The worst baseball coach I ever had — I’ll call him Burt Rivers — was too old to remember what it was like to be a boy and too young to have children who might remind him.
Burt Rivers was a yeller. I remember him stomping about the field in his muscle shirt and cutoffs, barely suppressing what strikes me in retrospect as some sort of enhanced hormonal agony.
During one humid practice session, he lit into our catcher, an amiable chatterbox named Jimmy, who had carelessly tossed the ball into left field. But Jimmy’s head seemed to balloon with indignation; after a tense split second, he unloaded on Burt, his tender spittle flying in the sunlight. Burt’s pale blue eyes grew enormously round.
Then, in one forceful but fluid motion, he removed his baseball glove and sent it sailing through the air like a sharp-shinned hawk. Jimmy tried to evade the oncoming Rawlings, but it smacked loudly against his cowering twelve-year-old back. Even in the incorrect seventies, we all knew that some sacred line had been wildly crossed.
I had other coaches who yelled (at me) for missing the cutoff man, for questioning the official scorer and, once, for asking to be removed from the pitcher’s mound after walking four batters in a row. “You come out when I say you come out!” Mr. Franco informed me, his righteous anger silencing both benches and a bleacher full of parents. He had marvelous projection.
But I never saw a coach who yelled with the psychotic fervor of Burt Rivers. Perhaps Burt went on to have children of his own who drove him completely over the edge. I prefer to think, however, that he learned the lessons put forth by the wise and temperate dad-coaches quoted here.
It’s the first day of your brand new coaching gig. You arrive at the field, court or rink and do your best to gather the swarm ’round your battered but experienced knee. Once this is accomplished — once all those liquid, innocent eyes are fastened upon you — what do you do?
If you have no idea, then you are in trouble. You have failed to prepare. Preparation is one of the chief lessons you should hope to impart to these children. Preparation leads to self-confidence and success; winging it does not. “The kids really do pick up on the importance of preparation,” says Phil Martzolf of Darien, who works in television broadcast sales and coaches eight-to-twelve-year-old basketball and baseball. “They figure out that there’s a process for preparing, and that it transfers to school and everything else you do, whether it’s a play, a project or a test.”
Let’s assume you come prepared. As you head into that first practice, you will draw upon memories of coaches that you liked. You’ll recall creative drills and choice bits of advice. More important, though, you’ll have been a close observer of your children’s coaches. Bill Heery, a headhunter-recruiter who is president of the Westport Basketball Association, says, “How do you run a practice? You pick it up over time. A good coach steals from other coaches.”
The WBA has made it virtually impossible for a coach to show up clueless. Beginning six years ago, the league required all coaches to be certified by the National Youth Sports Coaches Association. This entails a two-hour training clinic designed to teach coaches how to conduct good practices, how to convey sensible coaching philosophies and how to be a worthy role model. Initially, the reception was not terrific. “There was a fair amount of griping the first year. ‘This is stupid!’ That sort of thing,” Heery says. “The next year there was a little less griping, and now almost none at all.” Indeed, the certification program has spread to all of Westport’s rec league programs.
Now that you are prepared with a game plan firmly in mind, you can begin instilling basic sports philosophy. What should that philosophy be? Win at all costs, of course. Win, win, win. Just kidding. Though if you nodded in agreement, you cannot afford to stop reading.
“Here’s my philosophy: F-U-N,” says Howie Friedman, who owns an alarm company and coaches first- through eighth-grade basketball in Westport. “If the kids don’t have fun, we’re both in the wrong place.” Or as Joe Marzano, who oversees dozens of coaches as sports director of the Darien YMCA, puts it, “The best coaches are the ones whose main goal is for the kids to have a positive experience and go home feeling good about themselves.” After a pause he adds, “We do get coaches who are overly concerned with winning.” More on that in a minute.
First, Bill Heery wants you to know about George Selleck, an All-American point guard at Stanford in the fifties. Drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors, he turned his back on a pro career, opting instead to earn his doctorate in psychology and enter the Presbyterian ministry. Why the big fork in the road? Selleck had been so focussed on winning, he says, that he never really enjoyed basketball. In order to steer others around this pitfall, Selleck now writes books and leads seminars teaching that the journey, not the result, is what makes sports so worthwhile. While visiting Westport Selleck asked his audience of adults, “How many of you play golf?” Forty or fifty hands went up. Then he asked, “How many of you are going for your PGA card?” Every hand went down. “So why do you play?” F-U-N.
Faultless as the Friedman doctrine is, it can be easier said than done. Burt Rivers and his ilk would not know what to do if you told them to have fun practices. Fun is permitted by your attitude as coach. The point is not to be goofy, of course, but to set a buoyant tone as you go about business.
