Why You Should Set Goals for Each Game

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Before each game, usually while I am making the line-up, I come up with goals for that game. You might wonder, “Goals…the goal is obvious – win the game”. If you believe that, you need to stop reading this and go back to reading about my youth recreational sports philosophy. Back? Good, that means you agree that winning games is not the most important thing in youth sports. It’s not just me, though…many youth sports advocates also believe this way (see Dr. Jennifer Etnier, Jerry Lynch, Mike Matheny, among others). Besides, after a game, you don’t need to go over whether you won or lost the game with the team. In just about every case, the players know who scored the most – and in many cases, there’s a scoreboard that shows the result. What I like to do is highlight how we did against our own goals for the game. In this way, we compare the team to ourselves and have something to say (often positive) regardless of the opponent and the win/loss outcome.

Lately, I have been coaching my niece’s 11-and-under baseball team. Record-wise, the team wasn’t winning many games. However, I was able to note improvement as we started setting goals for each game. As the team achieved progressively more difficult goals, they realized they were getting better – a great confidence boost given all the losing that had been occurring. Interestingly, when the team did win their first game, they didn’t achieve any of the goals we had set for the game. This highlights how sports work, though, right? You can have a great game, improving on your previous performances, achieve all the goals for the game…and lose. Or, you could have a poor game, not achieve any of the pregame goals, and still win the game.

The key, for me, is to continue to set goals prior to each game in order to focus the athletes on the outcomes I am most interested in seeing the players achieve. The best practice with the goals is to tie them to executing the fundamentals of the game. For instance, in youth baseball, I often have a goal pertaining to the number of strikeouts looking. In youth baseball, we want the players to swing the bat…especially if there are two strikes and the ball is close. I tell the players to never put it in the hands of the umpire to call them out. If it’s close, SWING. If we go down swinging, that’s fine; but don’t strike out looking. I will have established this mindset and expectation during practice. In fact, we might have a drill during batting practice where we start the count at 0 and 2. If the players don’t swing at the next pitch (so long as it wasn’t clearly a ball), I correct the behavior and remind them of my expectation.

Goals sheet from baseball game this season (7/22/2020). No more that 2 strikeouts looking, put at least 8 balls in play, and give up no 5-run innings on defense.

I let the players grow into the goals. So, perhaps for the first game of the season, we will set the goal for the game at ‘No more than two strikeouts looking’. When this gets too easy, say after a game or two when this goal is met; we modify the goal to one or zero strikeouts looking. In this manner, by the end of the season we are able to compare what our goals are for the last game to what they were at the beginning and, hopefully (it has been the case in every season I’ve coached), show how the players have improved throughout the season. Sometimes, as with the strikeouts looking goal, we might not even have that as a goal at the end of the season because we will have gotten so good at not looking at third strikes that we have moved onto other goals.

What might goals look like in other sports?

  • Flag Football: at least one three-and-out series on defense; at least three first downs on offense; no beat deeps (meaning our safeties don’t let a receiver catch a pass behind them)
  • Volleyball: at least three plays where we execute bump-set-spike; no more than three serves into the net; zero balls that fall in between players
  • Basketball: every player takes at least one shot (in some leagues this is a rule – one I like, by the way); at least five rebounds; only one traveling violation

Three is not necessarily a magic number for goals, but I do typically have three goals per game. You can see that executing these goals would contribute to winning, whether the team actually wins or not. I encourage all youth recreational sports coaches to set goals prior to each game.

The Time I Got Ejected

Text from a friend highlighting the irony of a guy who offers coaching clinics getting thrown out of a game.

No, seriously. The guy who writes about youth sports coaching and holds coaching clinics; the guy who espouses to advise coaches and league directors on the best practices to interact with parents, officials, and the children to have successful seasons…got thrown out of an 11-and-under youth baseball game. I am most assuredly not proud of this or my behavior that led to it. The circumstances of my ejection and the rationalization in my mind as to whether it was justified, are not the point. The bottom line is…

I WAS EJECTED FROM A YOUTH RECREATIONAL SPORTS GAME.

Again, I regret that it happened and have been doing a good deal of soul-searching as to what it means to the players I coached and my role as a trainer of coaches. Here’s why being ejected is unacceptable and I am sorry for the bad example I set for the kids I coached.

  • Was it fun to see their coach told to leave the field?
  • What did they learn? What did my actions teach them?
  • Will the players want to play again next season?

Recall, I define a successful youth recreational sports season as one where the athletes have fun and learn to play the game. The ultimate measure of success, to me, is whether the child wants to play again the next season. I can’t imagine it was fun for the players to see me yell at the opposing coach. I’m sure it wasn’t fun for them to see the umpire tell me I was ejected. In fact, it was probably unsettling. I hope my actions do teach the children a lesson, though. I hope they learn that losing control of one’s emotions can have consequences. Finally, only time will tell whether or not the players decide to play baseball again next season. I hope they do.

This incident has me thinking about the recommendations I make to coaches in my writing and clinics. Often, academics and teachers can get removed from the material they teach – leaning on their experience that can be less relevant as time passes. Coaching my niece’s team not only reignited my desire to write about youth sports coaching but also highlighted how much I enjoy coaching. It has also been a good experience to coach this past season as it afforded me the opportunity to get back in the game. Easy for me to say in a clinic that coaches should respect the officials and other adults and should not argue or yell. As is typical, real-life is more nuanced than what is taught in a class.

Making Youth Baseball Line-Ups

This is not the way to make a good youth recreational sports baseball line-up.

