Posts Tagged ‘sports’

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip-of-the-Day: Choosing a Coach (part 1)

December 24, 2017

Ciao from Rome! Team Nathanson have started our Roman holiday, but nerd that I am, I still have baseball on he brain.

Today’s tip is one I have a lot to say about, but for brevity’s sake (well, at least as brief as I can be) I thought it would be best to break this important subject into component parts.

Winter is the time that many players seek out independent coaching for the first time. By “independent coaching” I mean something other than team coaches (be it house or travel) or going to a baseball camp. This could be one-on-one coaching, small group lessons, or larger classes. And, of course, all these options will cost you something—some a LOT more than others.

Now, I mention the last point because as I have lamented before, youth baseball has over the past generation morphed into big business. Little League, Babe Ruth, and even Legion ball in many areas struggle to keep their numbers, while club and showcase baseball teams that cost big bucks explode with the promise of future glory.

This is no less true for coaching. In my area alone and just off the top of my head, I can think of seven indoor baseball training centers within a half-hour’s ride from home. The number of people willing to take your money to watch little Billy bat is astounding. And that’s coming from one of those people…

Now, there are a lot of factors that can go into choosing a coach. And those factors can change a lot depending on whether your child is just learning to throw a ball or considering college ball as a viable option. But there is an important commonality that may seem obvious, but often gets overlooked:

Allow your kid to lead, and help her/him develop reasonable, discrete, short-term goals and expectations for any private instruction.

Too often I have heard parents who have 7-year-olds with showing some athletic ability already projectśing their kid through High School. But as Arlington Babe Ruth coaching legend John Karinshak is fond of saying (and I am fond of stealing), “Players are like flowers; they bloom at different times.”

That little slugger may mash that underhand toss, but it is no guarantee no matter how much coaching she gets that she will be able to handle a hard fastball at 12. The notion of a player being “projectable” at a young age — something I myself have made the mistake of saying to parents — does everyone a disservice.

Conversely, if a child is expressing an interest in baseball, but may not be showing himself to be a world-beater, that doesn’t mean that private instruction is a waste of your time and money. For example, I recently did a number of private lessons with a 10-year-old boy who had taken a year off baseball to focus on swimming. His Mother told me that wanted to play again in the spring, but was worried that he would be behind the other kids.

When we met for the first time, I did what I always do, which is to speak directly to the young man apart from his parents to make sure that his wishes and expectations were on the same page as what I had heard from his Mom. You would be amazed at how often this is NOT the case. Whether it is a parent feeling that Susie needs those extra reps to make the travel team because you can just see how talented she is, to Bobby expecting to become Mike Trout in an hour, neither parent nor player is going to get what they are looking for out of private instruction unless they are on the same page.

In the case of my 10-year-old player, he and his Mom were indeed in sync. Quite rightly, she was letting him lead, and then reaching out looking to fulfill a realistic need pointed toward the next season. He really wanted to work on learning to slide correctly, get more confident catching pop flies, and throwing accurately in the infield. We worked some hitting and pitching as well, but it was clear that he really wanted to sure up areas that he felt weak at rather than building on strengths.

We worked together for about 7 sessions, and by the end he could slide with risking life-and-limb, was catching routine fly balls in the infield and outfield, and really improved at attacking grounders to cut down on distance and how to follow his throw to gain momentum and accuracy. And at the end, we exchanged fist bumps and bid each other adieu.

This, to me, is a textbook example, and applicable whether it is a 10-year-old looking to get back into baseball or a 17-year-old trying to find a few more MPH on his fastball to become a legitimate college prospect. Understand your child’s interest, help to shape reasonable goals, and only then are you ready to begin to get the most bang for your coaching buck. Anything else is the baseball tail wagging the dog.

So you’ve checked box and are ready to go coach shopping? Stay tuned. I’ve got a few ideas on that…

Scott Nathanson has coached youth baseball for over a decade from t-ball to 16u.  He is the Head Coach and Manager of CoachN’s FUNdamentals, a business committed to growing the game of baseball through teaching the unique athletic and life skills that America’s pastime offers to our kids.

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Why Utley’s Slide Matters to Youth Baseball

October 11, 2015

WinFor RubenMy older boy was playing a game last week in Fairfax County with his high school JV team.  This being his first experience with this level of baseball, it’s been quite the education for him.  For rather than play in the JV division, his team is playing other varsity teams, meaning big, strong kids with pitchers hurling well north of 80mph.

Gus has struggled a bit at the plate, as has almost every player, but he’s held his own.  And his team was holding a 3-1 lead going into the 7th inning of a well-contested battle.  Gus was catching, and our new pitcher was struggling badly.  He had already given up a run, had walked four batters, and they had the bases loaded with no one out.
When the count went to 3-2, we awaited the inevitable.  Our pitcher went into his stretch, came set, and…

THONK

…the lights went out.

10pm.  Nite-nite for this particular field.

The 7th inning ceases to exist, and we win 3-1.

As the gossamer batter threw his shadowy helmet to the ground in frustration, all of us parents looked at each other with a guilty grimace.

