It’s Little League World Series Time

For those of you longtime readers (thank you, by the way), you know my position with regards to the Little League World Series. I was looking for my favorite sports talk show (Pardon the Interruption) this afternoon and it wasn’t on because…ESPN was broadcasting the Louisiana-West Texas Little League World Series qualifying game. So, I left it on. Here’s what transpired:

  • The game was interrupted three times for video replays – and I only tuned in after the 4th inning! Two replays to determine if a player was hit by a pitch and another to see if there was catcher’s interference. None of the calls on the field were reversed. But the game was delayed for something like ten minutes.
  • A player that was hit in the face earlier in the week and has what the announcers referred to as ‘orbital fractures’ and a very clear black eye was celebrated for his toughness in coming in to pinch hit. I watched the at bat. He was bailing out on every pitch and…OF COURSE HE WAS! He was hit in the face the last game he played.
  • There was an advertisement for a new Little League program called Sandlot Fun Days. I was intrigued by the commercial and went to their website. The concept is to give the game back to the kids by removing the adults from the equation. The players use the local Little League equipment on a Little League field. There are no umpires and no coaches. The players self regulate the game – if they play a regular game at all…the site highlights that the players can make up the rules of the contest they play. Initially, I thought this sounded great. This is in line with the Aspen Institute’s 2nd Play – Reintroduce Free Play. But then I watched the video on the site of the Dunedin Sandlot Funday from 2020. After two minutes of video of kids having fun and adults explaining why this is a good thing, there was a quote that struck me:

It’s more fun for me to watch this game knowing there’s no pressure on the kids – they’re just out there for fun.

Dunedin parent

Why aren’t all Dunedin Little League games no pressure and for fun?

Again, there is much that is good about Little League Baseball. However, televising the games nationally with play-by-play and video replays, celebrating the toughness of a young man who probably shouldn’t be playing at all, and advertising that you have to create an alternative program to yours so the kids can play without pressure and have fun…there’s the bad and the ugly.

Youth Sports All Stars – How Do You Pick?

I recently was tasked to choose players from my team to be candidates for the League’s all star team.  You might wonder given my philosophy, whether I think there should even be all stars in a recreational league.  If done correctly, I think selecting all stars, recognizing them, and having them play additional games is a good thing.  I know the players enjoy being recognized – that’s one of the reasons we do the offensive and defensive MVPs after each game.  Typically, the players on my teams recognize the more skilled players, both on our team and our opponents.  This is one of the reasons I don’t think participation trophies are the harbinger of the end of the world with our current generation of athletes.  In any event, nominating and voting on the right players to represent the league as an all star can be challenging.

I appreciated how the league in which I am currently coaching recommended that we consider the player’s coachability and attitude when selecting all stars.  One of the things to remember when picking all stars is that these players will often be representing your community in other towns.  In Little League Baseball, the all star team is the team that competes against other cities’ all star teams (i.e. when you watch a team in the Little League World Series, it isn’t the best team from that town’s league; it’s their all star team).  I’ve encountered many a young player who is talented and gifted AND KNOWS IT.  Often, this player needs to add some humility to their repertoire.  These life lessons are a key reason why youth sports can be such a positive experience for children.  You don’t want to select a player only to have him or her yell at an umpire for what they think is a bad third strike call, storm into the dugout, and through their bat and helmet.  That doesn’t make the right impression of your community. 

When I am selecting the players from my team

Identifying the best players from your own team is easier than voting on other team’s players.  I’ve seen my players a lot more than the other ones.  I know which ones fit the criteria because they are talented, skilled in the game, and coachable.  I also compile pretty comprehensive statistics over the course of the season.  I use these stats to help me identify the best players on my team.  Statistics aren’t the whole story though, as I also use my judgment.  It could be that a player has a lower batting average than another, but that’s because they have had worse luck in terms of where they hit the ball and maybe having hits stolen by really good defensive plays.  Generally speaking, in baseball, I will select players who hit the ball hard consistently, can field multiple positions (extra points if they can play catcher adequately), and can be relied upon to pitch either as a dedicated pitcher or in a pinch.  Being the best players on my team isn’t the only consideration.  I also take into account the quality of the other players in the league.  I might not select four players because I know that the #4 player, although the 4th best on my team, isn’t one of the top 12-15 in the league.
Over my career, I’ve had a couple of interesting incidents when it comes to selecting my players that highlight challenges associated with selecting players for all star teams:

