kind of practice?

The one issue that video didn’t cover, and I think a crucial one, is that when teams come together to practice, it is so they can get better as a team.  In 90 minutes with a dozen or more kids, you simply don’t have the time to break down swings, do detailed mechanical analysis on fielding, or correct every single player’s release point on the mound.  Getting leads, hitting cutoff men, defending the bunt, situational hitting—all those and many more take priority over the individual—they have to, because it is a team sport.

So while a player will get some individual instruction during a practice, the only way to really work on getting better is to find time outside of the team practice to focus on the areas in need of improvement.

Now you might be saying, “But my kid spends every waking moment in the back yard practicing.  It’s getting him to crack a book that’s the problem!”

Again I’ll say…

What kind of practice?

Players of all stripes, but I’ve found this to be true especially of the talented players, tend to shy from working on the areas where they are weak.  It’s natural to want to improve on strengths, so good hitters love to swing and good fielders love to play catch.  To my big boy’s credit we were out last week for a full hour taking popup after popup, and he’s yet to miss one in a game after that.

Why is my wife the greatest woman in the world?  Exhibit A

Why is my wife the greatest woman in the world? Exhibit A

But for others, the myriad responsibilities and opportunities of modern youth call them away from the diamond or even back yard.  Other sports, homework, and, of course, those rectangular black holes of time and space often win out for right or for wrong.

While I agree to a certain extent with Coach Antonelli’s lament regarding the rigid overscheduling that often besets modern kids, these are the times in which we live.  So rather than fight the tide, I am trying a new system where I am giving my players a discrete, 15 minute task every day we’re away from the field.

To me, doing practice outside the team is about trying to build a routine—something that can help kids gain self-discipline and organization skills.  Yes, it helps them become better ballplayers, but it really plays into my mantra as a coach to try and make youth baseball about something that transcends the game itself.

Here is my Arlington Aces Fall 2015 Practice Chart.  It focuses each day on a different aspect of the game; including the mental and physical conditioning they’ll need to step up even more during the winter.  While I have no doubt that many coaches may have different—and perhaps better—ideas for their players, I believe this to be a solid template of drills designed to keep kids motivated but not overwhelmed.

Now, as to that motivation, I know that kids are also, well, kids, and I know that even the baseball-loving guy or gal might submit to the siren song of the boob tube.  But there’s another thing I know kids like.

Crap.

They like to say the word because it’s rude without being profane.  And despite all those electronics, a piece of candy or a little squirt gun is still a huge draw.

A world of pure imagination.

A world of pure imagination.

And so I have created CoachN’s Big Bag of Crap (patent pending), filled with candy, chips, and cheap little toys I get on clearance.  In order to earn a pull from the magic bag, they need to do one of three things:

1) Turn in their weekly practice sheets with each day signed off by their parents;

2) Win our weekly “Grinder of the Week” t-shirt—an award given to four players who showed exemplary grit and determination irrespective of statistics;

3) Have a perfect team warmup.  We have a relay play they must do 10 times perfectly.

I have had some issues with kids focused more on the BoC rather than the practice, it is easy to turn the conversation back to the matter at hand by simply saying, “If you’re talking about the bag, you’re not getting anything from the bag.”  And the resounding “BAG-OF-CRAP” chants that delight the kids and make parents ever-so-slightly uncomfortable is worth the fairly insubstantial investment to stock it.

I hate you.  No, I love you.

I hate you. No, I love you.

So whether it is for love of the game, or love of crap, finding the ways to get kids thinking about practice as more than just showing up to a field will help them mature both as players, and as people.

And, yes, I do filch a treat now and again.

Stupid delicious Swedish Fish.

Is Competing Bad for Kids?

February 13, 2014
Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

“Coach, we have a crier!”

The voice rang out from Tommy, my first-grader, and it wasn’t the first time.  Over the first three weeks of my first ever CoachN’s FUNdamentals class, this same little boy had made the same call each week as his Kindergarten teammate had become teary-eyed.

In my rush to make sure that the class continued, the first two times it happened, I zipped right past Tommy and right to Kyle, seeking out the source of the problem.  “Are you hurt, big man?” I asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.   A sleeve swept at the wet on his face, more successfully smearing rather than cleaning.  A simple shake of the head indicated that despite his frustration, he really, really wanted to play.

On the third occasion when we divided up into 3 teams for our Gorabigator fielding competition, Tommy once again unleashed his clarion call.  This time, however, I thought ahead.  Before talking with Kyle, I went to a knee, put my hand gently on Tommy’s shoulder, and said,

It's all about being a teammate.  I'll explain the Thor hat later.

It’s all about being a teammate. I’ll explain the Thor hat later.

“Tommy, what’s the most important thing about being a baseball player?”  His big brown eyes lit with the recognition that, perhaps, I wasn’t going to give him an approving pat on the back.

“Uh, being a…uh…team…sport,” he mumbled.  Close enough to run with.

“That guy over there wearing the same hat as you?  That’s Kyle.  Remember that he has a name, and it’s not Crier.”

I knew I had his attention, but I also knew I’d have it for about 10 seconds more—and that was all I could spare to make sure I kept the drills from lapsing into chaos.  “So while I know you’re just trying to help me, do you really think that’s respecting and supporting your teammate?”  Tommy shook his head slightly but definitively.  Point made.

Kyle was, of course, watching this from the wings.  I decided not to say anything to him at that moment other than, “Kyle, let’s go—glove to the ground.”  He slurped, sniffled, and fielded a grounder cleanly.

After the drill it was time for water break.  And I caught a break, as I had hoped that in coming to his defense, Kyle would open up a bit.  He came up to me and said, “Coach, do we have to do another game today?”

The question was a curious one to me, as I’ve found one of the key ways to keep kids interested in doing drills was to make the drills into competitions.  By splitting the kids up into two or sometimes three teams, I was able to keep them in the action while providing an incentive for the players to cheer for their teammates.  That’s what all the coaching books told me, and for years it’s been the perfect recipe.

