By Cal Ripken, Jr.
This is the time of year that youth baseball teams enter what is known as the tournament trail. Teams of all-stars and local league champions are traveling all over the country, competing against tougher competition in strange, distant venues for the right to advance to another faraway tournament and to compete for another championship.
For those of you fortunate enough to be heading down the tournament path, I have one piece of advice: It’s not all about the baseball or winning and losing. Relax and allow yourself – and your team – to soak in the entire experience.
I have been questioned repeatedly as to how I can caution coaches and parents about making baseball too serious at too early an age for their kids yet still put my name on the Cal Ripken World Series. The answer is simple: It’s not all about the baseball.
Most kids are competitive by nature. Don’t believe me? Well, then, come to one of our camps. If we ask a kid to hit 12 balls off of a tee as a hitting drill, we might get five or six good swings out of him or her. After that, the swings tend to get lazy, or the player will try to elevate the ball by dropping the back shoulder or otherwise lose concentration. But if you turn that same drill into a contest in which the player gets a point for taking a good, hard swing and a point for hitting the ball into a designated target, guess what? You get 12 great swings. Kids love to compete.
Young athletes enjoy challenges and look forward to testing themselves against their peers. They may not always be happy with the end result, but accepting and facing challenges is how we make ourselves better, whether it’s in school, on a ball field or in the board room. Again, if you don’t believe me, think about your last coaching experience. After practicing and playing games for part or all of a season, how did the kids respond as the tournament approached? I’ll bet they talked about it a lot, wondered who they were going to play, asked how many games they had to win to get to the championship and generally displayed more energy and enthusiasm during practices and the tournament games than they had for most of the season.
I don’t know about you, but I happen to think that the idea of kids wanting to step up to a challenge and getting excited about playing baseball are the types of responses we hope to see from the young players we coach. So, where do we go wrong as coaches, parents and tournament directors when the smiles and enthusiasm turn into open displays of frustration and tears? We go wrong when we judge the success or failure of a tournament – and sometimes a season – strictly by the wins and losses that occur at these events.
I’m guessing that, for the most part, if your teams are still playing deep into July – and possibly even into August – that the players already have enjoyed incredibly successful seasons. They’ve probably either won a league or tournament championship at the least or been named to an all-star team – or both. As coaches and parents we simply can’t lose sight of that. The vast majority of kids and teams that play the game would give anything to be in your shoes. Way more teams are sitting at home right now than are playing, and very few teams in any sport actually get to end their seasons on a winning note. Remember to celebrate what you’ve accomplished and let your players know what a great year it’s been as you approach these tournaments.
Perhaps more important, though, is the idea of turning your tournament experiences into more than baseball experiences. T
With everything we do in baseball, we focus on more than just the game. There are life experiences and life lessons to be soaked up at every turn. At our camp hitting stations every kid picks up balls when the buckets are empty. “You hit ‘em, you pick ‘em.” The faster you pick up the balls, the more you get to hit. Every player and team is responsible for cleaning up their trash at lunch and on the field. At our overnight facilities kids aren’t allowed to leave for the field until their rooms are in order. Mom and Dad aren’t always going to be there to pick up after you. It’s always about more than just baseball.
Likewise, when it comes to tournament play, we should focus on the life lessons that are there to be learned, as well as the various social and cultural experiences that are presented, instead of the trophies that await the champions.
Developing the ability to win and lose gracefully is something that we will carry with us throughout our lives. There are victories and losses in business every single day, but there is a certain amount of pride to be derived from working hard together as a team and putting forth your best effort whether you win or lose. Learning from a loss and understanding that maybe a little more effort in practice or better teamwork may lead to a more favorable outcome the next time is a much better way to look at a defeat than with anger or emotion. The most successful people in the world have made mistakes and suffered hundreds of setbacks, but it’s the way that they responded to them and the determination they showed to avoid those outcomes the next time around that are what have led to their successes.
For me there has always been a certain satisfaction that comes with giving your absolute best effort and going head to head with another player or team and then sharing that competitive bond with a handshake and a smile after the game.
One of my favorite moments in sports is during the Stanley Cup playoffs in hockey when the teams battle their hearts out, scratching and clawing and doing everything in their power to win a series for five, six or seven games, and then line up to shake hands at the end. And it’s more than just a handshake. It’s a bonding experience. The next time you watch this ritual notice how each player looks his opponent in the eye and delivers a firm handshake. And, more often than not, friendly or encouraging words are shared – sometimes even hugs. Almost every single player has words of encouragement for the losing goaltender, who has the toughest job of all and probably is experiencing the most disappointment. Win or lose, these players show respect for their opponents and the sport, two important concepts that it is never too early to introduce to our kids.
Through all of the wins and losses don’t lose sight of the fact that you are coaching kids. Kids love to meet and play with other kids from other parts of the country and the world. Encourage them to socialize and make new friends by trading pins and participating in tournament-related social events such as picnics, pool parties, games and contests. At our World Series, there are teams that stay with host families who live in our area. Kids from all over the globe come in and stay with people they have never met before. Lifelong friendships are started as a result of participation in a simple youth baseball tournament.
We also have held events such as picnics with baseball-related activities, skills contests and all-star games that allow the kids to mingle and socialize in a more relaxed setting. A few years ago at our Cal Ripken World Series all-star game, in which we mixed the teams with both U.S. and international players, I witnessed two memorable moments. In one instance a coach from the United States brought in a new pitcher from Korea, and he had to pitch to a Japanese catcher. At one point the two players and the coach were standing on the mound and looking around as if to say, “What do we do now?” It was priceless.
Another special moment came at the end of one of our all-star games. In a one-run contest with one out in the last inning and runners on first and second, an Australian pitcher threw to an Aussie batter, who hit a ground ball to another player from his team at shortstop. The Australian shortstop backhanded the ball and started a game-ending double play. Instead of throwing his helmet or storming away, the hitter ran over to congratulate his teammates amid smiles and back-slapping.
That is what these tournaments should be all about. Do you think that those kids reflect on that tournament and are disappointed that they lost in the international semifinals or remember with fondness that all-star game experience? I think the answer to that is obvious. Keep that in mind the next time your team competes in a tournament of any kind