Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A season apart

I suddenly realized that it has been a while since I have waxed eloquent … or expectorated profusely … upon the annals of the Internet. I guess you could say that I have been a little busy with my class work and coaching softball. And my job really gets in the way of the important things.

Anyway, softball is going great. Our little troopers are 6-1-1 with another big game tonight. Somehow we have managed to work our way toward the top of the league standings. I’m not real sure how this has been accomplished because Jackson and I don’t do a whole lot of coaching. Or at least it doesn’t seem that way.

Jackson has worked diligently with the pitchers and when our girls are on, there is nobody in the league that is any better. As for my role, I’ve determined that I am more of the sports psychologist. I take it upon myself to keep the team loose and focused.

We have two really good pitchers, but they tend to get a little tight when they realize there is another team waiting to hit the ball. It’s amazing how seriously they take the game. You can see the tension on their faces. They don’t want to fail. When they don’t do something exactly perfect, they look at us with big questioning eyes waiting for us to impart wisdom that, quite frankly, isn’t always there. We don’t always have the answers for why the pitch isn’t flying directly over the plate.

Our standard line is to just relax and have fun.

“Karli,” I ask, “Why are you so tight? There is no pressure out here … we’re just going to make you run extra laps if you don’t throw strikes….. Victoria, pretend that’s me behind the plate and pitch like you did in practice the other day when you were trying to hurt me.”

Our team has an interesting dynamic. We live within a predominately Hispanic society. Only two of the seven teams in our league have white coaches. Ours and one other. Of course nobody can stand the coach of the other team because he is a real pain in the rear. He is the type of guy who takes it ultra seriously. His team is there to win and nothing else is acceptable.

To say the least, his girls really don’t have that much fun. They are scared of getting yelled at if they do something wrong. Heck, the last time we played him, he yelled across the diamond at his assistant coach, a high school girl, because he thought she did something that she didn’t do. He spent the whole time complaining about how the umpires were cheating him and about how bad our girls were. We won 8-1.

We get him again tonight and I hope I just enter the game with the right attitude. I want to beat him so bad, but I have to realize that this is not about me or Jackson. This is about our girls having fun and playing hard. If we lose, so be it. Just as long as our team did its best, that is all that matters.

Now, as far as our interesting dynamic is concerned. Like I said the majority of the league is Hispanic. There a few white girls on the pain’s team, one of whom is his daughter. She is just the sweetest kid in the world. After our last game she told my wife, who was her third- and fourth-grade teacher, that she wished she played for our team. That, my friends, is a tragedy. But she saw how our girls were having fun while she and her teammates were constantly under pressure to be perfect. There is no doubt her team is very talented. They may have the most talent in the league. Their problem is that they are too uptight … a reflection of their coach’s attitudes.

Of our 11 girls, six of them are white three are Hispanic and we have the only two black girls that I have seen in the league. We had another Hispanic girl, but her parents pulled her off our team after the first game. Jackson and I got the distinct feeling that they would rather have their child playing for a Hispanic coach. That is perfectly fine with us, but it was interesting to be on this side of discrimination.

I think the cultural mix on our team is great. All of our girls get along and there are no preconceived notions or expectations placed on each other. Our girls are great, and they are smart and have a good understanding of the game.

I have often said that coaches receive way too much credit and way too much blame for how their team performs. I firmly believe that and this experience has verified that notion. There are times in the field that our girls constantly make the right decisions about where to throw the ball, what base to cover or who should be the cut-off on a throw from the outfield. These aren’t things that Jackson and I have spent much time covering in practice, but these kids are really making us look good.

It will be interesting to see how the season turns out. We have four games left, prior to the post-season tournament. I would love to see our girls win the regular season and the tournament, but I know that will be extremely difficult. The great thing about kids at this age is that they are visibly better every time they take the field. The pitching is better, the hitting is better and the fielding is better, so who knows what will happen when the teams meet for the tournament.

However, when it is all said and done, I just hope that our girls can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had fun. After all, isn’t that what sports are all about?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Game Two ...

Youth sports in America.

