Manager Evaluation

evaluationIn my mind I have been reviewing the AA Braves season in the East County Little League. What started out with excitement and anticipation has nearly come to a close in frustration. Questions abound with no easy answer. Did I manage well? Why didn’t we win more games? What could I have changed? Why did the kids not improve? Did they really have fun? These and others continue to elude me as I look inside, in order to make myself a better coach. What sort of grade would I give myself in a manager evaluation?

Understand that years of playing experience and watching baseball don’t always make you a good coach, I attended the coaching clinic sponsored by ECLL and hosted by Al “Big Al” Price of Big Al Baseball. Going back to coaching last year in the Farm division (coach pitch), I realize we were teaching kids the basics, a simple how to when it comes to the fundamentals of baseball. While I still firmly believe this year’s clinic (coaching for 9-12 year olds) was excellent, I was not prepared for what AA baseball (competitive, as some call it) held in store.

I coach with the Big Al’s philosophy engrained in my head, “develop the person and the player” regardless of the win loss record as long as each individual improves the season is a success. Maybe it was that middle of the road attitude or a lack of competitiveness that saw my team go on to lose 16 games this season while only tallying a single victory (and a forfeit win). Going into each and every game without that desire to win, did I project that onto my players? Every game players would come up and ask me the score. I would respond, “I don’t care about the score, let’s just play baseball.” My focus was more on their fundamentals, are you making the routine plays? Running the bases as the coaches have taught? Making the correct decisions when the ball is hit to you?

Another aspect I promoted was fair play for all my players regardless of skill level. Parents paid $200+ to register and play baseball, probably spent more money on equipment for the upcoming season, then you realize a coach is only going to play you the minimum time required by the league (2 innings) in order to get you that single at bat. What sort of bullshit is that? What a way to damage a young player who is learning the game. All my players were within 8 innings of each other if they played every game this year. The only quicker way for that youth to lose interest is to provide negative feedback and criticism. It only takes a single comment to devastate a child’s confidence and find baseball no longer fun.

Unfortunately I know this too well. Using my son as an example, I told him I played two rolls, one as dad when we were at home and one as manager when we were at baseball. From the first day we took the field last year I made it clear to him I was not a baseball fan any longer. I never watch games, rarely do we attend any of the professional games, but I played from little league up through college. My understanding and experience lends itself favorably when it comes to coaching (or so I thought). My son took the “I don’t like baseball” personally and seeing as I didn’t doesn’t like it, he didn’t like. Getting him to understand my reasoning has been a challenge, especially this season where I struggled with him all season long. My single comment has probably ruined the enjoyment of little league for him.

With the exception of one game I have remained positive all season long regardless of the box score. It’s tough to continue to take losses, but I feel the players have learned the game and grown this season. Even at this late stage I wrestle with the basic question of why we continue to struggle with the fundamentals. During games kids are excitable and having fun on the bench and in the field, even if I banned sunflower seeds and food in the dugout, as they were causing a distraction. Maybe I don’t want to face the reality that I was not disciplined enough as a manager, at the first practice with the players and how we were going to practice. As the saying goes, “you play like you practice” and this rang true every time the umpire yells, “Play ball!”

Time and time again I needed to remind myself these are young boys, aged 7 through 9 and they are still learning and growing. There have been some players who put up impressive performances this year, not only on our team, but against us. I commend each one of those players, but at no time do I frown upon those players out on the field, standing in the batter’s box or sitting on the bench who struggled. The coaches have kept a positive attitude all season along, even amongst frustrations and setbacks. One positive play, one big hit was usually enough to swing the pendulum and gain momentum for our team.

Each player received positive feedback continuously, even if a mistake was made. While comments would be made, it was our intention to take a corrective action in order to not make the same mistake. Baseball is a thinking game, a game of strategy. While it’s a team sport, it’s played at an individual level. Pitcher against batter. Fielder against the ball. Having the knowledge and understanding what to do every time the ball was put into play, caused panic in players and stressed out the coaching staff. This comes full circle as players were not prepared for what AA little league offered. I take full responsibility on our 2-16 season.

