There was a time, not that many years ago, when baseball was king when it came to kids playing summer sports.
It remains a popular pastime for today’s youth in both Canada and the United States, but for the game to recapture its roots will require more than marketing know-how to draw youngsters back to the diamonds and to become the next generation of “the boys of summer”, in the words of Roger Kahn’s wonderful book about the Brooklyn Dodgers of his 1950s youth.
It will take more and more youth baseball coaches who know how to communicate with youngsters in a way that engenders a love of the game—and not only for the most highly skilled, or the biggest and the fastest.
Communication: How a coach can make a difference
Youth baseball coaches are generally volunteers who give freely of their time, talent and energy. Many are “qualified”; others are simply moms or dads willing to help their local youth baseball Club.
Regardless of one’s level of knowledge or experience, most youth baseball coaches can—and need to—do an even better job of motivating, inspiring and encouraging young ballplayers.
Specific communication approaches that help
I was with someone recently who was recalling an incident in their young life back in the 1950s. They were playing baseball at what would nowadays be considered a very elite, competitive level. They missed a sign while they were up at bat, and the coach came running toward them from the third base coaching box, yelling, “Can’t you do anything right?”.
The young man finished the game, then left the team, hurt and discouraged. The man, now a “senior” citizen, remembers that incident to this day.
Perhaps sadly, that kind of approach to coaching was commonplace in those days.
The first thing a wise youth coach needs to realize is that they have a significant impact on the young boys and girls they interact with. Those youngsters will remember what they are told and how they are treated for a long time.
Coaches must recognize that and let that knowledge shape their approach in a positive way. I’m not suggesting kids don’t need need discipline, guidelines and agreed-upon expectations but they also need support, positive instruction and step-by-step guidance.
Too many coaches tell their players what they should do, but can’t or don’t show them how to do it. If a coach doesn’t know how to communicate and show what is needed, they should bring in someone with the expertise to demonstrate the skills required.
If a coach is a yeller, make sure the players know that is just part of a personal coaching style, and that it is in no way personal.
Constantly look to build the confidence in players, not tear that confidence down. A relaxed, confident player will perform more freely and is more likely to achieve what they are capable of on the diamond.
Seek to find out what motivates each youngster you coach. Every young person is different and needs to be dealt with in their own distinctive way. Discipline should be consistent throughout the entire “group”, yet with an eye for the sensitivities of individual youngsters.
If a coach notices personal or team issues between players, don’t ignore the problem. Step in and deal with the issue fairly. Make every effort to bring the parties together through open discussion, tolerance and understanding. Coaches should try to put themselves in the shoes of their young athletes.
Be a good listener. Too many youth coaches have a style they employ for dealing with kids but it often doesn’t include the recognition that good communication is a two-way street. Sometimes a coach can learn a great deal from their young players.
If a coach stresses teamwork but then focuses too much on winning as opposed to sharing playing time, or becomes agitated by “mistakes”, it sends an inconsistent—and negative—message.
Young players often love the game of baseball. That’s part of why they play. How a coach interacts and communicates with those youngsters can engender an even greater appreciation for and love of the great game of baseball, or conversely, can actually kill the love the young players once had.
While it’s important to build a trusting, supportive relationship and to be able to identify and engage with young athletes, coaches should always act like “the adult” in their relationship with youngsters. If coaches themselves adopt immature attitudes, it puts an unfair onus on the young people to become the adults in the relationship.
Remember, what a youth coach says and how they say what they say, on a moment-to-moment basis, often determines the lasting impact that coach will have on the impressionable youngsters they are responsible for.