I have been in baseball for over 20 years now, as a player and as a coach/instructor. One of the most consistent themes I have seen in these 23 years is a lack of positivity from coaches at the youth level. I want to give you a few points to think about to help you with your connection to your athletes in hopes to build better relationship and a more enjoyable atmosphere for the kids who play the game.
1. Words of affirmation
This is huge for kids, and it is something that most coaches do a pretty good job with. It is important to constantly poor into the kids on your teams to let them know they are good, they are worthy, and they are valuable. I don't mean they are the best player on the team and you praise them for doing well. I'm talking about affirming to each kid that they are worthy as more than just an athlete but as a person. They need to know that their coaches care about them in the good and in the bad time. Failures and successes. We all know that baseball is a game of failure. It is easy for kids to get down on themselves while playing this game, especially when things are not going well. You as the coach have to be the leader. Lead by being positive and bringing a good energy to practice and to games. Tell the kids you are proud of them. If they are failing find something positive about what they are doing. Maybe it is their effort level. Maybe they are doing the right things and just getting bad results. Tell them.
- intonation on a word or phrase used to add functional meaning
This one is huge, and something I am constantly having to work on myself. I actually practice it on my dog. Try it yourself if you have a dog. Pay attention not just to what you say but how you say it. Notice the difference in how your dog responds to positive inflections in your voice. There have actually been studies that point to the impact our tone has on dogs. They hear the words we use and understand the tones. Or, if you are married, try screaming at your spouse that you love her with a really mad voice. See if she hears the "i love you" or if she hears the anger. I guarantee you she hears the anger over the words.
So what does this have to do with coaching? Kids are very sensitive to tones. They read how you speak more than what you speak. Tone affects them. The more encouraging your sound the better. And that does not mean the louder you get or the sterner you get. I mean truly find it in yourself to encourage the kids to be their best. It has to come from deep down inside you. It cannot be forced and it cannot be fake. Make it authentic. Getting to this point takes time and it takes practice. For me, it takes getting to a place mentally where I truly feel the encouragement first then transferring that to the kids. I see huge improvements from kids when I am able to do this.
This might be one of the worst things you can do with kids. Sarcasm is one of the worst forms of humor to use with kids because they don't understand it. Heck, I'm 30 and I don't understand it half the time. But remember, kids are extremely literal. If you say things sarcastically there is a good chance they will take it as truth. I can remember being in middle school and having my coaches speak to me with a sarcastic tone and it hurting me mentally. I never understood what they were talking about. It carried over into high school as well. My high school coach was also fairly sarcastic. He was a tough coach to play for because of it. The environment that the sarcasm created was a very negative environment. There was not much team bonding or team building going on and we all know that those environments typically produce losing teams. Needless to say we never went very far in the playoffs even though we had a lot of talent.
NEVER embarrass a kid, ever. I have seen this way too much. I cannot tell you how many little league games I have seen where the coach is losing his mind (this is a grown man in his 40s mind you) screaming at the top of his lungs across the field at a 9-12 year old kid. There is no need. Control your emotions and wait until the inning is over. Then talk to the kid in the dugout. This is not the MLB, NBA, NFL, or College. This is youth level baseball. These kids do not need undue pressure by coaches to perform as if they are being paid millions to perform. They do not need to be ridiculed or embarrassed. They are already battling against enough stuff in the world. Their baseball team needs to be a fun, safe environment. Not one that will cause PTSD at some point for them. And yes, PTSD can be caused by more than just war. Studies have found that kids suffer from PTSD too. They are probably experiencing enough trauma in middle school and there is no telling what they are battling at home either. Make your team a place where they can have fun and not worry about being ridiculed for not being good enough.
Obviously there are moments in every baseball team where players need a taste of discipline. But be smart about what you use for punishment and when you use it. I will give you one example of something that happened to me in high school that I think, to this day, makes no sense at all. We were working on bunting on the field. My turn came up. I was the hardest worker on the team and the most focused. I bunted the ball. It rolled foul by a couple of inches. Not what I was going for, but at the time I was not a good bunter. I had never bunted a ball in my life. So I was doing my best to get it barely fair or foul as I was taught. The coach immediately flipped out and made me run 327 feet to the right field wall and 327 feet back. I ran a total of 654 feet and got to attempt a total of 1 bunts. Rather than punish me, if he truly wanted me to be a better bunter, wouldn't it make more sense to have me bunt 654 balls instead of run 654 feet? My philosophy is this, if you think a kid is not concentrating or is being lazy, have them continue to perform the task at hand until they prove they can do it. Having them run and not get a chance to get better at the task doesn't necessarily help.
6. Perception vs. Reality
What do I mean by perception vs. reality? I have heard it too many times. A coach or a parent will call their player or their child the infamous "lazy". I have probably heard it a few hundred times. It amazes me that this many kids can possibly be lazy. Not to mention this same "lazy" kid is usually in really good shape and runs around playing all the time. But for some reason on the baseball field they are "lazy".
Is the kid lazy? Or, is it just the perception of the coach or the parent? Usually, the kid is not lazy. Usually, the kid just doesn't know what they are doing and they feel inadequate so they don't put forth the effort to succeed out of fear of failing or just a lack of confidence. Sometimes kids are doing something mechanically incorrectly and they appear to be lazy but they really are not being lazy. So when you call a kid lazy who is not being lazy or who is insecure, you are doing nothing but making it worse. Before saying a kid is lazy, ask them if they are putting forth the effort. If they say yes and they still look lazy to you then talk to them about it rather than insulting them.