One of the great joys in my life was coaching Little League baseball…with two boys of my own, I’ve been lucky enough to have over a dozen seasons on the diamond with little guys wanting to learn the great game. Spend that much time on the field, you will observe any number of coaching styles as you develop your own. Once you find your sweet spot, your team starts to take on the personality of the coach (for better or worse.) If you’re lucky, occasionally you might have the magical situation of TWO coaches cut from the same cloth.
For four wonderful seasons, I had that experience with my brother in arms, Matty Bryant, the Caveman Coach. It was always pretty easy to recognize our teams after a ballgame – we intentionally drafted “dirt bags” – kids that loved to get dirty, play hard, play fast, and (wait for it) – kids who want to have fun playing the great game of baseball.
If you think that’s always the case in Little League, I can assure you it is not. Even in recreational level ball for 10-12-year-old boys, you have the coach who makes practices and games much, much too serious. Conversely, Matt and I had two over-arching goals for the season:
- Make the game about the kids.
- Whenever in doubt, make the game about the kids
That means teaching moments and coaching moments – including the lessons we garnered from the young men we coached. Think I’m kidding? We had more than one revelation that transcended baseball:
- Swing the dang bat – “No one ever walks off the island.” That’s a phrase coined by Dominican MLB players when asked about their aggressive hitting style. Likewise, the game doesn’t really start until the ball is put in play – so while we played several teams who were on strict orders to “don’t swing until you have two strikes,” our kids were given the green light. Walks are for your dog, we’re here to play baseball, pal. Kids aren’t practicing every day in hopes of taking a 6-pitch walk,
- Seeing kids support and pick up their teammates is about the sweetest thing you could ever witness. They learn that from you (coach, parent), or they learn to yell & blame – it’s your choice, please choose wisely. I can remember on more than one occasion when one of the kids made a visit to the mound to chat up the Pitcher. Pretty sure we both shed a sports tear on that one (*sniff*).
- It’s okay to use “fun” and humor instead of threats and demands, after all, it’s just baseball (or work/or school/or money/or life). The power of encouragement and specific praise can make a huge impact. Don’t spread peanut-butter compliments, and don’t let unacceptable behavior go unnoticed. Pat ’em on the butt, sit ’em on the bench, both work.
- Attitude does count…a LOT. Give us a team of scrappers who come off the field every inning with more dirt on their uniform than the inning before – give me THAT team any day.
- Getting a trophy is great. But getting a trophy on the field in front of everyone is THE coolest thing in the world. You better recognize, and not always in private.
- It’s important to realize, even as a kid, that EVERYONE makes mistakes, even the Coach. Even your parents. Even YOU. And yes, even the umpire.
- Kids (people) do rise to the occasion. We saw plays in the field every week during a game that we NEVER saw during practice – people will amaze you.
- Last one – celebrate successes! You have the naturals ballers who make the game look easy, and then you have the kids struggling to find their place. When that kid has a moment – a hit, a catch, a hustle play – ring the bell man, that’s a special thing.
For most kids, this is their first refuge – parents stay outside the fence, kids cluster in the dugout and (for the boys, at least) get a membership to their first exclusive club. And that’s the vibe we created for the teams we coached – this was the place to be, and with a little luck we may even win some games. Our end-of-the-year celebrations were always a mixed bag of emotions – we fell in love with every squad of kids we managed, so the end of the year was bittersweet. Every season we went into the draft with the same strategy – “let’s get the band back together.” Draft as many of the same kids, no matter the rank on the draft board, because the team is more powerful than the individual.
When I saw the announcement on Facebook informing me of Matt’s candidacy for the CISD School Board, it made perfect sense – he still wants to contribute to the kids of this community. I saw him do exactly that for 4 years between the chalk lines.
Do you remember your favorite coach from childhood? I do – Coach Steele, my baseball coach for two years in middle school. He taught me things, yes, but what I remember most is that he cared about us. You can bet that a lot of kids in Southlake are going to remember Coach Bryant for the same reason.