  • Picking one of my twin sons, but not the other.  When my boys played T-ball, the league had an all star team.  Several players would be picked from each team and the players would make one of two teams and the two teams would play a single all star game.  The league gave us a limit of three players from our team that could be all stars.  That season, only one of my boys was in the top three on my team.  When I told my wife, she said I couldn’t pick one of them without picking the other one.  I was caught.  I totally understood the possible issue in our house of only one of them making the all stars.  However, I didn’t want to add the other son for peace in our house; that would have been favoritism towards my children and unfair to the player I removed from the all star team.  And, I didn’t want to keep my otherwise deserving son off the team; that wouldn’t be fair to him.  Thankfully, we came up with a solution – my son that wasn’t selected for the team got to be the bat boy.  That way he could be in the dugout and be involved with the game.  In hindsight, I don’t know that either of them remembers their T-ball all star experience – other than to lump it in with what I believe they have always thought was a fun time playing youth baseball.
  • “And you’re happy with your selections…”  I had a player’s family member ask me after one of our games what the process was for identifying all star candidates.  I told them that it was the manager’s decision.  They asked, “And you’re happy with your selections?”  I recall thinking that was an odd question.  Of course I was happy…I made the selection.  I responded, “I am.  But apparently you aren’t?”  The family member didn’t want to engage further.  I pressed a little, suggesting that I would be happy to have a discussion about their concerns.  They just told me they were thankful for my time. I suppose they just wanted to be heard expressing their opinion that I had not identified the right players, at least as far as this family member was concerned.

These incidents highlight how, as a youth recreational sports coach, you’re not going to make everyone happy when it comes to selecting players for the all star team. 

When I am voting for players

I struggle with not wanting to show favoritism to my own players and on the other end of the spectrum, trying so hard not to that I unfairly exclude them.  After 10 or so games of a season, I have a pretty good idea where my players stack up against the best players on the other teams.  There have been times I have had one of the top 2 or 3 players in the league.  That one is a no-brainer as no one would question a vote for them.  And usually the top 5 or 6 players in the league can be somewhat unanimously identified.  It’s the selection of the other 6 or 7 players for the team out of the pack of 10-15 worthy candidates that gets tricky.  As I do when selecting players from my team, I often use statistics.  I will go back through our scorebook – thankfully I have an excellent scorekeeper every season…my wife – and compile the stats for the nominated candidates.  Some of them stand out statistically in the book such that I recall them from the game.  In those cases, I often have a good enough impression to feel like I can vote one way or the other (there have been times that they stand out in my mind because they were very arrogant, cocky, or otherwise disrespectful in the game they played against us). 
If you know your league is going to have an all star team, at the beginning of the season ask the league director how the all stars are selected.  If the head coaches or managers are the ones who select the players, you have the opportunity to keep this in the back of your mind as the season progresses.  When you play against a team and one of their players pitches a fantastic game, note that player’s name and number.  Later, when you see that player’s name on the all star ballot, you will recognize that they were at least an all star against your team and will be likely to vote for them.

Coaches should do the best they can in nominating and selecting players for an all star team.  The bottom line is that a Hustle & Attitude coach will put in some time to thoughtfully consider who ought to make the all star team; from their team and the rest of the league.  Hustle & Attitude coaches don’t show favoritism to their own children or the players on their team over other more deserving candidates.  Finally, Hustle & Attitude coaches will consider the whole athlete when nominating or voting for a player for all stars.

Motivating Youth Athletes – You Need More than One Tool in Your Toolbox

Photo by Anete Lusina on

I recently had an incident where I was a little too hard on one of my players. It turns out this is his first year playing baseball. He’s played other sports and is clearly athletic. He’s also very coachable. At practice, however, I got on him for not running out a ball he hit. Technically, I was right to correct the behavior – we expect our players to run hard to first every time. However, the manner in which I corrected him wasn’t appropriate for the player. This revealed to me an insight about coaching youth sports: coaches should know their players and motivate them accordingly.

“Motivation is the essence of coaching”

Rick Wolff, Coaching Kids for Dummies

It is the coach’s responsibility to get to know their players and understand what motivates them. Children are not all motivated the same way. If the coach only has one motivational tool in their toolbox, e.g. the carrot and stick approach of rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, they will struggle to reach all of their players. Some will respond to that type of motivation, but others will not.