You never really know what to expect. Happy kids. Unhappy parents. Disgruntled coaches. Unorganized administration. Well, last week we had it all.

Jackson and I have a very simple philosophy when it comes to coaching 9- and 10-year-old girls' softball: Have Fun. This is what we try to instill in our young competitors. To this end, Jackson and I agreed that we should only practice a couple of nights a week, depending on how many games we play that week. We also agree that we shouldn't practice on Saturday or Sunday. God forbid that parents be forced to spend time with their children as opposed to pawning them off on strangers who just happen to be supervising a youth sports team. We also agree that we should keep things simple … just the basics. We aren’t going to try to turn your 10-year-old into Big-Leaguer over night.

Well, last week we had our first parental run in. We scheduled practice on Tuesday and Thursday with a game on Friday. We showed up at our usual time on Tuesday and practiced for about 30-45 minutes while storm clouds rolled into the area.

As we took a break from some fielding practice, I noticed lightning rip through the evening sky to our north. It was a good distance off, but I began to get a little concerned. Soon the low rumble of thunder rolled over us as another streak split the sky.

“Uh, Jackson,” I said. “I think we should quit.”

Another team was practicing nearby and yet another was waiting for our backstop. Those teams showed no signs of quitting because of a little lightening. I however, tend to play it safe around the forces of nature. I figure quitting practice a little early is far better than attending some 9-year-old's funeral simply because we wanted to make sure she could complete that throw to first base.

Jackson and I, along with a couple of parents, watched the clouds for a few minutes and decided it would be best to call off practice. After all, we only had five of our team members there anyway.

As Wednesday rolled around, Jackson and I discussed the weather forecast and its impending effects on Thursday’s practice. We received more than an inch of rain Tuesday night and were scheduled to get some on Thursday as well. Jackson and I made an executive decision to cancel Thursday’s practice and just encourage the girls to be at the game on Friday.

Apparently this didn’t go over well with at least one parent. It amazes me how ultra-competitive and stupid some parents can be. They think that if their child isn’t on the field for several hours every day with coaches berating them and pointing out everything they are doing wrong in an attempt to force them to get better, then their child isn’t properly benefiting from the program.

This, of course, goes against our philosophy of having fun. Heck, Jackson and I don’t even try to make the girls do every little thing correctly. We have a few things that we are focused on. We tend to think that if the girls at this age can do a couple of things correctly they will be a step ahead of the competition at the next level. Therefore, we focus on one or two things that we are trying to get our girls to do instinctively.

Well, one ultra-competitive overlord decided to pull his girl from our team. It’s a shame. She was a nice kid and she was having fun. We let her play the position she wanted to play even though we have other girls who could do a better job. The other girls, however, were happy playing other positions so we left this one where she wanted to be. Dearest mommy and daddy, however, felt that we weren’t doing enough to further her athletic career, so they called the league president and requested that their daughter be placed on another team. They specifically requested two teams, one of which we were scheduled to play on Friday night.

(Big Grin! You know where this is going, don’t you?)

Friday night rolled around. Due to the desertion and two other players not being able to attend for family reasons (divorce can really be ugly), we were left with seven girls. Jackson and I, however, were determined to get our girls a game. This is, of course, what they are here for.

The other team, coached by the league president, had no problem letting our team play with seven players. We had a full infield and only one outfielder who really enjoyed being the only player out there. She loves to run and is pretty good at it.

As mentioned in a previous post, we have been searching for a good pitcher and have found a real fire-baller who Jackson has worked with quite a bit. This girl can actually throw strikes … consecutively. That is utterly amazing for girls this age. Jackson has worked on her mechanics and at our last practice she was firing pitches on a rope. Some pitches even had a little movement on them which you never expect to see at this level.

We handed our pitcher the ball and lined up with our seven girls against their full compliment of players. Our outfielder chased down a couple of balls … our first baseman got a big hit … our third baseman made a great fielding play … and our pitcher mowed down their hitters.

In the end, our rag-tag little group of ballers walked away with a much-deserved 12-2 victory. And Jackson and I couldn’t help but grin.

Afterall, that’s good coaching.