The following article is the 9th inning chapter in a new book Cal Ripkin Jr. is writing. It provides some interesting concepts about how to keep the game of baseball fun for the kids. I encourage you to read it. I also encourage you to work with your coach to implement the positive ideas and eliminate the negative ones we see employed by coaches and by parents.
Finally, work with your coach to make improvements. Help him or her in a constructive manner to make the game fun for the kids. We are not all perfect and it takes a lot of effort and patience to make improvements but the results are worth the effort. Pitch in and help the coaches. I promise, you will enjoy the experience.
President, Springfield Babe Ruth
9th Inning: Lessons Learned
Winning and Losing
Iím on the corporate speaking circuit now, and when I give a speech I always identify the principles to which I aspired in baseball and try to draw a parallel to the business world. I’m getting better at making that connection between sports and business. One of the topics that I discuss is the value of winning and losing.
Obviously everyone wants to be a winner, but for a lot of people the focus on winning is so great that it clouds their perspective. Learning takes place regardless of the outcome. Some would say that you learn more from your failures and your losses than you do from winning. That may be true, but the most important thing to remember with regard to youth sports is that winning should come second to the development of the kids.
Thereís a time and a place for playing to worry about winning and employing strategy, and that’s when everyone has learned enough of the skills to compete. As I go through the experience of watching my own kids develop in sports Iíve witnessed many examples of coaches and parents who are blinded by winning to the point where winning takes precedence over personal development, teaching, sportsmanship, and having fun.
I offer my opinion as a warning of sorts. I hope everyone who reads this will take a harder look in the mirror and rethink the purpose and the value of youth sports. I recently read a book called Why Johnny Hates Sports, by Fred Engh, that hits this issue right between the eyes. Itís well-written in a style thatís easy to read and understand. I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone involved in youth sports, and even if you’re not involved in youth sports I think it has tremendous value.
Winning and losing are always going to be topics to deal with when teaching sports. Once we’ve adopted the right philosophy, we have to manage the process, and that means dealing with certain behaviors and situations. How about the kid whoís so competitive and who wants to win so badly that when things go wrong he throws a fit? How do you deal with this? Well, I have a little insight on this one. I was that kid who threw fits. I have a son, Ryan, who acts just like I did when I was his age. Itís funny how things can come back to haunt you as a parent.
Weíve all witnessed how kids react to winning and losing. Depending on their makeup some kids accept things and move on and others have a tougher time understanding their feelings. I use the words understanding their feelings because to me thatís precisely the issue. Kids learn how to catch, throw, shoot, or pass, and as coaches we understand that their successes and mistakes are all part of development. We donít seem to look at behavior issues the same way, but I think we should. When a kid throws a fit on the sports field itís rarely about his behavior. Itís more about a reaction to something within the sport that he doesn’t have the capacity or experience to deal with. It could be frustration caused by his own lack of success, it could be frustration caused by his team’s lack of success. Thereís a good chance that itís frustration of some sort. Thatís the mental side of sports. We need to teach the kids how to be good winners and how to cope with their failures and their losses.
My parents and my brothers and sister had to deal with me growing up. I was the worst winner (I loved to brag) and the all-time worst loser (talk about fits and tantrums). I was a pretty good athlete so I won a lot (bad for everyone around me) and I didnít have to face losing that often. But when I did lose at something, boy, did I get it from all sides. And I didnít react too well. Over time and with a lot of guidance and support from my parents I was able to cope with winning and losing much better. I still donít like losing, but Iíve learned how to deal with it.
If you were to ask me, ďHow did my parents help me?,Ē I couldnít exactly lay it out for you. I know they were patient. I know they explained things well. I know they gave me tools to deal with my feelings. But I canít duplicate their blueprint exactly. I can, however, tell you the lessons I learned when my son began to act like I did when I was a kid.
When Ryan started to play sports it was obvious that he had an incredible passion for competition. But when things didn’t go well he would get mad, cry, pout, and want to run away. My inclination was to be tough with him. I made the mistake of getting a little angry, and I said things like, ďJust suck it up,Ē or, ďThatís not the way we act.Ē I guess I was reacting to my own feelings of embarrassment for his behavior. But once I thought about it I realized that it wasnít about me. It was about Ryan and his ability-or, better yet, his lack of Ability-to deal with his powerful feelings.