“That’s not a good ending for anybody,” said Joe, one of Gus’s former youth travel coaches, whose son is also on the team.

I am reminded of this given the ugly events that happened last night with Chase Utley breaking the leg of Ruben Tejada in the NLDS Game 2 between the Dodgers and my beloved Mets.  While the event wounded my not-so-inner Mets fan, it and the reaction to it hurt CoachN more.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook in an open letter to MLB:

Dear MLB.com you, and the umpires you employ, decided to show baseball-loving kids around the country that, so long as you think you can get away with it, it is okay to try and hurt a defenseless player because the play is so important.

I heard the talking heads on MLB Network talk about how catchers are now protected, so why not middle-infielders? THEY ARE PROTECTED! THERE IS A RULE! It just takes the minimal courage involved in simply doing your job.

This is made far worse by the fact that it was Chase Utley, a Hall of Fame-caliber ballplayer with a history of playing dirty. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Hard-nosed is fine, it is great. But Utley has crossed that line multiple times, and your cringing from the proper course of action is an open encouragement for hyper-competitive players and coaches to think that somehow this is acceptable because, after all, the Dodgers won in the end.

Youth baseball, particularly at the travel level, is plagued by the “Winning is the Only Thing” mentality. It is a significant reason why participation in travel baseball is down across the country, as parents are increasingly wary of putting their children in a system where their values and priorities for their kids, such as fair play, respect for teammates and opponents, and that the competition is as important as the result, are subverted by a concept of the game that prioritizes results over process or even the rules themselves.

Your umpires, and then the subsequent confused, half-hearted, finger-pointing “defense” of what happened by Joe Torre only serves to reinforce this notion.

As a Mets fan, I was okay with losing last night. Not only did we already win one, the Mets have given me a thrilling season win-or lose. What you and your umpires have done by cowering away from upholding the rules damages the game in ways well beyond this game or this series, or even the Major Leagues itself.

As a father, a youth coach, and a fan, I am disgusted by everything that has happened during and after that play. You should be ashamed. I will certainly be addressing this with my players, as hopefully at least someone can learn the right lesson from this event.

With greatly diminished respect,
Scott Nathanson
Manager/Head Coach
CoachN’s FUNdamentals

Utley has now been suspended two games for the illegal slide.  As one Twitter poster noted, “I wonder if Tejada can appeal his broken leg?”  Of course, Utley has appealed, like a true bully refusing to admit he’s done anything wrong.

For while my son’s victory came with a bit of embarrassment to his team, Utley and the reaction by his Dodger teammates and Major League Baseball has embarrassed the game.

October

October 9, 2015

I just posted this on Facebook:

No offense to my Oxy friends, but...yeah.

No offense to my Oxy friends, but…yeah.

I woke up today and my team is still going to play in the playoffs.

After a (virtual) decade after my 5-year-old was brought to tears (and driven into the arms of the Nationals) by Adam Wainwright’s filthy curve.

After seeing my boyhood baseball home closed with a second straight collapse.

After watching my captain and star player literally break his back.

After meandering through years in the desert of mediocrity.

After sitting at Nationals Park THIS YEAR watching a lineup with four batters…four…batting under .200.

My team is in the playoffs.

And he was happy.

Let’s-Go-Mets

With all respect to fans of other sports, there is nothing in the world like playoff baseball.  This is because the ebbs-and-flows, that languid summer rhythm of the game dissolves.  A game designed to be marathon suddenly becomes like sprinting a marathon; every step magnified as if that will be the very one that wins the race.

Fans standing on every two strike count.

Stadiums literally shaking in the frenzied excitement of the moment (not sure if Citi Field will shake, but lord knows Shea Certainly did).

Even nature itself lends to the theater as the sun dims to darken the theater; the air itself crisping, even ever-so-slightly in the desert air of Los Angeles, to sharpen the flavor of autumn baseball.

It is a rich and unique experience, made heart-wrenchingly, agonizingly incredible when your team makes the most exclusive dance in all of professional sports (even with the two Wild Cards).

For when Jacob DeGrom unleashes his first pitch at Dodger Stadium, I will be seven-years-old, sitting on the porch in the Bronx, my ear pressed to a transistor radio as Bob Murphy prepared for one of the few Happy Recaps of the season. I sat at my Grandmother’s feet as she watched the Yankees game on a black-and-white TV.  She was actually the biggest Mets fan of us all, but got so nervous that she couldn’t watch them, but could always root for the Yankees to lose.

I will be 16, tossing myself over my basement sofa in Atlanta in a feat of gymnastic dexterity I will never attempt again, as Vin Scully chirped, “Around comes Knight and the Mets win it!”

Shea didn't need lights, only that smile.

Shea didn’t need lights, only that smile.

I will be 30, sitting with friends and family, and the love of my life who was carrying our first child, as a portly Hawaiian named Benny sent a 13th inning home run out of Shea.  The next time I would see a glow on her face to match that moment, she would be holding Gus in her arms.

During the pregnancy, we called him Benny.

