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#3: Play Ball! Life Lessons From Coaching Youth Baseball

This episode is all about baseball! As a lifelong observer of the sport, an occasional participant, and, sometimes, a coach for my son’s baseball teams, I’ve noticed that baseball — sometimes called one of America’s gifts to the world — has a lot to teach us.

Episode Transcript

This episode is all about baseball! As a lifelong observer of the sport, an occasional participant, and, sometimes, a coach for my son’s baseball teams, I’ve noticed that baseball — sometimes called one of America’s gifts to the world — has a lot to teach us.

Through baseball, we learn about sportsmanship, teamwork, and athleticism, of course, but also about life, ourselves, and how we can accomplish goals.

Baseball, America’s pastime, is definitely one of my favorite sports. In the past, I’ve written about my passion for baseball and the special memories I have that are associated with watching baseball games on TV and seeing them in person.I don’t have time to go into all of that right now — there’s far too much to tell. So I’ll save that for a different episode.

What I want to share here is how I’ve recently noticed that baseball serves as a sort of metaphor for life. It’s a microcosm: there are so many small lessons that apply in baseball that can be extrapolated into larger lessons that apply on a more universal scale.

If that sounds interesting to you, or if you have any interest in baseball at all, keep listening.

Baseball as a metaphor for life. Okay. I know that sounds a bit overstated and dramatic, but really, since I was first volunteered to coach my son’s t-ball team back in 2014, I feel like so many of the things I’ve had to tell small baseball players, in particular are just good advice in general for all people, regardless of their own athletic ability or age.

Many times, I’ve either observed something in the players’ attitude or had some sort of conversation and thought, wow, that’s good advice on and off the field. I should really write that down. So I’m taking some of the many notes I’ve scrawled on folded sheets of notepad paper or written on dirt-streaked lineup cards I’ve collected over the years, and I’m finally sharing them here.

But first, a bit of background. I never really played baseball as a kid. I did participate in many sports, including swimming, track wrestling, gymnastics, weight training, and others.And I did dabble in a few other sports, like ice hockey, fencing, soccer, volleyball, basketball, and baseball. But I never got to play baseball, as in: join a league and be on a team.

And that wasn’t such a big deal to me growing up because I was never really a fan of organized team sports in general. Oh, yeah, spoiler alert: as I’ll share in future episodes, my favorite sports are the kind that don’t involve a ball and don’t involve being on a team, but I’ll talk about that later.

When I was younger, I never felt the drive to be on a team or put on a uniform. Even when I was on a swim team, I didn’t like my teammates very much, and I hated the fact that my own performance was entirely disconnected from the performance of my team as a whole. And vice-versa, I could do poorly, but the team could do well, or I could do well, and the team could do poorly.

So again, I never really wanted to play team sports, and I didn’t really care much about baseball in particular. I had no discernible talent for it, and it was just one of many sports I tried.

But then I became a father, and that changed everything.My first two children, my daughters, weren’t really interested in sports at all.But then my wife and I had a son, and that’s where everything changed. All day, every day, all this boy could think of was hitting things with any bat-shaped object and throwing anything that remotely resembled a ball. His first word is a baby was, literally, “ball.” And to this day, he has broken more items in our house than any of our other kids combined.

I don’t even wonder anymore when I come home at the end of the day and see a broken picture frame sitting on the kitchen counter, waiting to be glued back together. I know exactly what happened: my son threw a ball in the house and broke yet another fragile item hanging on a wall or sitting on a side table.

So, essentially, all this kid has ever thought about or cared for, from before he could walk, was throwing and hitting a ball. Fortunately for him, there happens to be a sport that requires those exact skills: baseball.

When he was four and a half years old, I decided I should just embrace his passion for throwing things and enroll him in anything I could find that remotely resembled baseball.

He was so young that we only had one option: t-ball. That was fine with me. I jumped at the chance to sign him up.