So what gives?

“Why don’t you want another game, Kyle?”  I asked, seeing tears starting to well up once again.  He bravely kept his emotions from overwhelming him, and croaked, “I just don’t want to lose!” I responded with my standard line born from a million competitions-induced tears before:  that competition wasn’t about winning and losing, but striving to get better.  He reluctantly accepted my sage wisdom, and went onto be one of my biggest hitters of the day.  As we gave out star stickers for our hats, I have Kyle a big gold star for “comeback player of the day.”

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Problem solved, right?  Coach Scott’s great!  Give us the chocolate cake! And so forth.

But the next day, I was walking home from school drop-off with Kyle’s mother Yvonne.  “I heard that Kyle started slowly but finished strong yesterday,” she said.  I noted that I found out that Kyle was worried about losing, and talked to him about why we compete.  She sighed in that most parent-like of ways, and responded that Kyle was like this with anything that was competition oriented.  He was afraid to watch his favorite team play baseketball because he couldn’t handle seeing them lose.  He was always worried about his school work being all right because if it wasn’t, he felt like he had failed.  He even said, despite his obvious passion for baseball, that he didn’t want to play on a team because he was afraid his team might lose.

I empathized with Yvonne, my boys having had plenty of on-field meltdowns themselves over the years.  But when she was talking about Kyle, I flashed back to the competitions we were having over the past few weeks.  “What’s the score?” the kids would beg me over-and-over again.  But, no, most of the time, it was actually different than that.  It was “how much does the other team have?”  While that worry was more pronounced with Kyle, it was clearly present with all of the kids.  They were so preoccupied with what the other team was doing, so focused not on winning, but not losing,  that it took away from the team-building that I told all these kids’ parents was at the core of what I was trying to teach.

This wasn’t Kyle’s problem.  This wasn’t Tommy’s problem.  This wasn’t any of the kids’ problem.

It was mine.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game?  I have, too.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game? I have, too.

To put it in conflict partnership terms, the competitions I created became almost entirely power over focused, a “win-lose” scenario that split the kids apart rather than bringing them together.  And I realized that when kids get a little older, as I’m a bit more accustomed to with my boys being 9 and 12, they can more easily separate friendly competition with teammates from “do-or-die.” But for younger children just emerging from the cocoon of constant parental validation where first steps and first poops in the potty are fêted with World Series glee , they are really just starting to learn what competition actually is, that’s a hard distinction to make.

So, how to fix something like this?  Make sure every competition ends in a tie?  That doesn’t really take away the in-game issue, as they don’t know the game is rigged.  Remove competition entirely and go with the “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy?  I have to say that irks me as a coach.  Competition does test players, and helps them to get better.  It does teach essential cooperation and team-building lessons that help build better ballplayers, and people.  And it is simply more fun, as it brings urgency and goals to the table.  And, yes, it is a part of life kids need to learn how to deal with.

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills.  Safety first!

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills. Safety first!

The next week, I donned the Thor helmet borrowed from my son’s Halloween costume and began our “Hit Like a Hero” lesson.  As I did the week before, I broke the kids up into two groups, and gave them the arcane scoring system for mechanics and result.  I looked at Kyle, and could see the nerves already building up in his intense, earnest face.

“This week, we’re doing things differently,” I said.  These two groups are still one team.  Your goal is to get to get to 200 points.  If you do that together, everyone gets a star!”

I could see it on Kyle.  I could see it on Tommy.  I could see it on everyone.  There was no one in the room that could beat them.  Either they would win the game, or not.  They’d work hard, but not have to worry that anyone else in the room was better.  This was still competition, but it was a power with rather than power over exercise.

“Ready to play?”

“YEAH!” they bellowed.

The dynamic of the competition could not have been more different, even though the words were the same.  “How many do we have?” they queried constantly.  Then they’d run back to the other group to see how many they had.  As they approached the 200 point mark, the kids were screaming their support for each other.  And when the barrier was broken, it was a giant hurrah and high-fives all around.

That night, I got an email from Yvonne.  Kyle had decided that he wanted to supplement the team hats that I gave all the players with home-made jerseys because, she said, “it was something to show that he was a good teammate.”

The new uniforms weren’t quite done by our last session (I can’t wait to see them, but I’ll have to wait another week because of this darned snow) where we started using our “Green Arrow Throws” to start working on improving accuracy.  When I again broke up into two groups for a game, Kyle immediately came up and said, “Is this another points one where we’re together?”

“Absolutely, Kyle.  You’re working as a team.”

“Awesome!” he said, pumping his fist, “I love those!”

So do I Kyle.  So do I.

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 Giving Field

May 15, 2013

As I stood out over my lunch hour looking at that cone-shaped stretch of muck, I might have just as well been looking in the mirror.

I wondered until that moment why when so many other coaches and parents cursed and/or ran from the thankless, back-rending effort of tending to a baseball field—especially when the county in its infinite wisdom has used red Georgia clay as the base on so many of our diamonds—I have leaped at the opportunity.  Indeed, I’ve dirtied the back of my formerly pristine Highlander Hybrid with such an assortment of gardening equipment that when I open the back, it puffs forth a cloud of dust Pig Pen would be proud of.

Now I understand.  It’s because the field and I are the same.

First off, we’re both introverts.  Now, when I say introvert, I know that brings immediately to mind the sullen stranger hiding at the corner at the party, wallowing in the misery of being in such proximity to actual socializing.  Introverts close the door and bury their heads in books or video games, preferring those worlds to the painful reality of human interaction.  Introverts don’t do this:

Thanks to TJ Arrowsmith

Thanks to TJ Arrowsmith

But of course they do.  For introversion or extroversion is not about what you do.  It’s about how you feel when you’re doing it.  An extrovert has a natural affinity for being around others.  Indeed, they derive energy from social interaction and seek it out.  I see it at my local school every day, watching as parents easily interact with others and seek out conversations; lingering around well after the kiddies have gotten their high-fives or hugs and scurry off to class.