And I will be 45, breaking out the blue pinstripes just as I did on that porch in the Bronx, yearning again for another Happy Recap, another link in that mental chain that helps to bind the oddities, vagaries, and tragedies of life into something resembling cohesion.

Win if you can.

Let me down if you must.

But welcome back to October, Metropolitans.

I’ve missed you.

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.

House Rules

September 29, 2015
Just happy they chose soccer...

Just happy they chose soccer…

While I was recently interviewed in Arlington Magazine for an article on the ups-and-downs of travel sports, my feeling is that some of the greatest lessons for kids of any talent level can come from being a part of a house team.

Indeed, it is why I find it a shame when parents of elite-level youth players tap their fingers and roll their eyes during the house ball season, impatiently awaiting the end of league play so their child can go play “real baseball.”  Some go a step farther, pulling their kids out of league ball and shelling out the big bucks to go exclusively with club teams all year long.

What the “club kids” miss out on is truly precious.  For in hockey, basketball, soccer, and even football, one star can dominate the show.  But particularly due to the pitching restrictions put on teams in league ball, the big fish is still small compared to the whole pond.

There is no “rover” or “center” that can patrol the whole field.  There is no opportunity to take the shot every time.  It’s the kid with the runny nose and thick glasses—the kid who dreams just like the jock of someday feeling the soft rustle of major league grass underfoot—that may have the ball hit to him (or her) in that crucial moment.

“You’re never going to win at everything,” says Arlington Babe Ruth baseball coach Scott Nathanson, who’s been coaching for more than 20 years. “I try to equate baseball with joy and bring the life lessons that baseball teaches to the fore, rather than focusing on winning or losing.” — From Arlington Magazine.  Couldn’t have said it any better myself.  Oh, wait…

Indeed, in what was unquestionably my Aces’—the “B” travel team I coach—best game of the season, I had the opportunity to actually show some strategic smarts (not my specialty area, admittedly) and prove that very thing.

Two years ago, my big fella’s B Team, the Arlington Cardinals, headed to a great little tournament up in Frederick and upset the host team in the first round.  We were probably about evenly matched, save the coach’s son, who was an absolute monster.  That was a huge day for my own fella, as he both started, and much to the protest of the players on Frederick, came back in the game to get his own save.  I remember it well because my wife almost had a heart attack when we brought him back in.

My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades

My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades

Flash forward to this summer, and my Aces are playing a Frederick team much the same, this time with a kid we called “Fish” because his last name was some type of gilled animal, though precisely which one now eludes me.  This young man looked like he could swallow my skinny fella whole, and yet was faster than anyone on my team.  I was told by one of my players that he was a friendly sort, coming up to our dugout during our 2nd round game and saying, “Hi, I’m [Fish].  I’m the best player on my team.”

And, of course, the most humble.

Come the semi-final, we were locked in a 1-1 game in the 3rd, and my pitcher who was dealing but clearly running out of steam had just induced a groundout with runners at 1st and 2nd got get that second out.  Now, with two runners in scoring position, the big Fish swam to the plate, his shadow encompassing the entirety of the left-handed batter’s box.

I looked out to my guy, a wiry young thing named Tony, and you could see the look in his eye.  I call him “La Tigre” not just for the Frosted Flakes connotation, but because he’s a kid who loves a challenge.  But you could tell that he was running on fumes, and Fish was ready to reel him in.

I sat there on my bucket, wondering what pitch to call that might do the least damage, then something in the recesses of my brain crammed somewhere between Tickle Monster Base Races and Fuzzy Flies from Outer Space decided to spark.

“Tony, step off!” I yelled to my hurler.  He looked at me blankly, finally complying on my third request.  I called time, and jogged to the edge of the backstop where the tournament officials were scoring the game, and huddled with them and the umpire.

“What are the rules on intentional walks?” I asked.  “Do I need to throw four balls, or can I just put him on?”

The tournament orchestrator seemed taken aback a bit by the question.  “Well, uh, whatever the rules say…”

“I believe we’re playing by Cal Ripken rules,” I quickly interjected, given that was something I actually knew.  “At this level, I can just put him on.”

“He’s right,” the umpire said.  “That’s the standard 46/60 rule.”

“Allright then, do what you want,” said the official with a courtesy masking just a hint of frustration.

“Okay big fella, head on over to first,” I said, giving the umpire the point of the finger.  “That’s my tip of the cap to you.”

We were all grinning after the big win.

We were all grinning after the big win.

The grin on La Tigre’s face stretched like the Cheshire Cat.  He nodded, and it was like I had gone to the mound and given him a B-12 shot.  Fish was on first just long enough to watch Tony strike the next batter out on 3 pitches.  We ended up winning that game 3-2 in 8 crazy innings (inclusive of the boys spontaneously starting to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in our 7th inning huddle, an amazing memory in itself).  It was perhaps the best youth game I’ve ever been a part of, win or lose.

And that’s it.  No matter how good you are, baseball is designed to be a truly team game, by being a definitively individual one.  That’s what makes it such a great teaching tool.

