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My little league coaching career began with an email and an idea from a friend. Ashley wanted to know if we could try and get Jake (my son) and her son on the same team. Together we figured that having a preferred buddy on the team would make it easier to physically drag them out the door to participate in sports. She drafted an email to the league organizers.
We thought our case would be strengthened if we both volunteered to coach as well. I ticked the box marked “I am interested in coaching” on the registration website. Soon after, I got an email notification that I’d been selected to coach the Jr. Farm Localès Giants.
I think this is the first lesson. If you struggle to get your kids excited for sports like I do, it helps to have some of their classmates and pals on their teams. When they are very young, if you’re willing to coach you’ll be able to pick your team. Have the kindergarten class roster handy.
One reason that I’m open to coaching is it forces you to get involved. You can’t bitch about the crappy practice that your kid’s coach runs unless you are willing to get dirty yourself.
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Lovely weekday evening. Golden hour. There’s a layer of neon gold pollen on the cars, on playground equipment, and visibly swirling through the air. I’m walking around Hingham High School for the first time, looking for a wing that might be the gym. I fall in with a couple of guys who looked like Dads and we slipped in a side door and into the gym. The gym’s got red and white banners from championship seasons and retractable wood bleachers. We’re here for the mandatory coaches clinic for parents who’ve volunteered to help out with little league. I can guess what everyone does for a living based on their after work fits. It looks like mostly successful financial advisors and guys on the cusp of being titans of industry. There are a lot of performance chinos and those cool leather sneakers and vests up top proudly emblazoned with the logo of the fancy club that they belong to. The ‘OS’ vest carries the biggest stick, followed by the flag logo from Boston Golf, followed by the understated lower case b logo.
We start with a short lecture from a guy who’s been a coach and MLB scout for 100 years who can’t stop licking his lips. He knows as much about baseball as anyone I’ve ever come across. He runs us through a few drills where we show off rickety throwing arms and one overeager Dad almost rips a hamstring demonstrating how to run through the bag at first.
I leave the clinic lugging a duffel of helmets, bats, balls, and catcher’s gear. I’m feeling anxious about coaching the kids. I can’t remember anything from Tee Ball or coach pitch. My youth sports memory seems to come online when I am maybe 10 or 11.
What am I going to do with these kids? I haven’t played baseball since Jr high. I played limited beer league softball after college and cookout wiffleball in the past couple of decades. I review my notes from the coaches clinic and then spend hours watching YouTube drills for beginning baseball players. I make three expensive trips to Dick’s for training aids, extra balls, and bats [mostly useless]. I want to make sure that I have every possible tool at my disposal. I sit down with a pad to sketch out some ideas.
I think it’s tough to be a kid these days. It’s probably tough being my kid. I want baseball to be an overwhelmingly positive experience. I feel like I’m competing against all of their other coaches; soccer, street hockey, flag football. By God, baseball is going to be the preferred activity. The kids will be begging to go to baseball practice.
[here are some notes from my pad]
I want the kids to feel like they belong. To help lay a foundation for what it means to be a good teammate. To know what it feels like to concentrate and push their bodies. I want them to be able to face some low stakes adversity. To swing and miss and realize they are gunna be ok. To hear words like, “I’m proud of you. I see how hard you’re working.” To invite questions and to listen with patience no matter how irrelevant they are to the task at hand. There’s comfort to be found as a member of a team. I want them to feel that. It’s hard to know what will be imprinted on a kids soul from youth sports. It’s important to remind myself that these are six year old babies. I want the boys to have an opportunity to feel good about themselves. Baseball can be incredibly frustrating, even for experts.
[Here are some things that we did that seemed to work well].
Again. These kids are babies. You will not get the full attention and obedience that you’re looking for. When you call out “bring it in, and take a knee,” you’ll have to physically teach them how to be on one knee. You’ll have to request their attention 8-12 times during each little huddle [eyes on coach, eyes on coach, eyes on coach, please]. This will be frustrating. By then end of our huddles, I’d have kids lying on the ground or having loud side conversations with a pal. It’s ok. Sometimes I had to take a short walk and blow out a few sighs.
One hundred percent of any “progress” that we made happened during our practice sessions outside of our Sunday games. Half or more of the kids will be unable to attend practice. At this age (6), this is actually good news. A small group of 4-5 kids is easy to manage and each kid will get lots of reps with minimal standing around. Standing around or in lines is the enemy. A good format is a 40 minute practice followed by pizza and popsicles. We had a rotation where a different set of parents would fetch pizza after each practice. The parents were happy to help. I regret to inform you that the pizza, the ice pops, and the unstructured play after practice will be the highlight of the night. Your creative throwing drill will be quickly forgotten.
A lot of what you’ll do together might not look like baseball. Baseball gloves are uncomfortable for six year olds. Especially brand new ones. They will not be able to open and shut a glove. We did a lot of work without our gloves on.
