This weekend, my daughter’s youth softball team closed out a very successful season with a dominating performance in the post season tournament. After winning the regular season title with a 10-1 record, they rolled through the tournament, outscoring their opponents 46-10. They hit with authority, played rock solid defense, hustled around the bases, and dominated on the mound. It wasn’t merely impressive to watch… It was magical.
I am fortunate enough to be the head coach for this amazing group of girls, and have coached many of them for the four years that my daughter and I have been playing. We are blessed with committed and compassionate assistant coaches, encouraging and supportive parents, and most importantly a fun, hard-working, and good team of players. This tournament represented the pinnacle of the team’s performance, and they walked off the field with not just two trophies, but with swagger and pride.
As this magical season ends, I thought I should capture some of my “musings” as they relate to the diamond and beyond…
- Create a culture that nurtures, that supports, but that also challenges. When coaching kids, it is critical that they have fun, that they develop a love of a game, and that they feel safe to learn and to fail. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t feel challenged… as kids get better and grow then they not only respond well to, but also hunger for, some challenge and growth. Give them support but also help them push themselves to be better players and teammates.
- Practice makes Instinct. This was one of those summers where we had more rain than sunshine, and more reschedules than practices. We often had to sacrifice practices for games, and while the games are more fun and are a trial within themselves… they do not offer the same opportunity for repetitions, for coaching, and for new situations. There is no such thing as perfection, but practice helps make things unnatural become instinctual and creates opportunities for future growth. There’s never enough time to practice. Make the time.
- Give every player a chance to shine. Particularly in youth sports, the best player (and the “worst player”) on a team may vary wildly from season to season… or even from the start of the year to the finish. Far too often, a coach or parent can relegate a player to the bench too early, and never give them a chance for the “switch to flip” or for the “fire to ignite”. Don’t give up on a player or anoint a superstar too early… give each and every player a chance to grow and to shine.
- You can be outplayed, outmatched, or out “skilled”… but never be out hustled. “Hustle” was the theme of our season and it inspired how we ran the bases, how we took the field, and how we practiced. In a given game, you can’t control the talent of the other team, the effectiveness of an umpire, or a slump of your own… but you can always, always, always out-hustle your opponent.
- Communicate and hold each other accountable. As coaches, we learned early that we could shout instructions at our players on the field all day long, but it was only when they started talking to each other that true change happened. Our defenders were responsible for knowing the situation, for determining the right play to be made, and for understanding what each other’s jobs were… and to communicate constantly to each other. This held them accountable to themselves and to each other and created far better results.
- Winning isn’t everything… but it matters. Yes… the primary mission of youth sports is to teach, to build sportsmanship, and to foster a love of the game. That is true and always will be true and should supercede the results on the field. That said, while wins and losses are not the most important thing in the long run… they are important. Winning is fun and the effort required to consistently win actually exponentially grows the learning, camaraderie, and passion that we strive for as coaches. We never want to get into a “win at all cost” pressure filled environment… but encouraging the kids to want to win and to want to work for it can be a valuable lesson for sports and for life.
- And they need to win for themselves… not for the coaches or for their parents. Above all else, we need to insure we help them to win for themselves, and not for us. As coaches, we take some pride in the team’s performance as well and it is easy to get caught up in our own ambitions and egos. In our championship game today, all of our coaches were nervous… not because we were personally concerned about losing, but we wanted our kids to reach THEIR goal so intensely. Help them want to win and to achieve their own ambitions… not to fulfill our own.
- Move from “swing to survive” to “swing with authority”. This season was a turning point with our pitchers, our hitters, and our defenders, when we moved from “survival mode” to “attack mode”. Evolving from a situation where we just hope to get the ball over the plate, to not strike out, or to make a lucky catch to a situation where we could intimidate batters, swing for extra base hits, and attack hard hit balls developed a confidence that step-changed the performance on the field and the joy in the dugout.
- Be serious but sassy. The girls on the team proclaimed themselves as “sassy” from the start of the year, and would have made it part of their team name if their old, boring coach had allowed it. Particularly for this group of kids, they wanted to work hard, to push themselves, and to fight… but to do so with a smirk, with a laugh, and with some spunk. As as the season went on and their success grew, the sass grew into swagger. They took themselves seriously but not TOO seriously, and played with passion, with confidence, and with perspective. Work doesn’t have to feel like work, so be bold and enjoy the ride.
Closing this season, I am nothing but proud of the culmination of this team’s effort, their spirit, and their hustle. I learned far more from them than they learned from me, and while I was thrilled for the championships and the trophies (and the Gatorade bath), I was most excited about the inherent hustle and heart that they brought each game. I am blessed to have worked with such awesome kids, such dedicated coaches, and such encouraging parents…It has been a magical run and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.