Are Travel Teams Right for Your Young Athlete?

The folks at TeamSnap published an article I wrote for them on the TeamSnap blog.

It’s a question that swirls around in parents’ heads the way midges swirl around the pitcher’s mound at Progressive Field. In today’s manic, ultra-competitive youth sports culture, some parents fear their children will fall behind if they don’t play on a travel team.

Soccer Ball ParentsOf course, there are no have-to’s or cookie cutter approaches to youth sports. So, no. Your child doesn’t have to play travel.

But the reality is if your child has enough talent and has the desire (their desire, not yours) to play beyond recreational leagues, travel sports are in their future.

Click here to continue reading on the TeamSnap blog.

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.

TeamSnap: Four Ways to Organize A Productive Practice

028 TeamSnap

Here’s an excerpt from the post I wrote for the TeamSnap blog:

I like to rotate all the kids through all the stations. Even the non-catchers try the catching drill, because it’s good throwing work either way and you never know when we’ll be forced to use an “emergency” catcher.

Here’s the link to the post: https://blog.teamsnap.com/general-sports/four-ways-to-organize-a-productive-baseball-practice

Ok. This Guy Should Stay Away

Last week, I wrote about the reason you cannot keep me away from my kids’ games.  The idea for Stop Telling Me to Stay Away came from reading numerous articles telling parents how much better it would be for everyone if they skipped the next one.  What I quickly glossed over with a sentence or two was the fact the intended audience for most of these articles was, to a large extent, the problem parent.

025 Ok This Guy Should Stay AwayWhen I take my son to his private lesson I go hit in the cages.  I have all spring and summer to coach him, so it’s best if he and his coach work together without me.  When the cages are full the accepted practice is to let other hitters work-in which is how I ended up sharing a cage last weekend with a kid one or two years older than my son.  Ordinarily I would have given up the cage completely, the kid has a baseball season ahead of him, and I have . . . well, I may play beer-league softball this summer, but I felt like hitting and the alternative was to watch my son’s lesson which really isn’t helpful to anyone.

“Johnny” shows up when I am mid-round.  I make my way out after the last pitch to let Johnny step in for his first hacks.  Before a ball can come rolling down the chute and through the churning wheels of the pitching machine, it starts.

“Is that how you’re going to stand? . . . You’re not ready to hit.  Get ready to hit. . . . I’m going to put this on 50 mph. . . . You can too hit 50 mph.”  It’s Johnny’s dad.  Johnny still hasn’t seen a pitch but Dad’s on a non-stop roll for a minute or two.  He keeps it up as Johnny proceeds to miss every pitch.  “You’re swaying back.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said, you’re swaying back.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

And so it goes from one round to the next.  “Do this.  You’re not doing that.  Why is your bat like that?  That’s not where you hold the bat.  Since when are your feet there?  Oh, you missed because the pitch wasn’t perfect, huh?  Should we ask the pitchers to put it on a tee for you?”  Johnny misses the vast majority of pitches, making only weak contact on the handful he does manage to hit.  Through it all Dad is relentless with his useless observations and seemingly spiteful comments.  Somewhere around round six, to prove a point which only makes sense to him, Dad does turn the speed up from 40 mph to 50 mph.  You can guess the outcome.

The monologue would have been as comical as it was futile, assuming its intent was to magically make Johnny start spraying frozen ropes around the cage, if not for the fact Johnny was red faced with two big watery eyes he barely kept from overflowing with tears.  Dad’s crowning achievements of the evening were “What’s wrong with you?” and, three pitches into what would mercifully be his last round, all of which Johnny missed, “Get out!  Get out of the cage!  I can’t watch you anymore!”

Let those sink in.

“What’s wrong with you?”  Because the ability to hit a baseball is something we’re all born with and Johnny is somehow defective because he isn’t tonight.

“I can’t watch you anymore!”  Because Dad’s satisfaction is the only reason Johnny is allowed to play baseball and Johnny is trying as hard as he can to miss every pitch just to get under Dad’s skin.

I debated saying something but did not.  The few people I have retold this story to generally agree I had no business even thinking of saying something.  Still I can’t help feeling I should have, if only to offer some advice to Johnny to help him correct two minor issues with his swing which were going a long way towards keeping him from making decent contact.  Not that it would have mattered.  Johnny’s chances of hitting the ball were over before he even saw the first pitch and probably before he got in the car to drive to the cages in the first place.

I learned a big lesson at my son’s first ever soccer game thanks to my wife.  I was shouting all sorts of instructions from the sideline when, about five mins in, she strode up to me and calmly said “If I were him, I’d be nervous as hell right now.”  She might as well have punched me in the stomach.  I truly didn’t realize what I was doing until she played “sideline-daddy” whisperer, and I knew she was right in an instant.  I shut my mouth for the rest of the game and apologized to my son afterwards.  Now I sit on the sideline of his games, watching him play and calmly cheering for him and his team, whether they do well or not, when and if I say anything at all.  No instructions, no do this or don’t do that.  It’s pretty much the same when I’m coaching his baseball games in terms of instructions.  That’s why we have practice.  When we get in the car after a game and after practices too, I say only two things.  First I ask, “Did you have fun playing today?”  Then I tell him how much I loved watching him play.  From there it’s up to him.  If he wants to talk about the game, I will.  And if not, that’s fine too.  More and more, I find him asking how I thought he played and if I have any advice for him.  I can’t think of a better environment to praise him and offer some examples with actionable tips to help his learning process.