We introverts can have that same conversation, the same smiles, and derive the same enjoyment out of social interactions.  The difference is that for us, it’s work.  Not “bad work” mind you, but work nonetheless.  It doesn’t come naturally for us, and therefore it drains our batteries rather than restoring them.  Being social is putting on the tux, while solitude is a sweatshirt and well-worn pair of jeans.

And that’s just where the field and I were, enjoying the mutual aloneness where we spend most of our time, but at the same time preparing ourselves for when the time comes for our children to come again and play.  All we want is to provide for them; to bring them unbridled joy in a couch of safety for a couple of hours.  Then, off they’ll go happily slurping their juice boxes.  And we’re a little more worn for the experience, but satisfied, too, because we know we were a part of bringing that delight despite the muddy footprints and aching muscles stamped upon us.

We need each other, and so I drag my oversized rake through its clotted soil, hunting for drier patches in which to fill holes and even out areas around the bases and plate made more worn by the nature of the game.  Each deeply imbedded footstep I erase feels like a bad hop avoided, like another chance for a child to play.  And when an hour-and-a-half later I look back upon the field, sweatshirt soaked and jeans caked with a plaster of orange earth, I felt as renewed as my partner looked.  Indeed, it felt almost empathic, as if I had taken its bumps and bruises into my aching, middle-aged bones to serve a greater good.

How many workouts can boast that kind of psychic benefit?  Eat your heart out, Tony Horton.

After I had taped-up a few signs around begging, “PLEASE do stay off the dirt infield and allow it to dry for games tonight,” the field and I parted ways as I went home to work, parent, cook, and get then get ready for the game.  I returned with both boys in tow.  As they munched on soy “chick’n” strips and then began to warm up in the outfield, I took out my field drag (yes, I’ve got one of those, too) and began to smooth out the surface.

And it was perfect.  Just soft enough not to be dusty, but it had dried enough to mask my footsteps as I towed my device around the field.  As I began my second pass, I quickly checked my watch to see if I was going to have enough time to really get my geek on.  In the trunk I had a bag of chalk, my cheap but functional liner, and my own clever creation, two planks of 1 ½ x 3 foot pieces of Styrofoam I sawed out from a larger piece left in our shed by the handyman, “because who knows when you might need it?”  Light, mobile, and when you put them together, it makes half the size of an official batter’s box.

And there was a sound of thunder.

Drop.  Drop.  Drop.

Drizzle.

Rain.

Pour.

Teem.

In ten short minutes, my field was a lake.  Streams of water rand through it, crying those saddest of words:

No Game Today.

As the sun flickered forth, I looked out at my partner in exasperation, and began to thumb an email to the team telling them not to bother coming out.  But at my feet was the heavy black bucket where I kept my field measuring equipment, including a long length of heavy string.

And the field spoke to me, saying, “There’s more to a tree than just its leaves.”  I looked and saw that the outfield was wet, but not a swamp.  Instead of the “forget it” email, I instead said, “No game, but we’ll be out here for a bit if you’d like to come down.”

I grabbed that string and made a semicircular “fence” in the outfield.  Then I grabbed my plastic plate and bucket of whiffle balls and spent the next hour playing Home Run Derby with 10 eager boys.  We made the rules on the fly, the kids shagged the balls, argued about the foul line, and swung for the fences.  We high-fived, slurped juice boxes, and the kids stole my hat and made me chase them.  A sip of lemonade out of some very wet lemons.

As the rest of the gang had cleared out I began to walk over to clean things up.  I was struck that from my angle, the string had made the field smile. We had, together and alone, brought another kernel of joy to our little corner of the world.

And we were happy.

The Eternal Spring, and Autumn, of a Coach’s Life

April 11, 2013
Rookie coach hadn't quite figured out his style, or the directions to the gym...

My rookie season in ’06. Hadn’t quite found my style, or the directions to the gym…

Opening Day 2013 is coming this weekend for the Arlington Babe Ruth youth baseball league, and we’ve been hard at work getting the kids’ arms, bats, and voices ready (for as I tell my kids, the most important thing about being a baseball player is supporting and respecting your teammates).

This is actually the first year since Gus was four that I’m not the head coach of his team.  Indeed, I had made my farewells last year as now that he’s entered the highest level of his league, I thought that would be a good time to admit that I’ve reached the level of my own incompetence.

I actually wrote a piece for a local magazine last year that they liked and wanted to run, but their spring edition had already gone to press.  They asked if they could hang onto it until this spring, but they’ve decided not to use it.  Well, so much for local celebrity…

I still think it’s a nice piece, and very much encapsulates both my feelings at the time, but, more than that, my feelings about how special it is to be a coach.  So to all my fellow coaches out there, be it baseball, soccer, chess, or, well, just life (that’s pretty much what parenting is, right?), I hope you enjoy and…Play Ball!

One More Trip Around the Bases
An Arlington Babe Ruth coach starts a last season with his boys

A dust cloud that Pig Pen of Peanuts fame would be proud of erupted from the trunk of my ancient Saturn station wagon.  Out from a season of hibernation came the menagerie of baseballs, whiffle balls, tennis balls, bats, helmets, tees, and plenty of instant ice packs that comprise the youth baseball coach’s toolkit.

As I lugged my myriad wares up the small but steep hill separating Quincy Park #3 (that’s the field on the other side of the tennis courts from the library) from the street, I fumbled with a new toy that I learned about from the good folks at the Virginia Baseball Club out in Merrifield.  “The Spatula” as they call it is a specially designed bat that helps players keep their hands in the right place as they make contact with the ball.  But as I twirled this sophisticated piece of baseball technology in my hand, so eager to put it into use, I couldn’t help but recall the first piece of coaching equipment I used a half-a-dozen years ago—an orange hand puppet called “The Tickle Monster.”

