Random Numbers

033 Random NumbersThe rec league uniforms came in.  We got road grey with navy and white trim and navy hats.  A little Yankees-esque which is not a bad thing.

My son asked for number ten and then wanted to know who wore it.  I told him about Chris Chambliss and The Scooter.  That was good enough for him.

We go through this ritual every season because he chooses a different number each season, seemingly at random.  I don’t get it.  Numbers used to be sacred.  You asked for the same number every year, you knew which kids wore which numbers and you never, ever, asked for someone else’s number.

The second year I played organized baseball I was given 13.  I had wanted nine for Graig Nettles, but 13 it was and it stuck.  I wore 13 through high school.  Every team.  Every year.

When I got to college, I switched to 23.  It was my first time away from home, and while Donnie Baseball being my favorite player and a first baseman had something to do with it, the switch was more about not wanting to feel like the same little boy anymore.  Even if I didn’t think of it in those terms, shedding 13 was symbolic.

Those two numbers meant everything to me.  They defined me or at least I thought of them in that way.  You could call me “Siegs” or you could call me by my number.  Most of the clothing I owned at the time had my number on it.  On the field, on the rare occasion my number wasn’t available, if we played a tournament which supplied the uniforms, for example, I was borderline distraught.  The number on my back was my version Samson’s hair.

13 and 23 remain tattooed on my brain today.  Last year I wore 23 as the coach of my son’s travel team.  I was happy none of the players asked for it because I’m not sure they would have gotten it.

Which is why my son’s seeming indifference is perplexing.  His first year in t-ball he was given 13 and was thrilled when the answer to the question who wore it was “me.”  I hoped 13 would stick but the next year he choose 3 (apparently the thrill wore off) and it’s been a whirlwind of numbers since – seven, two, 20 for the travel team when he could have had literally any number he wanted and this season’s ten.  My daughter is no better having also opted for ten after six last year.

I’ve wondered if it’s an attention span issue or perhaps a commitment issue.  Maybe choosing a number for life is just too much for a nine-year-old.  I’ve wondered if he just doesn’t care about sports which would be fine though I’d like to find out now before I invest another five years of blood, sweat and tears into coaching, schlepping and paying.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if maybe he’s right, if he gets something I never could.  Maybe he recognizes jersey numbers are silly trappings and the import placed on them only makes the game seem so much more serious and intimidating than it really is.  Maybe he’s figured out the simple beauty is he’s playing baseball.  After all, the number on his back isn’t going to make him a better player, and it’s sophomoric to be so attached to what amounts to laundry.

He’s happy playing regardless of the number is on his back.  Isn’t that all that matters?

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TeamSnap: Creating a Winning Environment for Youth Sports Parents

The folks at TeamSnap have published another of my posts:

032 seated-sideline-parents_webUnfortunately, it’s not hard to find examples of parents gone wild at youth sporting events.  Arguing with officials, arguing with coaches and berating young kids has become so commonplace we hardly bat an eye. But as coaches, reining in the parents is crucial to a successful season.

Establishing a winning environment for team parents is a mix of education, getting everyone on the same page, having open communication and holding parents accountable—even if that last part is sometimes uncomfortable.

Click here to continue reading on the TeamSnap blog

The Draft

031 The Draft.jpgI have never understood the concept of a draft in youth rec baseball.  The draft and all its trimmings (evaluations, rating sheets, etc.) put unnecessary stress on the players, bring out interesting traits in the coaches and leave room for ill feelings between coaches and their non-coach friends with kids in the league.  Add to the mix the secretiveness of the ratings to keep them from hurting a kid’s feelings, and the draft gives rec baseball an air of seriousness more akin to travel ball.

Nine years old is an age at which we ought to be encouraging young kids to play baseball.  So it seems contradictory the introduction to their first season of real baseball is an evaluation in front of all their friend’s dads or moms, each with a clipboard and a pencil secretly scribbling numbers on a sheet.  And it’s an arbitrary evaluation at that because, other than for kids at either end of the playing-spectrum, what can you really tell about a player in sixty-seconds?

The night before my son “tried out” to play up as an eight-year-old last year, I asked him if he was nervous which he was.  I asked how long he thought the evaluation would take.  It’s comprised of two grounders, two pop-ups and four swings.  He guessed five minutes.  I explained it would be closer to one minute.  Then I asked him if he thought anyone would be able to tell if how well he could play baseball in sixty-seconds.  It calmed him down tremendously.

The actual draft is a spectacle in its own right with those secret official rating sheets and a draft board (via a computer and a projector) which, if you are going to have a draft, are necessary I guess.  Each team has its own table with space for laptops and charts.  About all that was missing were the helmet phones to call back to the war room and the green room for the likely high draft picks to await their names to be called.

