I respect Little League Coaches a lot! Teaching kids how to play baseball is hard. Plus as a coach, you not only have to be a teacher, but also an organizer. I remember when I coached my son's little league team. All those meetings, scheduling umpires and fields, re-scheduling because of rain outs. Then on top of all of that, our league decided to assign only one umpire for each game. So it became my job to coax one of the dads to umpire the bases.
But, that all goes with the territory of being a little league coach. The good thing is that the kids haven't had years of experience to develop bad habits. I also helped coach my son's Junior Legion team. These kids were 14, 15 and 16 years old. Many of them had been doing things the wrong way for so long that it was really difficult to get them to change. At least with little leaguers you have a blank chalk board so to speak.
I remember my son's very first Little League experience. The head coach asked me to be his assistant which I was more than happy to do. Now, John was a great guy and loved the kids. His son was on the team and as a father, he wanted to be the coach. The only trouble was, that John had almost no baseball experience as a player.
At the first practice of that season, he sat all the kids down on the bleachers and told them that he didn't care if we won a single game, as long as the kids had fun.
I stood there wondering how losing could be fun. Well, guess what. We didn't win a single game that year. Ok, I know it's little league and the kids are there to learn the game. But they didn't learn much either. We actually became the joke of the league. Every team knew they had a win coming when they played us.
We had two teams in our town. The other team won almost all their games and were the champs of the league. Every time they won, their coach took the whole team for ice cream after the game.
Our kids wanted to know when they were getting ice cream. Coach John assured them that IF they won, we would take them for ice cream.
But if nobody knows how to hit, throw, catch or run the bases, all the promise of ice cream doesn't help.
The next year, coach John and his son moved up to the next level of little league. Now I was the head coach. We had most of the kids back from the previous season along with a few newbies. The first thing I did was sit the kids down on the bleachers and told them that we were here for one reason. And that was to have fun. But, I told them that the way you have fun is to win. And the way you win, is to learn the proper way to do things on the field.
We scheduled practices twice a week for two hours each. And it was two hours exactly. We started each practice with all the kids in the outfield shagging fly balls. Every one did this. My assistant hit them the balls and I showed them the proper way to catch a fly ball and field an outfield ground ball. I also went over the right way to grip and throw a ball from the outfield. We did this for 15 minutes. Then we moved them all to the infield.
We put half of them at third base and half at short stop. We also had two first baseman which worked out just fine. My coach hit them grounders and we showed them the proper way to field the ball and throw to first base. This was valuable to these kids because as they moved up from little league, they were prepared to play several positions. We did this for 15 minutes.
I just want to add that we had 4 kids that wanted to be pitchers. Actually we had 12 that wanted to pitch, but I whittled that down to 4. My son Luke was one of these. I asked the parents of these four if they could have them at practice 15 minutes early each time so we could go over pitching mechanics. They gladly agreed.
By mid season Luke and another boy named Bobby had become our best pitchers. Because they actually threw strikes! In fact, I asked my cousin who was a pitching coach if he could help. He taught them both how to easily throw a change up. Now imagine this. We had two eight year old pitchers who could throw strikes and had a second pitch! They were practically un-hittable.
(Just a side story quickly. We were playing the best team in the other division one day and they had a kid on their team that was almost as big as me. Big strong kid who could hit the ball a mile. My son Luke was pitching and had two strikes on him. Luke could throw pretty hard even for a nine year old. Their coach was at third base yelling to this kid to "watch out for the change up!" I didn't say anything to Luke, but I knew if this kid was looking for the change up and Luke threw a "fastball" that he wouldn't handle it. Luke got on the rubber and got the sign from our catcher. He shook his head no, then shook it again and again. I saw him fumble around in his glove to get the grip on the ball. Now there was clearly doubt in this big kid's head. Luke fired a fast ball and the kid took it for strike three. You'd have thought we just won the world series by the reaction of our players and parents.)
