Thursday, February 26, 2009

Scorekeeping

I went to a training session tonight to learn how to keep score for a AA division Little League game.

It might have been more helpful if the class was prefaced by the statement: You are about to learn a very specialized form of coded shorthand with which you will record every move by every player on the field in handwriting so small that a two hour game will fit on a postage stamp.

Hmm. This might be challenging for me. I like to color outside the lines. The scoresheet, which is so complex and minuscule that it is signed and copyrighted by it's creator, does not lend itself to any kind of creativity or personal expression. I am going to write my disclaimer, "There are no mistakes, just creative possibilities" on the scorebook cover.

I have always heard that baseball is a game of statistics but this is ridiculous! Who thought up all this stuff? Just about everything is recorded except for how many time the kids pick their noses or adjust their cups.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Little League Draft, Part One, How It Works

Yes folks, it’s baseball season again.

My boys are very excited. I am mostly looking forward to it. This will be the last year that my oldest son, who is twelve, can play in Little League, and therefore the last year we will have the craziness of three kids in the sport. The Little League season starts with the try-outs and lots of speculation about if they will get rained out or not. Tryouts are followed by the secretive and mysterious draft, which I have come to realize most parents don’t understand and many are suspicious and fearful of. So I decided I’d like to understand more about the Little League draft.

I asked the powers that be if I could go to the draft. I was met with a little surprise and some concern and curiosity. The powers that be checked with the other powers that be, and I was given the go-ahead. Wow. I was a little surprised. I agreed to not use names, but we all know you don’t have to use names to skewer someone. I actually felt like it was some sort of display of blind trust in the goodness of human nature to let me attend the draft. They didn’t have to give me permission to go, it is a closed process. And I found out why.

Since my oldest two are playing Majors this year and I know most of the kids and coaches, I thought that would be the best one to attend. Also, my husband is coaching so he could give me some insight, answer questions, and act as my bodyguard if necessary. Majors is the highest level of play in Little League, consisting of the oldest players and the most skilled players. The oldest players are twelve, turning thirteen at the very end of the season. If a child turns thirteen on or before April 30th they are not eligible to play. In our league, the majors division consists of all the twelve year olds, some elevens and very few ten year olds who are skilled enough and physically mature enough to play with the older kids. Our league has five divisions. From the five and six year olds playing t-ball, they move through A, AA, and AAA (also called Minors) until they are ready for Majors.

So what is the Little League draft? The draft is a system of assigning players on teams. As far as I can tell, each League does it a little differently. This is how it works in our league.

The process starts with try-outs. The players are grouped by age and asked to perform several different skills while all the coaches watch and take notes. This is the time when your son won't catch the ball. But don't worry, the coaches can tell if your son is capable of catching the ball.

To some parents, the tryouts are stressful. Click here to read about an article about the stress of tryouts by a mom in a nearby League. I just recently got a phone call from a good friend who was freaked out during her son's first Little League try-outs. I had to get my husband on the phone to explain how it worked and talk her down.

After tryouts the players are grouped into divisions based on age and to some degree by skill, but this is a loose grouping. The number of players for each group must roughly fit the number of teams and coaches for each division level and the number of kids has to fit between the minimum and maximum number of players for each team. It's number juggling. Then the players are seeded by the coaches. This means they are ranked, best players being number one, the next best number two, and so on. Where players are seeded is a subject of much discussion, argument, political maneuvering, and manipulation by the coaches. The seeding is like a sport in itself. But they must come to some kind of general agreement before the draft can begin.

Coaches’ own children must also be seeded, even though those players are automatically put on the team with their volunteer father (let’s assume for now that this is a good idea).

Then, at the draft, each team gets to choose one player from the players seeded first. This is also called a first-round draft choice. Then, reversing the order that the teams chose the first round, they choose the second round. So the team that got the last player seeded as number one gets the first pick of the remaining players. Then the third round goes in the original order, fourth round goes in reverse order, and so on until all the teams are filled. If a coach’s child has been assigned as, for example, a fourth round choice, that team does not get to pick during the fourth round and the child is automatically assigned to the team. All the coaches and assistant coaches’ children are placed on their team in whatever spot they have been seeded. Once the coaches have made all their picks and the teams are full, any players remaining did not make it into the division and they are put into the next lower division. Therefore, the Majors draft must happen first, then AAA, then AA, then A. Players who are very young or have never played baseball are assigned to T-ball.