Filling out the online application, I was feeling especially generous, and since I wanted to personally help mold my son into the kind of baseball player he would become someday, I checked the box that said: “I’m willing to be an assistant coach.”

And that’s where I learned my very first life lesson from baseball.

Lesson #1: Everybody’s willing to be an assistant, but almost nobody is willing to be the head coach.

Actually, you can’t even have a team if there’s no head coach. The organization that I signed my son up for was so dysfunctional that they didn’t even tell anybody prior to the first day’s practice.

When I showed up to the first practice for my son’s team, they told us: “Bad news–we don’t have a coach.”

And I was the only parent that had checked the box saying I was willing to be an assistant coach. So guess what? The very first day of t-ball, my son and his teammates looked up to me — the only adult wearing a baseball shirt — with sad, baleful eyes, waiting for me to tell them whether we were going to play or if everyone should just go home.

All the pressure was on me. The administrator I met with said, “Well, either you can be the coach, or we can just cancel the team and give everyone their money back.”

Ugh. That was frustrating. I did not want to cancel the team, but I didn’t want to be responsible for it either.

I would do almost anything to make sure my son could play. And that’s what I had to do: I had to do anything and everything in order to make that happen.

I think in life for adults, especially, a lot of us are willing to be assistants. That’s easy. We’d prefer to have the job that requires a little bit of effort where we can feel helpful yet have very little actual responsibility, and we don’t have to come up with all the answers. But here’s the cold hard truth: if nobody else is willing to lead, you have to decide if you’d rather go home or, heh, step up to the plate and take on the hard job. In my case, I had to do that. I would have preferred not to, but what were my other options? Go home and don’t play? To me, that wasn’t an option. So I said, yes. That taught me another really important lesson.

Lesson #2: You don’t have to be an expert to be a coach.

Okay. Yes, to be a professional baseball coach, you’d have to be an expert. But for something simple like t-ball or even Little League, all you really have to do is have a good attitude, be willing to learn, and stay a few steps ahead of your players.

To this day, I still don’t know all the rules of baseball. Baseball’s rules are complicated and there are so many exceptions — more exceptions, I think, than actual rules.It’s nearly impossible to memorize them all. But that didn’t stop me. And that shouldn’t stop you or anyone else from taking on a leadership role if it’s something you really care about. Again, I did not want to be the head coach. I did not care about that. I didn’t ask for it. I have no passion for being the primary coach for a whole bunch of kids that aren’t mine.

But I wanted my son to play and experience baseball and learn about teamwork and sportsmanship. So I had to change my perspective and be willing to try something new, different, and scary.When I say change my perspective, one thing I noticed very quickly is that this was actually going to be a great opportunity for me. Because he didn’t know the rules of baseball and I, didn’t — not really — we would both be learning together.

What a great way to learn the rules! That way, two of us could talk about it on a regular basis. He could ask me questions, I could ask him questions, and we could watch games together.

We could read books together. And over the years, we’ve done those things. It’s been a really fun way to get to learn the sport.

Since first becoming a t-ball coach about six years ago, I have since taken on several other leadership roles where I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I was open and honest with people about that from the very beginning.

I’ve been in situations where I even know less than the people around me, but I’ve told them: “If you’re willing to support me and help me learn, and you remember that I’m not an expert on this, I’m willing to give it a try.” In my experience, this is almost always worth doing.

Lesson #3: Don’t drop the ball!

This is, of course, probably the most overused sports metaphor of all time.He really dropped the ball on this,” or “I’m sorry for dropping the ball.”

Like many other baseball metaphors, it’s become so thoroughly embedded in our vocabulary that I doubt most people who say it really know what it means. But as a coach, I’ll tell you what it means. It’s infuriating.

My team will be out on the field, and a batter is up. He hits the ball, and my center fielder catches it. Or only appears to catch it, because while he technically captured the ball out of the air, he didn’t squeeze the glove. So the ball rolled right out of his hands, onto the ground.

