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How To Coach Youth Baseball and Softball
Tips on working with youngsters on the diamond
Spring is always an exciting time of year for children who are into baseball and softball, for one simple reason: That's the time when youth league seasons across the United States - and in countless places overseas - begin.
For almost 25 years, I coached both boys and girls in baseball and softball, ranging from ages five to seventeen, mostly in Little League. Over those two and a half decades I've learned a lot of lessons on how best to work with kids and run teams; some the easy way, others not so much.
Because that's the case, I feel that I'm fairly well qualified to give some tips on how best to work with fledgling ballplayers to all you diamond coaches out there, whether you're involved in overhand or underhand pitching and particularly if you are new to this endeavor, so here's my five cents:
1. ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT FIRST AND FOREMOST, A COACH IS A TEACHER
This is especially the case at the youth level; the younger your charges are, the more pronounced that this tip pertains to you.
In a nutshell, you are there to teach the youngsters on your team how to play baseball (or softball if it's a girls' league in that sport), and the emphasis should be on that, rather than just winning games. The focus must be on teaching fundamentals - catching, throwing, base running and hitting the right way; the best way to approach this is for you to see your team as a class not unlike school, only it's not in a classroom.
And if you are a parent - as most coaches at this level are - who is not only new to coaching but also never really played baseball or softball or had any real experience in it, a good suggestion would be to read up on the sport and watch games on TV with a friend who has experience in the game. Finding assistant coaches who were once athletes on the diamond is also a good idea, because for the same reason a classroom teacher should know the subject he or she is teaching, a coach should have a background in the sport he/she is coaching.
2. HAVE A TEAM MEETING BEFORE YOU STEP ON THE FIELD FOR YOUR FIRST PRACTICE
This is probably the most important thing that you can do with the kids on your team and their parents, due to the fact that it's that first meeting which sets the tone for the year.
It is here where you need to talk about your rules, the type of coach/leader you are - whether it be easygoing or tough - and decide with your team parents on a practice day.
It's also important that this meeting be held at a place where it's comfortable and everyone can bond. That's why I usually held my first meetings in a pizza place or something of that nature, to start the season on a friendly and giving note if nothing else.
During this initial get together, you must make everybody understand that commitment, effort, attitude and dependability is a crucial key to the team's success, and that those four concepts can't be emphasized enough. I can't tell you how many good teams I've seen where the players are always late to practices and games, bail every time some little thing comes up, and mouth off at the coach - that ruins the experience far more than losses.
Bottom line - remember these four words: COMMITMENT, EFFORT, ATTITUDE, and DEPENDABILITY, and you won't have any problems.
3. FUNDAMENTALS AND DRILLS SHOULD BE FOCUSED ON IN PRACTICE
This should be fairly self-explanatory, as learning how to field ground balls, catch fly balls, throw accurately, run the bases properly and to hit the ball with some consistency has to be the priority if you want the team to have any success.
It is in practice that you, as a coach, will see who your high and low skilled youngsters are and who can play what positions.
And be sure to keep safety in mind when deciding where to place your kids on the field, as while it may be fun for a kid who's not really coordinated to play a key spot like shortstop or first base "to give him a chance", a broken nose or a few knocked out teeth if the ball is hit hard is not so fun; make sure a player at a position can handle that position.
Incidentally, if you are coaching in a league where the kids do the pitching, set aside the last 15 or 20 minutes of the first practice for anybody who wants to pitch to try their hand. The ones who have the best arms and are the most consistent at getting the ball over the plate are the ones who you should put on the pitching rubber; those who don't quite make the grade but are dead set on taking the mound or the pitching circle, tell them to keep practicing, that you will help them, and you'll see.
4. START YOUR LOWER SKILLED PLAYERS IN GAMES
Every kids' sports league has mandatory play rules, which means that everybody must get a certain amount of playing time on the field or the court during each game. For instance, in Little League all players must play a minimum of two innings in the field and have one turn at bat.
Because such is the case, having your lower skilled players start on game day is an excellent idea, for these reasons:
a. You're giving them their playing time
b. They get the good feeling of being a starter, which all athletes want to do, and...
c. You're following the rules, so no one can legitimately complain.
As a youth coach, following the college or professional model of making a starting lineup, where the best players begin the contest, is not a good thing to do because everyone must play and while winning is not the most important thing, it's always preferable to have your best players in the game at the end - not the beginning, in order for your team to be the best they can be.
5. NOTHING IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN GOOD SPORTSMANSHIP
This concept is very basic; you are not a manager in the big leagues and your kids aren't major league ballplayers. No one is getting paid, you're not in front of 50,000 people, and your games are not televised on ESPN.
It is absolutely essential that you teach your players to never, ever taunt their opponents or rub it in their faces after a win, to keep in mind that "It's just a game" after losses and to not get too upset, and when they shake the other team's hands after contests - as all youth sports leagues do - to have only two words come out of their mouths:
As a coach, it's also essential to be positive with your charges and encourage them whenever and however possible. Give high fives and shout "Way to go!" often, and if they strike out of make an error, either say "Nice try" or keep quiet, because it's when things aren't going so well that kids need positive reinforcement the most - believe me when I say that they'll appreciate you for it.
No matter what, whether your team becomes the undefeated champions of your league or loses every game by an average of 25 runs like the Bad News Bears, if you, as a coach, follow these suggestions, I'll pretty much guarantee that you and the youngsters on your team will have a fun and memorable season, and you will be remembered fondly when the kids on your team become adults.