Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Little League Lessons (A Rant of Sorts)

The Washington Post ran a thought-provoking article yesterday about the state of Little League in the U.S.

While I disagree with the article's premise that televising the Little League World Series pushes kids to grow up too fast (though it may be a contributor), I wholeheartedly agree with the article's opinion on the current state of the League. Kids are being pushed too hard, too early, and at a high cost. Injury rates are skyrocketing, with kids facing orthopedic surgery at a younger age than ever before, specifically due to overuse of their still-developing arms and shoulders. As a coach myself, I've watched it happen.

Personally, I blame overzealous parents who hope to see their kids make the bigs (much as overzealous parents push their kids too hard to excel academically, in other sports, in music, etc. with the hope their child's success will eclipse their own.) I also find many coaches at fault. They forget about the joy of the sport in their focus on the joy of a win. These attitudes corrupt the sport. These attitudes also corrupt the players, who come to believe that wins (or, at least, chalking up good personal stats) are the be-all, end-all of the game.

So what do you do if you're a parent? How can you ensure that your child's Little League experience is a good one--a safe and rewarding one--in light of the current environment? What if you're a coach dealing with an overzealous parent? Here, a few tips:

If you're a parent:

1) When you register your child for baseball, take the time to peruse your town's/League's website. Get familiar with the safety guidelines. When should helmets be worn? Where can your child safely swing a bat? Insist that your child follow those rules, even if the coach's enforcement is lax. An important guideline concerns the number of pitches a child may throw during any given game or week. These pitch counts are the maximum a child should throw in order to prevent injury. Know your child's number. Respect it. Keep track during games. If you feel your child's coach is pushing the limits, speak up. If your child is playing in multiple leagues (say, Little League and a private league), talk to both coaches about balancing the number of pitches your child throws.

2) Talk to your child early about good sportsmanship. While some major league players are role models, others are not. Encourage your child to follow the former rather than the latter (even if the swagger-and-spit styles of the latter get them on SportsCenter more often.) Remind your child that those players who set a good example earn more respect over time than those who don't.

3) Find out your child's coach's philosophy on the game as soon as possible during the season. If you have a choice of coaches, opt for those who emphasize safety, skills development, and fun over a win-at-all-costs mentality. Your child will be a far better player--and a better person--in the long run. Don't be afraid to question a coach if you feel safety is being compromised. A good coach respects players' parents.

If you're a coach:

1) Know your League's safety guidelines cold. Always, always, always err on the side of safety, whether that's clearing the field if lightning threatens, keeping kids from swinging bats near others, calling an ambulance if a child gets hit in the head and acts disconcerted (even if the parents insist the child is fine because they want their kid back in the game), or when dealing with pitch counts. Personally, I'd rather have a parent yell that I'm deep-sixing their eight-year-old's MLB dreams (go right ahead, parents, I can take it) than risk an injury to a child.

2) Set expectations with both parents and players on day one. When you introduce yourself, let them know your philosophy. Many parents and players will appreciate knowing you value safety first, skills development and fun second, and winning games third. While winning is wonderful--it boosts morale, helps gets kids into the playoffs, etc.--winning alone will never, ever satisfy a player the way they'll be satisfied by a simple love and appreciation of the game itself. (As an aside: in my experience, the teams whose emphasis is on safety, skills development, and fun play better as a team than those whose coaches and players focus on improving personal stats and notching wins.)

3) Watch pitch counts. Respect them. Remember that some kids may be pitching in more than one league and adjust accordingly. And don't forget to keep track of all the throwing that goes on off the mound. If a child will be pitching, don't have them throwing hard the day before. Don't have them throwing around with friends for a half-hour before the game. Limit the number of warmup pitches they throw. It may not be "on the record" but their shoulders and elbows feel it.

4) Respect parents' and players' concerns. If a parent feels their child is being pushed too hard, listen. If a child mentions that their arm is sore, take them at their word and inform the parents so they can discuss it with a doctor. In other words, act appropriately. When your star third baseman says it hurts to throw to first base, don't put him out there, even if it means losing a game.

4) Teach good sportsmanship. If your players start badmouthing the opposing team, nip it in the bud. If the opposing team gets rough during a game, speak to the other coach ASAP. Don't permit your players to retaliate. If your players exhibit bad sportsmanship, bench them and talk to the parents. The parents of the benched player won't be happy, but the other parents will appreciate that you're enforcing the rules--and all the players will learn from it.

5) Lead by example. Be encouraging. Give kids opportunities to try things they haven't been able to do (pitch, catch, play a new position, etc.) Do your best to improve your own skills--both game skills and teaching skills--so you can give your players the best experience possible. Reward good sportsmanship. Make practices fun. Let your own love of the game become contagious.

This season may be over for all but those in the Little League World Series. But by thinking ahead, you can make next season even better--and ensure the next article in the Washington Post is about the positive attributes of Little League.

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