This Isn’t Day Care

014 Day CareWhat’s up youth sports parents?  I’m not talking about the bad behavior, the unbearable pressure they place upon their kids or the laughable yet undying belief their young player is going pro because they are good at the age of eight.  I’m talking about the lack of involvement, of helping out when needed, far too often the norm.  Parents are an integral part of youth sports.  I wrote about youth sports being an arrangement between the coach, the player and their parents a while back.  That contract is a two-way deal.

My son’s soccer team wrapped up its season this past weekend.  There was one referee at the first game and each team was asked to have a parent man one sideline.  It is not uncommon, and it is not the first time I was given the flag.  I don’t mind.  Though the other team’s parents outnumbered us threefold, not one of them could be bothered to do the same.  They sent a six-year-old kid instead.  Are you kidding me?

I’ve seen the same as a baseball coach.  After a furious but fast rain storm, our first game last season, our first game ever, was delayed for 30 minutes.  Both teams’ coaches were asked if we would recruit some parents to help get the field ready.  I asked a group of my parents, and I could tell by the look of disdain on one of the parent’s face there was no way he was helping out.  Ten minutes later, I look up to see three or four of my parents sweeping, raking, laying down Quick Dry® and the one parent camped out in his lawn chair three feet away watching them work.

I don’t get it.  With my son’s soccer team, I help set up the goals, lug the 50lb sandbags required to secure the goals, line the field, put up the corner flags, basically whatever is needed.  Heck, in my son’s second game this weekend, I even coached the first half because his real coach forgot one of the player cards required by whatever governing body there is and he felt so terrible he drove home to get it so the kid could play in the second half.  This after having to go pick up three kids and bring them to the game so we could field a team in the first place.  (As an aside, the boys played as good a half as they’ve played all year.  I’m just saying.)  I’m happy to do whatever I’m asked for many reasons.  First and foremost, I am going to make sure my son and his teammates (in that order, I am a parent after all) get to do what they enjoy most, play soccer.  Second, I know only too well how much the coach has on his plate and he can’t do it all by himself.  Third, I know the coach doesn’t like having to ask me to pitch in, but he’s doing it because it’s the only way he will be able to give the kids the attention they deserve and need.

I’m not saying I am better than anyone else because I help out.  I do understand the beauty of sitting on the sidelines and watching your child play.  I understand the allure of coalescing and kvetching with the other parents because, lord knows, they’ve become your constant weekend companions.  But if you see the coach going to the car for the third time to get yet another bag of equipment your kid will need during the game maybe you should ask if you can grab something.  Youth sports isn’t about you or your wants and needs.  The single focus of youth sports is your child, and the objectives should be your child being active, having fun, learning how to function within a team, playing their hardest and getting better at whatever sports they play.  Sometimes as a parent you need to enable the opportunity for your child to play.  Sometimes you have to do a little work that goes beyond paying and playing chauffeur.  Sometimes you need to participate.  This isn’t day care after all.


Winning. It’s Like Better Than Losing

013 WinningI’m tired of everyone telling coaches not to focus on winning, make sure the kids are having fun, it’s only a game, etcetera, etcetera.  The players sure care about winning so as their coach I better too.  At least at a micro-level.  Take a step back though and who really cares?  Player development trumps winning at the younger levels every time.  Therein lies the rub.   Winning each game is important.  Overall won-loss records are meaningless.

Last season, my travel team went 2-11.  Best damn 2-11 team I’ve ever seen. I repeatedly told the parents not to worry about the record.  I wasn’t trying to convince them I was doing a good job.  Winning at this level is dictated by physical maturity and often hinges on a couple of kids.  You have two stud pitchers you’re going to win a lot of games.  I was simply trying to have the parents focus on the little victories in their sons’ first year of kid-pitched baseball, let alone travel ball.  If they were making plays they didn’t make before, if they were swinging the bat better than they were before, if they were making smarter decisions on the field, the year would be a success even if we didn’t win a game.  They’re so young, and this game is so hard and truly learning it is a marathon not a sprint.  If they won every game, but didn’t get better, their baseball “careers” wouldn’t be very long.

But the outcome of each game does matter.  It matters a lot.  A parent told me she watched the coaches at the end of tight games.  She said it looked like I didn’t breathe for the last two innings of our first win.  She wanted to know why given my rhetoric about won-loss records.  I didn’t breathe because I desperately wanted that win.  What’s the point of doing something if you don’t care about how it turns out?  Baseball is probably the first thing my players have found in their lives to be passionate about and that passion means winning is a big deal to them.  I had better be coaching my rear-end off to put them in the best possible position to win every time they step on the field.