The coaches seem to come to the draft in four flavors:

  • The Unprepared are always good for a few laughs. They’re the ones drafting players who were already picked, picking out of turn, and trying to draft other coaches’ kids.  Near the end of the draft, you start offering to help them only because you want to go home.
  • The Overthinkers are the ones who have a grand plan which includes skipping the best kid in the league with the first pick based on some rationale which makes perfect sense to them and only to them. The difference between a hallucination and vision?  More than one person sees the vision.
  • The Too Serious are the ones with their laptops open and three different ratings cards showcasing which players are seriously undervalued or overvalued based on their rating versus the official ratings. They have three or four spreadsheets because they can’t decide which one best highlighted the hidden gems.
  • The Cavalier are the ones who walk around saying, “It’s just rec league baseball” and who seemingly don’t even know there are ratings sheets. These are the ones you have to watch out for because they are more prepared than anyone else sitting in the room.

I fall into the Too Serious category.  While I might not like the idea of a draft, if we are going to have a draft, I’m going to over prepare for it.  Feel free to laugh at me (I do) because I did have multiple versions of my “plus-minus” spreadsheet and I missed a higher rated player while I was busily weighing the merits of two other players with lower ratings.  But mostly I laugh at myself because of the amount of time I put into the analysis convinced I was going to find some golden nugget everyone else missed in the sixty-seconds I looked at each player.

Once the draft is over the awkward conversations can begin.  A week after the draft, I saw the father of a friend of my son who I had not drafted.  The conversation rotated between his trying to figure out what his kid was rated and my telling him it really didn’t matter as a way of following our rules to not reveal the ratings.  Did I mention his kid was standing right there the whole time?

There has to be an easier way.

Recognizing the need to keep the teams evenly stacked, you have to rate the kids somehow.  Instead of having all coaches from a particular age-group evaluate players of the same age-group and therefore have a vested interest in the outcome, it would be better to have a small group of coaches evaluate all the players of all the age-groups.  It could be a selected group of coaches from the program with the coach from the age-group being evaluated recused or it could be an independent set of coaches.  It would also be better to do the evaluations as part of simulated practices or clinics.  While it would add a fair amount of time to the process, you could be helping kids improve and making their first taste of baseball a positive experience.  Even if you keep the evaluation process the same, fewer clipboards should make it less nerve wracking for the players.  Having the same set of eyes ensures you have consistent ratings across the board.  And while you’ll never eliminate bias completely you won’t have the inherent overrating or underrating when parents rate their own kids.

The draft should be eliminated completely with players placed on teams based on their scores at the evaluations.  You can rank the kids one through n which gives you the order in which kids will be placed.  After you’ve placed the coaches’ kids on their teams, each team has a combined score which gives you an order for the teams to get kids.  The highest rated non-coach’s kid is placed on the team with the lowest combined score, the next highest is paced on the team with the second-lowest, . . . reverse the team order for each “round.”  To ensure an even more level playing field, you would still rank players but group them into A, B, C, etc. categories.  Teams with coach’s kids rated in the category skip their round in that category (i.e., if a team has two coaches’ kids who are rated A and each team gets two A players, that team doesn’t get an additional A player.)  You’ll need some rules for things like siblings whose parents want them on the same team, but those should be straightforward.  And voila, you have teams set for the rec league and players who hopefully had a positive experience to start the season.

With any method there will be shortcomings.  The method above eliminates friends being on the same team other than by chance.  Well, welcome to the real world.  In sports or the workplace, you don’t get to choose your teammates.  What you do get to do is learn how to get along with them even if they don’t become your best friends.  The general idea is to eliminate the pomp and circumstance and secretiveness surrounding the draft to make it a better experience for the kids and spend more time focusing on getting young kids playing baseball and playing it well.

Every league is different so I can only speak from my own experiences (basically, apologies for the gross generalizations and if your program has a different approach, I’d love to hear about it.)

The Two Rules of Little League

030 2 Rules“There ought to be two rules for our baseball league.  Rule number one.  Don’t be a [expletive deleted].  Rule number two.  Don’t forget rule number one.”

This brilliant gem came from the last speaker at the town rec league’s annual pre-season coaches meeting.  I go to all the meetings and clinics because I never know what tidbit I will pick up, and this was the nugget for the day.  It was meant to remind the coaches we are coaching little kids’ baseball games and nothing more, but really, it’s great advice for coaches and parents alike.

