A baseball game. Eleven and twelve-year-olds. Roughly one third of the team bursts into tears at some point, many of them after talking to their coach.
Let’s do some math. About three million kids play in Little League. Around 3,000 baseball scholarships are awarded each year and there are a few over 1,000 major league baseball players, and one third of those players come from other countries.
Two points. The first is that if you’re in the position of coaching children in a sport the vast majority of whom will never play for a living, or even use to pay for a college education, teaching a kid to field a ground ball is probably the least important lesson you’ll ever impart.
Second, if a third of your team bursts into tears when they make a mistake, you’re a bad coach.
No, no, no - bad coach.
I love sports. I always have. I was a pretty good football player, a mediocre basketball player, but as for my baseball career...well, practice makes perfect and for me to get to practice involved riding my bike 8 miles one way. If the wind was too strong, I didn’t make it into town. I know that’s not how Lou Gehrig would have done it, and I’m sure the coach didn’t love it, but, hey, I was a little kid.
There is so much good that can come from kids being involved in sports. Just being active, learning how to live in your body, tapping into how much better it feels when your personal machinery is in tune and on point – it’s hard to go wrong. Heck, just being outside on a sunny day makes the world better. Many years ago, as I drove through a small town early one morning, I saw two young women jogging along, their ponytails bouncing in perfect harmony. A block further along I saw a ten-year-old boy riding his bike to practice, wearing a grimy uniform and his baseball glove like a cap. Those thirty seconds of summertime made my whole day a little brighter.
There’s so much opportunity for positive learning - accountability, commitment, cooperation.
A side note: I can’t begin to count the number of meetings I’ve been in as an adult, and you know what has never made for a successful meeting? Screaming at a person who’s made a mistake.
I’m always a little jealous when people wax nostalgic about the influence a great coach had on their lives. I never had one of those. Instead, I had several adequate coaches and one that was truly horrible, and those are the memories that seem stuck in my head. The closest I ever came to a transformational coaching experience was, oddly enough, in a high school English class. The teacher, in only his second year, gave us his interpretation of the meaning of a short story. Because I can’t help myself, I blurted out, “That’s not right…this is what it meant.” He looked at me, thought for a few seconds, and then said, “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
I think about that moment from time to time. It couldn’t have been easy or enjoyable admitting a mistake to a mouthy 16-year-old, but it didn’t affect his authority over the class nor reduce his mastery of the subject. No, what that exchange did was increase his credibility. Being able to admit that he didn’t know everything added weight to what he did know.
It drives me a little crazy, this need to always be right, never apologize and never admit to a mistake. It’s wrong in business, government, and in a family.
Even though I love sports, another thing that drives me crazy is the emphasis we place on them. They’re a component of a good life, but that’s all. We shouldn’t be building new stadiums while cutting math, science, and arts programs. We shouldn’t put up with abusive or criminal behavior from athletes or coaches because of their win/lose records, and we should never lose track of the fact that in Little League, these are just children.
And if your coaching style leads to twelve-year-olds crying in the dugout, you’re a bad coach.
Copyright 2021 Brent Olson
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