Of course it has to be done within the unwritten rules of ethics and fairness for the age level you are playing at.  I read an interview with John Maddon about little league baseball, “Everybody wants to win and hey, I hate to lose as much as anybody else, but everybody plays. Do not ever jeopardize a kid’s potential future for the sake of a win; that to me is crazy. . . . I need to win here as a Major League manager. As a Little League coach somewhere you don’t . . . .”  He’s absolutely right.  Winning every game is important though you’ve missed the boat if you’re willing to have kids sit on the bench all year or to resort to bush league plays (bunting in 8U baseball is [expletive-deleted] just as is having your batter-runner stop midway between first and second with a runner on third) to do so.  But focusing on winning each game, playing to your fullest ability, coaching to your fullest ability . . . isn’t that what it’s all about?

Playoffs last year.  We’re playing a team that thumped us the week before 18-4.  Tonight is different.  Our pitching is lights out.  So is the defense.  We take a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the fifth, but we have a bad inning and we’re down 6-4 when we come up in the sixth.  We load the bases, but just can’t punch home the runs.  All the losses hurt, but this one is bad.  Really bad.  I used to laugh at all those managers like Maddon who say losing really hurts, but now I get it.  More than a few of my boys are crying after the game.  My post-game speech is easy, “two weeks ago they killed you.  They thought you stink.  I promise you they came here tonight already thinking about who they might play after they beat you.  You think they think you’re a bad team now?  I feel sorry for them next year.  I feel sorry for all the teams.  And tonight you showed everyone why.  Now let’s go get some ice cream.”  But as proud as I was of them, a moral victory is still hollow.  I finally fell asleep around 3 am that morning exhausted from having replayed every decision I made the entire night.  Winning that game meant the world to my players and so the loss cut deeper than most.

I haven’t given my dismal 2-11 coaching record a second thought since the season ended.  That loss.  I think about it a lot.  It will haunt me for a long time.  Winning.  It’s like better than losing even if it means nothing in the grand scheme.

“Winning.  It’s like better than losing” is a quote from Bull Durham.  You can see a video which contains an expletive here.

A Bad Case of DPD

012 DPDI need help.  Desperately.  I am suffering from a bad case of delusional parent disorder (DPD).  I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the world of 9U soccer and my son’s place in it.  I can’t go on this way.

My son’s first love is soccer.  He’s pretty good at it.  He should be.  He has a ball at his feet all the time.  He’s turned the path between the family, living and dining rooms into his own soccer field.  He’s been in a program with the absolute best coach I’ve ever seen for three years.  They didn’t play games for the first two, just focused on development with lots of touches.  I watched my son become a creative, technical soccer player.  It was fantastic.

This year the games started as did my problem.  My son is the most advanced player on his team.  He’s team captain.  He’s scored all the goals for his team.  I know scoring goals doesn’t mean you’re the best, but he’s the focus of the offense, it runs through him.  While he’s got a knack for putting the ball in the back of the net, he’s not the most aggressive kid.  Sometimes he plays a little soft and lets himself get pushed around, not exactly the traits of the next Messi.

My issues started when the coach mentioned he asked another player, not my kid, to play with the 11U team.  I was stunned.  I have a hard time processing it.  I’m still hurt.  I’ve developed an anxiety around it.  I don’t want to go watch practice anymore.  I am even contemplating having him tryout for other programs come the spring though, as I mentioned, he’s got the best coach I’ve ever seen in any sport.  It’s probably worth mentioning my son isn’t bothered by it at all.

It gets worse.  Now he wants to play goalie.  Goalie?!?  Doesn’t he understand there’s only one goalie and lots of other players?  Even if it doesn’t work out as a striker (did I mention he’s scored all the goals?) he can always play midfield or, worst case, defense.  Can’t he see his best path is at any position other than goalie?

