Coaching youth baseball demands you prioritize fun for players

Given a choice between having my kid coached by Walter Matthau and Vic Morrow in “Bad News Bears”, I’ll take Matthau.

When I asked my old boss how I should grade myself as a youth baseball coach, he said, “That’s easy.  How many kid play next year?  If they all play, you were great.  If none play, you were terrible.”

Best answer ever.

The way to get kids to play the following season is to make baseball fun.

I watched a travel baseball game last night and was not pleased with the coaches for either team.  Both sets of coaches for these 13 year-olds micromanaged play.  As a result, the kids wandered passionless through the game.  One set of coaches were demonstrably negative and critical immediately after plays – as though the kids don’t understand when they screw up.

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The losing coaches hosted a 15-minute postgame meeting to explain to their players what led to the defeat.  Good grief.  Nothing like being harangued by a coach as a cherry on top of a loss to make baseball a lot more enjoyable, right?

So how can coaches make the game fun, and how can parents evaluate coaches?

Here are some very easy guidelines to help coaches improve:

  • Being aggressive is fun.  Empowered kids have fun.  Encourage aggression.  Empower playmaking.
  • Praise the intent of the play rather than critiquing the result.
  • The strike zone is irrelevant.  The point of batting is to hit the ball HARD.  If a kid feels he or she can hit a pitch hard, swing!  If not, take.  There is nothing sadder in youth baseball than a kid working a walk.  Making contact is not fun.  Making HARD contact is a blast.  Walking might help a team win, but it will not make a hitter better – or happier.
  • Unless you really know hitting, let your kids grip it and rip it.  See the ball – hit the ball is pretty damn good hitting instruction.
  • The goal of pitching should always be “hit the mitt.”  A kid hitting a pitch is not a failure for the pitcher – it’s baseball.
  • The game itself is a better teacher than coaches are.  Youth baseball coaches should encourage mistakes.  That’s how kids learn.  Baseball is a creative game, and creation comes from taking chances – some of which fail.  That failure is a key part of the process of learning the game.
  • If you don’t know what the hell you are talking about, stop talking.
  • Telling kids, “Stop throwing the ball around” discourages learning.  Let them learn how to create outs by making the extra throw.  If it gets away and runners advance, there is no better way to learn when to throw and when not to throw.
  • After the game, tell kids when the next event is and dismiss them.  Postgame meetings are for self-important coaches.  And parents shouldn’t re-hash every moment in the car on the way home.  Buy the kid a sandwich or popsicle and decompress a little.
  • Practice is for teaching.  Games are for the kids to enjoy.
  • The result of the game should be meaningless to you.  If you are in it for trophies, resign immediately and let another coach take over.
  • Umpires do their best.  Get off their backs.  Bitching about calls shows a coach’s prioritizes are totally out of sync with what is truly important.
  • Allow the players to position themselves.  Explain during practice what drives a positioning decision and then let the kids put those lessons to work during games.

If you’re a coach, those principles will bring smiles.  If you’re a parent and your kid is smiling before during and after games, thank your coach.

If your kid needs a role model in Major League Baseball, there is none better than Javy Baez of the Chicago Cubs.  His sense of fun is one of the big reasons the Cubs have been so successful since 2015.  Baez’s aggression not only creates runs and outs, it’s also contagious for teammates.

Baseball is supposed to be fun.  Help your players and kids enjoy it.

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