That, “It’s not always about you” life lesson, and the feeling of self-enlightened empathy is even more heightened in house baseball, when you have travel-quality players mixed with those who struggle just to put the ball in play.

For while the “Fish” moment was fantastic, to me, and even more cinema-worthy scene came in our final spring house league game, a consolation affair after a tough, rain-shortened playoff loss.

My Blue Wahoos were locked in a good battle with the Hot Rods, one of the better teams in the league who also got upset in the first round.  We had lost to them earlier in the season in a game where we were defeated before we played, as the chatter of “they have five travel players on their team!” got squarely into my kids’ heads.

In the rematch, we were playing our game, and we were winning.  A tight contest was coming down to the Hot Rods final at bat.  And the game would come down to a kid we called, “Mr. Clutch.”

Yep, felt just like that.

Yep, felt just like that.

This little second-sacker, younger than most, smaller than most, loves baseball with an undying passion.  He earned his moniker by being able to tap the occasional grounder at the big moment and running it out for a hit, and I got all Mr. Miyagi-like when earlier in the season he lined one up the middle off a pitcher on the 9u “A” travel team.  “You just got a hit off a Storm pitcher!” I said after the inning.  “How does that feel?” I asked as he beamed.

On the defensive side, M.C. worked his keester off to make himself a solid defensive player.  But popups were still his bug-a-boo.  Indeed his Dad told me during the season that Clutch would demand they go into the yard and do nothing but practice popups, dropping them time-and-time again.

In that moment—two outs and the tying run on base—a high pop fly floated over his head.  No one else had even a remote shot at the ball—it was his or it wasn’t.  And in that moment, every Wahoo was invested in him and him alone; knowing that the smallest guy on the team was the only one who could come up big.

Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team.  His Dad says even in a different uniform, he's still doing things the "Wahoo Way."

Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team. His Dad says even in a different uniform, he’s still doing things the “Wahoo Way.”

Had anyone else made that play, it would have been sweet, but the explosion of joy that erupted from the entire team when that ball rattled and stuck in Mr. Clutch’s glove turned that memory into something so much more than that both for him, and for us.  Indeed, both the Hot Rods and Wahoos among my Aces, and they still talk about that catch.

Now I do understand the pull of high-level competitive youth baseball.  Talented players should have the opportunity of playing with and against other talented players to help them learn to play at a higher level.  My concern is, however, that Club Teams are the pricey siren song that allows talented players to shed core experiences that make baseball something bigger than the game itself.

So if you have a talented kid who is simply just better than the rest, think twice before pulling the plug on house ball.  I’ll also add that it’s equally important to disabuse those kids of the notion that house league play is just practice until “real” baseball starts in the summer.  Kids who do this disrespect the importance and efforts of those kids whose only season is the house season might are missing out on what the game is really all about.

So to all you are-or-would-be travel parents, do remember that your young star isn’t likely on a path to the big leagues.  It is the memories he makes and the lessons she takes from “Mr. Clutch” moments may well be more important in the long run than anything that happens in that summer travel tournament.

Making Mandela Meaningful to American Kids through Sport(s)

December 5, 2013

Sport has the power to unite people in a way that little else can. It can create hope where once there was only despair. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand. – Nelson Mandela

I’ll get back to my baseball tale soon, but I simply must take the time out to honor the passing of what, as you might gather from this blog, is a personal hero.  Nelson Mandela was such a remarkable man in so many ways, and his journey from nonviolence to armed struggle and back to nonviolence, particularly because the road back was one taken while in captivity, is one of the most remarkable personal tales ever told—and it was told on a global stage.

But while most of us grownups remember Sun City, Biko, and the shantytowns built all over college campuses in the 80’s divestment movement, our kids have lived in a world where South Africa has been a non-issue on the American news stage.  Apartheid is history, and not one most schools teach to elementary and middle schoolers.  So on the day of his passing, I struggled to think about how to make this amazing man connect to my suburban white kids.

And then I remembered the quote from above, and the story of the 1995 rugby world cup that was captured in the movie Invictus, staring Morgan Freeman and Mandella.  I quickly scanned Netflix to see if it was streaming, but, alas, no dice.  Instead, I got even luckier, as the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The 16th Man was ready to roll, and it is also available in its entirely on YouTube as embedded below.

We boys watched this just a couple of hours ago, and both pronounced it, “Very cool!”  I really can’t imagine a better hour spent with my kids today than watching this.  Much like the movie Lincoln gave you a measure of the full man by taking a small slice out if his life, The 16th Man gives you a sense of this pivotal moment in both South African and world history, and the enormity of his courage and his strategic thinking to bring a nation together that seemed virtually certain to be torn asunder by hatred, violence, and revenge.  I cannot imagine actors doing a better job in relating the personal and emotional journey that the South African rugby team went on than the players did themselves.

I think what makes this great for kids is that, at its center, this is a classic underdog sports story with a magical ending.  But the sport here transcends sports, and shows Mandela in a relatable and heroic light that is both true and resonant for today’s kids.

