Our Little League baseball team played its last regular season game last night (playoffs start Friday).
I returned home to this one-line email from one of the Dads: “What’s your problem with my son?” (It took a few emails, but I convinced Dad to use his Big Boy Words: his actual concern was that he wanted more playing time for his son.)
I’ve been coaching Little League for 9 years, from T-ball to age 14. I’ve decided that the worst part of being a coach is dealing with “Sports-Dads”.
Far too many “Sports-Dads” have far too much riding on their son’s* athletic prowess, or his ability to play the game of baseball. They yell obscenities at umpires and coaches. They boo other kids. They cheer when kids on the other team are injured. They demean their own son in front of his friends and teammates. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The irony is that this type of “Sports-Dad” doesn’t make his son better: instead, he cripples his son emotionally and stunts his intellectual and athletic development.
The tragedy is that the “Sports-Dad” holds the key to his son’s ability to develop the skill-sets necessary to be a champion – on and off the field.
Last night, I wrote these 8 Rules for Sports-Dads from a Little League Coach: may be one Dad out there will be inspired to change how they act at their son’s baseball game.
I only coach baseball, but I bet these rules apply to other sports.
Rule #1: If your son isn’t getting enough playing time, look for the reason in the mirror.
Most coaches give playing time to the boys that show they want it.
The boys that show up at practice regularly, that are early for pre-game warmups, that run on and off the field, that get dirty and keep smiling – these are the boys that I am putting in my starting lineup, talent or not. They want to play the game, they try to learn the game, and their Dads support them by making practice and games a priority, second only to school and family.
There are 4 things you should be doing if you want to help your son show his coach he wants more playing time. Until you can answer “yes” to the following 4 questions, don’t attack the coach for not giving your boy playing time:
* Do I play catch with my son every day?
* Do I hit ground balls to my son once a week?
* Do I play pepper with my son, or take him to the batting cages once a week?
* Do I help my son make baseball a priority by getting him early to practice and games?
If you are doing these things, your son will begin to become confident in the basic skills, and practice and games will be more about taking risks and learning the finer points of the game. His improved play will show the coach that he wants – and deserves – more playing time.
If you do this, and you fell a coach is still holding your son back, approach the Coach as you would want to be approached. Use “Big Boy Words”.
Have enough respect for the coach to ask him exactly what you want to know: “Why isn’t my son playing more?” Or, better yet, “What can I do to help my son get more playing time?”.
Rule #2: If you don’t have anything nice to say, keep your mouth closed.
Leslie Nielsen once said the number one rule of golf was “Keep your head down. Keep your stupid head down. Keep your damn stupid head down.”
Every time I hear a dad being negative towards his son from the bleachers, I think of the baseball variation of Leslie Nielsen’s rule: “Keep your mouth shut. Keep your stupid mouth shut. Keep your damn stupid mouth shut.”
Here is some classic negative yack-jawing from Dads at our last game:
“You Throw Like a Girl”
“Swing the bat like a man!”
“Stop being a pussy!”
“Watch the ball next time.”
“Stop being a coward and throw strikes!”
If you make comments like this, what exactly do you think you are accomplishing? I can tell you exactly what you accomplish: nothing.
Baseball is a hard game; being negative makes it impossible to learn. I guarantee you that the player who is negatively reinforced by his Dad will make no improvement all season; the player who is positively reinforced by his Dad will improve 1-3 skill levels (or more) in about 10 games.
How then do you cheer positively and give your player positive reinforcement? Here’s the simple formula:
Observe the good things that your son does and comment on that; ignore the mistakes completely.
Instead of berating your son for “sliding like a pansy”, acknowledge how good it was that he had the presence of mind to slide in that situation.
Instead of yelling at your boy for “swinging at garbage”, acknowledge how quickly he is learning what kind of pitches he can and can’t put his bat on.
Instead of calling your child an “idiot” for stealing 3rd while there was already a runner there, compliment him on being aggressive on the basepaths.
Rule #3: Your son needs to hear 1 thing – and 1 thing only – from you.
When the game is over, this is all you should say to your son – win or lose: “I really enjoyed watching you play baseball.”
When he opens up and talks, follow Rule #2 religiously.
Your son knows exactly when he made a mistake on the field – he probably already knows how to fix it next time. By correcting his mistake – whether it is hours or minutes after it happened – you do nothing at all to improve his play.
Think about it.
Does it make you feel good about yourself to have your boss always criticizing your work? Do you want to be better at your job when your boss is on you for every little detail? Of course not.
Here’s the deal: working through mistakes with players is the coach’s job. Your job is to let your son know that his Dad loves him and enjoys watching him learn and play this difficult game – even when he is less than perfect.
Look for the good and talk about the good. It’s that simple.
Rule #4: Teach your son respect for the umpires – no matter what.
I’m the first to question a bad call by an umpire. However, it has taken me years of playing and coaching to figure out what a “bad call” really is.
A big strike zone isn’t a bad call. Missing the tag and calling a runner safe when he was out – not a bad call. Being out of position and not seeing the play – nope, that’s not a bad call. Those things are all part of the game; in fact, they are more than that.
They are opportunities to win.
Champions adjust their play to fit the umpire’s style. As a great player once told me: “There is the strike zone in the rule book, and the strike zone the umpire is calling that particular game. The first team to forget the first and learn the second will win. If you want to piss and moan about what the strike zone should be, you may as well get ready to lose.”
Umpire calling low strikes? Great, let’s throw low strikes. Umpire letting the 2nd baseman cheat on the double-play pivot? Good to know…let’s take a bigger lead and slide high into the base. The Umps calls are teaching you what you have to do to win the game.