Some seven seasons ago, my elder son Gus began his first season playing the game he was genetically designed to love (my wife and I had our engagement pictures taken at Shea Stadium, to clue you in).  As soon as the Arlington Babe Ruth baseball league age rules permitted, we signed him up to play BlastBall!—a rudimentary form of tee ball with a base that honks like a clown nose when a player jumps on it.  As I filled out the paperwork, I arrived at the inevitable check box asking, “Would you like to help coach a team?”  My answer was swift and definitive—No [insert inappropriate expletive of your choice here] Way!

I love baseball, but the thought of trying to teach it to a dozen wide-eyed kindergarteners the nuances of baseball—a game not exactly designed for short attention spans—was beyond what this rookie Dad could even imagine.  I had enough trouble just teaching one child to poop in the potty (like Father, like Son, so my mother tells me).  But then I saw the way Coach Brown handled the boys and organized the chaos.  He grabbed parents as he needed to coach bases, handle drills, and pull kids off each other with the inevitable scrum caused by grounders.  It wasn’t quite baseball yet, but it was pure joy.

So next year when I arrived at the check box, I thought about it a bit more.  I certainly wasn’t ready to coach a team on my own, not with a toddler running around and a full-time job.  But I did enjoy it when Coach called upon me to help, and so my mouse traveled toward the check box, and, click, I was now happily committed to helping out.

A month later, I stood in front of twelve squirming five- and six-year-olds…alone. It seemed very few other parents had checked that magic box.  And so with a tattered bag of balls, a tee, a honking base, and absolutely no clue, I was now Coach Scott.

I knew I was out of my depth immediately as blank stares met me when I explained why I loved baseball so much (Note: telling Kindergarteners how exciting the anticipation of action is in baseball is not a good coaching tip).  And when I lined them up to hit and run, most of the kids either chased after the ball when they hit it, or ran straight to their parents for a hug.  Baseball was nowhere to be seen, as gloves became excavation equipment filled with the irresistible object of the rock-laden infield.  When a couple of boys came staggering up to the plate like drunken sailors, I looked up to find the cause of their wobbles came not from a stray beer vendor, but from the nearby hillside where they were escaping to roll down.

There was no control in this chaos, and Coach Scott’s career seemed destined to last all of one practice.  I reached into my practice bag desperately looking for another ball as one of my last ones went rolling into the sewer.  And out came one of Gus’s favorite toys that I had shoved in there for the trip home—a furry, orange five-fingered hand puppet called the “Tickle Monster.”  “What is that?” said William, suddenly disinterested in rubbing dirt in Russell’s hair.  The other kids saw it, too, and flew to the felted flame.

Holy crap, I actually had their attention!  “Why, this…This is the Tickle Monster!” I said.  The kids laughed.  “He’s here because he’s very hungry, and he eats by tickling players who don’t know how to run to first base!” Nothing but wide open mouths and laser-focus.  “Should we play a game with him?”  These kids who not three minutes ago seemed like a walking advertisement for Ritalin all yelled “YEAH!” in unison, as a team.  I had each step to the plate, and take a swing.  They would then run to the base, with me and Tickle Monster would be right behind them making crazy yummy noises.  If they got to the base before ole TM could get them, they were safe.  If not, it was a tickle feast for the monster.  By snack time, the kids sucked lustily at their juice boxes as they had worked up a powerful thirst cheering for their teammates to escape their orange nemesis.

And that was when I realized what coaching was all about.  Not talking about your love for a sport.  Not imparting your knowledge of the game.  Coaching is all about channeling joy through a particular prism—in this case, pairing baseball with uncontrollable laughter.  And so from the Tickle Monster was born the Crab and Gator drill (fielding), the Riddler Run (base running), the Solar System Swing (hitting), and many more.

For my big guys, the Tickle Monster is now a distant memory.  And soon, I will be, too.  Next year, they’ll move to a higher level where there will be a player draft, and coaches who know the game far better than I.  Indeed, one of my older players “graduated” this year.  His mother left me this note:

“I wanted you to know that we had a meeting with his teachers…  When asked if there was anyone other than his family that he felt comfortable with and trusted and he listed you and only one other person as those people.  Thank you so much for being a person that [he] trusts. You are a wonderful role model for all those boys.” 

So while my motto has been all about the fun, I see now how much power and responsibility a coach can have on a child’s life.  Even though we may only see them a couple of times a week, a few months out of the year, a coach is a teacher of choice. For while school teachers can be and often are the very best of role models outside the family, with coaches, the child is choosing to take on another responsibility and is actually seeking out guidance.

As I unpacked the equipment for this last first practice, a deep, warbling voice came up from behind, saying “Coach, what time is practice over?”  I turn around and see Neil, one of my Tickle Monster victims, his boyish smile now framed with a peach-fuzz moustache.  Now, in this final season, they’ll coach me in a skill I’ll certainly need for the rest of my life—how to let go as your kids grow up.  But not just yet…there’s still time for one more trip around the bases.  And I’ll savor every last step.

The Review: Halo Baseball Hat Protective Insert

March 8, 2013

I’m not all about the glory (really!), but this is the memory that always comes back to me  and gets me jazzed for the next baseball season. This weekend opens Spring Training here in Arlington, and I’m pleased to say my big fella is pain-free from his concussion and has slowly started getting back to baseball.

Understanding, however, that concussions are additive and he’s fresh from a pretty significant bang to the head, I decided to see whether there was any new stuff out there that can better protect those precious coconuts of theirs.

Click to get more details

Click to get more details on the S100

Of course, when we think about baseball protection, attention turns immediately to batting helmets.  But while I did do research on that and ended up with the Rawlings S100p (which I will review later), my thoughts actually turned toward whether there has been any progress toward protecting players in the field.  As a coach in both softball and youth baseball, I have actually seen more occasions when fly balls or line drives bonk off a player’s head than I have seen beanballs (myself included).

