Monday, August 02, 2010
I just got home from my 6-year-old grandson's baseball game. Once again the disconnect between what the adults do and say and what the kids are hearing was obvious. I've done a blog about those funny moments as they relate to soccer, so I don't want to repeat myself. But I also think it's important that parents remember that we have to try to get into the kid frame of mind when coaching or mentoring our children, because in their world things are very different.
The field was really muddy, so the coaches wanted the children to bat in from of home plate. Every child marched up to the plate and took his or her stance as taught, lifted the elbows and then saw a coach approaching signaling for the player to move in front of the plate. The coach would point to a spot on the ground and tell the child to stand there. The batter would take a swing and then return to the "proper" place beside home plate. The coach would stride out again, move the batter again, and the cycle continued. The confusion on the child's faces was clearly evident, because for weeks of practice aqnd play they had been told to straddle home plate. Now today, out of nowhere, these parents changed the rules. The parents understood why, but not once did the coaches gather the children together and announce, "Hey, it's so muddy today that we're going to move home plate to a different spot," and then physically place something on the ground to represent home plate. Instead, every child strode to home plate, got told that was wrong, got physically moved to an invisible home plate, and then stood looking bewildered at these coaches who seemed to have no concept of consistency.
I hate criticizing volunteer coaches because it's a tough job dealing with all the children, their parents, and other well-meaning fans. However year after year, volunteer coaches are sent out to the playing fields with nothing more than a key to the equipment box, a copy of the schedule, and occasionally a slap on the back. While some parents may rail at the US Youth Soccer requirement for all youth coaches have a license, it does raise the level of preparation and information for those coaches. Playing a sport doesn't insure you know how to coach the sport, especially for children under age 10. You can tell a child to throw to second, but if he thinks second base is the second one on the field, then he'll be throwing to first base. You have to have the patience to laugh at that logic and the patience to explain why Abner Doubleday's logic has to prevail. Dealing with a group of children each having their own logical perception of the rules of baseball means dealing with anarchy.
Today a child spent his fielding time between first and second base digging a booby trap for the base runners. He etched out a square on the base path and then methodically dug a trench in the square. When his activities were punctuated by the sound of a hit, he would check to see if the ball was coming in his direction. If it did, he ran after it, but once it got 10 feet beyond him, he returned to his trench. After all if he couldn't throw them out, he could ensnare them. His dad was one of the coaches, so he had to deal with some frustration as ball after ball flew by his inattentive child. Eventually a ball actually rolled into the pit he had created and was stopped. He was able to pick it up, dust it off, and throw it to first just as the hitter streaked by him towards second leaping over the trap.
Youth coaches need to be able to deal with kids not "getting" it. So many variables have to line up before any child finally understands how a game is played. It's for a reason that Candy Land uses colors and pictures to travel a singular pathway to its conclusion. Some children who watch a lot of sports or have older siblings catch on faster because they have some experience. Other children approach their sports' experiences as if they are going through the looking glass. It's a new language, new muscles to stretch, and a new skill set. Everything seems strange, wondrous, and intimidating. Soccer coaches know that dribbling means kicking the ball ahead of you as you run, but new soccer players may only know dribbling from idolizing LeBron James. If a coach says "Dribble the ball across the field" he may not always get what he expects.
Therefore, attending classes to earn an entry level coaching license can give volunteers the opportunity to share with one another how to handle the frustrations of miscommunication and a slow learning curve. Having a professional give some pointers on how to conduct practices and how to approach the entire experience with humor and patience can give new coaches that extra bit of self-confidence to get through the rough spots.
There's one other important reason to have coaches licensed and that's safety. Volunteer coaches for the most part are fabulous, dedicated, selfless moms and dads who just want to give their children and their children's friends the opportunity to play recreational sports. But unfortunately the occasional bad apple pops up who has a hidden agenda or an uncontrolled temper, and having background checks on all the coaches insures that the bad apples get weeded out before coming into contact with our kids.
I'm thinking that the coaches in today's game could have used a few hours of training to help them see the need for straightforward instructions, making all decisions clear to the children, and learning how to cope with some of the issues when faced with making baseball clear to 12 6-year-olds. For starters, label all the bases so there are no variables, only certainties. And a line with arrows from home plate around 1st, 2nd, and 3rd back to home might not be a bad idea either. It works for Candy Land.