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Lessons from the Little White Ball

by Coach Matt (Matthew Arnold Stern)

Well, managers do have to give speeches once in a while.

When I think about this coming season as manager of my son's team, I think about the year I was area governor in Toastmasters. There were struggles and challenges, but it was mostly a very rewarding year the most rewarding I've had so far. The greatest thing about that year was helping others succeed even doing things that I couldn't do.

I wrote this at the start of my term as manager. The job turned out to be even more rewarding than I thought it would be.

The greatest part was helping these kids grow as ballplayers. We had a couple of players who never played organized baseball before. They became stars of our team and won the last two game balls of the season. Every one of our players improved considerably this season, so we wound up becoming a strong team overall.

I was especially proud to see our players develop an enthusiasm for the game. This includes my son. Benjamin had been lukewarm about baseball, and we weren't sure whether he wanted to continue. Now, he's getting more into the game and is looking forward to moving up to AA next season.

Whenever you lead, you wind up learning more than the people you teach. I'd like to share with you seven things I learned from the little white ball this season.

Surround yourself with great people.

I was the nerd who got picked last when I played baseball. So, I knew if our team had to depend on my baseball skills, we'd be in trouble. I was very fortunate to have three great coaches. A couple of them played ball through high school and one tried out for the Majors. All of them did an excellent job teaching, and they were great with the kids. Our success as a team was the result of the training and motivation they gave our kids.

Competition is good...

Competition has become politically incorrect, with winning and losing considered bad for a child's supposedly fragile self-esteem. I observed the contrary: Children love to compete. It motivates them. They become even more alert and play harder. (They only tolerate practice if they know it would help them play better at game time, and if you throw in some competition.)

Even in our division where we don't keep score, kids know which teams play better than others. They also know when one team outplayed them at a game. They also like competing with themselves by trying to win game balls, hitting home runs, or getting that big play. Our kids took great pride in our accomplishments. When there was a setback, they learned to "shake it off" and do better next time.

Competition motivates and excites people. It drives them to do their best. Besides, without competition, baseball and most things wouldn't be any fun. 

...So is cooperation.

One way we got a competitive edge this season was, interestingly enough, by cooperating with our "opponents."

Our division had seven teams and four fields allocated to us for practice. One of them was our playing field with the pitching machine. I wanted to make sure that we all had a fair chance to use the fields, and we needed to plan practices in advance so parents can adjust their work schedules. So, I came up with a master practice schedule where we managers can reserve fields for the whole season. We were able to get the practice schedule we wanted, and so did the other teams. This probably resulted in one of our league's best Single A seasons in years with our kids playing at a high level and hitting a record number of home runs. 

Pick the right combinations of people for jobs.

When I set the line up for a game, I not only looked at what player fits best in each position, but what combinations of players would work well together. I could put someone with a great glove at first, but it wouldn't do any good if the players at pitcher, second, or short couldn't make the throws to him or her. I made sure that we had players in the other positions who can support the player at first. I also paired up less experienced fielders with more experienced ones. If one couldn't make the play, the other person can serve as a backup. By putting together the right combinations of players, everyone could play well defensively. 

Plan, but know when to be flexible.

I always came to games prepared with my lineup card neatly printed from my computer. But by the time the game got started, that card was usually marked up with changes. Usually, we had players absent, or a player may realize that he is too scared to play catcher. So, I was always ready to make changes as needed.

We actually played better when we had to be more flexible. One of our best games when when we only had seven players, and we outplayed a stronger team that had a full complement of players. 

Control yourself.

The only regrets I have this season are the times I lost my cool. As the manager, I know that I have to set a good example for the kids. I also had to keep things in perspective: It's only a game, and it's being played by kids who are just learning. In the future, I will do a better job controlling my emotions and making sure that we parents don't act more immature than the kids.  

Anyone can succeed.

When I was a kid, I thought that only certain people could play sports. I was led to believe that you were either athletic, or you weren't. And if you weren't, sports was off-limits to you.

What I saw this season is that it takes more than just talent to be successful at baseball. You have to develop technique, practice often so your muscles can "remember" the proper motion, and develop awareness so you know where to make the play. These aren't skills people are born with. They have to be learned, and they can be learned by anyone with dedication and persistence. And where they are physical limitations, you can find areas where a player is strong and develop those.

With this in mind, baseball isn't just for boys with perfect physique. It's for any boy and girl who is willing to work hard. In fact, our division's best players didn't fit the "jock" stereotype. One kid was teased about his weight by a classmate, but he hit more home runs than any player in any division. Another kid, who didn't have a hit all season, drove in the winning run in his division's championship game. They didn't let themselves be limited by what other people said. They just went out, did their best, and succeeded.

And if a nerd who was picked last as a kid could manage a great baseball team, that's proof that anyone can learn how to succeed in this game.


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