As we discussed it, my little guy immediately made the connection between Mandela and Rosa parks, and we also started an interesting discussion about the current flap over the name “Redskins” for Mandela took one of the most hated single symbols of the apartheid era, the Springbok of the national rugby team, and wore it on his head and his heart, even in the most uncomfortable of circumstances.

I’m so glad I had the chance to share that moment with my kids, and hope that Mandela’s spirit smiled a bit in knowing that his wisdom will continue to make a difference in children around the world who may not have even heard of him until today.

Rest well, Madiba, the epitome of a life well lived.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

June 14, 2012

You’ve got to be kidding me, God.

That’s what I was thinking as Gus stood at the plate.  He had been mired in a slump ever since coming back from breaking his finger, and now he stood there—my son— down one with two outs and no one on representing the final out of our season.

Gus made a play at the plate and asked his Mom if he looked like Josh Gibson. Love a 10-year old who knows his history.

But even more than that, he represented the final out of our era.  I had been coaching Gus and many of the players on this Grays team (named after the Negro League Homestead Grays, who used old Griffith Stadium in DC as a second home) since Kindergarten.  With Gus about to graduate 5th grade and enter the brave new world of Middle School, next year they would graduate to the upper level of the league, one where kids are drafted rather than kept together.

Given I had such a connection with these kids, and reached the level of my own incompetence in coaching, I knew this year would be my last with them.  As I looked at these young men with their peach-fuzz facial hair, deepening voices, and constellations of blemishes cracking open that Pandora’s box of manhood, I remembered the children they once were.  Chasing them with the “tickle monster” an orange hand puppet that filled them with joyful terror as I trailed them around the bases making nummy noises.  Playing the  “Hit the Coach!” game where they all pelted me with tennis balls at the same time.  Teaching these little boys lessons in teamwork, cooperation, and focus all wrapped up in the joy of playing what to my mind is the greatest game ever invented.

These boys were now young men, and the baseball we were playing now was more mature as well.  We got off to a very slow start, as just about every team except ours had at least two hard-throwing pitchers.  The first half of the season was filled with strikeouts, frustration, and more than a few games lost by mercy rule.  But I saw this “crisis” as an opportunity to teach another wonderful lesson that baseball offers.

After a particularly bad loss to the powerhouse Dodgers, I stood at the plate the next day at practice, a group of sullen pre-teens looking at me dejectedly.  I told them that I saw our problem, and our solution did not lay in swinging harder or faster, but in swinging slower and more softly.  I had their attention, confused and disbelieving that it was.  “Coach,” I said to Coach Craig, standing on the pitcher’s rubber, “throw the ball in here as hard as you can.”

Textbook form

He let it fly, but rather than taking a hard cut, I just took a soft, slow, controlled swing, and the ball jumped off my bat. Hardly moving, the ball flew all over the infield, and even a couple making into the outfield.  “Holy crap!” Kiarash yelled, stunned at what he was seeing.  “Okay Coach,” I chirped, “really let it go.”  He threw even harder, and I turned and bunted.  High, low, inside, outside, he simply couldn’t get one by me.

I turned to the boys, their attention now completely wrapped.  “Gents, I have taken a look at our scoresheets, and in our league, if you put the ball in play, you get on base 75% of the time.  We are now done with swinging for the fences.  If we are going to be successful—this is the way we need to play.  Anyone interested?”

They ran to get their helmets on.

And so for the rest of the season, we worked on our “Bunt, Slap, Swing” drill and, suddenly, we were a team with a new identity.  We beat the Red Sox, a team who mercy ruled us just three weeks before.  We beat the A’s by six runs and it wasn’t even that close.  And we beat the Cardinals by mercy rule.  When other teams came in before games, I’d hear their players say “Oh, we need to be careful, this is the team that bunts all the time.”

And yet, here we were in the first round of the playoffs, having used all our tricks to score six runs against the Yankees.  But they had seven, and Gus now had a 2-2 count. One strike left in Grays history.  And it was my earnest, emotional, and passionate son who would now carry the stigma of ending not only a season, but an entire chapter in our lives.

I know it’s not THESE Yankees, but whenever we play a team with that name, this is all I can think of.

The Yankee pitcher came set, and launched a nasty fastball right on the inside corner.  Gus was late, but just timely enough to get a piece of it.  Foul ball.  What little was left of my voice was bellowing from the 3rd base coach’s box.  Lord only knows what trite statements I was bellowing out.

Another ball heaved toward the plate, this one just low—Gus had managed to fill the count.  But the next pitch was another bullet, this one over the outside corner.  But Gus wasn’t going to go quietly, he reached and slapped, with perhaps a centimeter of the bat grazing the very bottom of the ball.  The faint plink of aluminum on leather indicated that it was still 3-2.  I wanted to claw the flesh from my bones.  I wanted to beg that pitcher to just slow it down a bit—give the kid a chance, for chrissake!

I held my breath as he let the bullet fly toward home…

I’m an agnostic, so I don’t know if there is a God, or baseball gods, or Zeus has decided that he’s a baseball fan.  But I thanked all of them and more when Gus trotted down to first base on a walk.  He stole second, came to third on a wild pitch, and on a slow roller to third which was fielded cleanly, the first baseman just missed holding onto the throw, and Gus scored the tying run sending us to what ultimately was an 8-7, extra-inning victory.

