HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
July 16, 2007, Herald Journal

Little League life lessons


As parents, or grandparents for that matter, with children involved in Little League sporting activities, we probably have all witnessed the out-of-control parent or coach who yelled at the umpire and may have even got kicked out of the game, all in the name of winning.

Participating in these activities is supposed to be about just that – participation, fun, learning and improving skills, and gaining life lessons that children can use in whatever they may be involved in.

I think many times Little League parents and coaches need to step back and relearn these lessons as well.

What are we modeling and what messages are we sending to our children when umpires (who many times are not paid or paid little) are yelled at, when children are criticized for not executing a play (when their bodies and minds are still developing and learning that skill), or when coaches are openly criticized for not winning (but are there to teach skills and a multitude of lessons to our young ones)?

In “Parents,” September 2002, a mom writes that her 8-year old loves to play team sports, but is not very good, and coaches let him play only about two minutes at a time. She asks the professional if she should talk with her son about his mistakes. However, at least in her letter, she doesn’t question whether the coaches’ actions are appropriate.

How about the Little League player who always is put in the same position (e.g. it seems that it’s always right field) when she does play because her skills are not up to the same par as the other players?

How is a child supposed to gain and learn new skills and develop skills taught if he doesn’t get to practice them? Sure, he hears the coaches and watches his teammates, but we all know that the most learning occurs with hands-on practice.

Most importantly, a child needs to gain self-confidence, and how can she do this when she isn’t getting the opportunities to play. It all goes hand in hand. Skills improve, lessons are learned, and confidence is gained.

Does that mean coaches shouldn’t tell a child a correct way to field a ball or a better way to catch the ball? Absolutely not. A coach’s job is to teach the players skills. Children need to learn how to deal with constructive criticism as well, that’s a lesson for life also.

Feedback can be done so it is not demeaning.

Dr. Jim Taylor, Ph.D., a San Francisco psychologist and author of “Positive Pushing” (Hyperion, 2002), asks the mom to ask her son if he is having a good time or to convey to her son that it looks like he is trying hard.

The doctor further points out that at this age, all the kids on the team should have equal playing time. He says the games shouldn’t be about winning, but about participation.

Furthermore, he stresses that these games shouldn’t even be about playing well or poorly, but about developing qualities, such as reliability, perseverance, cooperation, and teamwork, that will help and enable them to be successful in the future in whatever they may do.

He suggests that the parent talk with the coaches about the team’s philosophy, and why her son isn’t getting more of a chance to play. If it’s because the emphasis is on winning, he suggests that they may want to look for a league (or team) with a more age-appropriate philosophy.

So what has a coach done for a child whose skills may not be equal to that of some of his teammates but is allowed, or it is made sure, that he plays and plays at different positions?

A lot. A boost of self-confidence and a dose of self-esteem. The player may or may not develop his skills to a level that she will want to play when she gets older, but the self-confidence and the enjoyment experienced are memories and life lessons gained for a lifetime. There are no better “skills” taught then these.

What has the coach taught all of the players when he keeps his cool, gives positive feedback as well as constructive feedback?

A lot. He or she has set up a winning situation in terms of life lessons, teamwork and healthy role modeling. To me, that’s definitely the biggest “win” in the win column.

As a Little League coach myself, I want to applaud all of those Little League coaches out there who are being positive role models for the next generation and that are making sure their teams are gaining the lifelong “wins” in the win column.

As parents, don’t forget to thank these coaches.