Or perhaps he’ll be running backward, and he’ll trip and fall and drop the ball. And guess what? That’s not a catch.

According to Major League Baseball Rule 5.09:”The fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.” It also states: “A catch is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it.”

On a side note, let me tell you: young baseball players almost never firmly hold the ball or get, “secure possession” in their glove. It’s okay. I’m not mad about it. Well, not really.

The point here is. It’s not a catch if you drop the ball. It’s all about the follow-through. In theory, it’s very simple, and every player understands it. But in practice, it’s apparently really hard because kids drop the ball all the time. And just like the metaphor we use in life, if you drop the ball — that means people are going to be very frustrated with you.

This is a good reminder thata good effort is only really good if you follow through and complete the task. Halfway catching a ball is no good. Finish what you started. Catch the ball, and then don’t drop the ball.

Lesson #4: Don’t try to knock it out of the park.

Home runs are rare. According to a recent article I read in the Washington Post, over the past 30 years, home runs have only made up between 8.5% to 15.9% of all hits in major league baseball. That’s not a lot.

Yet some baseball players, especially younger ones, are obsessed with hitting a home run. I understand their desire. It’s a good one. Home runs are exciting to watch, and they’re electrifying when you actually hit one yourself. But baseball is about getting runs, not necessarily home runs.

And here’s the secret:a home run is still worth one point.

As a coach, I can win more games with singles or doubles consistently. And I’d prefer that the players focus on those rather than try to swing for the fences and strike out.

Of course, my perspective as a coach is biased. I think there’s more glory in winning the game than there is in hitting a home run. If you’re just one player, though, you certainly may have the opposite perspective: you want to be famous!

You want to be known as that one guy who got a home run during the second inning. But baseball is a team sport. It’s about winning the game, not taking a slow walk of glory around the diamond.

It reminds me of when I was on a wrestling team in middle school. Our coach used to tell us, over and over again, that he’d prefer that we run out the clock during our matches, racking up as many points as possible. That is what would help our team win.But all we cared about as the wrestlers was winning our individual matches as soon as possible.

Pin your opponent in 38 seconds? Yes, please! That was our personal goal.

But our coach wanted to see all of us go all four and a half minutes, racking up point after point after point and never go for a pin. I now see his perspective. And I didn’t understand it. And I hated it at the time. But he was right.

Pinning your opponent in less than a minute? That’s exciting. That’s like a home run. But it doesn’t help your team win games.

If you’re a team player, you should be focused on helping your team win. And the best way to do that, in my opinion, is getting consistent singles and doubles, rather than trying to take the risk of going for a home run and missing.

Lesson #5: You have no idea what’s going to happen when you get up to the plate.

This is a concept that keeps repeating itself, and I see over and over again. These days, my son is ten years old, and he’s playing real baseball where the kids play and pitch.

No one is particularly talented yet — you can see potential, but none of them are incredibly amazing.

Not only are the runners not so talented, the pitchers are not so great either. And so you can have a batter who is really bad at hitting balls step up to the plate. But whether he gets a run or not is not only dependent on his own skill but also the skill of the pitcher. I can send a player up to bat who is terrible at batting, but I know if the pitcher doesn’t have such a great track record, there’s a chance he can still get a run by walking to first if the pitcher throws four balls. This happens in major league baseball, too.

I think the big takeaway here is no matter how confident you are in your own game, in baseball, like in life, sometimes your ability to achieve a certain goal has a serious element of luck to it.

Sometimes in life, we get to walk to first. It’s not exciting. It doesn’t give us the fame and glory that perhaps we’re seeking.It’s not nearly as thrilling as hitting a home run, but if you get to first, you’ve already accomplished the first step. You’re almost halfway there.

I try to keep that in mind in my own life, when I’m not feeling so confident about my own skills. Woody Allen supposedly said: “80% of success is showing up,” and I would say baseball proves that to be true. You never know what’s going to happen when you get up to the plate, no matter how great or how poorly you’ve been batting recently.