While I felt badly for the Yankees and we coaches made sure the boys settled down quickly to shake hands, I couldn’t help but think that, no matter how far we went in the playoffs, these kids had now created a memory that they will take with them wherever they go, and a life lesson that with determination, thinking “outside the box” and making the most out of what you have, even those small-ball Grays could find big-time success.

Maybe that’s not a miracle after all.  Maybe it’s something even better.

“Could You Just Shut Up, Please?”

May 3, 2012

As I’ve noted in past posts, I coach both my sons’ baseball teams; a hectic, exhausting, and absolutely exhilarating endeavor.  My younger son, Gunnar, is really showing some signs of natural skill.  He’s developed a very pretty left-handed swing (far better looking than his old man’s) and is one of the few kids on his team that can consistently catch pop-flies and throws from his teammates.  Indeed I think we’re going to try and jump him to kid-pitch this fall and test out to see whether he’s ready for that big step.

First kid I know to break a metal bat. It died a hero.

Gus, my 10-year-old, however, has shown no such innate ability.  He’s not especially fast.  His arm is average at best. He does not have lightning quick reflexes and is naturally a bit ball shy.  His depth perception is not particularly good, making fly balls an adventure.  When he swings a bat, or fields a grounder, it all looks extremely robotic—like he has to think through every single step.

But despite this complete lack of natural talent, Gus has willed himself to become a very good baseball player.  So good, actually, that he got invited to play on the all-star team this past fall.  Every single coach he has ever had—myself included—all say the same thing about Gus: he’s a hard, hard worker.

At baseball camp in NC. 100 degrees and ready for more.

So for the past few weeks, Gus and I have been in the back yard, the cages, and baseball fields from dusty to swampy getting himself ready for the tryouts for the spring all-star team.  For while he was asked on the fall team, the spring team is much more competitive as many of the best athletes in the area play a sport other than baseball in the fall.  We had him in the best possible shape and he felt really good going into the tryout.

As we were driving there, I was chatting with him incessantly about what to remember.  “Relax and attack.”  “Run to the spot of the ball.”  “Glove to the ground.”  Nothing he hadn’t heard a thousand times before.  Amazingly, one valuable comment did escape my mouth.  I said, “Gus, normally I’m your coach, but here you are trying out for other coaches, and today I’m just your Dad.  So do you want me to give you advice during the tryouts, or just shut up?”  He paused for about, oh, three-tenths of a second, and replied, “Could you just shut up, please?”

Well, he was polite about it.

And, as agonizing as it was, I did just that.  And he had a very solid tryout.  He caught just about every fly ball, though, as always, each was an adventure.  He wrestled each ground ball into his glove and made solid, if not spectacular throws to first.  He hit a few balls hard, and fouled-off anything he couldn’t catch up to.  He was always around the plate with his pitches, and blocked a number of balls in the dirt when he caught.

When we heard that there would be only one tryout (last year there were two rounds) all of us went home feeling like he had a solid 50-50 shot at making the team.  Gus had spend the next two days talking to every friend, teacher, and building custodian he could find talking about how excited he was about the fact that he thinks he had a better chance this year of making the team than last year, and how nervous he was about it.

While Gus was at school, the e-mail came from the coach.  I opened it and saw it was addressed just to me—not a good sign under these circumstances.  It was indeed bad news: Gus had been among the last players cut from the team.  Here’s a bit of that very kind note:

“We really enjoyed working with Gus in the fall and have seen a dramatic improvement in his skills and his confidence as a ball player.  As always, Gus was attentive, hardworking, and respectful throughout the process and has been a pleasure to coach.  I know Gus will continue to work on his game and will be a better player for it.”

Immediately Kirsten and I started texting and talking a mile a minute trying to figure out the right approach to giving our boy this piece of crushing news.  Coach Joe had said a number of nice things about him, and that he’d like to reserve the opportunity to “call Gus up” if another player was not able to be part of the team for some reason.  So stress the positive, right?  We’re proud of him for giving it his all.  He should feel fantastic at the fact that he’s among the top 10-year-old ballplayers in all of Arlington.

And I used all of these lines, and a few I can’t remember word-vomiting out on the walk home from school.  But none of these words were a magic elixir, as I watched him struggle to hold himself together, his massive blue eyes welling up in disappointment.

I felt powerless.  I couldn’t fix this.  He had tried and failed, and he was devastated.  To make matters worse, he was scheduled to pitch for my team the very next day against the league team that Coach Joe is in charge of.  Unbelievably, my eternal spigot of words had run dry, so I just walked silently with him.  He kept a few paces ahead so as not to make eye-contact.  When we got home, he immediately made a bee-line upstairs to his room, and shut the door.

I could hear his cries of anguish from the floor below—my heart was shattering.  But despite my strongest desire to barge right in there and hug, hold, talk, soothe…to save him—I didn’t go in.  I realized that not only could I not rescue him from this pain, I couldn’t even make it a little better.  He needed to go through this himself.