“You’ve got to try and relax the kids, keep the pressure toned down,” advises Lou Gesualdi, who has a commercial construction company in Stamford and coaches Little League baseball in Darien. “I’ve seen coaches put a lot of pressure on kids. When that happens, a kid will never reach his full potential, because he’ll always be afraid to make a mistake.”
THE COACH’S PET
As you assemble your team, it’s only natural to assess individual skills. It’s exhilarating to spy the budding talent, and frustrating to behold the poor slouch who looks like he’d rather be playing Grand Theft Auto III. You are now in position to make a grievous rookie coaching error. You become so keen on developing your stars that you leave the slouches (the middle-of-the-packers, too) on the emotional sidelines.
“A good coach tries to make each kid feel valuable,” Howie Friedman says. Adds Bill Heery, “Most coaches tend to coach the two or three best kids. Anybody can coach them. The question is, can you coach the other nine? The goal should be to keep them all active and interested.”
WINS AND LOSSES
Before we proceed, an age distinction is required. Little children are only sketchily aware of what it is to win or lose. Watching them play, heedless of results, is a pleasure so pure that it borders on sorrow: You know how fleeting this phase is. Most youth leagues around here don’t keep score until the third grade. “We keep time, but we don’t keep score,” Friedman says of his younger charges in Westport. “It’s very cute. Our team believes it went undefeated.”
As kids get a little older, fun becomes more complicated. This is because kids figure out that winning feels much better than losing. Indeed, at the high school level, there is rarely any talk of fun, as though the very idea undercuts the grave business of competition. Our dad-coaches would never claim that winning and losing are unimportant. Why? Because they are important. Sort of.
Yet there is a rising intolerance of losing — namely, among parents. “The parents have changed, not the kids,” says Lou Marinelli, head football coach of the New Canaan Rams, who was recently named one of the eight best high school coaches in the United States. “They tend to be overprotective. They don’t want their kids to fail, naturally, but they don’t appreciate the power of failure. When you don’t let them fail, their growth gets stunted. Most successful people have failed — and they’ve learned from it.”
Consider Marinelli’s phrase “the power of failure.” Winning feels good, but losing makes you think. Losing leads to change. Losing teaches you to bounce back, to find the tough stuff within, to dig deep. All the great American winners, from George Washington onward, suffered some pretty nasty failures. Abraham Lincoln lost his race for the senate two years before winning the presidency. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Obviously, neither Abe nor Mike packed it in. They redoubled their efforts.
The day before we talked to Lou Gesualdi, his Darien Little League team lost its first game after a string of victories. The players shed a few tears. “I can’t say the loss was a good thing,” he says, then adds with perfect over-the-shoulder logic, “but it was. I don’t want my players to get too high or too low.” Once, when Gesualdi’s son got cut from a basketball team, he sat him down and explained that he gets cut at work every week — every time he doesn’t win a contract. Here Gesualdi draws the critical parallel between youth sports and life lessons. “It’s after losing that you have to ask yourself, what did I do wrong and what could I do better?” Sometimes, though, you’re just going to be outplayed. “If you play as hard as you can and do the right things, you should hold your head up high,” Gesualdi says. “There’s nothing wrong with that loss.”
Alas, some coaches just don’t get that. “One common mistake is that a coach forgets why he’s there,” Bill Heery says. “Too many coaches are there to win. As soon as you fall victim to that pressure, everything else goes out the door. Your interest in winning can’t help but override your interest in developing kids.” Usually a coach can be recentered with a polite phone call. If not, Heery says, “We’ll remove a coach. He simply won’t be asked back.”
TEACH YOUR PARENTS
Results matter to kids, but our coaches suggest that results matter a bit more to parents. It’s totally understandable. It’s part of wanting our children to succeed, part of wanting them to be happy.
Howie Friedman recalls how, after a toughly contested tournament in New Canaan, in which Westport lost by a single point, the opposing boys quickly formed one big group to play a game of knockout. The parents? They had swarmed the scorer’s table.
“Where parents are interested in results, kids are interested in the process,” Friedman observes. “Whether a kid won or lost, he’ll say something like, ‘Wasn’t that great when I hit the ball and it went over everybody’s head? Did you see?’ Many parents don’t understand that. If you want to help as parents, remember the plays that happen.”
This goes for coaches as well. If you search your own history, you’ll probably find in the bases-clearing triple, the shoestring catch, the arcing swish at the buzzer, the goldenest of memories. As coach, do your best to reinforce the glory of those moments as they happen.
As kids get older and skill levels rise, a certain amount of pressure is inevitable, and you wouldn’t want to wish it all away. It’s inseparable from competition, from life.