Once I realized what was going on I developed a strategy to help him. I waited for a time to talk to him when things were quiet; when he was calm and away from the ball field. I started off by asking him why he thought he behaved like he did. He said, ďI donít know. I just get so worked up that I canít control myself.Ē I told him that I understood because I was the same way when I was his age. He liked hearing that. I told him that his feelings were a special gift that means that he cares more than others. That gift is a strong force thatís going to be helpful to you, I said, but you have to learn how to manage it. You need to use it for good things. You need to channel it back into your sport and let it help you play better. For instance, when you get mad, instead of throwing a fit, use that anger to help you swing or play defense. You can feel how strong it is when it starts to come out. Try to make that power work for you when youíre playing.
Now this sounds good, but it doesnít completely fix the problem. This is just the first step in a long process. Iíve laid the groundwork for Ryan to start to figure out how he can use his feelings for an advantage. Iím going to be there to help remind him when he gets overwhelmed, but the important thing is that as he learns the physical part of the game heíll be growing mentally and emotionally as well.
I believe that these strong, competitive feelings are a positive. Iíve talked to a lot of parents who see them as a huge negative. They would like nothing better than for their child to try to suppress those feelings. They see it as a behavior flaw. But passion is a great thing in athletics. Iíll take the player who cares and has that fire inside every time over the player you have to motivate and try to get interested. It all starts at the grass roots.
Making Things Fun
Sometimes itís a simple matter of making things fun. Hereís an example: One day Ryanís soccer team was handed a crushing defeat. Both teams played really well and it was a close game. Itís the kind of game that the parents canít even watch because they agonize right along with their kids. At one point I shouted out a little encouragement to Ryan and his teammates after the other team went ahead. I said, ďHey, thatís all right. You guys are playing great. Keep it up.Ē I got a really bad look from my boy. Later I found out from him that I had cheered at the wrong time. He took it as if I were rooting for the other team. (I told you I have my hands full, didnít I?)
The game ended with Ryanís team losing by that one goal. After the game Ryan wouldnít talk to me and it was obvious to all in attendance that he wasnít happy. In fairness to Ryan there were many members of his team who were unhappy and pouting. At that point I came up with an idea. I walked to the middle of the field with a soccer ball and punted it straight up in the air as high as I could. When the ball came down I had one kid come over. I did it again and then five kids were around me. By the third time most all the kids on Ryanís team had come over. Ryan joined in on the fun and a pickup game broke out between the parents and their kids. We played for about a half an hour. I had a blast, and the other parents did as well. You know by now that the kids had a great time, too.
What I discovered that day was that there were no words in the English language that could have produced those results. It was amazing how quickly Ryan and the rest of the kids moved on to another activity and forgot about the tough loss. It made for a wonderful ride home and all we invested was thirty minutes of having fun with our kids. The lesson here is that communication with our kids can take on many forms. We related to the kids this time by thinking and acting like them.
Hereís another example: Iíve observed a cool thing watching my little manís team during the past two summers: They just love to run around the bases. When the team wins, they celebrate by running around the bases. Before and after practice they run around the bases. I thought I would take advantage of this joy and apply it in two more places. At the start of every practice we warm up with what we call Big League Baserunning. I introduced the exact spring training ritual we used with the Orioles. It accomplishes a few things: First, it serves as a warm-up to get the body ready for practice. Second, itís a teaching opportunity. It also burns off some of the excess energy that boys generally have, and it puts them in a little better learning mode. Finally, it can simply be a lot of fun.
The second application for running the bases was put in place after a loss. After witnessing the joy the kids displayed running the bases after a win, I thought it would serve as a good way to move on after a loss. Kids can recover quickly simply by giving them something fun to do. I talked to the coach and he agreed to give it a try. Most of the time after a loss we would try to have a meeting. I believe this happens because this is a parentís or a coachís attempt to console and support. Our kids feel bad, so we better get them together and talk to them. I believe a meeting after a loss tends to add fuel to the fire of their sad feelings. All it really does is remind them why theyíre sad. Instead, change the activity. Change the subject. Run the bases and have fun. Iím proud to announce that it worked. We all had better car rides home after the games. The lessons from the game can be discussed at a later time when the kids have cooled down.
