The Dos and Don’ts of Little League Coaching
Working with children requires spontaneity, flexibility and a different skill set than you'd use for working with adults. Your best bet? Be prepared and organized with your time.
In The Bad News Bears, Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker — a disgruntled, ex-minor-league baseball player turned Little League coach who does a lot of his managing with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He tells the young players to “just shut up and get out there” and initially has a difficult time controlling the unruly bunch of kids who just can’t seem to win a game. In the end, however, Buttermaker manages to teach his team the basics of the game, and most importantly, gets the kids to believe in themselves and each other. While Buttermaker’s methods are unorthodox and, ahem, a tad inappropriate, his underlying goal of getting the kids to play as a team is a worthy one. Here’s how to do the rest.
Playing the game
Keep it active
“The baseball part is easy,” says Andrew Lang, who has coached at Fordham University and baseball camps. “The tough part is getting them to stay interested and not run wild.” Kids have shorter attention spans than adults, so keep your activities and exercises engaging and dynamic. When you need to teach a fundamental, Lang suggests breaking everything into steps and providing demonstrations. Do the demonstration yourself or get a player to demonstrate for the rest of the team. “Players are there to play, not listen to you talk,” says Eddie Gazzillo, high-school football coach and Weight Watchers Success Story (see Eddie’s story here). “No one likes waiting in line — keep your players moving.” Try splitting your team into small groups to work on different skills. Rotate each section after a few minutes. If you don’t have enough coaches to work with each station, Gazzillo recommends recruiting parents. It will help with supervision, and it’s a great way to get them involved.
Don’t forget the basics
“Players need to know the fundamentals in any sport,” says Gazzillo. Make sure your team understands how, when (and when not to) do the basics, because you can’t assume they already know them. And while we’re on fundamentals, make sure they understand the rudimentary elements of the game as a whole. “Make sure they understand the nature of the game,” says Dee Grayer, football commissioner of the American Youth Football organization. “Learning the fundamentals of the game helps them get better each day and develops them for the next level and their next coach.” On the other hand, don’t feel the need to go into great detail, especially with younger kids, because you’ll lose their attention.
Running the game
There will be a lot to get done in a short amount of time, so have a plan for the day ready before you arrive at the field. While coaching at baseball camps, Lang often spends his mornings doing drills and leaves the afternoons for practice games. Gazzillo incorporates rewards into his daily routine. “When you’re working with kids, have a plan and stick to it, but keep it simple,” Grayer says. “At the youth level, less is more.”
Don’t forget why you’re a coach
While winning is definitely a goal, teaching the kids should be more important. “As a youth coach, your job is to teach kids to play,” Grayer says. “And you also want to treat all kids equally. Everyone’s important, everyone has to play.” Ray Larocque, a Babe Ruth and Little League coach in Vermont for more than 20 years, believes that every kid should play at least two to three innings. It may be tempting to use the players who are more advanced and skilled, but your ultimate goal is to instruct everyone. You will have different levels of experience among your players, so be patient while determining everyone’s abilities. Be mindful of each child’s capabilities and try to match accordingly. Maybe every kid won’t be able to play every position, but be open to switching things up. Children grow and develop at different rates. It’s not uncommon for a smaller, less-developed player to return the following season with more skill and ability. “Kids so often play beyond their capabilities,” says Larocque. “The only way to learn is to play. There is no substitute.”
Enjoying the game
“Kids have to have fun,” Larocque says. “They need to get positive reinforcement, and you need to teach them to believe in themselves.” Practice might not seem like it should be fun to kids, but it can be if you keep the atmosphere humorous and light. Children tend to learn better when they are having a good time. Gazzillo will often give stickers to his younger players for succeeding at games. Change up the normal routine. Obstacle courses are a good way to get kids working without even realizing they are doing work.
Don’t forget that you are a role model
“Be positive, energetic and excited about your job and your players will follow,” says Gazzillo. Also, don’t be afraid to be friends with your players. “You have to bond on some individual level with your kids,” says Larocque. “If they trust you, kids will get confidence and not be afraid to try new things.” Keeping it fun, active and engaged will ultimately give you a team of better players. And pizza or ice cream after a game never hurts.
Don’t be afraid to be positive
Positive support can make all the difference when coaching. Avoid yelling and negative instruction, and don’t put your kids down if they aren’t doing something right. This is especially important when you lose a game. Losing is a part of competition, and it’s important for kids to still feel good about what they did. “Always give your kids positive support,” says Larocque. “When kids know adults believe in them, they begin to believe in themselves and they aren’t afraid to try anything.” Instead of saying, “You aren’t doing this right,” try, “Good job, but why don’t you try doing it this way?" This attitude is contagious, and the whole team will adapt to the process, and kids will encourage each other. “If someone can’t hit the ball, all they need to do is hit it once and it changes everything,” says Larocque. “If you can encourage them to have little bits of success, they will try it again and again.”