Lesson #6: Don’t coach from the stands or the dugout.

If there’s one thing I could change about the culture that we have in baseball, at least in little league, it’s the fact that everybody feels free to give their opinion to all the players on the field. Always.

As a rule, when I’m not the coach, if my son’s on the field, I keep my mouth shut because it’s none of my business. If I’m an observer, I don’t have any particularly unique insight into how he ought to be playing.

And let me tell you, as a coach, one of the most annoying things in the world is trying to give instruction to a player, only to hear a parent contradict that from the stands.

Parents, with all due respect, please shut up.

But I can’t just pick on parents too. Another thing that really surprised me is that baseball players, at least younger ones, try to coach each other as well.

Sometimes I’ve got a pitcher on the mound, and he’s getting ready to throw the ball, and infielders are barking orders at him. That just chaps my hide.

A pitcher’s job is hard enough already trying to put the ball in the strike zone. But getting conflicting accounts from various people across the field who aren’t pitchers is just ridiculous. And it’s very distracting.

I have a rule when I’m coaching, and that is: don’t tell the pitcher how to pitch. That’s my job, not yours.

Even giving what you might think is helpful or kind feedback from the stands or the field isn’t helpful.

Okay. So if the pitcher strikes someone out, great! Cheer and clap. That’s fine. But giving specific feedback about “you threw it too high” or “too far to the left” — most of the time, a pitcher is completely aware of how he flubbed a particular pitch, and your comments or criticism will only serve to confuse or distract him. Don’t tell the pitcher how to pitch. And if you’re in the dugout or the stands, keep quiet.

When I see pitchers turning around, looking back at the shortstop, saying, “What?” Trying to figure out how he should improve his pitch based on the shortstop’s opinion, I put a stop to this.

And you should too. If you see people in your life who are telling you what to do, try to tune it out, especially if they are people who have never been in your situation before.

Lesson #7: When base running, don’t look back.

One of the most confusing habits that young baseball players have is when they’ll hit the ball and start running to first base and turn their body to look around, to try and figure out where the ball is. The unintended consequence of this, of course, is that either they don’t run in a straight line, or they slow down.

They’re getting distracted about something that’s totally irrelevant. And especially when you’re running to first base, when you can run straight through it, there is no need to turn around or look back.

Yes, at some point, you’re going to have to decide whether you run straight through first base or go on to second. But the way that kids do it is really bizarre: they run forward with their head swiveled almost completely behind them, rather than using their peripheral vision. It makes them run slow and awkward, and they become almost hesitant to get to first base because they’re unsure of where the ball is and what’s going to happen next.

I see this when they’re running home too. Because if you’re running home, you’re not really going to turn around and look back because home is your final destination. There’s no reason to try to determine where the ball is and how quickly it’s going to get to home base. All you need to do is just run as fast as you can. Looking straight forward at your goal, which is touching or sliding to home base.

I see this a lot outside of baseball too. Sometimes people will set a goal for themselves, and they’ll decide I want to accomplish the following task, but the whole way they’re doing it, they’re always looking behind them. They’re asking questions about, “Am I doing the right thing?”

I can sympathize with this because I’m filled with self-doubt, but it’s a really bad habit to set a goal and then start working toward it and then get so full of self-doubt halfway through that you slow down or turn around and look back and start to wonder whether you should have gone down this path or not. Once you’re halfway there, keep going! You can determine what to do next after you’ve reached that goal. In the case of baseball, you can decide to run to second base after you’ve touched first base.

But if you’re so distracted that you can’t even get to first base second base, isn’t an option. So don’t think about it.

Number eight. Focus on where you are right now and doing the best job you can in this position, in this inning.One of the more irritating questions I get from kids. is, “Hey coach, what’s the score?”