As a manager it’s my responsibility to build the team, something we lacked this season because I didn’t attend the tryouts or the draft, accepting the position just days before we were to start practice. It made the situation a challenge, but I didn’t know that until now. Next year (if my son decides to play) I will have an opportunity to build a team from the ground up, which might carry a different result. Two coaches have already committed and we know have a better idea what to expect during the season, which would allow up to increase our expectations as coaches. Developing the person and the player, as well as having fun will still be philosophies I coach by but being involved from the start will work to our advantage in how we build our team.

Looking back, I am very proud of what the boys have accomplished this year. So our win/loss record doesn’t equate to much, but I do know the boys had fun, not only during practice but at games. Even if I am critical on how I managed this season, I know for a fact, if I asked each player to tell me what they learned this season, each one would be able to come up with a few items. That to me is a successful season. Hopefully we were able to also teach the kids about responsibility and practicing and playing as a team. While there is no “I” in team, there is “ME.” Each player was an integral part of my team this season. Thanks Braves for a wonderful season. I feel very lucky to have managed such a great group of boys.

First Victory!

baseballIt took nearly 4 months and 18 games, but my AA Braves of the ECLL celebrated their first victory on Saturday. While I won’t say our team is “peaking” it was a great feeling of accomplishment for the boys. the coaches were thrilled that the hard work and effort they have given us over the course of the season finally paid off. Even with a 2-16 record (1 win by forfeit) we still make the playoffs as the #1 season, which was decided upon prior to the start of the season by pulling numbers (seedings) out of a hat. Just so happened I pulled the #1 seed, thus we will play one of the top 2 teams in the league (based on win/lose record).

The victory for me was somewhat bittersweet, as I was left to act as scorekeeper yesterday during the game. While I remained positive after the game, we didn’t play off that well. It was more that the other team hurt their chances to win by the number of walks they allowed in 5 innings, which hit double digit. This has been our problem all season long because a walk can turn into a triple in just 2 pitches, as no catcher in AA can make that throw to second base. That fourth pitch, a ball that goes past the catcher ends up scoring the runner from third base.

While I managed the substituting of players, I was not my normal, vocal self with shouts of positive reinforcement and encouragement. I left the coaches to my coaches. As the game progressed, I was more frustrated with our lack of hitting, again. It’s amazing to watch these boys hit during practice, all of them swing a very aggressive bat and have done so since we started practicing back in February. Come game time, the bats go quiet. Good, aggressive swing go to hesitation and many bats being left on the shoulder resulting in a backwards ‘K’ in the score book.

Yesterday we had just 3 hits in route to our 16-6 victory over the struggling Red Sox. No team should be winning with just 3 hits, in fact both teams committed more errors than hits. Part of the reason is their age (7, 8 and 9 year olds), still learning the game and not really quick enough or strong enough to make a stop and long throw from shortstop of third base, for example. Our coaches were very aggressive on the base paths, taking base after base, an act I have not been too supportive of all season since I believe “stealing” (if you can call it that) doesn’t teach the player anything because catchers can’t make the throw to second base. Yet, nearly every team takes advantage of this in AA, resulting in high scoring games.

This concludes my first year managing competitive little league in the ECLL. Plans are to manage next season with two of my coaches who joined me this season. This time around we will be involved in the entire process, from tryouts to the draft, unlike this season.

While I am not conceding the loss in two week, the boys have their work cut out for them this week in practice. They will need to work just a bit harder and be that much sharper in order to be prepared for whichever team we face. Both teams scored 20+ runs on us the last time we played, but the positive side is we were in both games through about 4 innings. After 4 innings we struggle with consistent pitching.

Win or lose, I am very proud of all the boys I have managed this season. They have learned the fundamentals of the game of baseball and hopefully have become people based on how we have taught them this season. At the start of the season my philosophy was to develop the player and the person, hopefully I have lived up to what Big Al taught me in his coaching clinics.