An hour later, Gus emerged red-eyed from his room, hungry.  As I fixed him a snack, I casually mentioned the game against Joe’s team.  “If you’d rather not start tomorrow, that’s no problem, bub.”  At first, he said nothing.  He just munched his Sun Chips.  When he was done, he got up and ambled toward the bench by our back door where his glove rested.  He picked it up, and, staring down at it, said, “Dad, can we go out in the back yard and practice pitching?”

“Just let me get my glove, big guy.”

The next day, he stared down a lineup of mostly all-star players, and he pitched his heart out.  He gave up a couple of runs to in the first, but only one solidly struck ball.  He struck out a couple of their best hitters, and absolutely dominated the second inning pitching not with his arm, but with his head.  Up, down, inside, outside, fast, faster, slower, slow.  He made the most out of what he had, and kept us in the game for three innings (the first time he’s ever thrown more than two).

We didn’t win the game, but Gus’ attitude rubbed off on his teammates.  When the next team to use our field was showing up, parents looked up at the scoreboard, then looked at all the chatter, fire, and camaraderie in our dugout, and wondered aloud, “Which team is winning this game?”  I could not have been more proud of Gus and the Grays—showing how passion and determination can transcend even the numbers that supposedly determine the difference between winners and losers.

And so this highly-involved, highly-verbose coach and Dad learned that sometimes by holding back, we give our kids the power to feel what they need to feel, and empower them far more than even the kindest words or biggest hugs can.  So while being a hands-off guy is probably not in my future, I’m going to try and remember that sometimes shutting-up is actually the best advice of all.

Are Coaches Better Teachers Than Teachers?

April 25, 2012

A couple of days ago, I came out of a joint meeting between the Social Studies Advisory Committee for Arlington County Public Schools that I serve on, and the Science Advisory Committee (SAC).  We came together because we recognized that in the County’s focus on bumping up student math and reading scores on state standardized tests, our two subjects were, more and more, being pushed to the side at the elementary school level.

Book improved, but I learned the key is HOW the material is taught

I had initiated the idea of the two committees getting together because I had heard the SAC’s presentation to the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) on which I also serve (Note: This makes me sound like an education expert—I am not.  I’m just a Dad who got involved in the PTA and got pissed that my son’s Social Studies book stunk).  During their presentation, I was struck by the fact that, despite the significant differences between the two subjects, there were core similarities in the way historians and scientists think. Ask a question (“Why is the sky blue?  Why did the Allies win World War II?), form a hypothesis based on a base-level understanding.  Research to confirm or refute hypothesis.  Present evidence and conclusion as argument.

Such a process not only applies to drawing conclusions, but thinking creatively.  Whether it is presenting ideas on how best to feed the most people with the least environmental impact, or arguing whether the world would have been better off had Weroance Opechancanough had driven the English invaders out of America in the 1600s, this process of thinking is essential to teaching children how to apply knowledge.  Time and time again, the business executives of today are clamoring for employees not with encyclopedic knowledge of a particular area, but the intellectual curiosity to learn, a capacity to work well in teams and think creatively in driving toward new solutions.  Indeed, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has coined the term “21st Century Thinking” to promote the importance of just this approach.

Loewen uses Virginia's standardized tests as example of how to do Social Studies wrong

And yet despite the obvious expertise and experience far beyond my own in the meeting, I could not help but feel frustrated that we spent most of our time talking about the standardized tests and how to help kids meet required levels for subject retention in elementary school.  While I understood the need to look at these tests to at a minimum ensure that Social Studies and Science are taught at all at the elementary school level, I found it frustrating that the base thinking skills that these two subjects can teach, and when taught together can reinforce, really played second fiddle to learning the content.

Frankly, that feels backwards to me, especially at an elementary school level.  While learning basic arithmetic and reading are fundamental building blocks for learning, those are no more important—and no more teachable—than the thinking skills that subjects like Science and Social Studies can instill in young minds.

So what does all this have to do with my rather provocative title, you might ask?  After the meeting, I ran into a fellow ACI rep and friend from back in my arms control lobbying days Natalie Goldring, who is now a professor at Georgetown University.  Natalie sits on the Gifted Services Advisory Committee.  Always a font of sound information and ideas, Natalie brought up a key issue that their committee is looking at, that of differentiation.  She noted that this was not simply a process to figure out who the gifted kids were, but to get a sense of the relative level of each child in order to ensure that they are deriving an educational benefit no matter what level they are on at the time.  Standardized tests and the “race to the middle” often robs advanced kids of the ability to explore beyond the norm, and makes struggling kids feel like they simply cannot learn.

courtesy T.J. Arrowsmith

It was then that a light bulb went off in my head.  As a baseball coach, I am all about differentiation.  In teaching the kids an appreciation for the game, I can plainly see how much kids know about the game itself (how many outs in an inning, where is your play with runners on first and third, etc.) and their relative skill level (fielding, throwing, hitting).  My goals have always been constant.  Teach them to understand and love the game, improve to the best of their abilities, and learn to think and act like a team even in this, perhaps the most individual of team sports.

