By Dr. Thomas P. Johnson, M.D.
Parents and managers frequently will ask, “How do I get the youngster to care?” Children feel free to care when they have the self-confidence that makes them think they have a chance for some satisfaction in the activity. You help a person care by increasing his sense of confidence. Start by praising the small successes and his efforts.
One area that perhaps some people have not thought about as a potential problem is the team clown. I’m not referring to one of your better players who clowns around, but the child whose main source of recognition is in being the oddball or clown. The manager should set the example for the way the other kids deal with him because a youngster like this is having troubles or he wouldn’t resort to being the clown for attention.
Don’t be too quick to laugh at his jokes and pranks. Take him seriously. It’s easy to slip into a pattern of using nicknames that the other children use for the overweight, awkward or slow child. If they are all calling him “Fatso” it’s easy for the manager to use that name too. It’s better if he doesn’t. Even if it looks like Fatso doesn’t mind and the youngsters say, “Oh, he doesn’t care, we’ve always called him that and he just laughs,” don’t believe he doesn’t care. He’s get a first name or another name that’s not humiliating. Use it and maybe you can, by example, encourage the players to drop that nickname “Fatso.”
Managers, parents, all adults who are close to a child and his team should keep a sense of perspective. Little League baseball is a game for the children to enjoy and not something to brought up before the Security Council of the UN. It is when adults let their own wishes to succeed become tangled with the achievement of an individual or a particular team that there is a danger of too much psychological pressure. The adult who is bitter or angry after an error or a loss should consider helping the Little League program in some other capacity than as a manager or coach. The danger is that he will fill the players with an undue sense of guilt, failure, and shame. If you can’t walk away from the losses, then get into some other role – sell the popcorn or raise the money. Those vicarious needs for success that many of us have in sports as we follow a particular team are better kept with our favorite pro-team. If we’re unhappy with Johnny Bench or Tom Seaver, it isn’t going to bother them too much, but if we’re unhappy with a player on our team or our child, there’s dangerous pressure.
The key to the psychological impact of the Little League experience is set by the manager. Place the emphasis on the effort made and not the result. You can praise a player for his faithful attendance at practice, for his attitude and not just his batting and fielding percentage. This approach helps build children who keep trying, who don’t coast when they are ahead, who won’t give up when they are behind or defeated, who won’t feel the pressure to go beyond the bounds of the rules and good sportsmanship to win.
Make It A Good Experience
One of my favorite coaches is John Wooden, UCLA basketball coach. He expresses the kind of philosophy I’d recommend for all coaches. He asks that his players go out and do their best, then win or lose, he wants them to walk off the court with their heads up. They ought to feel good about the job they have done out there regardless of the score.
I remember, as some of you may, the interview that he gave after a loss to Houston that ended a long victory string. I’d seen him in many interviews after winning. Here was a chance to see him after losing a big one. He was the same. I thought if this is what he does with his players in the locker room, then the players on his team are going to have a good experience regardless of how far they go in basketball.
The old, “It isn’t whether you’ve won or lost, it’s how you played the game” is really true. Rudyard Kipling, in his poem “IF,” had these lines that to me have always meant a great deal in terms of dealing with wins and losses. There’s a part that goes, “if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…” That’s what they are – imposters and the manager who understands that gives a child the best possible kind of Little League experience.
Dr. Johnson was consultant to the Public School, Department of Probation, the United States Navy Hospital at San Diego, California. Widely recognized for his work in the field of child psychiatry, Dr. Johnson graduated from the University of Minnesota and Medical School. He interned at Santa Barbara County Hospital, served his residency and Fellowship in psychiatry at Menninger School, Topeka, Kansas. Dr. Johnson has ample personal credentials for his observations — in addition to his professional background — having participated as a Little Leaguer at St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and later serving as coach and umpire.