It confuses me why they’re worrying about this. Especially because most of the time, I have no idea what the score is, and I don’t care. I don’t remember. If I knew what it was last inning, I’ve forgotten since then because I’m busy worrying about this inning.

There’s a certain mindset that young kids have — and hopefully, we grow out of it by the time we get to adults — which is always thinking about the next thing. When you’re in the middle of an inning and you’ve got two runners on base, and you’re up to bat. You should not be wondering, “What’s the score?” You should be wondering, “How can I hit this ball, which is about to head my way right now, and then drop the bat and run to first base?” That’s it. Obsessively focusing on the score of the game can make you lose focus.

I tell kids: “Focus on your job right now. We’ll worry about that later.”

This same kind of attitude also shows itself in other ways, like when kids will say, “Hey, coach, can I pitch next inning?”

I understand that little boys get bored, and then they start thinking, “Well, it would be more fun if I was pitching or something like that.”

But it’s really annoying to me when I’ve taken the time to set up a lineup that I think is going to be strong, only to have somebody ask me halfway through practice or halfway through a game, “Hey, can we change it? I don’t like where you put me.”

If you want to play a different position, do a good job at the one you’re at right now!

This is a lesson my dad taught me many, many years ago: which is that if you want to do something else, do a really good job where you’re at and then ask for a change. But what happens with kids a lot is they do a really bad job where they’re at and then ask for a change, thinking that there’ll be better doing something else.

Here’s the classic scenario.Kids that are put in the outfield are frequently put there because they’re not really good at playing baseball. Please note, I’m not saying being an outfielder is unimportant or that people who play in the outfield professionally or not as good as the others. What I am saying is when you’ve got nine or ten little kids of varying degrees of skill, the kids with the bad attitudes and the poor work ethic — you’re going to send them far away from the action. In the case of t-ball or a little league team,that’s going to be in the outfield.

Then one of the kids from the outfield walks off the outfield during practice and comes to the dugout and says, “Hey coach, I don’t like playing on the outfield. It’s boring out there. Can I be a better instead?”

Sometimes, because they’re kids, I indulge them, and I say yes. but what I want them to learn is that there’s a reason I put them out there. And if they impress me by doing a great job, staying alert, holding their glove and keeping their eye on the ball the entire time, and being ready when the ball actually comes their way… Yes, frequently, I’ll be very interested in letting them play shortstop or second base or whatever else they want.

But the kids who just can’t pay attention to the game, who end up singing, or dancing, or lying down, staring at the sky? I’m not going to put them in the infield. I can’t count on them. I need them to prove that they’re willing to do what they think may be boring, but it’s really important for our team in order to reward them with something a little more exciting.

It’s similar to business where you wouldn’t ask your boss for a raise if you’re doing a bad job and say, “Well, I’ll do a better job if you pay me more.” Well, okay. If you’re a teenager, you might say something like that. But adults who’ve been in the workforce for any length of time know that the best way to get a raise is to do a really good job at your current level. And then you may be rewarded with a raise or a promotion, not the other way around. What’s true in baseball is true in life. If you want to get ahead, get really good at where you are right now. Then there may be a greater opportunity in the future.

Lesson #9: Baseball is all about attitude.

I am happy to work with a player that doesn’t have great skills but has an excellent attitude. Those are my favorite players. The ones I struggle with the most are players with mediocre or perhaps even great skills but a bad attitude. If I’m able to pick and choose who’s on my team, attitude to me is way more important than skill. Skill can be taught; attitude cannot.

I can’t speak for every coach out there, but let me tell you when I’m choosing the lineup the day before a game, I’m absolutely thinking of who to put in their preferred position based on attitude. Not necessarily skill.

Just because someone’s a left-hander and therefore has a physical advantage for playing first base does not mean if I have one left-handed kid on my team, I’m going to put him on first base, especially if his attitude isn’t great.

The same thing goes with pitching. If I have a kid who’s particularly talented at pitching but argues with the umpire, I’m not putting him in as a pitcher.