But youth sports have taken on a much more serious cast at a much younger age. The advent of travel teams, year-round sports and overlapping sports, sometimes combined with furtive (or not so furtive) hopes for scholarships or pro careers, have ganged up to inject an unnecessary pressure into youth sports. This can be a killer of fun. “Kids are totally overscheduled,” notes Lou Gesualdi. That Little League loss he spoke of was marked by the absence of his top players, who were taking part in a lacrosse tournament in Greenwich. “I get the feeling at times that kids today are pushing a rock uphill. There’s so much more pressure than I had when I was a kid.”
Lou Marinelli says, “You go to a cocktail party and some father says, ‘I’ve got a ten-year-old coming up, we’re gonna get a scholarship.’” Such talk makes good coaches shake their heads. They see adult intensity in youth sports. The whole system, they say, increasingly mimics college and the pros. “I think travel teams are a debilitating thing,” says Heery, no doubt controversially. “You’re saying, ‘You are the ten or twelve best kids in this age group.’ You’re creating a star system. But the fact is, you have no idea what you’ve got until you hit puberty.”
Heery is not alone. One speaker his league brings in is Bob Bigelow, a first round NBA draft pick in 1975 and coauthor of the 2001 book Just Let the Kids Play. In middle school, Bigelow languished near the bottom of the hoops barrel. Travel teams, had they existed, would have solidified his lowly status and maybe blunted his love of the game, he believes. In high school Bigelow started to grow, ultimately to six-foot-seven. “By the time he was a high school senior,” Heery says, “he was number one.”
Where does the pressure come from? It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg question. Societal trends? Technological innovation? Parents? There’s no agreed-upon answer. But one thing is certain: If parents are causing pressure, they’re definitely feeling it, too. As Bigelow puts it, “The parents end up going along like lemmings being led to the sea, because ‘If my child isn’t involved, someone else’s child is going to get ahead.’” He calls it “the great baby-boomer angst.”
What are the consequences of frantic sporting activity at a young age? According to Heery, a wide drop in enthusiasm occurs around the fifth grade. “Up until fifth grade, you have a lot of kids signing up to play sports,” he says, “but at fifth grade the numbers fall off the table. It’s called soccer burnout.” This is a systemic problem that won’t be solved any time soon. Certainly not by one coach. Still, it should serve as a reminder to keep the atmosphere light and the activity fun.
COACHING THE PARENTS
By and large, our coaches say, parents act like model citizens on the sideline. We hear the bloody tales from afar. (My favorite one comes from El Paso, where, during a football-game-turned-rumble, one father stabbed another between the eyes with a down marker.) The worst our coaches report is a bit of, uh, excessive vocalizing. This might take the form of a parent volubly coaching his child from the sideline, sometimes to the point where the poor kid looks up constantly in order to catch all his old man’s barked-out pearls.
Howie Friedman has devised a way of handling the yelling problem with good humor. He’ll draw the offender aside, say, “Look, I don’t want to be the bad guy here,” and hand him some lollipops — the better to keep his mouth occupied. “They understand,” he says, “especially when you tell them they won’t be allowed in the gym if they keep it up.”
At the high school level especially, parental pressure can come in subtler forms. A phone call, say, from some high-powered guy in the community who artfully persuades you to favor his kid. Lou Marinelli’s advice is, don’t succumb. “Young coaches try to appease parents rather than do what they feel and know is right, because it’s less of a hassle. But when you compromise, it’ll come back to bite you. It may be in the best interests of the kid, but not of the team. Well, that coach is going to lose sleep over it, overdoing what he knows he shouldn’t have done. I’ve made every mistake going, so I can talk.”
COACHING YOUR OWN
The main reason you coach, probably, is to spend time with your kids doing something you all love. Remember, though, that being the coach’s kid isn’t necessarily easy. “The son of a coach generally suffers the most,” says Lou Marinelli, who has coached his own son in football and his two daughters in softball. “Anything that happens is questioned: ‘It’s his son. What do you expect?’”
In an effort to show no favoritism, some coaches take it too far and come off like the Great Santini. “It’s amazing how hard some of these coaches are with their own kids,” says Lou Gesualdi. For his own part, Gesualdi tries to treat his son the same as he’d treat any other player. “I don’t overcoach and he doesn’t give me the business.”
As a coach, you have a chance to do good. “Coaching youth sports isn’t really about X’s and O’s,” Bill Heery remarks. “It’s about developing kids, and having fun while you do it.” No win is critical, no loss is earth-shattering.
So much of coaching comes down to a sense of balance and maturity. “You start out teaching fundamentals,” Lou Marinelli adds. “But then you begin to instill values — like hard work and honesty — things that help them develop their character and be successful later on.” And that’s something to be proud of.