The ‘Growing Years’

Stay focused on the goal. That’s always been my rule of thumb as a coach speaking to his players.

Over the years, I’ve coached youth baseball and witnessed a whole variety of different coaching styles. I love some, I can’t stand others. For me, it’s just about motivation, not humiliation, it’s that simple.

I am not the perfect coach. I never claim to be. I don’t have a winning record when it comes to winning championships on any level, be it Recreation, Travel or my brief time in Club. Sure, we’ve had our moments of getting to the semi-finals or final round, but to no avail. Sometimes no matter how hard you work, you fall short. But that’s the game, and that’s the way I handle my clubs, because at the end of all of it, what’s more important to me is that these kids love playing and can’t wait until next season.  If they love it, we’ve won as a team, because for me, it’s the growth and development of these kids. Not only that, I just want kids to keep coming back to the game. But the most important part, is that these kids are having fun, at any level, in any game… in the growing years.

Championships are great. Don’t get me wrong. No one should ever not work hard when you’re out on the field. My thinking is, if the coach is out there early, setting lineups, working on drills with you and lending a hand whenever you need it as a player, you best work your tail off to become a better athlete and a solid player for that coach. Listen to him when he speaks to you. Look at them when he educates and never dismiss him, ever! Offer to do whatever that coach needs. But it works both ways…

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The coach can’t act like some prophet who is almighty and controls a player’s fate either. That means to me that if a kid is working toward a goal, say it’s learning to bunt, or maybe they want to master shortstop, that coach especially during those “growing years” (6- 13 years old), better try his hardest to get that kid up to speed so he has that opportunity at some point that season. My thinking is, if that kid is given a shot and he succeeds, there is no looking back! That kid can look forward to more successes and mastering the little things to build up his confidence. But if that coach is ignoring that player, because maybe he’s less talented or he’s already been typecast as the right fielder, there is no growth, there is no development and over time, that kid’s gonna lose interest and probably quit the game.

As a coach, I’ve seen the dramatic decrease in player attendance and I believe that growth as well as keeping these kids active and motivated is especially important. And believe it or not, it’s more important than championships during the growing years. I know, many of you just cringed.

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Every coach has a different coaching style. I don’t like the yellers. I just don’t believe in it, especially if you are trying to build kids up. Even in Club baseball. Saying things like “You gotta be kidding me! That’s the worst swing I’ve ever seen.” in front of their peers with the game on the line will surely turn a kid south, especially if they’re in the batter’s box with the bases loaded and 2 strikes on them. Talk about pressure! Now that kid’s gotta be perfect up there because you just kind of insinuated it! And that’s exactly what baseball should never be!

I like to play all my kids at some point of every ball game. Now, I don’t mean I throw kids out there with no training and just cross my fingers. That’s setting a kid up to fail. My feeling is if these kids are trained properly and given that positive reassurance to keep working and keep trying and you really hit it home that they are an important part of this team… confidence comes, folks. Believe it. And when you put them out there, even if it’s a simple grounder to 2nd base; If that kid’s able to snag that ground ball and make a clean throw to first, that’s the game! That’s what it’s all about.

That kid just found confidence. And trust me, if they’re out there and that kid makes an error, it doesn’t matter. Keep them out there! Let them work through it. Errors happen and should NOT result in a benching. Every player makes an error once in a while and that kid needs to be told to “just keep working” and over time they get better. And that next inning, I have news for you… put them in that spot again! This is about growth and learning. Removing a kid from a spot after an error is detrimental to a kid’s psyche. I believe that. Let the kid keep trying to improve. Let him get him game play in. Practice is one thing, but game play will help that kid get over the hump and if they know you as a coach is not giving up on them, they won’t give up on themselves.

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The “growing years” are big. These are the years that prepare them for high school ball if they are so lucky to get there. These are the  years where these kids are really grasping how to play the game correctly. It helps kids find their confidence and courage and allows them to build a mini-baseball resume. But coaches have to coach. Trust me, we are the message here! We are important and need to mold and nurture these kids along the way. There shouldn’t be ‘automatic’ wins when kids are trying to learn. I believe that, because if you just stack your team with talent, it’s too easy. Besides, what the hell does that teach a kid? You need to learn to lose to win, that’s the bottom line.

Work with your players. Make sure they’re grasping the game. Make sure you’re seeing smiles, and most of all, find that player in them!

There’s a ball player in all your players, even the less talented. Don’t ever give up on them because you don’t think they have it. They do… you as a coach need to find their strengths and improve them! Find their position. Mold them and get them up to speed. Trust me when I tell you, attendance in youth baseball is down, and some of us coaches are the reason why.  We need to keep our players coming back!

This isn’t being soft. This is being a solid, determined and thoughtful coach. A coach that’s there because he loves watching kids get better at this game. When kids get better, they grow, gain confidence and over time, as a team unit… wins come. With those wins, comes momentum, and one day, yes, maybe even a championship. While many will think I’m living in a fairy tale world, I’m not.  It’s the way it should be. After all, we’ve been blessed with the best volunteer job in the world… coaching kids. And so… let’s coach! Let’s build dreams. Let build futures.

Too many kids are leaving or discouraged in this game because of neglect or coaches just giving up on them. We can fix that. Sure, it takes time and patience and a whole lot of frustration and sometimes disappointment comes along with it. But in the end, win or lose, we’re teaching young men to play the greatest game in the world.

Not a bad gig if we do it right. What do you say? Let’s do it right.

-Rob Monaco, Little League coach & Commissioner

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