Coach Dad: Lessons from Little League (Episode 1)

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I stood next to the other team’s manager by the third base dugout thinking of something to say that would show I had a sense of humor despite being handed a lopsided shellacking in our only pre-season scrimmage game before the start of the season. Before I could come up with some self-effacing witticism about how much I hate losing, he said, “Man, this is really hard for me.”

“Really?” Hard for him?

He was a coach with a kid on his team, just like me. Like me it was his first year of managing a “Majors” team in our local little league. His son, like mine, was one of the youngest on his squad and, like me, he was roped into doing this due to the ever-shrinking pool of men our age who actually played the game beyond little league and hold enough knowledge of the game to actually teach it. With his next words, I found where our similarities ended.

“I really have to fight the urge to yell at them,” he said. “I know they’re just little boys, and they’re out here to have fun. But when I was a kid, if I didn’t do things right, my dad went off on me and let me know it.” Then he looked at me with an uncertain half smile and added, “You know what I mean. I’m sure it was probably the same for you.”

It wasn’t. I have a vague recollection of my father being at a few of my games. He didn’t coach me, ever. He asked about my games and how I did, but he wasn’t involved in them, wasn’t interested in the outcome. He never pushed me to play or urged me not to quit. He was too tired for that. So unlike my fellow first-year manager, I have no real model to follow or to fight.

What I know is this:

I love baseball and I always have. My father loved it, too. I love my son, more than I usually know how to say or show. I want him to share my love of baseball and so I want to teach him everything I’ve learned about it and gained from it. But I also know that fathering and coaching are two of the most difficult things a man can sign on for and trying to do them together is a staggering combination of joy and pain. And if I want my son to love this game, to continue loving it years after his little league days are done, I can’t yell at him.

You see, he’s just like me in so many ways that my instinct to pull him up, to shake my finger at him, to tell him he’s dogging it, or not hustling, or daydreaming when he should be paying attention, is a self-rebuke first and foremost. It’s hard to see this in the heat of the moment and harder to avoid doing it anyway. It’s not his indifference to the moment that I’m really angry about, it’s the indifference that he inherited from me that puts that knot in my stomach. I want him to change so that I don’t have to be reminded of the things I wish I could change in myself.

And what will he really make of my tirade anyway? Is this supposed to mean more to me than to him? I’ll only look like what I am – a confused old man who doesn’t really know how to instill in his son what was never really instilled in him in the first place. It’s a conundrum, ain’t it? So, I bite my tongue. Try to say something positive, encouraging, even while I’m fuming inside because I know he knows he’s suppose to cut off that throw to second.

This is not to say that I’ll never let my son know when I think he’s making bad choices. That’s the fathering part that’s so essential. The only reason to play baseball for 99% of us mere mortals is to have some fun, get some sun, and maybe learn a few lessons about how to be part of something bigger than ourselves. When his choices affect his teammates or his coaches negatively, he’ll need to have it pointed out. When he’s letting fear or anger get the best of him, I have to let him know. It’s my job. It’s both my jobs – coach and father. But I’ll always try to separate those lessons from the outcome of the game. I’ll try to put some time and distance between the event and the lesson that follows. He’ll need to know that it’s not the game I care about when I point out the mistakes he’s made. He’ll need to know, as I’m showing him a better way to respond, that it’s not about winning the next game or even making him a better baseball player. It’s about guiding him toward being a better him.

I’m not a yeller. Never have been. I wasn’t yelled at, so I never learned how. My fellow first-year manager will learn, one way or another, how to share his passion more gently. He’ll learn to not let his emotions and his love for the game interfere with his duty to teach his players with love and respect. He’ll learn how because he’s already recognized that it’s important. Even though it’s hard. And I’ll learn in time, I hope, how to balance my love for son, my love for this game, and my desire to be a good dad. And maybe I’ll realize my greatest hope – to be able to look back on these days with him and laugh about them into many long seasons ahead.

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