The depth perception for popups is not an easy thing for many to master, and, of course, for pitchers, there is an ever-present danger of the line drive back to the mound.   After a lot of searching, I found that there actually were a couple of products on the market designed for in-field head protection.  The first one is called SportsGuard, and it is specific to youth baseball and the head protection costs a very reasonable $20.00.  They note, however, that the product is available at Dick’s Sporting Goods, and when I went to Dick’s to look to purchase one, it was nowhere to be found.

Just didn't like that gap in the back

Just didn’t like that gap in the back

That made me feel a little uncomfortable, plus the fact that the design seemed to have no protection for the back of the head, which is where Gus got struck.  Now, this product may be an excellent one for all I know, but from my web search on it, I couldn’t find anything on their site other than a vague notation that it had been “tested by a major university” that was underlined but without a link to more information.  All of the various reviews I could find were also more the “isn’t this nice” with little factual backup.

With a little more digging, I found out from this MLB Network video that Major League Baseball had been thinking about this issue for its pitchers, too, and had enlisted a company that worked with the military for years, Unequal Technologies, to try and create something for a baseball hat.  Their product, the Halo, has just hit the market.  They have far more specific backup on exactly the level of protection their product affords, and because it is made for fitted caps, offers protection for the entire head.  Here’s the video:

It is, however, far more expensive than the SportsGuard product, coming in at $60.00 with another ten bucks for shipping.  I must say that, at this price, I probably would not have gotten it for Gus had I not wanted to be as sure as possible that for this season he was well protected.

The Halo came in the mail today, and here is my and Gus’s initial take on it:

view of plastic "helmet" side that goes on the hat

view of plastic “helmet” side that goes on the hat

Product Design: The halo does feel surprisingly lightweight.  It’s definitely lighter than a baseball and I’d say about the same weight as my thin Skagen wristwatch.  The exterior is cool, with the protective shell a very slick plastic/vinyl feel and the part that touches the head more of a plastic/rubber composite.  Grade: A-

Ease of Use: In all, I would say not bad, but this 1.0 design still needs a bit of work.  As advertised, the halo does fit pretty easily inside a standard fitted hat.  It can take a little while to get it in just the right place, and, for whatever reason, it didn’t come with a picture or instruction for orientation (I went online to take a look).  You can put it in an adjustable hat, but you’ll see the back of the halo exposed from it.  Grade: B

 

With about 2 minutes of adjusting--looks just like the website.

With about 2 minutes of adjusting–looks just like the website.

Look: Yes, safety is important, but if anyone remembers David Wright in his “Great Gazoo” batting helmet, you don’t want to look goofy.  Here, we’re in the ballpark, but more needs to be done.  The key issue here is that the Halo, despite it being fairly thin, does push the cap up the head, leaving it looking a little artificially high.  This is especially pronounced with adjustable hats that tend not to sit as low on the head in the first place.  The picture you see here with Gus is the very lowest fitting hat I could find in my collection and it still sits high.

The other issue with it is that once the hat is put on, the Halo sits about 3’’ higher than the end of the hat, and it does protrude out a bit and it is noticeable.  Not horribly so, but it’s there.  But, while not invisible, it doesn’t look embarrassingly different than a normal hat.  It would be more of the “Huh, he wears his hat a little funny, doesn’t he?”  kind of feel.  Grade: B-

No, my son is not a conehead

Feel: “Hard.”  That’s what Gus said.  “Not bad hard, but hard.”  As for weight, he said, “A little heavy, but not anything that felt distracting.”  I tried it on and I have to say I agree.  If you’re expecting it to just melt right into your hat, forget it.  That said, once on it was pretty easy to shrug off in terms of how it actually felt on the head.  So no angels inside massaging your scalp, but for protection of this sort, I felt it totally acceptable.  Grade: B+

Fit: This is where this product still has some defects.  I can see how this technology would work amazingly well in a helmet, but putting something hard into something soft and making it work is a serious challenge.  First, do NOT expect this to fit in your regular hat.  You will need a cap at least two sizes larger than you are used to.  Gus is usually a 7 1/4 and even the rather roomy 7 1/2 you see in the pictures still didn’t have it sit right on the head.  We’re going to bring this to the store and try it with a 7 5/8 to see if we can get the fit we need.  In trying different hats, when I put it in my MLB stretchable batting practice hat, I got the best overall fit.

Because it rides higher, as you’d expect it feels a little looser.  We did some basic workouts and while the hat stayed on for the most part, it did drop off once when Gus lunged, but on numerous other occasions when he dropped to his knees or leaped for the ball, it stayed put.  In my BP hat, it was more secure and stayed in place even when I turned and ran and looked up as if going for a fly ball hit over my head.  We’re going to continue to toy with hat fit and see if we can find a good solution, but for now, Grade: C

Overall Initial Reaction: I want to stress that this is just our first day feel for this product, not an end-use assessment.  That said, if I didn’t feel Gus really needed extra protection, I don’t think I would be an early adopter of the Halo.  I do think they are closing-in on something extremely helpful, however.  If your child has already suffered a concussion or is a pitcher and you’re concerned about safety, this may well be a product worth your checking out.  I will give you updates on our in use feel for this product as we go along.  Overall Initial Grade: B-

I’m curious to hear if anyone else has had experience with these or any other protective gear, as I’m always on the lookout for things that can help minimize risk without minimizing the fun.

Play Ball!

UPDATE 4/23/13: I have an updated review based on more experience with the Halo you can read here.

Golem: The Hero Project

March 6, 2013

You know what they say about real estate: location, location, location.