Fun in Little League

ReferEase-Sports-quoteAt no point during this Little League season have I regretted my decision to manage the AA Braves in East County Little League. From the first preseason meeting to our current 0-13 record, the season has been fun, teaching young players the fundamentals of the game and watching them execute what they have learned. Unfortunately, I have an unsettled feel that has been with me since the first game of the season. I have confidence in how I approached the season, planned our practice schedule, and implemented a fair play, 6-3-3 system for our players to follow, regardless of skill level.

Little League is about having fun, which is what the AA Braves have had all season long. Many will point to our win less record and draw their own conclusions about our players and team being a failure, yet that could not be further from the truth. The coaching staff has worked relentlessly to teach our players the fundamentals of baseball. By the end of the season, each boy who put on a Braves cap at the start of the season will be a better baseball player.

There has been elation, frustration and disappointment throughout the year, but at no point did we lose focus on what is important, our boys. In the true spirit of baseball, the coaching staff has remained positive, keeping a good attitude towards the other coaches, players and umpires. We continue to stress the fundamentals of baseball. Winning isn’t everything. Last week I related a story last week to my players. I told them, “I don’t remember won many games I won or lost in Little League, nor do I remember any final scores. However I do remember some personal highlights; a good play, a home run, some all-star teams I was on. What sticks with me the most after 35 years, the coaches I played for and learned from. I feel these coaches taught me to be a better ballplayer I was from Little League to high school and even into college, but more importantly they taught me to be a better person.” Not sure the boys see it now, but hopefully they remember their coaches when they are older.

I have been rather appalled at some other managers and coaches and their approach to the game. It can be summed up in a single word. Competitive. At ages 8 and 9 years old, I feel there is too much competition in the AA division we play in. Maybe this makes me “soft” as a manager and doesn’t put my players in a position to win. If that’s the case, so be it. Thankfully playoff positions were handed out prior to the start of the season or the competition would even be more fierce.

It’s unfortunate that some of the fun, in my opinion is being lost because of the drive and desire to win meaningless baseball games. Winning by 10 or more runs seems to put an exclamation mark on the victory for the winning team. I, on the other have have been on the opposite end of those 10-run rule loses most every game this season and take responsibility for how our team played. Nothing worse in Little League than not being able to play all 6 innings, calling the boys in after the umpire calls the game and the boys have a puzzled look on their face. Worse yet having a few players who were only put into their position half an inning ago and haven’t experienced an at-bat.

More frustrating, the fact managers and coaches take advantage of the rules for their benefit. The worst offending, taking second base on a walk. The catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher, walking back to the mound, the batter rounds first and doesn’t stop. Worst yet, issuing a walk and 2 pitches later the previous batter is now standing on third base. One passed ball later, they are adding another point to their score. Honestly, you can’t even call this stealing since 99% of the catchers in AA don’t have the arm to make the throw to second base. This “stealing” doesn’t teach players how to steal a base, nor does it teach you proper base running. Even if the ball is caught by the catcher, it still requires a perfect throw and catch just to have a chance at making an out. Yet managers and coaches are playing by the rules, which I feel are flawed and ruin the fun at this age level.

Implementing a fair play system for all players on my team took priority before the season began. Regardless of their skill level, I wanted to make sure each player had the opportunity to hone their skills at numerous positions. Some of my players would probably never see more than 2 innings in right field and their one at bat if on another team. What does that teach a player? Would they return next year? How does that player improve and gain game experience? They don’t. At this age, players need to field numerous positions to get their experience and find out where they play the best. As a parent I would be livid if I paid for registration, new cleats, glove and bat only to see him play 36 innings and get 18 at-bats in a season. That is borderline neglect by a manager and should NEVER happen in Little League.

For some parents I have failed as a manager this year, going win less through 13 games. That’s fine, at 13 games in, not one parent has approached me saying they are unhappy with their son’s playing time. I take that positively meaning I have done part of my job as a manager, providing equaling playing time to all my players. Sure we haven’t won, but as I said there is more to life (and baseball) than winning. I feel we have taught these boys some great baseball skills and each have improved their fundamentals. Most importantly we have had fun all season long. Isn’t that the sort of coach you want teaching your son?