I like to remind myself and the players that we are part of a team. This is a team sport, and we are all team members. We win as a team, and we lose as a team. At least for me, I do not want talented jerks on my team.

I would prefer to have average but teachable players with great attitudes who are willing to learn and who are willing to try things that they may not know, or they may not be excited about. I can work with that. I can’t work with a bad attitude, no matter how much skill is attached to it.

here are many other aspects of life where this could apply: marriage, coworkers, employees, family, neighbors… I’m willing to bet that the people in your life who mean the most to you, whose company you enjoy the most and want to be around, are not necessarily the smartest, most powerful or most brilliant people, you know. They’re probably the people who have good attitudes, who treat you with respect, who are fun to be around.

The same goes in sports. If I’m putting nine players on a field, I want them to be a team of cohesive players who get along and have good attitudes, and enjoy working with each other.

Number 10: I could go on all day talking about lessons I’ve learned from watching or coaching baseball or just being associated with the sport, but I won’t because I’ll be here all day.So here’s my last observation.

Lesson #10: Run! Don’t walk!

“There is no walking in baseball.” That’s a mantra that the players on my teams have heard many, many times over. Seriously, there is no walking in baseball! There’s one person who gets to walk, and that’s when you get to walk to first base, that’s it. Everyone else should be running all the time.

A lot of times, at least with kids, if a ball is coming their way and it’s a grounder, they’re going to stand there and watch as it slowly rolls toward them.

This drives coaches crazy because we’re watching runners on base advancing while our players are just standing there waiting for the ball to come to them.

If you’re in the outfield, your job is to pick up the ball as fast as you can and throw it to whichever baseman is covering a base that’s about to get a runner on it. It’s very simple.

So if you’re standing there watching the ball slowly roll toward you, you’re doing a bad job at your position.

A great player will charge the ball, running up to it, to get there as fast as possible. Pick it up, turn around step and throw it.

But I have to tell the players to do this all the time. It’s human nature. I guess we just wait for things to come to us. But in a tight game, being eager enough to run up to the ball and pick it up and throw it can be enough to shave off a few seconds, which could mean the difference between the other team getting runs or you getting out. And that could be the difference between winning or losing a game.

Similarly, I make determinations about a player’s attitude based on how he takes the field.If I tell a player he’s playing center field, and he slowly walks with his head down. Dragging one foot in front of the other.

I’ll remember that next time he asks for a choice position.

I want to see pep. I want to see zeal. I want to see this player run to his position, and turn around quickly and be ready to play.

Again, I can’t speak for everybody. But as a manager or a business owner, I’m absolutely certain that if I have to make determinations based on who’s the best suited for a particular job.I’m going to reward the one who’s most eager for it. The people who just slowly acquiesce to your demands or assignments you’ve given them? Those are not people who are going to be promoted soon, and they’re not people I really want to have around me. I want a team full of excited people who are ready for a challenge who run to their assignment because they can’t wait to get started.

A lively, alert player is going to be a better player, especially for a position like outfield where people are notoriously bored, standing there for hours at a time.

If I’d send you to the outfield, I want to see you run out there. And when it’s time to switch it up, you’re going to run back.

That makes you a better player and it makes us a better team.

So, as I said, I have a lot more to share, but I’ll stop at 10.

Baseball is a great sport. It’s full of life lessons for players, coaches, and parents. And I enjoy participating in baseball in any way I can: watching, playing or coaching.

I especially appreciate the lessons it’s hammering home for me in my own life, and also the new lessons that it’s teaching my son as he becomes a better player and a better person. Thanks for listening!

If you liked this episode of Micron (or even if you didn’t), let me know! I’m always open to feedback, including questions, comments, and episode suggestions. Send an email to feedback@micronpodcast.com. You can also leave a review on Apple Podcasts here, which would be super-helpful as I try to grow the reach of the show. Thanks!