By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC
In my previous article I discussed a youth league which had been presented a proposal for declining numbers. This proposal recommended decreasing the emphasis on recreational or, House, baseball in favor of a bigger emphasis on Travel.
Why do kids leave baseball for other sports? Ninety-eight percent of the time it comes down to whether or not they are having fun. I break the experience into three categories: Success, Failure and Activity. Here is what I mean.
First, Success: If someone is good at something, they naturally want to do it more. Let’s take the example of the coach who runs the most boring practice in the world, throwing 90 minutes of BP. Of the twelve kids on the field, we will imagine that ten of them can barely hit the ball out of the infield. But there are two who, when they get their turn, drill several over the fence. All twelve players participated in the same activity, but for only two of them was it much fun. So, guess which two are going to have any desire to graduate to Travel ball where there is more work required, more emphasis on winning, and less on having fun?
I drove by my local Little League field this past Sunday and glanced over at their fall baseball clinic going on. The league hired an outside baseball instruction company to run the camp. What did I see? A young coach, probably a former college player, on the mound throwing batting practice. The boy stationed at first was laying down on top of the base. Several outfielders were on their knees in the grass. A few players were in the infield trying to be ready for a ball to be hit their way, but pitch after pitch went by the batter with no contact. Can you imagine any of those kids getting in their parents’ car after practice and saying they wanted to come back?
So, unless practices are made to be fun for everyone, only those select few who know they are well-above-average on the talent and ability scale will want to continue. This is why our company, CoachDeck, is so proud of what we do. Our decks of cards contain 52 drills that can each be made into a fun game kids love. Coaches who use CoachDeck do not stand on the mound and throw BP. Every drill is a competition, every player is active. And, most importantly, within these micro-competitions every kid has a chance to do something to help his team. He has multiple opportunities each practice to be successful.
So, how about Failure? Do you know why there is no rec/house youth tennis? Or golf, or track? Those are individual sports. Kids who play those sports are willing and equipped to go one-on-one and potentially fail/lose. Most youngsters are not wired like that. However, baseball is the only team sport that is also an individual sport. It is a failure game. Kids strike out. They make errors. Each time they do, the spotlight is on them alone and it hurts. Failure is not as big an issue in soccer or lacrosse because you’re out there sort of hidden within your team and mistakes are not as glaring. So, as coaches, how do we react to those errors and strikeouts? Are we magnifying by yelling things like, “You’ve got to make that play!” or, “That ball was up here! Why did you swing?” or are we minimizing them by saying “Good effort,” and “Hey guys, pick him up”?
In both above examples coaching makes a huge difference. So, what kind of tools, like CoachDeck, are being provided to the coaches? I am sure most leagues run coaching clinics. But most coaching clinics miss the mark entirely because they focus on the wrong things. I hear time and again, “We have the high school coach run the clinic,” or, “We have lots of former pro players who run our clinics.” That is great if I aspire to be a professional coach and teach players the proper launch angle. But clinics for coaches of grade school-age children should focus more on how to communicate with a youngster, how to have fun at practice, how to make sure every kid feels like he contributed and is valued as a team member. Some basic fundamentals can be taught for sure, but they can learn advanced skills later.
Do we monitor the practices being conducted? If I were still a board member of my league and witnessed what I saw Sunday, that company holding the camp would be fired on the spot. Of course, we cannot fire every volunteer coach who runs a mundane practice, but we can go out on the field with them and help them. I am wondering how much time is being spent assisting these volunteer coaches after handing out the equipment bags.
Third is Activity. This really is just an extension of the two points above because it, again, has to do with coaching and fun. In sports like soccer or lacrosse, one does not need to work as hard for kids to have fun. Every player is going to get lots of what coaches call, “touches”, which is when the ball comes to them. It is just built into these games. Lots of activity. But in baseball and softball it is possible a player could show up at practice and rarely move and never get near the ball. Making sure this does not happen at practice is mandatory for a youth coach. But even in games where we cannot control how often a player has a ball hit to them, a good coach is constantly communicating with everyone, especially those playing positions not prone to see much action. “Ready position, Tommy!” “Ball is coming to you, Jack!” “Casey, two steps toward the line!” It is not that hard to be an engaging coach who keeps his players mentally active. There are only nine players on the field. But some coaches never talk to anyone but the pitcher and catcher.
House, or Rec baseball can be about fun and winning. It can be about fun and improvement. My players knew we were serious about winning each game. They also all had a goofy nickname. My team was told early on our goal was “hardware” at the end of the season. Yet I coached seven seasons in Majors and each year, every player who was eligible to return the next season did.
So maybe leagues should look at creating a new board position to go along with the President, Safety Officer, Treasurer, etc. How about a “Director of Retention” which would really be a “Director of Fun”? His or her primary role would be to ensure that all kids in the league are enjoying the experience, not just a few. That all players want to return to play the next season, not a percentage.
One of the biggest challenges this new board member would have would be finding ways to make playing baseball “cool” again. Because right now other sports are winning that battle. And they are winning not because they are inherently more fun or more cool. We’ve already addressed that. The big three (or four if you count hockey) should have a huge advantage in this regard. The other sports are deemed cooler only because more kids are playing them, and kids want to do what is popular.
One thing our league did every year was host a night at a Big-League game. We contacted the Padres, they gave us group rates in a certain section, and we sold hundreds of tickets. Kids wore their uniforms and ran around the park together; the team gave us recognition on the scoreboard and went out of their way to put lots of players up on the jumbotron. The next day, at all the grade schools in our district, I have to believe that every Little Leaguer who had gone to that game bragged to anyone else who would listen about how awesome it was. And the kids who were not enrolled went home and asked if they could play next season just so they could go to that game.
If logistics make it impossible for you to bring your organization to a Major League game, there are lots of minor league parks just as fun. Or create a relationship with the high school coach and arrange league afternoons there.
Mid-season carnivals are not only great ways to get kids together having fun away from the diamond, but also can be terrific fundraisers.
Figure out ways to incentivize kids to watch baseball on TV. They will want to emulate what the Big Leaguers do.
Host “League Days” at local grade schools and get kids doing fun skills games like the MLB’s Pitch, Hit and Run Competition.
The year-end surveys we do should be for the players to tell us how they feel, instead of the parents.
I am a huge believer that leagues playing with “Titled” or “Keeper” players have much greater retention.
Create a “Wall of Fame” either at the field or online. Devote a section of your website to honor long-term volunteers, to archive upper-division champions. Make it a big deal that a guy or gal coached for eight years, publish the rosters of championship teams. People love recognition and a young coach who sees this will aspire to having his name in lights some day.
Be creative. Work at it like the future of your league depends on it…because it does.
And, it could be, no matter what we do, there will continue to be attrition in our baseball numbers. Sometimes demographics play a role as communities age. The ubiquity of video games does not help. Major League Baseball is presenting a product that is not as attractive to the younger generation and we cannot change that. There are just more options to entertain kids these days than even five years ago. But if we purely want more numbers, more kids playing, which is what we should be seeking, moving away from the most inclusive version of youth baseball, House or Rec, into Travel is not the answer.
Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org