Some Dads don’t know this, so they holler at the ump for being an “idiot”, telling him to “get some glasses”, or suggesting he “learn the rules”. As a man, though, I’m cringing when I hear a Dad being obnoxious to the umps. What you teach your son is to disrespect others when he doesn’t like the outcome of a situation. That’s great if you want your son to be a U.S. Congressman.
For the rest of us, there is a better approach: let’s teach our sons to respect umpires, especially when they make a call we don’t like.
Umpires are human beings and make mistakes. At the little league level they are often volunteers, who love the game so much they want to make sure your son has an opportunity to play and learn baseball.
Can you have respect for that? You should.
Rule #5: Play the game with your son.
Stop trying to teach him the game.
Let the coach do that. If your coach isn’t teaching your boy the game, get him on a new team — ASAP — where the coach teaches the skill-sets of the game.
Once you’ve got the right kind of coach, stop trying to teach your son the game and just play the game with him. Throw him batting practice, and pretend you are on opposite teams. Hit him ground-balls, and make it a fun competition between father and son. Play catch with him – every single day if you can.
While you are doing that, resist every impulse to correct your son on his style, form, etc. It used to be hard for me to do this; I can now say that is is the most liberating feeling to just let go of the “instruction” and play the game with my son. He gets better so much quicker, and he learns so much about himself. He also asks for my help a little quicker, too.
If you want your son to know how much you know about baseball, or how good you are at the game, show him. Your words don’t mean squat to a 12 year old boy: if he can see you performing at the level he wants to perform at, trust me, he will ask you how to do it.
Rule #6: Stop nit-picking your son.
Too many Dads “nitpick” their sons after the play is over.
Their son swings and misses, and they yell “Keep your eye on the ball next time”. Their son hesitates throwing the ball in from the outfield, and they yell, “Hit the cutoff for once, will ya”. We have one Dad that is yelling so many corrections when his son is at bat that his son just freezes up, and strikes out on 3 pitches with his bat still on his shoulder.
The Dads that nitpick their sons after the fact are robbing them of confidence and self-esteem: the message they send to their son is “I’m disappointed in you.”
Let’s look at this from a different perspective. Not many people know this about baseball, but you will never – NEVER – see the same play twice.
I have been watching this game for 35 years, played at the adult amateur level for 4 years, and coached for 9 years: every single play is unique.
So, what separates the “wheat from the chaff” in the game of baseball is the ability to be aware of the game situation, and anticipate the action. The best baseball players often have mediocre physical prowess – but they have an uncanny sense of situational awareness on the field. They look better because they are always in the right place at the right time. And by being in the right place at the right time, difficult plays look effortless. Their confidence grows, and their skill level skyrockets.
How do you as a Dad teach situational awareness to your son? You don’t: you follow Rule #2 and Rule #5. Let the coach teach the players how to anticipate the action: that’s his job.
(If you must know, here’s a tip: the teaching moment in baseball is before the play happens, not after. You want a champion baseball player? Teach before the play starts – once the play happens, whatever the outcome, you have to let it go. If you dwell on the last play, you can’t anticipate the next play.)
Rule #7: Volunteer.
I have 4 gear bags, 2 ball buckets, a hitting net, 3 bases and a first-aid bag that has to be hauled out of my car, unpacked and set up before every practice and game. I have pitchers and catchers to observe and a battery** to select for each game. I have to meet with opposing coaches and umpires to exchange lineups, talk about field conditions, special rules, etc., before every game. I also have the pre-game, last minute pep talk. Once the game starts, I have to keep score, track pitch-counts, coach 1st and 3rd base, and play the role of bench coach to keep the dugout from looking like a New Jersey beach.
The point is: to allow me maximum opportunity to coach your son during a practice or a game, I need help at practices and games.
There are always a couple of Dads who see where help is needed, and jump in without asking. There are Dads that ask how they can best help out.
Guess what? Their sons get more playing time.
Not because they made my life easier – although that is exactly what they did. By their actions, these Dads show me that they are invested in participating in the game with their son and they want to set a positive example for their son about being a team player. That’s a great example to set, and I encourage it by letting their sons have more playing time.
If you are sitting on your ass watching me haul bags on and off the field, or sitting under a tree sucking down a Sno-Cone while I rush to get things ready for the game, don’t be surprised if I have a hard time hearing you when you come to ask me for more playing time for little Jimmy.
(If you answered “yes” to all the questions in Rule #1, and your son still isn’t playing every inning, think about offering the coach a hand).
Rule #8: The Golden Rule for Sports-Dads.
Here’s the Golden Rule of Sports-Dad behavior: “If you wouldn’t allow your son to act in a certain way, don’t act that way yourself.”
If your son told you that you drove “like a chicken-shit” in front of your mother, would you accept that kind of language from him?
If your son called you a whiny little girl in front of your co-workers and friends, would that be acceptable behavior to you?
If your son started calling you a “retard” with your best friend (who has a brother with Down Syndrome) standing right there, would you be proud of him?
If not, then why are you acting like that?
I hope this helps at least one Sports-Dad out there to change his behavior.
By following these 8 Rules, I promise that you are giving your son a head start on the road to being a champion and a Real Man – on and off the field.
* This post is about Fathers and Sons. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many girls playing Little League Baseball. I suspect there is a reason for that. If I was a girl, I wouldn’t want to play a sport where a common insult is “you throw like a girl”. I don’t even know what that means? The way Jenny Finch throws, I’d pay money to Throw Like a Girl.
** In baseball, the pitcher-catcher combination is the “battery”. A good starting battery sets the tone for the inning and sometimes, the game.by