Last year's fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

Last year’s fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

I guess I should have been excited about being given one of the prime spots at my little guy’s elementary school’s Multicultural Night.  We were right at the top of the stairs, impossible to miss—Israel front-and-center.  After brushing away the urge to suddenly discover my Slovenian heritage, I began setup for my second year representing the Jewish State.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love the fact that the biggest school event of the year is one that celebrates the diverse cultural backgrounds of the school students, parents, and teachers.  The kids are given passports, and run around the school to different tables representing different countries.  When they have stopped in and participated in whatever that country has to offer, they get the requisite stamp on their passport.

I think the twist would have given me away

I think the twist might have given me away

It’s just that I was absolutely exhausted by the worry and work of tending to my big guy’s concussion recovery (he’s doing much better now, by the way).  Just putting things together and manning the table was somewhat daunting at the moment.  Now add to that a location that guaranteed the deluge of smart, inquisitive, and energetic K-5 kids and I was hitting myself for not bringing along that bottle of Plymouth to go along with the Play-Doh.

I remember being really spent after my maiden voyage at the Israel table.  Last year’s theme was holidays, and, as you might remember, we took advantage of the proximity to Purim to do Haman Hangman and teach kids about the “Hebrew Halloween.”  Trying to manage that again, but this time at the center of the storm, was positively daunting.

Great moment, but not much competition for Hansel and Gretel

This year, the theme was folklore and fairytales.  This is something that gave me and the other Israel table parents some consternation.  Israel itself is a young country, so the amount of folklore developed since 1948 is fairly small.  One could point to the bible itself as Israeli folklore (and, some might argue, fairytales), but that seemed out-of-sync with the vibe of what they were looking for.

Finally, we decided that there was such a rich folklore tradition within the Jewish diaspora experience that it was just too good to pass up.  It also gave the opportunity to teach kids about the concept of a people without a nation.  And, as a nerd, there was really only one story choice:

Golem.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s my excerpt from the activity sheet I put together.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Legend has it that in 16th-century Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Israelites were being threatened because a lie was spread that Jews were kidnapping Christian children. As a mob gathered to attack the Jews, the head Rabbi of Prague turned to a passage in the Torah that referred to an “unformed substance” or Golem (GOH-ləm).  Through a mastery of Jewish mysticism, the Rabbi formed a mound of clay into a large human-like shape.  Finally he inserted a parchment with the most sacred Jewish prayer, the Shema, and the Golem came to life.

Unharmed by human weapons, and growing larger and more powerful by drawing strength from the earth itself, Golem was a determined protector of the Children of Israel.  But Golem became so powerful that even the Jews themselves started to become fearful.  Eventually, the Rabbi would use his powers to return Golem to the earth, even though he came to treasure his life as much as any human being did.

Golem SwampThingCan you see why a geeky guy like me loves this story so much?  It’s essentially Frankenstein meets Superman.  Indeed, Golem has been featured in comic books from Swamp Thing to The Hulk, and in pop-culture hotspots from The Simpsons to the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Resistance was futile.

Given Golem was formed from a mound of clay, it leant to a great activity for the kids—Build Your Own Golem.  Armed with a rainbow of Play-Doh tubs and paper plates, the kids molded their own heroes and brought them to me for me to mark with their name and their Golem’s name in Hebrew (or the best approximation my 6th grade Hebrew School training could approximate).  As the first little girl brought me her fire-breathing butterfly, I found that I needed to kneel down to more comfortably write on her plate.  I did not get up again for two-and-a-half hours.

Location, location, location.

knee_padsAnd while my hamstrings are still recovering some two weeks later, I have to say I am so very glad I didn’t let my fatigue (and self-pity) get in the way.  I wish we had been a little less crazed, as we weren’t actually able to do the photos and videos of the kids as I had hoped.  But both their creations and their answers to my questions were absolutely fascinating.

As you might expect, there were plenty of the “boys will be boys” crowd that just wanted to talk about the cool ways that their Golem could destroy things.  When I noted the fact that those powers could be used just as easily for evil as for good, most responded, “Well they just use it to kill the bad guys!”  When I challenged them to think about one way they could use their power to do something other than to destroy, I got a lot of quizzical looks and “Can you just give me my stamp now, please?” But I also got a lot of good thinking.  Lightning bolts that could light lightbulbs and controlled storms that could spin wind turbines, to name a couple.

And then there were the “outside the box” notions of heroism.  A winged Pegasus that spread friendship with a flap.  A tree of life that provided food for the hungry.  My favorite was a little girl with a pretty pink Golem.  When I asked what powers her hero had, she shrugged her shoulders shyly.  Her Dad wrapped his muscular arm around her shoulders and urged her to answer.  “Is your Daddy your hero?” I asked.  She grinned and nodded her head, looking up at him for approval.  “And what makes him your hero?” I continued.  She pondered for a moment, and squeaked, “He loves me.”  This time, it was my turn to grin.  “Love, my grandmother always said, is the greatest power of them all.”  We named her Golem Ahav—love in Hebrew.

folding chairWhether you go with Golem or just a “build your own Super Hero” project, I cannot recommend this activity enough.  I would have loved to have done this in a classroom environment where the kids get to build, discuss, and share their designs, and more importantly, their thoughts on heroism with each other.

Just make sure you’ve got a chair.

Backyard Birthdays Hits the Road: Gunnar Golf!

October 11, 2012

Heaven lies on a paper plate

Okay, I admit it, I’m firmly planted in the OCD department about a few things.  Pizza, for example, is a bit of an obsession.  To me, only New York Pizza is pizza. When we went up to Citi Field to see the Mets as part of our follow the Mets on July 4th tradition, I discovered my kindred (though somewhat more potty-mouthed) spirit, Collin Hagendorf of the Slice Harvester blog.  He led us to New York Pizza Suprema right across the street from MSG.  And to quote one of my pop-icon heroes, Special Agent Dale Cooper, New York Pizza Suprema must be where pies go when they die.