Coaches

This isn’t the World Series, we aren’t being paid and, even if we were, we aren’t being paid because of our won-loss records.  Our livelihoods are not at stake and no one other than us will remember how many games we won or talk about us when they see us in town saying “Coach Smith won 1,000 games last year.”

There are, however, two reasons they will talk about us when they see us.  One is because of how well we carried and conducted ourselves throughout the season, setting a great example for their kids and helping their kids get better and have some fun.  The other is because we made complete horses’ rear-ends out of ourselves and went nuts throwing all the bats and helmets onto the field because the umpire missed a call.

Which one it is is up to us.

Following the two rules of little league baseball, I’d suggest we

  • not argue with the umpires,
  • not argue with the opposing coaches,
  • not raise our voices at our players no matter how many times they make the same mistake,
  • not resort to bush-league [expletive deleted] to win a game,
  • play all our kids as much as we can, and,
  • pitch as many of our young little ballplayers as is feasibly possible because even one inning on the mound just might make a kid fall in love with the game.

Parents

Our kids are not going pro.  Hopefully, we have read enough material and scanned the internet enough to understand this.  It’s not that our kids are not awesome.  They are.  It is simply there are 1,111,111 exact duplicates of our kids out there playing the same position in the same sport.  Numbers dictate our kids are not going pro.

Even if they are among the 0.01% who eventually do “make it,” they are not making it tomorrow or next year or the year after.  Right now, they’re playing in a little kids’ game with other little kids.  Their baseball career doesn’t hinge on winning this game or that game or that other game.  And it doesn’t hinge on how well they do.  They’re not signing a contract because they hit 74 homers in little league and they’re not getting a scholarship because they threw eight no hitters this year.  Those are both very impressive accomplishments though and we should be proud of them.  We should also be proud of them if they hit .190 for the season and let a grounder go through their legs letting the winning run score in the last inning of the championship game.  They probably need us to be proud of them a lot more then.

However far they do go, they most likely won’t remember more than a handful of these games unless we give them a reason to.  Hopefully, what they will remember is how we were always there, making every game we could, supporting them and loving them.  Or they may remember we were there screaming at them from the sidelines at the top of our lungs embarrassing them or, worse, belittling them.  Or that we went insane yelling and screaming at the umpires or the coaches or the opposing coaches or the opposing parents.  They’ll never forget those.

The choice is ours.

I suggest we parents follow the two rules of little league and

  • not yell instructions from the sidelines because they have a coach – he’s the one on the field – and our messages just create confusion or tension for our kids, neither of which is fun,
  • sit quietly, biting our lip if we have to, when the umpire rings them up on the pitch which sailed over their head to the backstop,
  • remember they are playing this game for themselves and their own enjoyment and not so we can relive our youth through them,
  • not use the car ride home to hold a tutorial on everything they did wrong,
  • sit calmly and quietly in the stands, enjoying the show and reveling in the splendor that is our kids, and if we absolutely, positively have to open our mouths, yell “way to go” when they or one of their teammates do something well and “you’ll get it next time” when they don’t,
  • make every game we can provided and only if we can remember to follow the two rules of little league, and
  • pull aside anyone who’s forgotten the two rules and remind them – it’s a team effort after all.

I want expand a little bit on the influence we can have on our children.  I had a love-hate relationship with baseball.  I loved the game (still do), I loved being a ballplayer, I loved being good at it and I loved the fact everyone knew I was good at it and knew me as a ballplayer.  But if I am completely honest, I loved everything about the game except playing the games themselves.  Somehow I managed to wrap up my view of myself in how I performed and the games became stressful.  If the skies where cloudy on the morning of a game, I’d spend the rest of the day looking out the window praying for rain.  When I did play, if I got a hit in my first at-bat I could relax and the rest of the game was a pure joy.  If I didn’t, well. . . .

I once went eight-for-15 in a regional tournament which included a one-for-four game in which I hit a triple and three rockets at the third baseman.  The discussion during car ride home after the one-for-four game, which was our second game that day, I had gone three-for-four in the first game with a couple of RBI, was about how I had swung at bad pitches on the three lineouts and how I had to be more selective at the plate.  Do the math.  This was a pretty good day at any level, let alone at what we would now call 18U where most of us were college ball players and the rest were playing on the varsity in high school.

We can debate the reasons why I placed so much importance on my performance and why the game became a source of stress.  It would be naïve to place the blame solely on my father’s shoulders.  My father wasn’t a bad person or a bad father.  Far from it.  But it would be equally naïve to think his approach didn’t contribute to my inability to decouple my performance with my self-worth.  And it crushed my enjoyment of the game.  Would I have been different if all we talked about on the way home was anything other than baseball or if he let me approach him about how I played on my terms?  I’ll never know.

