It happens all the time at all levels of sports, but in youth baseball/softball it’s most prevalent when the following words are attached to the game: playoffs, tournaments, and world series. Those words seem to change the atmosphere surrounding the sport. Coaches alter their playing rotations and yell at umpires more. Parents become more vocal, positively and negatively. And, unfortunately, young players tend to get really tense.
As coaches and parents we have to keep the big picture in mind. Yes, we are all competitive, but the goal of youth sports is to develop players. Sure, any time you enter a season or a tournament, the goal is to be as successful as possible, and winning certainly is more enjoyable than losing. But, in the final analysis, there are two things that should count more than wins, losses and trophies: the improvement of your players and their overall experience.
If you can keep these two objectives in focus and judge your season based on them, winning is a bonus. When a coach asks one of his or her players at the end of the season if he or she is upset about losing the final playoff game and hears this reply, “I’m not mad that we lost. I’m just mad that the season is over,” that coach should consider the season a rousing success.
There is more to the Babe Ruth League tournament experience than competing for a championship or walking away with a trophy. For us it’s more about the experience and giving kids the opportunity to participate at a higher level, make new friends, be exposed to new cultures, understand a new level of sportsmanlike behavior and compete to the best of their ability win or lose.
What we sometimes see among youth coaches is a tendency to add to tournament tension through what some people call over-coaching. Other folks describe it as a natural reaction to tension or nerves. A few might even attribute it to an inflated ego and the desire for a coach to feel like he or she impacted an important game. Still others might talk about misaligned priorities and an overemphasis on winning. More logically it often can be described as a lack of confidence on the part of a coach in his or her players.
What are we talking about? We are referring to coaches who alter a philosophy or strategy that has been successful throughout a season because he or she places an added importance on a particular game or tournament.
This could be a team coach who has guided his or her squad through a successful, low-pressure season by making sure that all of the players got to play all of the positions and received equal playing time. The team won most of its games under those conditions. The players became comfortable with the philosophy, enjoyed the games and improved as individuals and as a team. However when tournament competition comes into play, the coach suddenly altered his or her plan.
Players were placed only in positions for which the coach thought they were best suited, and playing time was skewed in favor of the more skilled players. Despite the success that the team enjoyed during the regular season, the subliminal message being sent to the players and parents by the coach was that an increased emphasis was being placed on winning. Players were placed in unfamiliar situations for extended periods of time and parents suddenly began questioning umpires’ calls and shouting more instructions from the sidelines. An air of tension and competitiveness that did not exist during the season was created. Players seemed confused, nervous and disorganized. The smiles that had been there all year were gone. The end result, predictably, was a so-so performance by the team.
There are more examples of this type of behavior by coaches at all levels of sports, but the above sample gives you an idea of how the situation can play out at both ends of the spectrum.
The more that you tinker with strategies and players’ roles during games, especially when dealing with young players, the more likely it is that you will confuse them, put them in situations that they are unfamiliar with and increase the tension and anxiety that they feel. You are not going to make up for your shortcomings or disappointments as an athlete by winning a single game or tournament.
When you coach young athletes, your number-one goal should be ensuring their overall development as players and people. This should be true right up through the 16-18 level. Teach them the best that you can in practice, give them the information that they need to be successful and create a fun atmosphere in which everyone contributes. Even at more advanced levels, every player on the team can have an important role – even if it is to practice to the best of his or her ability so that the players in the starting lineup can improve every day.
Coaches are teachers first and foremost. Most of the young people you come into contact with are not going to play beyond high school. Whether you are on the field or in the board room, winning is not always the most important consideration. Life lessons such as how a team that works together can overcome obstacles and how to win and lose with grace and dignity are far more important to your players’ development as athletes and people than winning that one game or tournament.
Determine your philosophies in regards to playing time and positioning as well as how much emphasis will be placed on winning. Communicate these to the parents of your players in a face-to-face meeting and then stick with the plan throughout the year. It will be rewarding to watch the players develop within the framework of the team and to watch the team improve as a unit. The players will become comfortable with their roles and how the team functions. That comfort level will make the games more enjoyable, lead to a more relaxed atmosphere and ultimately allow your team to perform to the best of its ability. If you stick to your plan, no matter what happens, your season will be a success. You’ll have no regrets and will earn the respect of your parents as being a person of your word.
Even if you are coaching an older or more advanced team and your personal philosophy is more geared toward winning than the overall experience of every single player, stating that face to face to everyone up front gives parents the opportunity to make a decision about whether that is the type of atmosphere in which they want their kids participating. If it isn’t, they have the option of looking elsewhere.
But if they choose to stay, you can rest easy knowing that you have been honest with everyone. That extra effort to communicate most likely will eliminate many of the issues that often arise during a season and cause good coaches to leave the sport. And, if issues do arise, you can refer to that initial meeting knowing that you provided parents with an opportunity to decide whether they were willing to make a commitment to your philosophy.
Without solid, committed coaches who are armed with the tools to succeed, young players will continue to gravitate toward other sports. The best place for coaches to start is to develop and communicate a philosophy with the development of the players in mind and then to stick to it no matter the perceived importance of one game or tournament. Any deviation from that stated plan can ruin what otherwise had been a successful and enjoyable season for both the players and coaches.