Motivating young athletes can be challenging. As Drs. Laura Smith and Charles Elliott say in Child Psychology and Development for Dummies:

“What’s rewarding for one child may not be to another”

In this particular instance, I should have realized that this athlete was playing baseball for the first time and there are some things that he doesn’t already know. It’s my job to teach him – and to do so in the best way to make sure that he picks it up. I should expect other players with more experience to know about running the ball out no matter how hard its hit or whether they think it might be foul (the players run, let the umpire worry about determining fair or foul). But, for a first-time player, this isn’t second nature yet. My sarcastic reaction likely came across as intimidating and hurtful to the athlete (more on sarcasm in an upcoming post). This athlete needed me to explain and teach the right thing to do and reinforce that behavior by giving him another chance.

NOTE: This highlights a point I want to make for coaches. Just because you are coaching a team of 10 and 11-year olds, don’t assume that they have been playing the sport for several years. As in the example above, you could have an athlete playing the sport for the first time. I’ve had this happen coaching teams of 13-year olds. Again, don’t assume every player on your team has experience in the sport just because of their age. The risk you run is coaching past that player and not reaching them. This is one of the reasons I start every season with the fundamentals. New players need them and the more experienced players can always benefit from a refresher on the fundamentals.

The key to motivating each athlete in the best way for them is to have a relationship with them. At the beginning of the season, however, when I haven’t established a relationship, I default to being overly positive – even when correcting the athlete. The idea is to applaud the effort. Tell the player you appreciate how they tried the skill or technique, but that you would like them to try it another way. Then, I teach the proper way, demonstrate it, and give the athlete an opportunity to try – hopefully in a one-on-one or small group setting where, if they continue to struggle, it is not in front of the whole team.

I like what Rick Wolff says in Coaching Kids for Dummies,”Talk to your team as though they’re young men or women”. I often refer to them exactly that way. I’ll start a practice with “Alright young men, it’s a great day for baseball”. I find that the athletes appreciate being addressed and treated with the respect that comes with being older. In fact, I have found that, if you treat them as mature young people – even maybe more mature than some of them actually are – the children respond in a mature way.

As the season progresses, your relationship with the players will grow such that you will better understand how each child responds to different types of direction. Recall, as a coach, it’s your responsibility to adjust your style to the players, not the other way around. Some will respond to you because they have a general respect for authority and they’ll take direction from you because you said so. Others will need something different. You might have to show the player why doing the skill differently is better; in other words convince them that you know better. When a player misbehaves or otherwise isn’t taking direction well, you should pull the player aside and deal with them directly. In doing so, over the course of the season, you will begin to understand the best way to reach that player.

I’ll end with a description of one of the best examples of employing different motivation techniques I’ve experienced in my sports career. My high school football coach was an excellent leader in all aspects. In terms of motivation, though, he demonstrated to me how a coach can recognize what motivates their players and not apply the same technique across the board. He knew that, for some players, yelling at them was enough for the player to never want to make the same mistake again. He also knew that that type of behavior wouldn’t do it for me. Whether because I was an Air Force brat or already in Air Force Junior ROTC, he knew that I pretty much ignore that type of behavior. In any event, he knew that I respected those put in authority; I didn’t want to let them down. So, he recognized that just giving me the indication that I had disappointed him was enough to motivate me to improve.

An example of this was one game when I made a mistake and saw my back-up running on the field – which is the message for me to get off the field. Once on the sideline, I looked over at my coach. He was standing with his arms crossed looking at the game. He glanced my way and we made eye contact. He raised his hand and motioned with his finger for me to come to him. I slinked over to him, shoulders bent. When I got there, he never took his eyes off the field and said, “Where were you supposed to be on that play?” “The flat”, I told him. Again, not looking at me he said, “Why weren’t you there?” Sheepishly, I replied, “I don’t know”. “Don’t let it happen again”. I said, “Yes, sir” and walked away. I was out the rest of that series, but when it was time for our defense to go back on the field, I saw that my backup wasn’t going in…so, I’m back in. And I never let myself miss an assignment again and ended the season having graded out the highest defensive back on the team.

Recognizing what motivates each athlete, as my high school coach was able to do, is a difficult thing for any coach, nevermind for the last-minute volunteer coach. I get that. Particularly for those who think they will be coaching more than one season, though, this is very important. In addition to the recommendations above, coaches should seek out other experienced coaches and teachers for advice and tips how to motivate the young athletes under their charge.

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