I remember a lot about that tournament (20-something years later that tournament led me to understand Why I Coach.)  And I remember how my parents only missed one game from the time I started playing until the time I went away to college.  And I cherish that memory.  But whenever I tell the story of that tournament it always starts with the car ride home the first day.  I’ll never forget that either.

A brand new season is upon us.  It’s the best time of the year when hope and optimism abound and the possibilities are endless.  No doubt we all daydream about what our kid might accomplish this year.  But as you get ready for the season, do yourself a favor.  Whether you are a coach or a parent or both, memorize the two rules of little league.  You’ll be doing your players and/or your kid a favor too.  You’ll be making sure they remember you were always there for all the right reasons.

It’s Showtime

029 It's ShowtimeMaybe it is the adrenaline from competition.  Maybe it is the desire to show his friends he can play.  Maybe it is want of attention.  Or maybe he just craves (needs?) the spotlight.  My son’s demeanor has a linear relationship to the number of players at practice and an even stronger correlation to the number of people watching.  Maybe he thinks he’s playing on the Lakers of the 1980s though I doubt he’s ever heard of Magic Johnson.  Whatever it is, he needs an audience.  He shines when he’s putting on a show.

It used to drive me nuts.

He doesn’t play fall baseball.  Fall is soccer season, and I think fall baseball following a spring rec and a summer travel campaign is insane for nine-year-olds.  Way too much, way too soon.  From January through February though, we dust off the bat and the gloves with private lessons once a week.  This year, I added a weekly winter session with seven other kids, most of whom played on my travel team.  His approach to each is as different as night and day.

In the team setting, he is intent on trying to outperform his teammates.  His focus is sharper.  His intensity higher.  He revels in the oohs and aahs they all shout whenever one of them smokes a baseball or makes the catcher’s glove pop.

During the private lesson, it’s a slightly different story.  His lesson is divided into pitching drills, catching drills and hitting drills.  Without fail, he will become lackadaisical and unfocused for one stretch of the hour.  Usually, it’s with hitting.  He’ll be swinging the bat well when suddenly he’s stepping out and lazily bringing the bat through the zone, popping up balls he is capable of driving.

There’s a fix, and it works every time.

Last week, his swings were so apathetic if you were seeing him for the first time you would have thought, “Poor kid.  Yet another father believing his kid is the next coming, putting him in private lessons when the kid can’t play.”

His coach called over seven players from our local high who were hitting in the cages and told them my son had said he wanted to show the big boys how to hit.  I told the high school kids to feel free to ride him.  True to form, with all those eyes upon him, he started swinging the way he can, the way he does in a game.  And he started smacking baseballs all over the place, pulling inside pitches down the line with some pop and stroking line drives the opposite way on outside pitches.  The high schoolers hooted and hollered, telling my son he could be their starting catcher and he was better than this kid or that kid on their team which, of course, only made him up his game even more.  They gave him an ovation when his little clinic was done.  He even asked me who were the players the high schoolers said he was better than.  Exactly the opposite message I had wanted.

This kind of stuff used to infuriate me.  It shouldn’t require a spotlight for him to approach practice with the same intent with which he plays during the season.  Practice is where players learn and the hard work happens.  Then one day his instructor leaned over to me and said, “I bet you never have to worry about him losing focus in a game.”  I thought about it and realized his coach was right.  Game days he is ready to play.  Always.

At nine years old, my son has a lot of growing, physical and mental, ahead of him.  At some point, if it doesn’t click and he doesn’t change, his pattern will catch up with him.  Hopefully, he will mature to understand he needs to be focused every time he puts on his cleats.  I’ve never met a coach who doesn’t want no nonsense players who come ready to work.  But we also don’t practice for practice’s sake.  There’s so much to teach them at this age and prioritizing the teaching requires understanding what you can control and impact given his physical and mental maturity and looking at what he is achieving regardless of how he is getting there.  Sometimes you have to look at the end results.

It doesn’t mean I won’t do my part to help him understand why he should be doing it the “right way.”  But it’s a learning and a growing process and they happen at different speeds and at different times.  Just as I don’t expect him to have mastered all the physical aspects of baseball, I can’t expect him to have sorted out how to motivate himself at all times and not just showtime.  Hopefully, it all comes together for him somewhere farther on down the road.  All my pushing and prodding isn’t going to change his path too much.  At least not now.  He’s a little kid.  He’ll figure it out.  Or he won’t.

Showtime or not, after one year of actual baseball (nothing against t-ball), he’s doing alright and getting better all the time.  I really can’t ask for more.