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Remember, They’re Still Kids

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I am sometimes shocked at the expectations coaches (and parents) seem to have these days for their youth fastpitch softball players. I’m talking pretty much everyone below college players.

You’ll hear coaches rail to 14 year old pitchers about the importance of pitchers hitting spots – by which they mean not ever missing them, not even by a couple of inches, or only missing two or three in a game. You’ll hear coaches telling 12 year olds about the importance of bat control and being able to hit behind the runner. You’ll see coaches yank a 16 year old out of a game in the middle of an inning for misplaying a hard-hit ground ball. And so forth.

Yes, it’s definitely easier to coach if all you have to do is turn in your lineup card and sit back while all your players execute everything perfectly. You can look like a real genius that way.

But the reality is, those players out on the field are still kids. Which means they’re subject to the kind of mistakes kids make.

It’s unrealistic to expect a team of young players to execute the game at the speed and skill level of the players you see on TV. Especially during the Women’s College World Series, when presumably the best of the best are playing.

(Of course, even those players make mistakes – sometimes on what seems like very routine plays. Oddly enough, their coaches don’t scream at them or yank them out in the middle of an inning. But I digress.)

I really think the key is we get so caught up in trying to win games that we forget those players we see are on the field are just kids. So to put it into perspective, I thought it might help to make a list of OTHER things a college-age person might do, or be allowed to do and then ask: would you let your young child do this? For example:

  • Drink alcohol (given that the legal drinking age is 21)
  • Rent a car (the minimum rental age is 25)
  • Drive an Uber/Lyft/Taxi, even with a valid driver’s license
  • Buy a new car without a co-signer
  • Vote
  • Rent an apartment or office space
  • Buy a house
  • Sell real estate
  • Purchase airline tickets
  • Purchase lottery tickets
  • Gamble in a casino
  • Fly an airplane
  • Get a safe deposit box

Many of the things on this list are simple, mundane things adults do every day and take for granted. But there is no way you’d want your 12 or 14 year old doing any of them, and probably wouldn’t even want an 18 year old doing most of them.

Why not? Because they’re kids, and as such they don’t think like adults or act like adults so they’re not ready for adult responsibilities. They still have growing and learning to do before they can be held to the standards required to do those things on a regular basis.

So what would make you think they’re ready to play fastpitch softball at the same level as the upper half of 1% of college players you see on TV?

Kids make mistakes. That’s often how they learn. Some kids develop slower than others and may not quite have the hand/eye coordination of their peers, much less players who are 6, 10 or more years older.

Kids mature at different rates too, and while any kid should have some measure of self-control, it’s harder for some than others not to have a mental meltdown when they feel they’ve let themselves, their parents, their coaches, and their teammates down. They just may not have the experience with failure yet to be able to “just shake it off” and bounce right back.

So as you watch (or coach) youth games this weekend, keep in mind all the things you wouldn’t want the players on the field doing outside of softball. Then remember why – because they’re kids.

Maybe it’ll help you lower your blood pressure a bit and enjoy the games a little more.

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Kids Are Not Just Short Adults

Kids are not just short adults

Today’s topic could also fall under the category of “Why your team doesn’t look like the ones you see on TV.” It’s definitely something to keep in mind at any time of the year, but especially as travel ball and rec teams swing into the heart of their seasons.

The idea that kids aren’t just short adults is not original to me. I heard it somewhere a few years ago. But I think it’s a topic that bears repeating often.

One of the toughest challenges coaches face is getting their teams to perform the way they want. There can be all sorts of reasons for it. But in my experience, one of the most important is that coaches often view their players, especially the younger ones, through the wrong lens.

As adults, coaches tend to think like adults. Well, most of them anyway. I’ve certainly seen plenty of tantrums on the field that would make a two-year-old jealous.

Going beyond that, however, what I mean is by the time you qualify as an adult in the eyes of the law you have gained a certain measure of experience and knowledge. You have learned how to control your body. You have learned how to focus when you need to, and when you don’t feel like it, often driven by the need to remain employed.

Kids often have none of that – or at least not enough of it. They don’t have the perspective adults have. They may not know how to sort through overwhelming or conflicting information to determine what is most important. Their bodies are growing and developing, and doing all kinds of crazy things to simultaneously freak them out and embarrass them.

