8 Ways to Add Value to Your Child’s Youth Baseball Experience
If I had to give one criticism of my parents, it would be this: it’s possible that they loved my 3 siblings and I too much. At times, my mom & dad placed their children ahead of even their own marriage, but when it came to their approach toward our athletics, my folks hit it out of the park. Here are 8 ways, following their lead, to add value to your child’s youth athletics experience:
1. Take an active interest. My mom has always been into sports, and physical fitness has been a priority for her since birth. She enjoyed success as a track runner early on, has maintained a steady regimen of aerobic & resistance training throughout her life, and now, well into her 60s, still enjoys a competitive match of pickleball.
My dad, on the other hand, had other interests. His free time, growing up, was typically spent snorkeling or scuba diving, that is, if his highly analytic, engineering mind wasn’t provoking him to build a deck for a neighbor, or to disassemble an engine, simply to see what was on the inside. While he enjoyed an occasional racquetball match, sports were never much of a priority for him.
Both of my parents liked baseball the way most people like lima beans: sparingly. They liked the game enough to watch occasionally on TV, or go out to an Orioles game a few times each summer, but they wouldn’t consume it daily. That changed once they saw that I had a passion for the game. My mom & dad allowed me to plant the seed, or rather, allowed baseball to plant the seed in me. They let my love for the game develop naturally, and because I was interested in playing, they became interested in being involved.
I can remember my mom playing catch with me out in the front yard – she never turned me down for a game of catch. She held her own for years, even when my throws began making her glove-hand hurt. Mom organized carpools to practices, and helped with the team-mom duties. My dad studied the rulebook, became an umpire, and headed the volunteer field crew, helping to maintain the grounds at our local Little League park.
Having both of my parents involved with something I enjoyed doing was everything to me.
2. Support but never push. My dad knows how strong of a motivator guilt is for me. Once he saw that I had a shot to play in high school, he asked me to set some attainable goals. I went straight to the top, with zero hesitation. “I want to play in the Majors,” I acknowledged, having some semblance of how stacked the odds were against that pursuit. Revealing this to my dad now made him my accountability partner. If he ever saw me becoming apathetic or complacent towards my baseball “homework,” he now had all the leverage he’d ever need to guilt me into a workout.
Around age 13, I began free-weight training, and would go for 2-mile jogs around the neighborhood before school, starting at 5:15am. On the mornings where I’d smash the snooze button, hoping for a few extra minutes of sleep, dad would appear at my bedroom door moments later to softly ask, “son, do you want it?” More often than not, I’d drag my butt out of bed, and hit the pavement. Some days, I’d stay in bed until it was time to get up for school.
I never heard negative feedback from my dad when I opted for sleep over working out. I was the one who had set the goals. I had the vision of how I’d reach them. I alone would bear the consequences of my decision to either work hard, or to hardly work. More often than not, it was my dad’s support of me, in meeting my goals, that made the difference. Ultimately, the choice was mine. My dad simply knew the right words to say in order for me to push myself.
3. Allow the coaches to do their jobs, without interference. There are 2 choices for a parent leading into a new baseball season: 1. Volunteer to coach your child’s team – donating your time, talent, expertise, patience, diplomacy, and perhaps, your sanity, or, 2. Sit back, watch, and cheer on your child’s team – foregoing all responsibility, and therefore, forfeiting any say regarding the team's business.
If you choose the former, my advice would be to compartmentalize baseball life apart from “real” life. My dad helped with coaching a handful of my youth teams. In the dugout, he was always 'coach,' and never 'dad.' I was always 'Ryan,' and never 'son.' When I practiced hard, and produced in the games, I earned playing time. When I didn’t, I sat the bench. Once the practice or game was over, 'coach' became 'dad' again, and I became 'son.' We talked about life outside of baseball.
If you choose not to join the coaching staff, you’ve given up your right to scrutinize. You’ll have no say about the position your child plays, nor, how often they play. Support your child’s coaches by allowing them to do their jobs to the best of their ability, and without interference. Some of their coaches will be fantastic. Others will be awful. Allow it to take its course, regardless – your child will be better off for it. Odds are, down the road, your child will have a teacher, or perhaps, a boss with whom they won't see eye to eye. Having a coach treat them "unfairly" at a young age may be a blessing towards keeping them well-adjusted, once the "real" world strikes.
4. Drop your child off for practice, and show up for games, when possible. For many kids (myself included), being a competitor carries with it the burden of performance anxiety – or “stage fright.” Luckily, in athletics, there’s a “small stage” (practice) counterpart to the “big stage” (games). Practice is a great time to let loose and experiment. When there’s "nothing" at-stake, there’s a greater likelihood to develop skills and techniques. However, when there’s a parent attending a practice, all of the sudden, there’s something more at stake. See where I’m going with this?
My parents always dropped me off for practice (if we couldn’t arrange a carpool to eliminate their having to show up at all). I let my guard down, and was able to improve my fundamentals at practice, without the pressure that comes from being watched. Then, when the lights came on for game time, and my parents were in the stands, I had an extra incentive to perform. They hadn’t seen me at practice, so there was that added motivation that games were meaningful.
