Youth sports are prime territory for learning opportunities
NOTE TO READERS: I was looking through some columns I had written nearly 30 years ago and it struck me that the one you are about to read — it was first published on February 26, 1991 — is just as pertinent today, or even more so, as when it was first written.
This column was written about baseball, but stands for youth sports in journal, whether its youth league football, soccer, or fast-pitch softball. It appears here just as it first did, save a slight edit or two.
There’s nothing quite like little league baseball.
The memories of the sound of the bat hitting the ball, the smell of the heavily salted popcorn wafting across the field, the shrill sounds of excitement from the dugout when a run is scored, and all of the little folks in the little uniforms with the little gloves live on in my mind as fresh as the day they were first formed.
Yes, I truly enjoy youth sports, and hold a special fondness for baseball.
Who knows why this time of year or this one sport moves me so? Maybe it’s because I never played until I was 12, way past my little league prime. That’s akin to a Major Leaguer getting in his first game at the age of 35.
Long after my not-so-glorious playing days, I’m still at it. I no longer try to put the bat on the ball, or make that forever-to-be-remembered catch in the field. Now, I try in my own humble way to teach the love of the sport to others.
I first became a little league coach at the age of 18. I was hyper, gung-ho and most certainly dominated by the drive to “win, win, win” no matter what.
Please don’t misunderstand, I still like to win. But now the “no matter what” doesn’t apply.
In two years as a coach of 9-10-year-olds in my home town of Louisville, my teams went a combined 21-2 and won the league championship both times.
I remember the thrill of winning, but I also remember some other things as well.
My second season the team went 10-2 in the regular season, then won the title in a one-game playoff over our arch-rival.
At the end of the season the championship team played the best players off the over teams in the league in what was called an “All-Star” game. As you can imagine, we were overmatched.
When the All-Star team jumped ahead of us 5-0 after the first couple of innings, I pulled out my ace pitcher — who was the best in the league and hadn’t given up five runs all season, much less in a game.
In what I considered a “stroke of genius” I then began allowing every boy on the team who hadn’t pitched all season to pitch to at least one batter. I figured we were getting beat and this was their last game, so “why not?”
Well, let me tell you about the “why not.” After the game was over — we lost about 23-3 or something like that — I expected the parents of the kids to say “thanks” for allowing their children to pitch at leas once in their lives.
Wrong, baseball breath!
One parent — who had applauded my “wise judgment” and “brilliant coaching skills” all season — walked up to me and said, “I just want you to know that you have ruined the whole season for the kids.”
Well, that hit home like a Will Clark line drive smacking me square in the kisser. But I figure this parent was just one of a very small minority.
It was unbelievable. I felt like a government official who had been doing just “great” as long as everyone was going soothly, but when a “questionable” decision was made that turned out not-so-great they were ready to lead him straight out of town.
But those days are in the past. And now I’m a little league parent. (Thirty years after this was first penned, you can make that grandparent.)
I must admit I haven’t always agreed with my sons soccer, baseball, and basketball coaches, but I try not to start a riot.
Being a youth sports coach (or high school for that matter) isn’t easy. Some are better than others, but they all try in one way or another. This year try to remember just that — considering the fact these are people who are volunteers and are trying their best.
Good youth sports coaches try to accomplish at least the following:
— Teach the kids good sportsmanship and how to respond when they both win and lose.
— Help the kids reach their individual potential. All are not gifted equally, but each should have the opportunity to do his or her very best.
— Encourage the children and allow them to feel good about themselves. Success is in the mind’s eye. Sometimes a home run is not the ultimate measure of success. For some, just putting the ball in play is much more exciting than watching the team’s “superstar” hit his or her usual home run.
— Try to play everybody, but give the team a chance to win at the same time. It is important for everyone to be a part of the game, but don’t underestimate winning and losing. It is possible to combine winning with a fun, encouraging atmosphere.
— Help the kids to understand that “doing your best” is good enough. Nobody can do better than their best. The youngsters should never be criticized when their best doesn’t reach the expectations of grown-ups.
— And above all, teach teamwork and respect. No one player wins a game or loses it. No coach is smart enough to win the title by himself or dumb enough to cause his club to be the worst in the league. The quicker kids understand that what they are playing is a team sport, the more fun they will have and the more friendships they will make.
Youth sports are a wonderful part of our heritage. I hope it lives on forever and that you enjoy the upcoming season like it’s meant to be enjoyed.
Austin Bishop, AKA The Old Sports Dude, has been covering high school, college, amateur and professional sports since 1975. He will be retiring from the journalism business at the conclusion of 2021. He is currently pastor of Great Commission Assembly of God in Philadelphia, Miss. He may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.