We used the league sanctioned baseballs for roughly five percent of our time together. We practiced our hitting and fielding with soft dodgeballs, playground balls, and those rubbery plastic balls that you find in tall cages in supermarkets. We had two with paw patrol characters on them. Take a look at the body position required to field a playground ball. Eyes up, hips back, hands out front. Exact same as fielding with a glove. It looks athletic and they can feel some success. I would have them scatter around the infield and I’d roll them all a bunch of grounders. You will need to spend about 10x as much time as you think necessary to talk about good fielding position. Some company makes a rubber kickball small enough that they can grip and throw with one hand. Try to find a few of these.
Get cheap throw down bases for practice. Make the field about one tenth the size of the diamond that they will play on. We learn hockey on small rinks, basketball on low hoops. Shrink the field.
For hitting, we’d try to get each kid like 20 good hits at practice. We’d plan to go through the lineup two times. On the first time, they’d hit off the tee. Second time through we’d gently toss balls to them. We didn’t use actual baseballs until the last week of the season. You need a coach on the mound [on a knee about 8 feet away] and a coach catching. The “catcher” is CONSTANTLY making small adjustments to the hitter’s position. Knees bent, bat high, eyes on the ball. Keep saying this stuff to the hitter. Also, you need to put your hands on the kid and fix their body position. One game, I started drawing a small batter’s box on the dirt before they stepped in to hit, it made a HUGE difference. They need the visual feedback. Try to make a batter’s box whenever you can. If you don’t, they will stand directly on the dish.
Almost every kid LOVES to hit. You will see their faces crack open in wide smiles when they crush a squishy dodgeball into the outfield or hit a hard line drive off the coach’s chest. I ordered a bathroom plunger (unused) from amazon. Take the plunger and shove the handle inside the tee with the rubber part facing up. This will hold your playground balls on the tee.
Our kids did not even remotely have the ability to play catch. At this age, you can’t roll out a bucket of balls and send them off to warm up. If you throw a baseball to a normal six year old, it will hit them in the chest or the face and they will never want to play again.
You need lots of help. You’ll need a minimum of two coaches for practice. Four would be better. On game days, when the kids are spread across a giant diamond, you can’t have too many parents in the field. During one game, we had light parental turnout and every time I turned around, I had kids wrestling in the field in giant piles. Parents don’t need to know anything about baseball, they just stand out there like cops working a detail. Their presence will help the kids focus.
During games, do everything you can to help kids hit the ball. Have a tee within arms reach if they swing and miss at more than six pitches. After that many swings, their swing falls apart due to fatigue. Let them pound one off the tee. Keep in mind, these kids are smart enough to know that this is a little mini-failure, so don’t make a scene. Just put the tee down with a ball and tell them to smash it. Most kids’ best swings will be on the first or second pitch.
Our kids responded well to cues to try and “smash” the ball. “Hit missiles” or “Let’s hit bombs”. Some kids will do this instinctively, but a lot of kids will have gentle swings. We want them to feel that hitting a ball is an act of violence.
You’ll have to watch for the little friend groups on the team. I learned that I needed to keep my kid on the opposite side of the diamond from his favorite pals, otherwise they’d be making sand castles out of the infield dirt.
During games, most of the fielding action will be near the pitcher’s mound. Seventy percent of the players hit dribblers back to the pitcher. Make sure each kid gets a chance to play near the mound during the season.
I wore out my voice yelling “ONE GUY FIELDS!” This year. When a ball is hit, the kids will swarm the ball like bees. During a routine grounder to first, your left fielder will sprint over to get in the mix. Some kids will hack and claw their way through their teammates to come up with the ball. Getting the kids to allow their teammate to field the ball was our biggest challenge.
We played everything to first base or the pitcher this year. Teaching the kids about forced outs or tagging runners felt like trying to teach them Mandarin.
Get the lightest bat you can find for your team. We had kids show up with their own sweet bats. Some of the top of the line bats just seemed too heavy. Most of our kids did well with the smallest tee ball bat that you can buy.
If the ice cream truck shows up at the field, the practice or game is over. It doesn’t matter that you just started.
Make sure to keep the goal, the goal. Baseball should be a positive experience, i.e. fun. They should feel the good energy of being a member of a team. They should learn to support each other and to experience low stakes failure. They should clean up their candy wrappers and water bottles from the dugout.
Parents are super appreciative that you are coaching. It feels good to feel useful. Parents are exhausted. There is comfort in going to the field for a Friday afternoon practice and just being around other tired parents. All week when you feel like you are doing the shittiest job imaginable, it helps to see and hear that other people are also battling their kids.
I feel like we did a good job this year. I’ve been trying to ask Jake if he had fun at baseball this season. A story from the second to last week of the season…
Jake’s mom called on the speaker phone while we were on our coffee run before the game. It was a gray, drizzly Sunday. Mom was reporting that she bumped into someone who told her the games were called off for the day.
We were rained out. No game. Jake was listening to our chat. I braced for his disappointment.
“Is our game cancelled today?”
“It is. The fields are wet.”
“This is the best day ever. I hate baseball.”