I’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.