In a 2003 interview with Sports Illustrated I talked about the 10-year-old athlete. Since my son Ryan is 10 years old the writer thought it would be a good idea to get my perspective on the subject. I basically said that at Ryanís age winning should not be the focus, that teaching and learning how to play the game should be the primary concern. It was a wonderfully positive article and was well-received by most parents and coaches. It did, however, prompt a skeptical response that was printed in the Letters section a few weeks later. The letter essentially said that on one hand Cal is saying that winning doesnít matter but on the other hand he has a whole league named after him that crowns a champion of a 9-10-year-old World Series. The letter went on to say that it sounds like Cal is speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
When I first was shown this response in SI by my friends I shrugged it off. As Dad would always say, Thatís just his opinion; it doesnít make it fact. It was obvious that the reader doesnít know about our goals for our league and our World Series. But then it hit me: This was less about me and more about the readerís definitionóand probably his own experiencesóof youth baseball and tournaments.
It was obvious that this reader saw tournaments as a negative thing. That was my first reaction as well. One could say that theyíre all about winning. But do they have to be all about winning? A game ultimately is about winning, so does that make it a negative as well? What if we change our way of looking at games and tournaments? What if we define tournaments and games as simply the structure in which baseball is played? After all, itís not the tournaments or the games themselves that tell us how we should play them. Itís the people who create them. These people are the coaches, the parents, the league administrators, the event organizers, and even the players themselves. Itís all of us. We provide the direction. We can decide how we want the games and the tournaments to be played. We can emphasize teaching, sportsmanship, and teamwork if we want to.
Talk about a lesson learned. I recently learned a lesson about providing the right direction as it applied to my home basketball games. Basketball has always been my way of staying in shape in the off-season and it continues to be a sport I enjoy on a regular basis. Since I retired from baseball I guess it would be safe to say that I pour my competitive juices into basketball. My friends and I play at my gym about three times a week. Over the years the talent level has continued to rise and the games have become very competitive. I liked that very much but at one point I started to notice that there were a lot more hard fouls (intentional as well) and a lot more arguing. It had become a matter of winning at all costs. I let the behavior go for a while, thinking that this was just the byproduct of having better players. But the games became a lot less fun. One day I got mad and basically turned off the lights and said, ďThe games are over. Go home.Ē
I blamed myself, though, for not providing the direction to the players. This was my gym (I was, in effect, the tournament director) and I hadnít communicated my expectations. The game governed itself and it became something undesirable. I scheduled a game about a week later and this time I communicated what I expected. This isnít club style basketball, I said, where survival is all about winning and staying on the court. This is about playing hard, playing fair, and ultimately about having fun. I was the tournament director laying down the law for a successful tournament. Those games are now a success.
Tournaments can be a lot like my pickup basketball games. If you donít identify the purpose and direction of the tournament you wonít get the desired results. When I was first exposed to the tournament structure with Ryan I didnít like it at all. He was 7 or 8 and the tournaments provided additional games for his team. It seemed like there was a tournament every other weekend. My wife Kelly and I picked up on a change in the behavior and attitude of the team. They became overly excited. The conversations between innings turned to, If we win today we play a doubleheader tomorrow, or If we lose today weíre in the losersí bracket. They would try harder. The frustration level would build and ultimately the pressure would increase. This is a lot for young kids to deal with. There was more crying, more yelling, and much more disappointment. This is not the kind of environment in which you want your child learning to play baseball.
It was easy to blame the tournament. It was easy to focus on that structure of winnersí and losersí brackets to explain the behavior. But hereís where the lesson was learned for me: Not all the teams were being affected the same way. There were a couple teams where all the kids were having fun. No, it wasnít the teams who were winning all the games. I searched out the coaches of those teams to find out their secret. It was all about the direction that they set for their team, their season, and the tournaments. These teams competed within the structure of the games but it was obvious that the goal wasnít about winning at all costs. It was about teaching the kids how to compete and play, giving their best effort, and giving the kids a positive experience. These coaches did a great job of communicating their goals, philosophies, and expectations to the kids and their parents. They built their own model within the structure of the game, the league, and the season. The kids understood and followed the direction and the behavior of their coaches. They learned, they played, and they had fun regardless of the outcome of the game. It opened my eyes. They proved that the power is truly in the hands of the coaches, parents, and players, and not in the format of the games or tournaments. With the right philosophy and the right direction, youth baseball tournaments can be a great and beneficial experience.
Itís in this spirit that we created the philosophy for our World Series. When Babe Ruth renamed their younger division Cal Ripken Baseball worldwide it gave us a wonderful opportunity to directly affect the grass roots of baseball. Big league players can claim to have a positive effect on kids just by showing a good example. But having a whole league affords us the chance to do bigger things. Iím sure I could just be a figurehead to Babe Ruth and sit back and accept the honor of having a league named after me, but whereís the fun in that? We want to be a part of growing the game, and that starts at the youth level, so weíre going to be as hands-on as Babe Ruth will allow.
