Friday, June 03, 2011

Great Coaching in Action

Until last night, my son Nathan’s Little League team was in first place. They finished the season with 12 wins and 2 losses despite having several young and new players. In the first playoff game, they won in a shut-out and ran off the field knowing that they only had to win one more to make it to Saturday’s championship.

I arrived at Game 2 last night, halfway through the first inning.

“The other team has one run,” one of the moms told me. “But they have two outs and we haven’t batted yet.”

That inning ended with a 1-to-1 tie—and stayed tied for five innings. The time limit for a typical game came and went. Since this was a playoff game, they had to play until someone won.

Finally, in the 7th inning, the other team made a second run, but Nathan’s team still had one more chance at bat. They’d beat this team before. Surely they could rally and make the two runs needed to win.

It came down to one of those classic baseball moments with bases loaded, two outs, and one of the tiniest team members at bat knowing it was all up to him. And the poor guy struck out. It was over. They’d lost. The other team was headed to the championship instead of them.

Watching the boys crouch down in front of their coach for the post-game talk was a solemn moment. I didn’t know that thirteen 8-10-year-olds could be so quiet. I’ve always liked Nathan’s coach. He’s one of those men who stresses the importance of doing your best and throws in extra practice when needed but also knows that, in the end, sports should be fun and about learning the game. Win or lose, he always stresses positive points before mentioning what went wrong. Not once have a sensed his ego getting in the way. Last night, he officially became my favorite among all the coaches that Nate has had.

He obviously knew that nobody needed to tell the boys that they’d had an off night. They’d made some amazing plays in the field but couldn’t seem to connect the bat with the ball. Some bad calls from the umpire hadn’t helped either. Instead of carrying on about that, he got past the negative as quickly as possible and pointed out what an intense game they’d just played. Rather than using their No. 1 status as a beating stick for why they should have won, he reminded them what an amazing season they had.

The parents reflected his attitude. While the dads were clearly upset, I didn’t hear any of them ranting about what should have been done differently. As our sons slowly made their way over to us, lips quivery, not one adult told the boys to suck it up. They were devastated and had every right to be. And hey, they were only kids. With permission to be sad, they weren’t melting down, carrying on about all the unfair calls, or criticizing the other team. One by one they hurried to the safest person in the park—their moms—and let the tears fall for a few minutes before wiping them away, slinging their bat bags over their shoulders, and heading for the parking lot.

Walking to the car with our ride, I wrapped my arm around Nathan who had shaken off the tears so much more quickly than he would have in the past. Having been on an undefeated team that won the championship last year, I’d known losing would be hard for him at any point. He has always been competitive in everything from grades to board games. I realized that, through this loss, he probably learned more than he did during last year’s undefeated season. Coach Dave had already shown his players how to be good sports whether they won or not. Last night he taught them how to handle a huge upset with maturity. Yes, they were all disappointed, but they left the sports park knowing that he wasn’t disappointed in them.

They’d had hands-on practice in “Life is full of disappointments.” But it was their coach and parents who showed them “It’s not the end of the world.” This may have been the best coaching Nathan and his teammates received all season.

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