Coaching to Lose

just_for_kidsThe AA Braves of East County Little League can’t seem to buy a break, but were taught an invaluable lesson last night, as they came from ahead to lose the game. As manager, my decisions probably lead the collapse we saw on the mound and in our defensive play. While I didn’t plan on coaching to lose, results saw the team come up short. Thankfully the coaches supported the decisions that were made and we accepted the outcome. After the boys got their snack they forgot about many of the details until our post game talk in right field.

Never will I single out a ballplayer as the cause for a loss, to do so would be irresponsible on my part. My role as manager is to always be positive and respect each child as an individual while teaching the the fundamentals of the game. At times its been frustrating observing the players “perform” the fundamentals of baseball during a game; bad throws, poor field positioning, dropping the ball, not paying attention. These are common place in little league. As I have stressed from the beginning, you are a part of a team. We win as a team and we lose as a team, each player has a role they play.

My approach to the game has not changed from opening day, I play and rotate the boys based on equal playing time to all players. While some parents and coaches might have an issue with this, it has not been brought to my attention through 8 games. I don’t favor my strong players every inning of every game and by no means do I intentionally play anyone the minimum of 2 innings and 1 at-bat. That screams incompetence of a coach who is just there to win, regardless of the kids.

If the decision was made to stick with our ace pitchers yesterday, chances were great we would have won the game, but would have been short on pitching come Monday. This also left of a run behind at the end of the 5th inning, when the game was called due to time limit resulting in another loss, but just how much does a loss or win really matter in little league? I do however, believe the boys were taught an important lesson during the game.

From the first inning we jumped out to a 5 run lead, the kids were excited, hustling up to the plate, running the bases well and playing good defense. Everything seemed to be going our and way and as more runs crossed the plate, I was continually asked the score. My response stayed consistent the entire game, “I don’t know the score, as it’s not important, hitting and playing defense is important.” The boys were were all smiles as our lead grew over the Red Sox to the point of goofing off in the dugout when we were at bat.

Their focus was lost, the “fun” had resulted in a few strike outs and two outstanding defensive gems from the opposing team that seemed to smack out team back to reality. Our best player hit the hardest ball of the year a line drive, which was snared by the shortstop, he couldn’t have been but 2-3 steps out of the batter’s box as he came back to the dugout in tears. As I made my way to him, I put my arm around him and inquired what was wrong? He believed the shortstop had not caught the ball and he was wrongly called out. Not sure if my words were convincing, but by heart was in the right place. Yet after our talk, with his father standing on the other side of the dugout, he seemed to have a different swagger when he took the field next inning.

The collapse of our team was complete by the 4th inning. By that time I had banned any further eating of sunflower seeds in the dugout and put an end to the grab ass (aka fun) that was going on in the dug out. Complacency had overcome our team and it was showing on the field. We were able to take the leading, but lack of focus and being prepared when the ball was hit led us giving up the lead and eventually losing in the 5th inning when the Red Sox scored their last run after 3 throwing errors on the same play.

In the words of Vincent Fortanasce, M.D., “These children are not professional ballplayers and Little League is not about winning baseball game. Little League is about fun and growth and learning life’s important lessons.” We were taught what happens can happen when we lose focus and get complacent in a game. It was a tough lesson to learn, as the jubilation and excitement on the team was priceless.

As I explained to them in my post game talk, we were pleased with how they played, we hit the ball well, score runs and made some great plays in the field, unfortunately we had made some mistakes. One of the coaches expanded on this asking each player, “What mistake did you make?” It was interesting to see hands go up and hear some of their responses. A few players had no answer, but no one said, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” I continued to stress learning baseball at this age is more important than winning. I highlighted our positives and said we would continue to work on areas which need improvement.

While I feel bad for the boys, who nearly earned their first victory of the season, they continue to grow and make improvements in their game. With continued coaching, drills and positive reinforcement and encouragement the players will continue to improve.