Since changing the name to Cal Ripken Baseball weíve had four World Series. In 2003 we brought the World Series to what we hope will be its permanent spot, our hometown of Aberdeen, Maryland. At each of the World Series we addressed the coaches, players, and families at a banquet on the evening before the start of the games. Itís important to us that all the participants understand what weíre trying to accomplish during this event.
The message of that speech is about celebrating and enjoying the whole experience. This is a life experience; itís not all about the crowning of a world champion. One team will win the tournament, thatís a fact, but how will everyone look back on this time 20 years from now? Will you remember it as a good experience that helped shape you as a person? An experience that helped broaden your horizons? An experience that you can share with your kids and hope they have similar experiences in their lives? We encourage the kids to open up to the players on the other teams and get to know them. We try to schedule additional activities and baseball skills competitions that put the teams together. The teams come from all over the world. We want everyone to take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn about people and the places where they live. We try to identify other values within the Series besides winning the final game.
Last year we discovered a real value that we could add for the teams that didnít advance to the next round. Our facility was nearing completion and some of the other field areas were usable. We wanted to test our brand-new training infield, so we invited all the kids whose teams had been eliminated from the tournament to an impromptu private clinic. The results were fantastic. We at Ripken Baseball got to see our training infield in full use and the kids had a fantastic time. The greatest benefit of this clinic happened by accident. The kids who were out of the tournament were a bit bummed out. We were able to turn those frowns into smiles in a heartbeat. The parents and coaches gathered around and energized us all. And the teams that were still in the tournament felt a little deprived and left out. But we were able to enhance the overall experience by adding additional baseball for those other teams.
We continue to look for ways within the structure of our league and World Series to improve the experience for the kids. Games and tournaments donít have to conflict with our principles and goals for teaching and having fun. We have the ability to make the games and tournaments work for us in the way we want them.
I remember how I felt about meetings at the big league level. I wasnít crazy about them in general, but I especially disliked the yell-and-scream variety after a loss. Meetings in preparation for the game can be beneficial. Meetings just for the sake of meetings can be destructive. Meetings become more important at the higher levels, but at the lower levels we have to exercise good judgment on when to meet.
When dealing with kids you must take into consideration their attention span and their emotional maturity. Kids are generally about action and less about talk. Meetings are tools for the adults. Theyíre a way to exchange necessary information, to communicate. Adults can communicate through words and through their actions. Kids tend to communicate more through their actions. The expression ďActions speak louder than wordsĒ is true for all ages, but it especially applies to young kids.
Most of the meetings that Iíve witnessed in youth sports occur to discuss playersí mistakes or to deal with a loss. Frustration seems to be the motivating force. Watching kids come out of these meetings with their heads down really bothers me. They look as though theyíve been scolded for doing something bad. You hear things like, ďWe made way too many mental mistakes today. Thatís inexcusable,Ē or, ďI donít know where your minds were today but it sure wasnít on baseball or this game,Ē or, ďWe just lost our focus. That team didnít beat us, we beat ourselves,Ē or, ďI want you to go home and think about this game and how bad we played and maybe weíll wake up next time.Ē
Ryanís coach this year had a really good way of summing up a game. He gathered his team briefly and identified some positive accomplishments and he awarded a game baseball after each game. We see this in football quite a lot at all levels, but I hadnít seen it in baseball. He had a little ceremony and he presented a baseball inscribed with the date and the name of the kid and he announced it to the team. The players would wait in anticipation and clap for the winner. The coach had decided that every kid would win a game ball that season. He looked for positive contributions every game and would try to award the ball to a less talented kid early in the season because he wanted to make sure the child felt it was deserved. It could be a great and unexpected catch, or just being tough by staying in the game after getting hit with a pitch, or by drawing a key walk; these are the things that usually donít win awards. This coach made the kids feel good about their contributions. The smiles on their faces were priceless.
Informational meetings are necessary to give the parents and players the latest information on practice times and the next scheduled game. I would suggest getting these meetings out of the way early, before the game starts, to avoid the moods that might follow after a loss. The kids will not be very attentive and the parents want to leave the field as soon as possible. E-mail is a great way to communicate with the parents for scheduling practices and game times. Coaches might consider a dry-erase board that can be displayed at the field and that has the next game or schedule information already written down. That way parents and kids can refer to it on their own time and a post-game meeting is not necessary.
