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Coaching, Bearded Dragons and Relationship Building

It was yet another oppressively hot, very humid day here in the Midwest – the type we used to associate with Mississippi but now is happening here on a regular basis.

My first lesson of the afternoon, a young 10U pitcher we’ll call Hermione (for reasons that will become obvious shortly), had the look of someone who wanted to be anywhere but a pitching lesson.

“Jump some rope to warm up,” I told her, and she slowly shuffled over to the fence where the rope was hanging before giving it a half-hearted effort. Then she went out to throw with her mom, and could barely get the ball there despite the fact they weren’t more than 15 feet apart.

This was the second time in a row she had come out that way. “Maybe she just doesn’t want to pitch,” I said to her mom. That’s ok, I said, but then no sense torturing her with a lesson.

Mom left it up to Hermione and she said she wanted to do it so we continued – after I talked to her for a few minutes.

“I know it’s hot,” I told her, “but there’s nothing we can do about that. But attitude is a choice. You can choose to put the effort in or not – it’s totally in your control.”

That worked about as well as you’d expect it to work on a 10U player, but we continued anyway.

“She may be tired,” her mom offered. “We went to the zoo yesterday.”

“Really?” I replied, thinking we might have a different way to approach things. “What zoo?” I asked Hermione.

“Mmph,” she said.

“Milwaukee,” her mom added.

“I love the Milwaukee Zoo,” I said to Hermione. “What are your favorite exhibits?”

“Mmph,” she replied again.

Then mom stepped in again. “We went to the small mammals, (something else I don’t remember), and reptiles.”

“Reptiles?” I said. That’s an unusual choice if you’re only seeing three.

“I like reptiles.” Hermione offered.

Say Word Reaction GIF by Justin

Aha! An actual response. I dug into it a little more, and then came the turning point. Her mom said the reptile house didn’t have any bearded dragons.

“Oh, you like those?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said with some enthusiasm. “I have a bearded dragon in my room.”

From then on it was like someone flipped a switch. Instead of looking like someone in a hostage video she became quite animated as we talked about beardies in general (that’s what the “in the know” people call them) and hers in particular.

Over the course of the lesson I learned her beardy’s name as Phoenix Firebolt (for Dumbledore’s pet and Harry Potter’s broomstick), which of course meant I also learned she liked Harry Potter. I learned that beardies eat grain and bugs, and that bugs are a lot more expensive than grain.

I learned she liked to dress Phoenix up in costumes, and that Phoenix wasn’t exactly a fan.

“I just have a couple,” she told me. “A lot of people do it all the time.

I also learned she liked to take Phoenix for walks, and that if she took the leash off outside without an adult present Phoenix would try to escape. A lesson discovered the hard way.

Throughout all of this conversation Hermione continued to pitch. Her throws got harder and more accurate.

I would make corrections here or there, but quickly follow that up with a beardy question. The lesson flew by, with Hermione making tremendous progress.

It was a good reminder for me. There is a saying that players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

In other words, your ability as a coach to build a relationship with a player on her terms is critical to your success.

Whether it carries over automatically to next week remains to be seen. But hopefully, at least with this one player, I have a key to unlock her resistance or reluctance and help her enjoy her pitching lessons instead of just enduring them.

That’s the challenge for all coaches. Get to know your players, especially at the younger ages. Find out what floats their boats.

Because if you can establish some common ground there, they just might let you in a little faster to help them become the players they’re meant to be.

Bearded dragon photo by Saketh Upadhya on Pexels.com

First Impressions Aren’t Always Right

woman looking at sea while sitting on beach

Most people have probably heard the old cliche “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” And while that’s technically true, it doesn’t mean you should always cling to your first impression of a player (or coach for that matter) because you may find there’s more there than is on the surface.

That was my experience recently with a young 12U player named Jazmin. Her mom contacted me after getting a recommendation from the father of a teammate.

She told me Jazmin was brand new to softball, and that she would like to get her some hitting lessons. That alone is pretty interesting.

Usually parents don’t look into lessons until after a few games, or maybe even a couple of seasons, so that fact that she wanted to start with lessons right away was surprising but in a good way. I think she was a little concerned that everything would be so new with her daughter but I reassured her it could be a good thing because she wouldn’t have any bad habits to unlearn.

Then came Saturday morning and the day of our first lesson. Jazmin walked up and right away my Spidey-sense started tingling, because honestly I have seen happier looking faces in a hostage photo.

We started the lesson and things didn’t get any better. She seemed very unhappy to be there and as a result it was a struggle to get her to do anything.

I finally stopped and asked her if she wanted to be there. I wasn’t trying to be mean, I was actually trying to be kind, because there is no sense in making yourself miserable just to do something. That’s what work is for.

She mumbled something or other, which may have been “yes” but meant no. Finally her mom, who had been watching her from behind the backstop, called her over and talked to her for a while. Mom did not like that attitude at all and let her know.

I think we tried going on a little more but nothing had really changed so I suggested we stop about halfway through the scheduled lesson. I told her mom there would be no charge – we tried it, it didn’t work.

But mom asked if we could try again the next Tuesday. I give her a lot of credit for that, by the way. A lot of parents would have just chalked it up to a bad idea and been done with it.

I agreed, a little reluctantly, but told her if we had to stop again I would be charging for that lesson. It was only fair, she agreed.

Then came Tuesday. Admittedly I was a bit concerned about how things would go this time given the last experience, but I was willing to give it one more try.

Mom reminded Jazmin to start by apologizing for her prior attitude, which she did, and from that point on it was like aliens had come to Earth, taken away the Jazmin I’d met on Saturday, and replaced her with a new and improved version.

What I discovered was Jazmin is a blast to teach. She has a great sense of humor, and not only laughs at my jokes but throws a few in on her own too – including a couple of good-natured digs at me, which I appreciate.

She’s been all smiles at every lesson since (we’ve only done a few) and has thrown herself into learning how to hit. We’ve only been working on the tee so far but she is coming right along and should be ready to start front toss in the next lesson or two.

Not bad for a totally inexperienced beginner. Hopefully we have a long instructor/student relationship and someday we will have a good laugh about it when she comes back from her college team for a tune-up.

So that’s the lesson for today. Had I assumed that first impression was all there was to Jazmin I would never have booked the second lesson and I would have missed out on a wonderful new student. That would have been a shame for both of us.

On the other side, players, you need to understand that the first impression you make with a coach at a tryout or a conversation after a game or other event could cause you to miss out on an opportunity.

Sure, you could just be having a bad day (as Jazmin apparently was). But you may not get the chance to correct the coach’s impression later. I was very close to saying “no” to the second lesson because I had serious doubts anything would change. Fortunately I was wrong.

In our hyperspeed world, it’s easy to make quick judgments and move on. But every now and then it’s worth taking a chance that your first impression wasn’t the correct one. You never know what you’ll find on the other side.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
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