Undefeated in Fun

lifelessons_After early setbacks, some frustration and numerous emails to “Big Al” Price of Big Al Baseball, I stumbled across another resource while searching the Internet, the book Life Lessons From Little League by Vincent M. Fortanasce, M.D. I believe in the philosophy of Big Al when it comes to teaching youngsters the game of baseball. As with each new season, expectations run high, from players and parents to coaches, who practice consistency to get ready for the start of the season. Yesterday we continued our streak of being undefeated in fun.

While our 0-6 record doesn’t reflect how well the boys on the East County Little League AA Braves have been playing, the coaching staff still believes that practice and positive reinforcement will yield results. Those results might not include a victory during the 18 game season, but when it comes to the fun, these boys know no boundaries. In the end, isn’t that was little league is all about? As a kid, you won’t remember when you struck out 3 times, but you might remember your coaches or teammates you shared the season with.

Those individuals not affiliated with the Braves or ECLL, have lived vicariously through our winless stretch, but the season is far from over and in my eyes not lost. Thankfully we have 15 games in which to improve, as we are the #1 seed when the playoffs starts, a fact I have not mentioned to the team. Frustration has crept in at times during games, especially knowing how well the boys practice during the week. They are a hitting machine, all 12 of them but when game time rolls around you would think they are swinging a wet noodle. On defense their gloves seem to disappear and we look more like the Bad News Bears.

Their performance during games has the coaching staff baffled, questioning our practice structure and leaves us asking each other, “What else do we do?” From the pages of Big Al Baseball, stress repetition in order to gain confidence and consistency at bat or in the field. Another factor Big Al promotes, keep practice fun and positive. We have been able to turn many of the drills into a competition for the boys, seeing who can accumulate the most points. We have also played a game called Bubba Baseball using an over-sized plastic bat and pickle ball in order to promote fun, at the same time teaching strategy and the basics of baseball.

Yesterday was a feelgood day, even though we lost, again playing only three and a half innings with the game being called because of the 10-run rule, but I ran into a parent while hanging out at the snack shack. She doesn’t have a son that I manage, but she talked to a player on my team. When she inquired, “how’d you guys do today” the player responded, “we lost again.” She countered with, “wish you were playing on the Dodgers and winning?” To my surprise he said, “no I am having fun with my team.” As a manager that made my heart swell and I felt like I was on cloud nine for a moment! To hear that coming from a player is reward enough that we are not only teach players the basics of baseball, but more importantly keeping it fun.

Kids have enough stress on them, even at 8 and 9 years old. Why add to that stress level by yelling and criticizing their performance, acts which could inevitably turns kids off from continue to play little league. I have Big Al to thank for the basics of managing and coaching young kids. I stumbled across another resource while searching the Internet last week, the book Life Lessons From Little League by Vincent M. Fortanasce, which has provided me a very positive outlook on managing kids and controlling parents while their son learns baseball. The book has had a very positive influence on me in under a week since I started reading.

On Friday I had an assistant coach saying, “I don’t know how you stay to calm and positive through this.” The last 2 games have been different than the first 4 games. In order to build a player, you need to instill courage, character and loyalty, which is the motto of Little League. I want to keep a positive attitude towards all the players, all the time, even if the result is something negative, such as an error in the field or striking out. Tearing a child down with negativity or criticism has no place on my team. Positive reinforcement and keeping the game fun will have players trying harder.

The way I see it still, we have another 13 games in order to improve offensively and defensively. Sure we have seen 5 out of 6 games ended early because of the 10-run rule, but there is no reason why we can’t compete with any of the teams we have played in our division. As long as we continue to practice and improve I have no doubts we could win the playoffs. Our boys might not be the biggest, fastest, best kids in the league, but they are all playing with a big heart. All of them have improved their skills since we started practice in February. We have seen flashes of what they can do. Winning isn’t everything or the only thing, nor does winning breed success. The fundamental of little league is to stay positive against all odds and have fun.