After last week’s post, a good friend commented it depends on the kid as he wouldn’t have wanted his father at any of his games.  Yet another point I glossed over.  So to the Johnny’s Dads of the world,  I maintain it’s not my business how you parent your kids.  Still, a bit of advice.  If you’re going to open your mouth, something helpful or insightful ought to be coming out of it.  If you can’t do that, then keep your mouth shut.  If you can’t do that, then stay home.  Johnny’s not playing for you, he’s playing for himself.   If you’re not supportive, particularly when you are trying to help him, you are only hurting him.  The sooner you recognize that, the better.  Especially for Johnny.

Casey Struck Out

020 Casey Struck OutIt’s every kid’s dream.  If you played little league, it was yours too.  Two outs, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, down by three.  Of course, you hit the dramatic, game-winning grand slam.  To borrow from Neil Diamond, except for the names and a few other changes, this story’s the same one.  Except it’s not.  Casey didn’t get the big hit.  Casey struck out.

It’s the playoffs and we’re playing the second place team.  They’ve beaten us pretty good before but tonight the boys are outplaying their opponents in every way until the bottom of the fifth.  We’re up 4-1 when we implode and give up five runs.  They bring in their best pitcher.  A walk, a hit, an out, another walk and another out brings up my son.  Two outs, last inning, bases loaded, down by two.  Except for the names and a few other changes.

I give him the reminders I use with him, “telephone” to remind him to keep his hands up and “aggressive” to remind him not to let good pitches go early in the count.  Then I tell him, “this at bat is like any other.  You’re been hitting all year so go up there and get your licks in.  Same as always.”  I am telling him this so I calm down.  I yell over to my third base coach to text me the results because I’ll be in the car in the parking lot.  I’d be lying if I said I remember the exact sequence, but he fouls off a couple, takes a couple of balls, fouls off another and goes down on a fastball, a little up but, with the strike zones used in 8U baseball, one he has to swing at.  It was a really good swing, popped the hips, swung hard, got the barrel through the zone in time with the pitch, he just missed it.

I want to go to him and hug him.  I want to tell him, “I know it hurts a lot.  It’s okay.  It’s okay to be upset, but you didn’t lose the game.  It was a great at bat and a great swing.  I’m proud of you for the guts it took to go up there and have an at bat like that.”  Then he throws his bat.

020 Casey Struck Out 003

Even the pros lose it now and then

I want to go to him and hug him, but now I am disciplining him.  He’s an emotional kid so I know he’s upset and there will be tears.  I don’t like the tears, but these are little kids playing a tough game.  Contrary to what Jimmy Dugan said there is crying in baseball.  Lots of it.  (Jeff Vrabel wrote a great piece  on it .)  Now I’m making him pick up his bat, walk it into the dugout and have a chat with me.  When he doesn’t do it my voice goes up a level or two.  He’s in no mood to listen.  More water works ensue and he digs his heels in a little deeper.  I’m getting angrier by the second.  I’m not sure what’s most fueling it, the fact he threw his bat, the fact he is not picking it up, the fact I’ve got 11 other upset kids but there is only one causing a scene or the fact this situation has turned into a parenting moment on public display.  “Who needs this?” flickers across my brain before he kicks the ground, grudgingly picks up his bat, brings it into the dugout and I give him the only warning he will receive, “It ever happens again and you will find yourself glued to the bench.”  We shake hands with the other team and go out to try and give my team some perspective.  He’s calm, or at least calmer, after the post-game spiel so we get an ice cream, and I finally tell him what I wanted to tell him all long.

I always held the hardest part of coaching my own kid to be Daddy Ball, the fear delusional visions of grandeur will motivate me to play my kid in spots he has no business playing in.  But ability and playing time tend to take care of themselves even if parents are prone to see whatever they want to see.  The more young players I’ve seen and the more I’ve heard their private coaches’ assessments, the more I’ve learned to trust my own assessments and those of my assistant coaches to guide who’s on the field when and where.

More and more, I’ve come to believe the hardest part of coaching your own kid is being a parent and finding the balance between coaching and parenting.  I’ve had to cut an eight-year old.  I’ve had to tell a parent they had to ease up on their kid.  I’ve had to occasionally tell a parent their kid wasn’t “all that.”  I might not have enjoyed doing so, but all of those were easier than disciplining my son because I was confident I was right.  The blurry line between parent and coach creates an insecurity and enables clouded judgment.  My son had to be disciplined no doubt.  But who really made it more of a scene in the end?  The moment I became the parent instead of the coach, I lost my ability to remain appropriately detached and not place expectations on my kid I wouldn’t have for the other players  Or at least to deal with the situation rationally.  I turned an unpleasant situation into a bad one for everyone.  I would have spoken with or disciplined any player for throwing their bat.  But I would have been a whole lot calmer about it if it were someone else.  It’s not my kid’s fault his dad is the coach.  We all know he shouldn’t benefit from it, but he shouldn’t suffer from it either.

After the season I ran into a parent who brought up the at bat.  They told me how bad they felt for me and how well I handled it.  “You’ve got such a passionate player and I can only imagine how much you wanted to console him.”  Good job?  Let’s ask my son.