Making a line-up can be one of the most challenging aspects of coaching a youth baseball team. See below my recommendations for making a solid one. Recall one of the key tenets of the Hustle & Attitude philosophy – every child plays. plays equal amount, and plays multiple positions.

  • Start with who’s going to be there…  We have an 11-player roster.  And this night, we know that one player is home with his family quarantining and another is out of town.  So…EVERYONE PLAYS THE WHOLE GAME!  This is actually easy on a coach, right?  Not having to rotate players in and out of positions in the field (in our league all players on your roster present bat – a practice I like at the younger recreational levels).  I’ll write later about good methods for rotating players.
  • For a youth baseball line-up, you should start with who will play pitcher and who will play catcher.  Based on the nature of these positions, they require some additional consideration.  Each position provides a possible exception to my ‘every athlete plays every position’ rule.  The exception is that I won’t have an athlete play a position where they might get hurt physically – or emotionally.
    • Pitchers have the ball on every play.  They set the pace of the entire game.  All eyes are on them – they are at the center of the game, literally.  I feel it would be potentially emotionally painful for a player who cannot reliably throw the ball to home plate from the mound. Never mind whether they can throw strikes…at 10 years old it is the rare athlete that can reliably throw strikes. A key consideration here is who is eligible to pitch.  Many leagues have mandatory rules for days between pitching based on the number of pitches thrown in a game (another key rule that should be implemented in every youth baseball league).  So, for our team, I know that everyone is eligible because the only player who pitched enough to require rest is the one out of town.  You could consider the competition in determining who will pitch.  For example, if you know you’re playing a strong team, you could counter with your better pitchers.  I like to make sure every player has equal opportunity to pitch, so I will often go with the player who hasn’t pitched lately.  By the end of the regular season, I like to see most of our pitchers with equal chances to pitch (innings can be a bad measure as one player may get through an inning with 20 pitches where it takes another 40+; so, I use number of pitches and games pitched). 
    • Catcher is a unique position on a baseball field.  They are the only player looking towards the outfield at the start of each play; the ready position is different (a crouch that some kids can’t even maintain and requires them putting their throwing arm behind their back for safety); and then there’s the gear – the “tools of ignorance”.  In my experience only a handful of the children on a team have any interest at all in catching.  In practice, the coach needs to find out who is interested AND capable.  Often, on a typical youth baseball roster, that number is around four.  In our case, we have three. 
    • Another consideration – that is a rule in some leagues, and I think is valuable in all leagues – is to try not to have a child play pitcher and catcher in the same game.  Again, these positions are so unique and demanding that I think it is just better to not put that on a player in the same game.
  • Next, is where the players will play in the field.  I make these in two inning sets; i.e. players will play the same position for the 1st and 2nd innings, then switch to a new position for the 3rd and 4th.  If we go longer, the players will just stay where they are.  I don’t call out first base as special like pitchers and catchers, but of the remaining fielding positions, it is one of special interest.  Namely, your first baseman needs to be able to catch the ball reliably.  At some youth baseball levels, you will have players who are still not comfortable catching the ball – i.e. they may show signs of being afraid of the ball.  If you have players like this, they should not play first base.  I would suggest you should work with these children so that they improve and gain confidence enough to be able to play at least an inning there before the end of the season.  In our case, we only have one or two players I would not feel confident playing first base. 
  • After the pitcher and catcher, I typically start by placing players in the infield.  Then, I set the outfield with the remaining players.  When it comes time to rotate, I start with the three outfielders and place them in the infield positions.  That means one infielder will play another position in the infield (there are four), unless they pitch or catch during the game.  So be it…maybe next game, they start in the outfield.  The remaining players make up the outfield for the last innings.
    • There are sometimes considerations for players in the field similar to pitching, catching, and first base. Similar to not wanting to embarrass an athlete at pitcher, if there is a player who is terrified of playing a position, I would not force them to play it. For instance, we have a player who has told us she does not want to play in the infield. We are honoring the player’s wishes. If we were having practices (we are only playing games in a condensed season due to the virus), I would spend extra time with this player at practice to build their confidence until we both felt confident they could play say second base.
    • In order to make sure everyone plays all over and an equal amount, as a coach, you have to keep track. I use a spreadsheet and track how many times each player has played each position.
  • Finally, it’s time for the batting order.  In our league, all the players who are there bat – another policy I really like.  In our case, we only have nine (hopefully they all show up!).  I like to place a player at the top of the order who regularly makes contact.  This gets the team some momentum when they start to bat.  I also like to rotate where players are in the order from game to game – this isn’t the case where one of our players is the speedy lead off hitter, one is the bat and power combo #3 hitter, and the all or nothing slugger bats 4th.  There are some players on the team who are better hitters than others, but the idea here is to get the players at bats.  If they batted at the bottom of the order the last game, they may not have gotten as many chances to hit as the players at the top of the order; so I switch it up from game to game.
  • Now, I put the batting line-up in the score book – IN PENCIL!!!  Then, the batting order and positions go up on the dry erase clipboard (you gotta have one of these!).  Then, I write the goals for the team for that game…and we’ll talk about goal-setting in a subsequent post.

POST SCRIPT

Good thing I put the line up in pencil.  Turns out one of the players I thought would be there wasn’t and the one who was quarantining with his family was able to play.  That was a pleasant result (and not just that our player and his family are apparently virus free) as it facilitated essentially a one-for-one swap in the lineup, but it did require a shake-up of where the children played in the field.  I spent the first five minutes after I arrived at the field adjusting the line up accordingly.  

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