Teaching in Games
One lesson that we at Ripken Baseball learned early on was there are better times than others in which to teach. We were so gung ho on passing along the craft of the game to the kids we thought every opportunity was a teaching opportunity. We were wrong.
When we were in Hawaii a few years ago conducting our camps, things were moving along well. Our model consists of instructional stations in the mornings and games in the afternoons. I moved around the camp and rotated through all the stations. At game time our plan was to spread our instructors around and have them sit on the bench with the players. We know that there are many learning opportunities during the games and we didnít want to miss out on any. The idea was for the instructors to identify the learning moments in the game and share them with the players on the bench while the game was in progress. But we quickly found out that the playersí minds were totally on the game. It was hard for them to switch out of game mode to learning mode, then back to the game.
When we met at the end of the day to assess and compare notes we decided to take another approach. We still valued the lessons that pop up during the games, but this time we decided to make notes and present them at a later time. This approach worked well because we were able to identify those learning moments, we had time to think and develop the best way to address those moments, and we picked the best times when the kids were receptive to the teaching.
We thought that because the games were practice games of sorts, they would be a good environment to explain and teach. They werenít, though, because the game responsibilities took priority over the learning responsibilities. It was an important discovery for us, and by separating the game from the instruction we were able to reach the kids much better.
So if thatís the case with our camp games, what do you think happens in real games? Games are for the kids to experience the good and bad. We can prepare them for the games and then itís in their hands. My recommendation would be to resist the temptation to teach during the games. Bring a little notebook to the field and make notes of things you see. Take those notes home and develop a plan or lesson on how you can help the kids. Most of the time these notes will lead to individual lessons, but if enough of the same mistakes are being made you can work up a team lesson that will benefit everyone.
Some coaches get so wrapped up in every pitch of a baseball game that theyíre barking out commands the whole game. Theyíre trying to be the eyes for everyone on the field. Just think about all those commands from the kidsí perspective. Itís embarrassing to have your name called out loudly and then be told what to do. They feel theyíre being singled out. They donít know that the coach is just trying to help them.
Most of the time when a coach yells out itís a criticism of sorts. Heís identifying something that went wrong in order to fix it. But at the spur of the moment, when a kid is being corrected verbally, I donít think he can be open to the lesson. Kids, especially young kids, are not mature enough to accept the criticism even though itís in the spirit of being positive. (Adults, for that matter, have a tough time with it.) We as coaches need to be as even-keel as we can. Act as if everything that happens on the field was expected.
The Danger of Cheering Too Much
I want to share a story with you that might catch you by surprise. When I go to my kidsí games Iím particularly sensitive to the environment in which the game is played. I watch the coaches and the parentsí behavior before, during, and after the games. I look for the parent who yells negative things from the stands or the coach who overreacts and criticizes his players. After all thatís what most of us feel is wrong with youth sports. This type of behavior intimidates and harms the kids. This is very obvious. ďSilent SundaysĒówhere parents and coaches arenít allowed to cheerówas one leagueís way of dealing with this type of negativity. But Iíve identified another type of behavior that has the same effect on kids. Itís the over-the-top cheering type of parent or coach.
A couple of years ago Ryan had a game against another team of eight-year-olds. I was still playing and I had a chance to see a game early in the morning on a Saturday. I watched the game a little removed from the stands, down the right field line. Ryanís team got off to a rough start and the other team scored six runs in the first couple of innings. The other teamís parents and coaches were going crazy, yelling out in support of their players. It was all positive stuff but way too much. I remember the coach walking halfway out on the field and pointing at one of his players who had just gotten a big hit and screaming, ďYouíre the man! Way to swing that bat! That was a big hit! Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!Ē
I started to notice the effect that this type of cheering had on Ryanís team, particularly the pitcher, who burst into tears. He had to come out of the game. The celebrations continued on the other side. But the game suddenly took a turn and Ryanís team made a miraculous comeback and won. During the last inning the other team could do nothing right. All that loud celebration turned to dead silence. The parents and the coaches werenít shouting negative things; they were just simply saying nothing at all. The other team came off the field hanging their heads. That silence had the same effect as yelling negative things. They werenít getting that over-the-top positive reinforcement now. It was silent and that silence spoke volumes. They walked off as if they had done something wrong, and I felt bad for them.
The lesson I learned that day was that coaches and parents need to support at a consistent level. They control the emotions of the players. They can drive the kidsí emotions way up and they can help them crash. We have to respond to all situations as if we knew they would happen. After all, that should be the value of our life experience.