But, of course, I do not have to test my kids…or do I?  Games are actually the ultimate tests—they put our practice into demonstrable effect.  But what defines success for one player (catching a fly ball) may be different for another (allowing the ball to drop, but keeping it from getting past).  Failure isn’t permanent, but transient, as other opportunities are always in the offing.  Supporting your teammates, talking to each other about defensive positioning, backing them up in case of overthrows are all crucially important.  And counter-intuitive thinking (swinging harder actually slows your bat down, pitching slowly can actually be more effective than pitching fast) are crucial to understanding and improvement.

In other words, one can make the argument my coaching approach teaches my five-to-eleven-year-olds more of the 21st Century Learning Skills better than the conventional education system does.  Not only that, but kids at all skill levels derive benefit without being subjected to the often damning law of averages.

Of course, I’m hardly the first or only person to have this revelation, and as I noted I’m no education expert.  So I will practice what I preach and provide evidence to support this hypothesis.  In the education section of the book Abundance (Yay, finally working it into a post!), authors Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler cite a number of provocative examples of both the problem with the current educational methods, and the potential solutions of shifting to a more coaching-oriented method.  Here are some of the most notable ones:

The Grandmother Method…: Indian physicist Sugata Mitra tested children at a slum nearby to his office by putting a computer out for public use.  He found that without instruction, they were learning how to use the computer and find information off the web by working together well enough to score 30 percent on a subject test—amazing evidence of the power of team-based self-motivated learning.  But when he added on another layer he coined as the “grandmother method,” in this case a slightly older girl who had no knowledge of the subject, but encouraged the kids with positive feedback like “Wow, that’s cool, that’s fantastic, show me something else!” the test scores jumped to a 50 percent, which as the same average as high-school kids studying the same subject at the best schools in New Delhi.

… Becomes The Granny Cloud: Bringing that same method to England, Mitra created a Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLES) method where four children always share one computer at school.  In areas where there are a lack of qualified teachers, he created a “Granny Cloud”—a corps of grandmothers from all over the UK that agree to tutor the kids for an hour a week on Skype.  Test scores on average increased 25 percent for students being urged on by coach grandma.

Focus on Retention=Less Retention: Our current educational emphasis on fact retention is not actually ending up with students retaining knowledge.  Two fifths of all high school students need remedial courses upon entering college.  In Michigan alone, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy estimates that remediation costs college and businesses about $600 million a year.

Gaming Makes Learning, Testing Fun: Dr. James Gee, a linguist at Arizona State was stunned to find out while playing the video game Pajama Sam with his six-year-old the surprising complexity and difficulty of the game, and the fact that despite failure and frustration, it somehow held his child’s attention.  He concluded through study that a game-style system where learning is integrated in an interactive, problem-solving environment, and grades are cumulative based on your progress (like a video game), rather than a zero-sum game penalizing both a lack of knowledge (an F) or putting an upper boundary on what can be achieved (and A), kids were entirely more motivated to learn at their level, and integrated creative thinking and problem-solving into their work than in more traditional environments.  Schools like Quest2Learn in New York are integrating this philosophy into a curriculum where activities include creating graphic novels based on ancient poems, and playing strategic board games such as Settlers of Catan.

Technology Frees Teachers to Coach Rather than Lecture: Salman Khan, a successful hedge fund analyst in Boston decided to help out his younger cousins in New Orleans by creating some short YouTube videos teaching basic math and science facts using a digital chalkboard.  He soon discovered that his cousins actually preferred the video version of Khan to the real one (at least for learning) because they could pause and rewind where they didn’t understand, skip ahead when they already got the point, not feel embarrassed if they didn’t get something the first time, and, if they really had an issue, would only then ask for personal help.

Sorry, just couldn't resist.

The result is the Khan Academy (which just released its current library of 2,200 videos in App form) and a whole new style of teaching.  Partnering with the Khan Academy, the Los Altos School District in Northern California are assigned to watch Khan Academy videos as homework, and the class time is spent solving problems provided by Khan.  Correct answers earn points that are in turn traded in for merit badges.  As Diamandis and Kotler say, “This lets teachers personalize education, trading their sage-on-a-stage role for that of a coach.”(emphasis added)  In the first twelve weeks of the project, students doubled their scores on exams.

Yes, in a number of cases I am ironically using the example of traditional test scores— something I railed on earlier—as an example of the success of a coach-style, process-over-content approach to learning.  Yet in conflict resolution, one of the steps is to find the “win-win” scenarios.  In an environment where standardized tests on all subjects are likely be a major part of the educational landscape for some time to some, using the proof that a different approach to teaching not only helps create the kind of more adaptable and employable thinkers that today’s employers desire, but actually better satisfies the baseline educational tests seems to me the definition of a “win-win” solution.

Of course many teachers are already doing many of the things that I am talking about, including several that my sons have had at their school.  But until the 21st Century Learning Skills have been elevated right along the “Three Rs” in the way we teach our kids, we will not institutionalize the kind of education that is most valuable, empowering, and, just as importantly, just plain fun for our kids.