5. Keep it positive (from the stands, and during the car ride home). From Little League to the Big Leagues, my mom was the type to be so nervous during games that she would remain completely silent, in anticipation of the worst scenario imaginable. Then, when something great happened, she could be heard for miles cheering on my teammates & I. Witnessing my mom’s joy in watching me succeed helped cultivate my work ethic. I wanted to work my tail off, so I could ensure hearing many more of those enthusiastic cheers.
My dad only ever offered one word from the stands, "focus." He knew that any advice during a game would be unwelcomed, and would only fire me up, but he also knew that I pitched much better when I was a little fired-up. “Focus,” was all I ever needed to hear. When something positive happened, my dad would clap quietly, as if he had expected it to happen. His unwavering confidence in me led me to believe in myself.
During the car rides home from the ballpark, I only ever heard things like, “I enjoyed watching you play today,” and, “I’m glad you had fun playing today.” We never talked about mechanics or strategy. They were the furthest things from our minds. My parents wanted me to have fun competing with my friends. I had fun playing a game that I love. Win or lose, the day was a success.
6. Let the umpires do their jobs. Heading to a local youth baseball tournament, these days, is cringe-worthy. Not only do they charge you $5-10 at the door to watch 9-year olds play, you also have to listen to grown adults read the riot act to 14-year old umpires. Do you want your child to grow up respecting authority? A great place to start would be by setting the example. Umpires miss calls from Little League to the Big Leagues. They're human. Warm up to it.
7. Allow your child time off (to be a child). At 12 years of age, I was at a crossroads with baseball. My recent jump from Little League dimensions to the “big field” had left me with a sore arm, and the two-a-day practices from the spring season had rendered me somewhat burned-out. Many of my friends had already decided that baseball wasn’t for them, and they began doing other, “fun” things with their summer vacations. One of my best friends, Jeff, invited me to join him at a weeklong summer camp on Lake Champion (NY).
“I can’t. I have baseball,” I told Jeff.
Or, did I?
After much deliberation, I delicately presented Jeff’s invitation to my parents. I knew that they would want me to play baseball that summer, but I wanted to see if I could take a week off to join Jeff at Lake Champion. They quickly shot down the idea, “Ryan, if you start something, you need to see it through to the end.” My parents taught me early on the value in making good on your commitments. They wouldn’t allow me to short-change my teammates and coaches that summer by bailing on them for a week in the middle of the season.
Instead of the weeklong hiatus from the team, my parents did me one better. My mom hesitantly asked, “do you want to take the summer off from baseball?” This was a trap - I knew it was. No way in the world would I be allowed to take the whole summer off from baseball. “Yes,” I replied, defiantly. “Ok,” my mom surrendered. I knew my parents were disappointed. At the time, I thought they were disappointed in me, but looking back, I now know where their disappointment laid: they saw that I had a gift, and they were disappointed that I may not love baseball enough to see where it would lead. They feared that I might miss out on something special, and I might have regrets later in life.
My parents allowed me to take that summer off from baseball, and attend Lake Champion with Jeff. We had a blast, and Jeff & I still bring up the treasured memories we made from that week.
The summer apart from baseball revitalized my passion for the game. When I joined my team in the fall, I knew I was playing because it was what I loved to do. There was tremendous comfort in knowing that I would never again need to play simply because I thought it would please my parents. They were pleased simply by me pursuing something for which I was passionate.
8. Encourage your child to play other sports. The detriments of early-age specialization are well documented. Not only does specialization lead to more burnout & overuse injuries, but also leads to more physical inactivity in adulthood. Allow your child to become involved in multiple sports and activities. It has been shown to lead to better overall skills & abilities, makes athletes smarter & more creative, plus, most college athletes come from a multi-sport background.
If I wasn’t playing organized sports, during my childhood, it was pickup sports. We had a group of 15-20 kids in my neighborhood, all around the same age, and all loved to play sports. We played pickup basketball, baseball, football, street hockey, tennis, or we were riding our bikes for miles & miles.
I wasn't allowed to play organized football until high school. My parents were convinced that I would’ve gotten hurt, had I played at a younger age. I tried out my sophomore year, and made the junior varsity football team, only because everyone who survived two-a-days "earned" a roster spot. I had zero talent on the football field, and saw only a meager amount of playing time (likely pity from the coaches because I did bust it in practice). However, it wasn’t until I joined the football team, where I really began to separate myself from the competition on the baseball diamond. I’m convinced it had everything to do with the football agility, strength & conditioning work, and giving my throwing arm adequate off-season resting time for the first time in a while.
Ryan Speier is a professional pitching instructor in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He played professionally for 12 seasons, was a member of the 2007 National League Champion, Colorado Rockies, and has coached at the NCAA Division-I level. Ryan is a dad, husband, and follower of Jesus Christ. Find Ryan on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/CoachSpy23
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