After infield practice, we moved on to bunting. We taught them the proper way to bunt. I told them that when you bunt, you don't "stab" at the ball, you catch the ball with your bat. I mentioned about angles and not bunting the ball back to the pitcher, but we were just interested in them bunting the ball fair. Again, 15 minutes for this.
Next came situations. I put a kid at each position and the rest became my base runners. I would hit the ball and have the kid run. My fielders would react to the ball and try to make the play. I told them I didn't care about spectacular efforts, but I did expect them to make the routine plays. I would remind the outfielders to take a "crow hop" before their throw. During this drill we worked on cut offs and relays too. After a few minutes, we would switch the runners and fielders and continue the drill. The kids loved this so much that we devoted 30 minutes.
That left us 45 minutes of practice time. I was always a hitter when I played so I especially enjoyed batting practice. This got the final 45 minutes. We didn't just throw them baseballs, we actually taught them the right way to hit a baseball. I talked to them about balance, and staying back. Just about every kid had his own bat, so we had them all gab a bat and line up across the infield. We would start with their stance. I didn't care how they stood as long as it was balanced. Some of them needed a few adjustments, but I wanted to keep it simple. Then we would all do what is called "loading up". I would have them cock their front knee, or just lean back a little. I just wanted them to get the feel of things.
Then we would all take our stride. I explained here,that the object was to stride forward without moving their head forward. This is known as staying back. Some of the kids had a hard time with this at first, but they caught on.
Then we would all swing. I taught them rotational hitting, although they didn't know that. All I cared about was having them know how to get in position to hit the ball. Balance and staying back would give them the best chance to hit.
We finished practice with a good round of batting practice which I would pitch. In our league, nine kids played defense, but everyone got to hit. They were all in the batting order. I told them that those of them that were hitting the best would hit at the top of the order. But if they went home and practiced what we taught them, that they would improve and I'd move them up in the order.
Now, you might think all of this instruction would be confusing to the kids, but they soaked it up like a dry sponge! I never saw kids have so much fun playing baseball. They would come to practice early, just because they couldn't wait!
There were two divisions in our league and at the half way point of the season, they played an all star game between the two divisions. The coaches of the teams that were leading each division would coach the all star teams. My kids had us in first place by a mile so I got to coach one of the teams. By season's end we had only lost one game all year! And this was pretty much the same team that lost every game the previous year. Coaches and parents from the other teams in the league marveled at how our team went from a laughing stock, to leading the league.
We played a best of three game series for the league championship and split the first two. The score was tied in game three and the other team had a runner on second with two outs in the bottom of the last inning. A fly ball to our usually reliable center fielder was dropped and the other team won. But what a season we had! The kids achieved their goal of having fun by winning and they also learned a lot. The parents all told me what a wonderful time they had and how much they appreciated what their kids learned. Most of my kids from that team went on to play in what they called the "Traveling Teams", High School and American Legion ball, and a few even played some college ball.
At our team picnic that summer, we gave our center fielder a glove with a roll of sticky fly paper in it. Oh, and by the way, I spent a fortune on ice cream that year.
The point of all of this is that I realize that most little league coaches are well meaning dad's who just want to help. But teaching a kid the wrong way right from the start can ruin or at least greatly hinder him as he moves up from little league.
If you fit this category, just do your homework first. Get some instructional materials and learn yourself about basic fundamentals. It isn't rocket science. There is simply a right way and a wrong way. And please, never tell a kid that you don't care if you win or lose. If you don't want to stress winning at least don't stress losing.
That first season when coach John told them he didn't care if we won stuck in the kids' brain and we didn't win. The next year I told them that winning was the fun part of the game, they responded to that.
Teach a young player the right way mentally and physically and he'll do it. Make it fun and they will respond. Give him an incentive, besides ice cream, and he will practice on his own.
That team played for me 25 years ago. I still run into one of those kids or their parents now and then and we talk about how much fun we had that season and how we won.
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