Many haven’t fully developed the fine motor skills that allow them to make subtle adjustments in the way they do things. In our screen-driven age their ability to focus is probably the lowest it’s ever been.

Yet coaches often disregard all of that when they approach their players. They expect to be able to tell them something once, or maybe twice, and then see it executed perfectly on the field. Not gonna happen.

Reality in expectations

To get the most out of your players, it really helps to try to understand where they are in their development, both physically and mentally. Take pitchers, for example.

When you watch on TV, you’ll often hear the announcers talk about pitchers always hitting spots with pinpoint accuracy. First of all, if that was actually true there probably wouldn’t be nearly as many home runs, doubles, or triples as there are today. College pitchers miss their spots all the time. Either that or the coaches calling the games aren’t very good at their jobs. I’m pretty sure I know which one the coaches will tell you is correct.

But even if it were, the minimum age of the pitchers you’re watching is 18, and more likely somewhere in the 20-22 range – especially as we get to the Women’s College World Series. If you’re comparing a college senior to a 12U pitcher, that’s a 9-10 age difference, and probably a 9-10 year experience difference. Imagine how much better you could get at anything with another 9-10 years of experience.

Even a 14U pitcher and a 19 year old college freshman likely have 4-5 year age and experience difference between them. And that’s not even counting the countless hours of practice mandated to that college pitcher, and the high-level conditioning, and everything else that goes into it.

Yes, they may be doing the same things. But your player isn’t just a shorter version of what you see on TV. There are plenty of differences under the hood.

Development v. results

Another difference between adults and kids is their expectations from the experience. Coaches want to win – some more than others. Kids want to experience the game.

Part of that is the old “have fun.” But there are different ways to have fun. In my experience, what they want most is to have the opportunity to play and then to do well when they get it. Basically, like all of us they want to feel good about themselves.

They may not realize how much work it takes to get good. But they’ll never figure it out sitting on the bench game after game. Nor will they feel very good about the game or the team, even if the team is winning all the time. They don’t think that way.

In my opinion, at the younger ages – say, up to 14U – the goal should be player development. That means helping kids learn and putting them in a position to succeed. Not just for one game during pool play, but every game – as long as the player is willing to learn and making the effort to improve.

Yes, that philosophy could cost you playing in the championship game of your local 10U B tournament. It could even mean getting eliminated early on Sunday. But so what?

No one but you, and maybe a few fanatical parents, cares about winning that particular tournament. That doesn’t mean you should go crazy and put a kid who’s never pitched before in the circle in a bracket game. But you can certainly give that kid an opportunity in mid-week friendly if she’s been working at learning to pitch. And put her somewhere else on Sunday for at least part of the time.

I know on TV there are starters and role players. But those college players are there for entirely different reasons. Up to 14U, again in my opinion, your job is to develop players, not necessarily win hardware. Do it well, and you’ll find you win a lot more hardware when it means a whole lot more. As President Lincoln said, “No man is so tall as when he stoops to help a child.” Or woman.

Appreciate them for who they are

We have certain expectations for adults, in the way they interact with us and the way they react to things. Most adults learn to mask their true feelings and thoughts, either as a way of fitting in or avoiding problems.

Many kids haven’t learned that skill yet, at least not fully. I’ve worked with young pitchers who seemingly had a whole circus going on in their heads. It would be easy to get angry or frustrated by it.

Instead, I’m amused. Mostly, anyway. It’s amazing to see someone so unencumbered by what they are “supposed” to do, and just living their lives happily.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t put in the effort – they did. It just didn’t look like the way an adult would do it. As I saw it, my job was to change the way I communicated with them to deliver information in a way they could accept, not the way I wished they would accept it.

And you know what? It did get through, because when they got on the field they were able to perform the skills just fine. Maybe not with the precision of a D1 athlete. But with plenty of skill for their 10U travel team or their rec league.

Instead of trying to get them to see the game through your eyes, try to see it through theirs. It will help you relate to your players better. And honestly, you’ll find you age a whole lot slower than others who insist on adulting all the time.

Oh, and by the way, that’s a lesson a lot of college coaches could learn too. Instead of trying to fit everyone in the same box, let them be who they are, even if it’s quirky. I find people of all ages are far more willing to run through a wall for you if you meet them on their terms rather than trying to force them to be who you want them to be.

 

 

 

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