Monday, June 06, 2005

Coaching Lesson's: From Little League to Real Life

Today, my Little League team won our bracket for playoffs putting us in the final four. My son performed admirably, pitching a couple of innings and taking a wild ball in the arm to get on base. He is a 9 year old in a league with 9-12 year olds. Our record is better 13-3 and we have won every game by hitting the mercy rule. Thinking about today puts some perspective on the coaching and its relationship to life...

I don't run this team. I joined Willie, a manager with over 25 years experience in the field. While my teams have done well in instructional leagues, I have never been in the more competitive ones where we need to develop pitchers. Joining Willie was probably the smartest things I did. Even with my management background, I got the joy of watching how a good coach can get the best out of each player.

Willie has persona. He has a booming voice and a tough look. He expects the best out of each player. If you don't perform, you are going to hear it. Even if you do perform, he'll make some comments after some praise. Each player knows that he means well and don't mind the loud voice. It's because they know he wants them to play better. It is that expectation that makes people perform. They know that if they want to fool around, they can do it home. At practice, if you make a mistake, you'll hear it and maybe do a pushup.

Though this approach is not recommended by the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), it works. I see other coaches tolerate all sorts of simple errors - kids standing up in the outfield in the wrong spot, kids out of position in the infield, poor stance, slow reaction time, etc. It shows a tremendous lack of discipline that then permeates throughout the team. A good team feeds upon itself. When players see others perform, they do as well.

Willie is especially tough about hitting. He does not like strikeouts, especially when swinging at stuff way outside the strike zone. Pitchers are not throwing curves or sliders, so there's no excuse for a poor swing. It improves the odds of success. It also sends a psychological message - you can do it, if only you focus on the fundamentals.

The fundamentals are the key. We don't have elaborate plays at practice. No signals from the 3rd base coach. No clever bunts. We just focus on the fundamentals - over and over until it sinks in. You see, runs are scored when the little things don't happen. A player does not charge the ball, does not take the scoot steps or he tries to be fancy. That's not what this is about. We field, we bat, we take fly balls. Same stuff every time, yet when we go too long without a practice, all kinds of mistakes are made.

The other thing we did was develop pitchers. We came in with 2 great pitchers. Then we developed 3 more. Most teams settled for 1 or 2, so when one gets in trouble, they run out of gas quickly. Or because there are rules on how much a pitcher can play in a week, they'll have to start a weak one. It's really amazing. Usually teams will trot out their strong pitcher. We'll be held for a few runs in the early innings. Then, when they substitute, we'll end up killing them.

In our case, all 5 pitchers can shut the other side down. They all have different styles, but the push is there to make them pitch in a way that is consistent. They know what to do if they are sailing the ball or if its hitting the ground. They know that if they are down in the count to walk off the mound and catch their breath. It shows them and the other side, that they are in control.

Our batters have spent so much time working on the fundamentals of hitting, that they can hear the numbers in their head. "One (ready the bat), two (raise it up), three (step forward, level swing, squish the bug)." Now even the weaker batters are hitting. They feel confident. They want it. They are told to take the hit, so after being hit a couple of times, there no fear of the ball. The opposing pitcher knows that. It's a game of psychology.

Our players are no better than others. They are simply more practiced, more focused and calm. There's no panic when they are down. It is simply focus on the fundamentals - no cute stuff. We've heard so many comments about how good the team looks, but its because we have more practices and we are serious in practice. When kids know how to channel their energy, it feeds upon itself, spiraling into a positive powerful force.

There are a lot of life lessons here that even an experienced manager like me can learn. Keep it simple, stay serious, stay focused and stick to the fundamentals. It's the boring stuff that creates victory. Never letting up, even for a minute. This is the key to victory, it is the key to success...

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