The purpose of the draft is to make sure that all the teams within a division are more or less equal. Our league has the philosophy that fairly equal teams means a better experience for the players. Does the draft actually produce equal teams? In my observation as a Little League mom for five years, I think it does. It’s the differences in coaching that can make a team better or worse.

As I mentioned, the draft is a closed process, meaning only the coaches and league officials that need to be there are present. Parents are not invited. I think there are several good reasons for the draft to be closed, the first being the fact that the players are ranked. The coaches probably do not wish to justify to parents how or why their child is ranked at a certain level.

So despite the fact that the draft is a closed process and that I have two children in the draft who have been ranked, I was given permission to attend. As the time grew near I got a little nervous. It’s a bunch of volunteer coaches, all men, some very loud and excitable, even obnoxious at times, some quiet and fiercely competitive, getting together to try and create the best team they can within a system designed to make it all fair.

Sounds brutal. Sounds exciting and very entertaining. Sounds like I might even get to see a fight.

So what was the draft really like? That’s coming up in The Draft, Part Two, Frickin’ Prescient appearing very soon on this blog. Or as soon as I have time to write it between driving kids to baseball practice, acquiring all the uniform parts and pieces, and stocking up the freezer in preparation to be home only two evenings a week for the next few months. Oh yeah and I have to go to a scorekeeping clinic tonight too.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Good Coach/Bad Coach

My recent article on the parent/player/coach triangle was inspired by two separate issues we have had with our son’s coaches in the last month. They were issues that my husband and I as parents felt we had to get involved in.

During a recent practice, one coach told my son he was going to “beat his ass,” It upset my son and when he told me about it, I was upset too. We don’t talk to our kids that way and I certainly don’t think it is appropriate for a coach to talk to him that way. I felt that no matter what the context of the comment, it was disrespectful and inappropriate. My son loves basketball and works hard at it, and he doesn’t deserve to be treated that way. In this case, I decided that I needed to stand up for my son and let the coach know I wasn’t happy with this behavior. I wrote an email, had my husband read it over, and then sent it to the coach.

I got an immediate response, an apology, and then my son also got an apology in person the next time the coach saw him. My husband and I also got a sincere and heartfelt apology in person with the admission that the coach made a mistake, it wouldn’t happen again, and thank you for bringing this to my attention. No excuses.

I was very satisfied with this outcome.

Then my other son came out of a recent post-game meeting with his coaches and teammates very upset. His team had just won the game. But one of the parent/coaches told my son “You almost lost the game for us.” My son was so disturbed by this malicious comment that he was in tears later in the day. He is not a sensitive kid, he is an aggressive and talented athelete. It’s very rare for him to cry. This time my husband wrote the email, asking the head coach to address this issue. The head coach said the comment was not true and he would talk to the coach who made it. I have yet to see or hear any kind of apology. I think you can guess that I'm not at all satisfied with this outcome.

A parent with a child on the team, who is over-involved in his own son’s athletic performance does not make a good coach. He is not teaching fairness, honesty and sportsmanship. He is not there to exhort others to greatness. He doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of teamwork. I guess winning is at the top of his list. But funny thing, the team hasn't won many games.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Go Big or Go Home

My ten year old son recently culminated a lengthy multifaceted unit on bridges in 5th grade by taking it upon himself to build a five foot tall, fourteen foot long bridge out of K'nex, yarn, and paper. It featured two suspension spans and a drawbridge section.

Go big or go home.


The Love Triangle: Player, Coach and Parent

I am finding my way carefully through the sometimes complicated relationship between myself, my sons and their coaches. As my boys get older, things are getting a little more complicated. Competition increases and some of the motivations for all parties change.

The relationship between the coach, the player, and the parent is like a love triangle. A love triangle is inherently unstable. But if each member of the triangle uses some common sense and remembers their roles, things will go pretty smoothly.

First of all, let’s talk about the role of a coach. What exactly is the coach’s job and what makes him or her a good coach? Well, it turns out that players, parents, and even the coaches themselves differ on what the job entails.

Roles of a Coach
According to my 12 year old athlete
Stay positive 24/7
Stay calm
Don’t argue with referees
Teach instead of yelling when player does something wrong

According to me (mother of player)
Teach the game including rules, strategies and subtleties
Improve player’s skills
Get to know player and how to motivate them

According to my husband (father of player)
Teach skills and sportsmanship and leadership
Role model

According to Vince Lombardi
A coach’s role is exhorting others to greatness

Another source states that the goal of coaching is to guide, inspire and empower the athlete to realize and develop his or her potential.

I’d like to note that winning the game does not appear on this list.