I guess I love good pizza so much because, for me, a real slice is a Ratatouille moment.  When the crust has that soft, almost melty (I know that’s not a word, but it’s the best way of describing the sensation) inner layer, but that crisp snap at the bottom; when the cheese has that perfect light sheen of oil, and the cheese achieves that impossible balance between melting in your mouth yet still providing a springy chew; when the sauce is perfectly wed with a hint of sweetness and garlic—I’m instantly eight years old again, sitting at Angelo’s pizza in Queens, with my father, step-mother, sister, and step sisters, my Batman sneaker-clad feet dangling from my chair above the floor, melting in my chair as the pizza melts in my mouth.

Washington Deli’s selection. Highly recommend the basil slice, and they even have a solid Vegan slice!

So when pretender pizza comes rolling around, not only the taste, but even the look…even the smell just feels like an insult to what pizza is supposed to be.  It’s why I was so delighted that Nationals Park decided last year to bring in Flippin’ Pizza, a reasonable approximation to a New York slice—the perfect ballpark food for this vegetarian.  And, other than saying goodbye to the amazing people I worked with at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the hardest thing about leaving was that I would no longer be just two blocks away from Washington Deli, the best New York slice I’ve had outside of NYC itself (the only ones who really get the crust right!).

I know what you’re saying.  “Uh, Scott?  Wasn’t this post supposed to be about something called Gunnar Golf?”  Well, like I said, OCD.  But I’m getting there.

Like pizza, one of my most keen early childhood memories is of golf.  But not just any golf.  About a half-hour’s drive away from my first Atlanta home was a miniature golf course called Sir Goony Golf.  Now long gone (though it looks like there’s one still standing in Lake George, NY), I remember driving down Roswell Road, seeing the trademark red roof of Pizza Hut (blech!) on the left, and knowing that just one light later, over the horizon, would pop the massive yellow Tyrannosaurus Rex using its stubby little arm to bounce a plywood caveman up and down like a yo-yo.

Iconic

From hole number one, when you faced down Humpty Dumpty sitting on that big ole’ wall, you knew you were in for a challenge.  An ostrich dipped its beak into a hole.  An alligator with glowing eyes peeped its fanged mouth open just long enough to allow a ball to pass.  A castle’s door teased and blocked.  And, of course, there was that T-Rex.  Challenging?  Yes.  But, because it was “Goony” there was that sense of imagination, of silliness, of plain, simple, fun that couldn’t be beat.  Seeing grown ups, from my Mom and Step-Dad, to my Grandma and Grandpa who were real golfers hem-and-haw over just missing the Kangaroo’s pouch made the whole experience truly fantastic, with the emphasis on “fantasy.”  And when we went to visit Grandma Helen and Grandpa Nat down in Florida, and learned that there was a Goony Golf with three different courses, including a massive Purple People Eater whose black, bumpy tongue revolved around to tip balls in or drive them out?  Let’s just say that I was eying the haunted house hole to see if it had indoor plumbing.

Oooh, on this hole, they have TWO sticks! How wildly creative!

In some sense, I think this is why I really don’t like normal golf.  But I do understand its appeal–nice walk, fun cars, and cocktails while “sporting.”  What I really, really cannot stand is that miniature golf impostor…putt-putt.  Yes, some of you may think that putt-putt and miniature golf are the same thing.  Indeed, many putt-putt courses mask themselves in the name miniature golf the same way Pizza Hut uses the word “pizza.”  But while miniature golf is an invitation to a world where creatures monstrous and mythic work to block your every path, putt-putt puts a stick in the way of the hole.

So, much as my excess of snobbery runs toward poor pizza, so too does my nose lift upward at putt-putt courses.  To me, they symbolize the laziness that beset family entertainment when video games first really hit in the 1980s.  My beloved Goony Golf and its T-Rex became extinct, and instead my friends were having their birthday parties at Putt-Putt Palace, a large arcade with a flat, listless, lazily constructed course attached as an afterthought.  I mean, if you can play pretend inside a TV screen, why bother with the real thing, right?

Camelot Mini-Golf instead of Disneyland? Oh yes, we did.

Fortunately, real miniature golf is not dead.  Indeed, Kir, the boys, and I have been from Stony Brook, NY to Anaheim CA and many points in-between in the hunt for the most challenging, most goony golfing in the land.  Unfortunately, however, none of those courses are in the Washington, DC area.  Closest to us is the county-run Upton Hill Park, a pretty-decent putt-putt course as the well-manicured grounds do have some passably clever holes, including one huge hill the kids love to run down (and all parents therefore fear).  And when Gunnar, who has started doing real mother/son golf lessons (which is awesome) absolutely begged me to have a mini-golf party, Upton Hill was really the only option that we could reasonably ask guests to come to.

This, of course, brings me to OCD, Mk. 3—the birthday party.  I won’t go into details here, but for those of you who haven’t been following my blog for very long, I hold a very special place for the birthday party as a cornerstone of childhood memory.  It is a wonderful opportunity to make kids feel special and also, in my typical SHYB fashion, provide opportunities to teach fundamental teamwork and conflict partnership skills.  Just use the search function on my home page and type in the word “birthday” and you’ll get a flavor about how I’ve tackled everything from Middle Earth to the Olympiad in our back yard.

So I was, of course (no pun intended) unwilling to simply sit back and allow Gunnar’s party to simply be a walk around some passable putt-putt holes.  At first, I envisioned bringing Halloween props and doctoring up each hole so it more closely resembled a real mini-golf course.  But as obsessive as I am about these things, that seemed a bit too high maintenance even for me.

Now THAT’S a Clown’s Mouth!

Then, I remembered my experience at a very clever indoor mini-golf course in Atlanta, Monster Mini Golf.  In one particular hole, at the beginning, there was a spinner.  When you spun, whatever you landed on, you had to putt that way.  Among the options were putting with your eyes closed, and having someone lie down on the course to make themselves an obstacle.  And then it dawned on me—if you can’t make the course itself goony, change they way you play the course so it’s creative and silly.  And so, Gunnar Golf! (patent pending) was born.

