By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC
When recruiting managers to coach T-ball one season I joked with several of them who were asking about the level of commitment required, that their main job was to make sure no one got hit with a bat. Though said tongue-in-cheek, there was a serious underlying meaning. Remember, you're taking twelve energetic kids, putting them in a fairly enclosed area, and providing them with several aluminum bats and a dozen baseballs. You need to make sure that there's plenty of supervision and, most importantly, clearly defined rules, and structure. Here are five rules to instill as a coach of young ballplayers:
1. No kids pick up a bat, or, for that matter, even touch one, until they are handed one by a coach. That's an absolute.
2. Never swing a bat without looking around first to make sure the coast is clear and don’t ever walk near someone who is holding a bat.
3. No one gets up off the bench unless it's their turn to hit. (Some organizations allow for an “on deck hitter.” As long as the "on deck" area is clearly defined, safely away from the dugout and the plate, this is OK if your league rules allow. There is never an "on deck" batter allowed at any level of Little League).
4. Never throw a ball to someone unless they are looking at you.
5. Always wear a helmet when hitting or baserunning. (Even in practice – even when hitting off the tee. You never know what may happen, it forms a good habit, and, in Little League, it is the rule).
Keeping the Field Safe
I’ve seen T-ball coaches arrive at practice, lay down an open equipment bag, and turn away to talk to other parents while 6 year-old players pulled out bats and balls with no supervision. I’ve even watched games and practices at higher levels where you’d think the coach would know better, and helmets, balls and bats are strewn out all over the field or next to the backstop. Just because your equipment is “out of play” doesn’t mean it’s out of the way. Players chasing fly balls or overthrows aren’t always watching where they’re going. You don’t want a player to come down on a piece of equipment and twist or break an ankle. A good rule of thumb is that if a ball could be hit or thrown there, make sure no gear is lying there. Many coaches and managers don’t realize this either, but if a child is hurt on the field and any negligence, (such as equipment not properly stored), contributed to that injury, the coach or manager - not the league, may be responsible.
While most kids this age are pretty limber by nature and don’t have much in the way of muscles to pull, it is always a good idea to get them to warm up their throwing arms before every game and practice, and to have them do some stretching exercises. I also recommend you start each practice and game with a short, medium paced jog out to centerfield and back. And though it is unusual to see muscle pulls and strains in six and seven year-olds, it is still a good idea to get them stretching at an early age because, just like with wearing helmets, it forms good habits down the road.
Finally, always have a first-aid kit on hand, lots of instant ice packs, and keep a copy of each player's medical release form with you at all games and practices in case something should happen. Your first, most important job is to make sure that you do everything possible to see that all twelve kids finish the season healthy. No matter what you do, someone on the team sometime is going to get hurt. There will be bruises and scrapes, and the truth is, those aren't necessarily bad for kids to encounter. But the avoidance of serious injuries is the foundation for a successful season..