It turns out that someone has actually done a scientific study on parent expectations of coaches. The article is Parental expectations of coaches: Closing the communication gap, from the website coachesinfo.com. In this study, parents listed coaching characteristics from most preferred to least. The top three characteristics are fairness and honesty in dealing with their athletes, ability to teach well, and commitment to the development of sportsmanship. The middle four characteristics are knowledge of the skills of the sport, commitment to having their players enjoy the game, knowledge of the rules of the game, and knowledge of prevention, care and rehabilitation of injuries. The bottom three characteristics are experience as a player in the sport, providing an experience that will improve player’s chances at playing at a higher level, and commitment to winning.

Yes, that’s right. Winning did appear on this list but it came dead last.

Other things parents in this study cited as important aspects of coaching are engaging athletes, building rapport, creating positive learning environments, sequencing of tasks, organization of practices, providing appropriate feedback, and teaching life lessons. Parents and players expect a lot from a coach. The combination of skills and talents that make an effective coach can be hard to find in one person. It is an both an art and a science. It is not an easy job to do well.

So what do the coaches expect from the parents? They expect a pain in the ass, that’s what. This may come as a news flash to some parents out there: coaches don’t really like you.

I found the following quote while searching around on websites designed for helping coaches deal with parents:
A famous coach once said that there are only two groups of parents. The secret of good coaching is keeping the 50% of parents you don't like away from the 50% upon whom have not yet decided.

In an article titled Tips for a Little League Coach Dealing with Troublesome Parents the author states that the biggest problem in Little League seems to be the behavior of the children’s parents. He counsels “If there is a parent that a little league coach is having a problem with, give him a job to do. . . if nothing else it will at least give them some busy work to do and they won't have as much time to complain.” Come on. Busy work?

In another article published by Scholastic, written for coaches and titled Dealing with parents in the 21st century, the author states, “Parents seem to fit into one of three groups. 80% is rational, intelligent and will be supportive and work diligently for the success of the program. 10% will be overly involved in their children’s activities, the final 10% will be wholly unrealistic about everyone’s potential. “

From my observations of many soccer, Little League, basketball, football, and school team parents, I think those ratios are about right. Those 20% of parents are giving the rest of us a bad name. You know who you are. Remove yourself from the gym (or field as the case may be).

So what are the roles of a parent? Clearly being a pain in the ass for the coach should not be one of them.

Roles of a Parent
According to my 12 year old athlete
Support kids by asking and caring about what their kids are learning. Period.

According to me (mother of player)
Make sure player is well rested, well fed, and on time to practices and games
Supportive of child’s efforts
Refrains from coaching from the sidelines

According to my husband (father of player)
Supportive of player and coach
Positive encouragement
Be involved (work in the snack shack)

Parents in the role of Cancer??

More Sport Videos at 5min.com


Obviously there are differing opinions on the parenting role. I think the disconnect comes from a lack of communication, particularly on the coach’s part, of what they expect from the parents. There are lots of ways to do this, from parent meetings to written contracts. If a coach can’t communicate well with the parents, is he or she communicating well with the players? It makes you wonder. I found a short video online from a coach who found a very effective and innovative way to communicate his message with parents. My sons have been on quite a few teams, and I have never seen a coach do this, but this is something I would certainly be receptive to as a parent. I’m sure this coach has very few issues with parents, and the parents have very few issues with him. Watch this video:

More Sport Videos at 5min.com



What about the role of the player? This sees a little easier to define.

Roles of a Player
According to 12 year old athlete
Work hard
Give it your all
Listen to the coach and try to learn from him
Make sure you have fun. If you’re not, figure out the problem. If you can’t solve it yourself, ask an authority for help.

According to me (mother of athlete)
Puts out as much effort as they are capable
Listen to coach

According to my husband (father of athlete)
Have fun
Improve skills
Make friends

I’d like to note that winning the game does not appear on this list either.

One more reason the player/coach/parent love triangle is not equilateral and can be unstable is that the coach has a lot of power. I don’t think coaches are very good at remembering the powerful and influence they have over their players. Coaches have the power to inspire a love or a hate of the game, and have the power to help the player tap into his strengths and realize weaknesses. I think a coach that does not use this power in a positive way can do long lasting damage to a player’s athletic life. That’s when the parent has to step in to protect their child.

I’d like to think that with some better communication and some mutual respect, the members of the love triangle can get along a little better.

Athletics not only build character, they reveal it. This is certainly true for all three members of the triangle, win or lose. Don't get me wrong. I like my childrens' teams to win, but I know the real lesson is in the loss.