By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC
I have three boys and a girl, in that order. After coaching boy's baseball for ten years, adjusting to little girls softball was, well, an adjustment. With three older brothers, my daughter didn't need much instruction, but one little girl, Zoe, tested my coaching ability more than any player had.
I walked into the first year of girls softball, (ages 11-12) thinking that it would be pretty much like coaching boys of the same age, only with pony-tails. That thinking went out the window when, at the first practice, half the girls came dressed like they were going to a friend's house to play. Instead of sliding shorts and knee pads, several wore thin, short-shorts and one even donned a skirt! I had planned on covering baserunning and, by extension, sliding, but that game-plan changed when I saw the attire.
After getting the girls to dress properly, it was still a challenge to make them slide. One girl in particular, Zoe, the most adorable little blonde-haired, blue-eyed sweetheart, just couldn't force herself to go into the base on the ground.
One game early in the season, Zoe made it to third and represented a critical run in the game. She was my least confident baserunner so getting her this far was a minor miracle. Their catcher was letting a lot of pitches get by, but I held out nearly no hope of being able to get Zoe to capitalize by scoring on a passed ball. As the pitcher delivered to our batter, I coached Zoe and got her to take a bigger lead-off after every pitch. She'd then promptly scamper back to the base where it was safe. I knew I wouldn't send her home unless the perfect situation arose when she'd be certain to make it easily - standing up.
Then, it happened. The ball got past the catcher and was rolling slowly to the corner of the backstop. I instantly recognized that by the time the catcher would be able to retrieve the ball, Zoe would be able to cross the plate. I yelled to her to "Go! Go!" She took off for home and it was obvious she was going to make it.
But halfway there, she stopped. She stopped momentarily and pulled up her sliding knee pad. Then she continued to the plate, arriving at the same time as the pitcher and the ball. It was close, but she was out.
I couldn't believe what I'd just seen. As she came into the dugout I called her over. "Zoe," I asked. "Did, did you stop halfway to home and pull up your knee pad?" She looked up at me sweetly, without the slightest hesitation or hint of remorse and said, "Yeah. Sorry."
So we continued to work on it. One of our CoachDeck drills, "Two Team Slide," was extremely helpful getting girls to get used to sliding. Fast-forward to the playoffs and we're in the semi-finals against a team we'd only beaten once in three tries. They had the lead by one in the last inning and Zoe was on second with two outs. If I could get her to third, I knew there was a chance she could score, even on an infield hit. A pitch went in the dirt and I exhorted her to run. The catcher pounced on it faster than I'd anticipated and made a perfect throw. It was going to be close. I frantically yelled for her to "Get down! Get down!"
Zoe not only slid, she hit the base so hard that she completely dislodged it from its peg. She was safe. Two pitches later a ground ball, which could have been the final out, was bobbled in the infield and Zoe scored the tying run. A steal and a base hit later, we won the game in a walk-off fashion. Zoe got the game ball for her slide. I got the reward of a lifetime as a coach. I learned (again) that the true measure of a successful coach is not necessarily in wins and losses, but in maximizing the potential of each player on the team. I believe I got the most out of Zoe. I know she got the most out of me.
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