The Gunnar Golf Cup!

You’ll find here the Gunnar Golf! setup, and the many games I came up with, from blindfold putting to using your club like a pool cue to the player favorite, using the “crazy ball” which was an Unputtaball, a weighted golf ball that would turn in random directions upon hitting it.  One thing I did which really helped keep things competitive, but friendly was have two tiers of competition.  The 5 lowest individual scores would qualify for a chance to go to an individual playoff to win the Gunnar Golf! Cup, each group was also a team.  The top team would get a chance to pick their prizes first at the end, so the members of each group were actually rooting for each other and helping each other out.  It really helped keep the teasing and bragging to a minimum, which I think helped provide a nice balance between individual achievement and teamwork that I always like to have as a party base.

Upon seeing the list, both my wife and my Mother-in-Law felt that playing Gunnar Golf! every hole would take too long.  I agreed, and we did it every third hole.  That allowed us to stagger our starting hole (Group 1 started at hole 1, Group 2 at hole 2, etc.) and keep the action going.  Even then, we didn’t get through a full 18 holes within our two hour play/eat cake window.  So if something like this seems interesting to you, think to either simplify the game play, or allow yourself a little extra time.

The kids’ reactions to Gunnar Golf! were very interesting.  Most really enjoyed it, but some said they like regular golf better.  When I asked why, it wasn’t that the challenges weren’t fun, but that playing the regular way was easier.  Unlike when you are creating a world (and rules) from scratch in your backyard, when you do an on-site party like this and twist conventional rules, the kids know that there is another way to play it, so that all-important suspension of disbelief is a bit harder to accomplish for some.

$4 of fun

That said, the kids thought the Unputtaball was extremely cool.  Frankly, you could just bring one of those and have a random draw on who has to play with that, and I think you’d have a hit.  But what I also found interesting is that the kids really gravitated to the mathematics aspects of the game.  Just the concept that you could do better than a hole in one, and the concept of that mathematical impossibility, that you could get a hole in negative numbers, was very intriguing to them.  And that really helped in one case, when one player who had one of the higher scores was the first to get a hole in -2.  Even though he struggled elsewhere, he had bragging rights over that (and used it!).

The other popular mathematical concept was the Math Ball holes.  Not only did the kids enjoy using their noodle trying to figure out the math problem, but because they got to do it before or after the hole, they knew that it was separate from playing the hole itself.  It combined the mental and physical by keeping them separate.  It really intrigues me to think about the possibilities of combining physical activities with mental exercises to help make learning more fun and fun activities more educational.  So, in that alone, this was a very worthwhile experiment.  And, of course, for the Mr. Numbers Birthday Boy, Math Ball was, slightly inaccurately, a no-brainer.

And so another birthday passes, and thanks to the “Caddy Crew” of Kirsten, Mor-Mor, and Gus, we were able to take the backyard birthday on the road and show that you don’t need a giant yellow T-Rex to make golf some goony, creative, and even educational fun.

And the pizza after the golf wasn’t half-bad either.

CoachN No More

August 13, 2012

No fair

Okay, Pandora, that’s no fair.  I know I might have tempted fate by putting on my Peter Gabriel station while I crafted my farewell note to the parents of the couple of dozen kids I’ve coached over the past six years.  But “I Grieve”?  Perhaps the most heart-wrenching song ever written?  I mean, I cry when I hear that one even when I’m not feeling wistful. Jeez.

But there I was, arrow hovering over the “Send” button, mouse in one hand, napkin in the other (tissues were too far away).  Gus made the fall travel team, and, having already committed to coaching Gunnar’s team, it was finally time to cut my big boys loose.  The sentiment that I wrestled into tear-free hugs, smiles, and manly pats on the back at our spring season farewell party now had a choke hold on me, as the lump in my throat evidenced.  This was it—CoachN no more.

All the “nutrishin” a growing boy needs!

Resisting the flood of memories was akin to stopping the ocean with a chain-link fence.  There flashed a dozen 5-year-olds with chocolate smeared all over their faces after I had given them Wonka DoNutz—a short-lived doughnut-shaped treat covered in sprinkles—having survived their first base-running adventure with the tickle monster.  While healthier snacks were quickly requested by the parents, I will never be able to get the mental photo of pure sugar-fueled joy out of my head.

These players may have not been my children, but they were my boys.  First hits.  First, catches.  First pitches.  Those memories belong to me.  High fives for a big play.  A hand on the shoulder after an error brings tears.  Slapping each one of them with my cap until they giggled into submission when I handed them their championship trophy.  All of these events are carved into my heart and etched into the person I’ve become.

Yes, yes, I knew this day was coming.  Yes, yes, I am still coaching my younger son’s team.  But as my index finger wavered, I knew that the relationship I had forged with these bumbling kindergarteners, these earnest 2nd graders, these hard-working 4th graders, these middle schoolers fighting to become men; it would never be the same again.  I was saying farewell to those who helped me find a calling in life.  Who had helped me see the game I loved in ways I never imagined or expected.  They had all given me a gift that they may only truly understand when they arrive here at my middle-aged station.

Click.

Send.

And CoachN, at least in this iteration, is at an end.

But I have learned a couple of valuable lessons.  One is that all the standard claptrap that teachers say about “them learning as much as they taught” isn’t claptrap at all.  It’s not that a teacher or coach learns new things about what she or he is teaching (though that certainly happens), but in the practice of imparting what you know and value to children, you learn things about yourself.  Sometimes it’s things you don’t like very much, but you’re glad you know them because it’s a chance to change for the better.  Sometimes its good things you never thought you had in you—a most pleasant surprise indeed.  Mostly, though, it’s that you learn that your capacity to take others into your heart truly knows no limits or bounds.  And that truly is the greatest gift that comes from being a coach.

Oh, and the other lesson that I learned is that Gus and Gunnar will never be allowed to leave home.

Okay, that might just be the Peter Gabriel talking.