Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lessons learned from coaching little league

We completed our season this past Sunday, a tough loss where we came up 6 runs short against a well run MLB sponsored RBI team. They were better coached than we were, and it left me with bad taste in my mouth.

On the drive home I thought about some of the lessons I have learned as a coach this year:

Plan - You have to have a plan for each practice. There doesn't have to be an overriding theme to the day, but you need to know how you are spending your limited time. There was a lot of "What is next head coach?" this season, a auditory sign that we didn't have a plan and that precious time was being wasted. We only had two practices a week, and for an hour and a half. If we wasted less than 10 minutes each practice I'd be shocked. Having a plan means you've though things through, and ideally know what drills you want to do when. It makes setting up easier, you can put the equipment in the right place so you aren't running around the field carrying 20lbs of catcher's equipment.

Start with the playoffs in mind * - what do you want your team to look like? Will they be yelling "back" on pick offs? Will they have a very specific warm-up routine that they do each game? Will players be rotating position every few innings or staying in one place? Well you need to know this early in the season (the sooner the better). If you want a warm-up routine, you need to start working on that at the first practice. 

* My wife wisely points out that the talent/experience level of the team may adjust your end of season goals, but if you are more focused on behaviors than baseball skills this shouldn't matter. However, you should have a minimum set of baseball skill level expectations that reflect your age group.

Set expectations - Between coaches so you are on the same page, with parents so they know what to expect, and most importantly the players so they understand why you are doing what you are doing. Kids take it hard when they aren't starting, or at shortstop; even the kids who know they are the least talented on the team - they still want to start. Let them know ahead of time what your team philosophy is, what you'll be doing at practices, when they need to show up, what the schedule is, etc. Setting expectations means telling them how you'll have fun, and how you'll do things.

Level set the coaches - you need to agree on a set of terminology, this sounds silly but is important. There are lots of terms used interchangeably in baseball, so you all need to agree on what terms you will use. You need to agree on a philosophy, even something as simple as how to bunt (horizontal or diagonal bat position?), but more importantly on level of effort of the kids, what you will punish or reward them for, how you will punish/reward, etc. It's hard to follow the plan for the day if you and your coaches aren't on the same page.

The dugout is sacred - no parents, no brothers, no friends. Stay out of my dugout, I'm going to stay out of your house. The worst was after an embarrassing loss (level of intensity and focus was near nill) a Mom burst into the dugout with ice cream sandwiches telling the kids it was ok they lost and that they tried hard. NOOOOO! They didn't, and it ruined our impassioned "You have to come here and play hard" speech. A giant coaching moment lost. Also no snacks from parents, I had a kid eating a sub in the middle of an inning and he was even on deck to hit!

Make it fun - if the kids aren't having fun, the coaches won't. And if the coaches aren't having fun, the kids won't. Incorporate games into practice, and I don't mean scrimmages alone. Keep track of who bunted the most balls fair, who hit the cutoff the most, etc. Split the kids up into little teams and have them compete. Focus and intensity goes up, as does fun. It's harder to make it fun if you don't have a plan for the day.

Have a routine - We never got to the routine I liked, but it was a decent one. Kids started throwing when they got there, did a jog after that, we practiced, and at the end they did push ups and sit ups. Not ideal, but it got the job done

A routine makes practices and games more comfortable and familiar. It calms the kids down before a big game too. My ideal would be for the kids to all show up 5 minutes early to chit chat, have a 30 second talk to start practice on what we'll do that day, then do some light running and form drills, light stretching, throwing to warm up, and then hop into practice. I'd also like to end practice by either practicing running the bases, or any set of calisthenics (push ups and body weight squats being key).

I absolutely judge the season as a success. Everyone on the team improved, noticeably. My first practice, there were kids throwing off the wrong foot and many throws were barely going 20 feet. Most of them were standing around when a ball was hit, afraid to catch and having no clue where to throw it. In our playoff game everyone was moving on a hit ball, we were stealing a lot of bases and made several smart plays. Do I wish we had improved more? Absolutely. Could we have? Definitely. But that's for next season.

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