Leadership Development via Little League

     For the past 12 years I coached, assistant coached and managed little league baseball teams with two different sons.   I'm not a superior baseball strategist.  We're not talking about highly competitive travel baseball, but recreational learn the game baseball.  Most of that time was working with 6-9 year olds, and I made their parents and the boys a promise at the beginning of every season.  Best to most challenged player, we're going to rotate positions and playing time as fairly as I can.  I'm just anal enough to create spreadsheets in Excel planning out positions, innings and the entire season.  It may be standard for this age around the country, but you can only put a player in one position for two innings. They are after all, supposed to learn the game and you can't quite do that sitting in right field for six innings.

     Around my birthday every year the coaches would gather and draft teams. Some of the boys you'd know from the previous year or years, some would be just coming of age to participate, and a few of all ages had just signed up to play for the first time.  In general, you might have three or four boys you knew and the rest were unknowns. 

      When I started managing or head coaching as it where, we were always the Red Sox.  It's not that I'm such a big Boston fan, but my middle son Sam is and the spirit just kind of carried over.   That year we even had a five year old whose skills were beyond hitting off a tee in the rookie league.   He was cute, very small, and very fast.   I let him play the pitcher position next to the machine a couple of times where he once snagged a very hard line drive and then decided it wasn't really a safe place for him to be.   He caught pretty well too.

       The first day of practice I was rather excited to see a very tall and strong 9 year old come up who was just joining the league.   He was more than twice the size of the five year old. Power hitter I thought.  He'd never played, couldn't catch, and could only throw about four feet.  It didn't matter.  Recreational baseball was never about winning for me, though God knows I love to win. Some coaches in every league will take their four best players and simply rotate them through the infield positions in an effort to win.   With my spreadsheets I rotated everyone through positions.  The best players always took some outfield time, backing up those with less experience getting infield time.

      Without digging to pull out my score book, which I still have somewhere I couldn't tell you our regular season record that year.  There were six teams and we finished in second place because experimentation early in the season cost us a couple of games.  The team in first lost three games, two of them to us, which aggravated them greatly.  Every league has yelling coaches.  I'm not one of them, because anger and yelling only causes people to close down and perform worse at any age.   I'll grant exceptions to that documented psychology for drill sergeants dealing with new recruits and live ammunition.

      When it came time for the season ending double elimination tournament, we won every game heading into the championship on Monday night.  We'd beaten the regular season first place team in our third game on Saturday and so they had to win again to reach the championship and they did.

     It was a wonderful Monday night, warm but not to hot and playing on the major league field where some of the boys would move up to the following year.  The game seesawed back and forth.  We took an early lead, gave it back up, and gained it again.  My best player while on second base and no one on first took off on a hit to their shortstop and rather than running behind him to third, ran right in front and got tagged out.  Where others would yell, I smiled, rubbing the top of his head.   While I asked what he was thinking I told him not to worry. We'd get it back.

     In the top of the fifth inning believe (without book handy to check) they had runners at first and second with one out. The hit went over to the third baseman's head towards my biggest player.  It was one of those hits that aren't short or long enough to be caught in the air, but he got in on one hop. Then he made a perfect throw to third with the runner only halfway between bases.

     A funny thing happened then. The runner who'd been on second turned around and ran back. That made the runner from first leave second base and run back towards first. Our third baseman quickly ran to second for the double play and the inning was over. I think we won 17-15 and it was a summer and a moment neither I nor the families will forget. Some of them still stay in touch and ask if I'm coaching again.  Without a son playing in the league, I'm not.

    That season though is a perfect example of organizational and individual leadership philosophy that works at all ages. No matter who we are there's always someone who has more natural ability in some area than we do. No one player on a team or in a group wins championships.  Just ask Kobe Bryant or look at last year's New York Yankees.

    Helping those who have potential (because everyone has potential) gain experience and understanding while requiring those with more talent to remember what it takes to stay focused in the outfield builds team work and the ability to adapt and overcome when opportunity presents itself.  It's a lesson worth remembering the next time we have to put together a committee to work on whatever needs to be accomplished.  More importantly is how we understand that short term failures are not the season or for that matter, the game itself.  Long term success requires us to plan and coach for it, one moment at a time.

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