Look I get it.  I understand if he’s not aggressive against kids his own age, he’s going to get devoured against older kids.  I understand he’s not going to develop much when he’s going to play less and get fewer touches.  I know he is playing exactly where he should be playing.  There is nothing to be gained from “playing up.”  I also fully recognize if he wants to play goalie then he should.  He’ll enjoy it and he is more likely to put in the necessary work and see soccer through to its logical conclusion for him at whatever level that might be.  I really do know he’s not going to be a pro soccer player.  Really.  I do.  He’s nine-years-old.  Who the heck knows what’s going to happen?   Rationally, I get all that.  But we’re talking about my son, and there’s nothing rational about DPD.

I write all this because as a coach, my case of DPD is a reminder of what even my best parents go through.  It’s a kick-in-the-rear-end reminder of needing to put myself in their shoes and remember they’re scared, they’re anxious, they’re protective, they don’t know what to do and everything they say and do is because they have Bobby’s best interests at heart even if their words and actions suggest the exact opposite.   It’s a reminder although they see exactly the same things I do on the field, those things tell them a different story than the one I know to be true.  It’s a reminder even the ones who “get it” will be irrational at some point.  Much as I hate it, suffering from DPD as a soccer dad will make me a better baseball coach.

PostScript: In between writing and posting, I spoke with his coach who told me pretty much everything I laid out above.  He took the time to tell me all the areas my son is doing great in, how much he loves having him on the team and reminded me there is no rush.  We both agreed the aggressiveness will come or it won’t, but if it does . . .  He handled it perfectly, as I knew he would because he’s also taken the time to establish a good relationship with me as a parent in the program.  I sleep better at night now.  First because the boy is fine and happy (he even got to play a game at goalie), and second because I have a blueprint for the next discussion I have to have with a parent suffering from a case of DPD. 

The Royals: A Youth Coach’s Dream

011 Kansas City Royals 001The Royals ability to make contact was a hot topic throughout the postseason.  Though I had tweeted about it a month ago (ESPN’s “Blueprint for October Success“), I hadn’t given it a second thought until a friend asked what I thought about Kansas City’s contact rate.  What I think is the Royals’ approach to hitting is what every youth baseball coach should be preaching.  They are aggressive at the plate.  Flying in the face of Money Ball, they swing early and often.  They go up to plate thinking swing first – “put good swings on the ball and put the ball in play.”  What is often overlooked is they swing hard and still make contact.  What youth coach wouldn’t want their players doing the same?

A quick look at the Royals’ 2015 regular season is revealing:

  • 29thin walks (last in the AL)
  • 30thin strikeouts (last in the majors)
  • Fewest pitches per plate appearance in the majors
  • 24thin HRs
  • 11thin slugging percentage
  • 3rdin team average

They may not hit the long ball, but the Royals aren’t a bunch of Punch and Judy hitters.  They swing hard (high slugging percentage despite few home runs) and they make great contact (high team average, low strikeouts).  I think a large part of their success comes from swinging at hittable pitches early in the count (low pitches per plate appearance and low walks) instead of working the count and waiting on the home run ball.

011 Kansas City Royals 002

Driving up pitch counts is more accountable for the overall increase in strikeouts and lower batting averages than chasing the home run.   When you work counts, you take a lot of pitches that could be hit and put yourself into a lot of two-strike situations.  It may work at the major league level where you want to get to the bullpen and where the hitters are so good they can hit in any count and are strong enough the HRs overcome the strikeouts, but it is the antithesis of what you want young ballplayers doing.

With my young players, I constantly stress going up to the plate ready to swing.  Be aggressive up there; it’s called hitting after all.  It’s why I won’t let my players bunt (heck I won’t teach them how to bunt until they’re a bit older.)  I want them swinging hard every time but staying within themselves so they don’t open up early or pull their heads out or develop a hitch trying to jack the ball.  I also don’t want them leaving the outcome in the hands of the umpires with the extremely generous (and rightfully so at this age) strike zones.  Mostly, I want them learning to put good swings on the ball and to make good contact.  Put the ball in play and good things happen.  And that is pretty much the Royals’ approach to hitting in a nutshell.

“. . . I hate striking out.  So I’m going to battle as much as I can.  Even if I hit a weak ground ball, I feel like that’s a lot better than striking out.  This is a crazy game.  As long as you put it in play, something good might happen.” – Alex Gordon

Though I would have liked to see the Mets win the World Series (even if I am a Yankees fan, I’m a born and bred New Yorker,) I’m happy to see the Royals’ success on the biggest stage.  It’s a good opportunity to show my players a great major league team doing all the things my kids should do.  Thanks Kansas City, you are a youth coach’s dream.