Positive Coaching | Part 2
Humble Suggestions from a former youth, collegiate, and professional baseball player....
1. Focus more on the kids than what you are teaching
What do I mean by this? While teaching the game of baseball is important, it does not override the emotional stability and well being of the kids playing the game. It is easy to lose your cool and blow up at a kid, say a smart ass remark, or jump on a kid for making a mistake, but before you do that wait a few seconds and think about how your outburst may negatively affect that child. Better yet, before you go to practice stop and reflect on the fact that each kid is bringing to practice a different set of issues that he/she is battling at home. Whether that be parental neglect, abandonment, single parent home, fighting at home, poverty, stress, you name it. Most kids are not experiencing lot of positive reinforcement in their home life. As a coach, you may be the only positive adult they get to be around each week. Make their experience a good one. Help them to know they are cared for, they are loved, and they are safe. No, just saying the words isn't enough. You have to get yourself to a place of truly caring for each individual on the field, on a deep level, and emotional level. Bouncing back from a busted lip is a lot easier than bouncing back from a busted psyche. You have to care about how your actions, words, or behavior may affect them emotionally and psychologically.
So when I say focus on the kids more than what you are teaching I mean to pay attention to what they are telling you. What is their behavior saying? What is causing their disobedience or lack of focus? Are they a bad kid or are they coping with stress the only way a youngster know how? Are they back talking because they are disrespectful or have they been scarred by the authority figure in their life? There is so much depth to the mind of a child that cannot and should not be overlooked by youth level coaches. This means, coaches, if you have anything in your life that is causing you stress, work through it before going to the baseball field so it does not spill over into the kids on the field. There is nothing worse than seeing a grown man who is struggling in his own personal life come to a baseball field and lose it on a bunch of 10 year olds. Your response might be, "if it weren't for the volunteers the kids wouldn't have a place to play." That's right, but if they are being emotionally torn down they are probably better off not being there. Having a place to play is great, but having a place to play that is encouraging and uplifting is best.
2. Go Slower
Kids (and adults) typically try to do things way too fast. I see kids attempting to do something they think they are ready to do and they are nowhere near ready. For example, swinging a bat. When you are teaching a player a new technique, they typically start swinging away with no pace whatsoever. Just swing after swing after swing. They are not paying attention to what you just told them to do. Their only focus is swinging and hitting the ball. That is where you step in and slow things down. Teach them slowly. Make them do things one step at a time. Ask questions as you teach. Don't give them 5 minutes of information and expect them to have listened to half of it. Talk for a minute then ask someone to repeat what you said. Then do it again. And again. And again. Until you have finished what you needed to say. This is a dialogue between the two of you, not just you talking at them. It think youth coaches sometimes think they are against the clock, and I don't blame them because they literally have a time limit on their practices and games. But this causes coaches to think they have to dump everything on the kids all at once or they won't cover everything. It is better to have 10 topics and only cover 3 of them if the kids actually learn those 3 rather than dumping all 10 on them and they learn nothing. And that is typically what you will find. Give kids too much and they learn nothing. Make them take their time and actually concentrate on execution and they learn way more.
Here is a great example. I helped a youth team do tandem relays recently. We started with the baseballs against the fence. We talked about where each player would go on each ball. Then we "acted" it out. We did not go full speed. This was more like a walk through where I literally said to them "just go through the motions." Something you typically hear coaches telling their team NOT to do. But going through the motions is exactly what they NEED to do. This allows them to learn where to be without the stress of emotions and a sense of urgency. [Think about training wheels on a bike. You don't let your kid ride a bike without training wheels the first time because they have no clue what to do. You slowly build them up to a bike with no training wheels. Same thing here.] After we went through the walk through we played it live at full speed. Not a single mistake was made on the part of the guys making the cuts. The only mistake was the kid yelling to line up the cuts as he was not vocal enough. And that really can't be considered a mistake because I failed to tell him to be loud before we started. So that is really on me. But, after expressing the importance of his job and responsibility as the guy in charge of communication that didn't happen anymore. So yes, going slower is beneficial for younger player. Going through the motions will teach them where they need to be or how they need to do something before they are asked to just run out there and be expected to perform.
3. Get On Their Level
One thing I do when I work with kids is I get down on their level, physically. I drop to a knee or sit on a bucket or squat down so I am eye level or below their eye level. This always seems to help with communication. The kids seem less intimidated by my presence, which is what I want. When kids feel intimidated they are not soaking up information. They are too afraid they may do something wrong so they sit there like statues. Get on their level, talk calmly with them, show them by your actions that it is a safe place for them. Engage them while you talk. Ask questions. Ask them if they have any questions. Do everything you can to show them you are on their side. There is no reason to try to display that you are the authority on the field. That is already a give. You are the coach, it is just understood that you are in charge. No need to try to show that with scare tactics or playing the tough guy. If they get out of line, then let them know. But otherwise chill out.
4. Understand The Difficulty of Baseball
Baseball is the hardest sport to have success in. I know, I played if for 20 years had great talent, reached as high as AAA, and felt like a constant failure. My best year came in 2010 when I made a professional all star team. Even that year I had to battle the thoughts of failure when I didn't perform well because I failed nearly 7 out of 10 times, and I was trained to focus on my failures growing up, not my successes. It started when I was a kid, playing baseball in little league, then travel ball, then school baseball, with all the pressure from parents and coaches to do so well. Getting lectures for every mistake. Coaches and parents taking each mistake as an opportunity to "correct" what "went wrong" rather than accepting that things go wrong in baseball and allowing me to work through them and encouraging me. The constant focus was on mistakes rather than successes. Baseball is a hard game. Full of failure. And most kids are not nearly as talented as I was or my UNC and professional teammates were. We are a small group of athletes who made it to the highest levels of competition in our sport and we will all tell you that it is a tough game. Not a single baseball player will tell you that baseball is easy. Take is easy on the young players. They are out there to have fun. This is not life and death nor should it seem that way. It is not a job, nor should it feel that way. They are not on the grind to the big leagues at 10, 11, or 12 years old. A lot of them won't even play high school baseball, fewer will play in college, and only a fraction of them will play professionally. Remember that when you are coaching or parenting them. Understand that this game is full of failure, that if you focus on every mistake the kids are going to feel like constant failures, which will hurt their moral, their performance, and cause them to fail even more.