Gut Check: What's Your Baseball Goal?
Are you trying to have the best 7 year old, or the best 17 year old?
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I decided to start off with this topic because it really is the defining purpose of this entire project. Whatever your goals are, you should keep them front and center at all times.
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My youngest son (7 years old and pictured above) is pretty good for his age, but has been struggling at the plate for the last few weeks. Like really struggling! I bet he hasn’t hit 4 hard hit balls in the last 25 at bats, and since this is coach pitch, he’s getting pitches to hit.
His swing looks pretty good on a tee and in the cage, but totally different against live game pitching. He looks uncomfortable as soon as he steps into the box. There’s no load. His hands drift to the ball. He doesn’t swing hard. I’m not even sure he’s really seeing the ball well.
He’s good enough to know he’s struggling, and he wants to work on it at home. We hit off the tee, do front toss, I’ll throw live. We even do fun things like play whiffle ball. His swing is nearly perfect when I pitch him the whiffle balls. He crushes it.
Then we get out to the field and here we go again. He looks lost at the plate.
Of course my frustration is building up. Not just because he is struggling. But because I know how he can hit. I see him hit at home and before the games.
“Dad, can we get there early and hit in the cage before the game,” he’ll ask me. I always say yes if time allows.
Last week he didn’t ask. I asked him if he wanted to get there early and hit before the game.
“Well,” he replied followed by a slight pause. “Only if you’re not going to get onto me if I don’t hit well.”
Gut check! It almost brought me to my knees.
He’s the most positive kid I know, and in his eyes I can do no wrong. Yet I’ve given him a reason to not want to a) spend time with me, and b) not get some extra swings!
This was a wake up call for me, and since then I’ve made sure to be intentional in everything I say and do! It also got me thinking - what are the goals I have for him on the ball field?
What are the baseball goals for your child?
The answer could be different for everyone, but I’d say most of you want your child to accomplish one or all of the following:
Learn life lessons
Deep down we all want our child to be the best at everything they do! That’s a good thing!
But if that’s your goal, what does it take to get there? I can assure you that putting too much pressure on them, having unrealistic expectations for them at a young age, and burning them out isn’t going to make it happen.
Do you want the best 7 year old, or do you want the best 17 year old?
Many of us look at it all wrong. Here’s how it should really work.
This is the most important goal you should have for a young player. I bet 100% of you “agree” with this, but many of your kids aren’t actually having fun on the field because of the stress we as coaches and parents place on them.
Trust me - I’m not holier than thou here! I’m guilty too!
Your players are not going to get better if they’re not having fun. They’re going to lose interest, and ultimately won’t put in the time and energy it’s going to take to get better.
Getting better requires work, and a child isn’t going to work if it’s not fun.
This is so important because baseball is a hard game. It’s really hard. And since most kids aren’t studs when they’re in coach pitch, or early player pitch, they have to get better incrementally over a longer period of time as they put in that work.
It’s not going to happen if they don’t enjoy the game.
Much of the gap between early age baseball players has to do with physical and mental development, and is not a predictor of long term success. (I’ve got a good post about this coming soon)
Just remember, whether your kid is the stud on the team or happens to be below average for the team, don’t worry. Ensure he’s having fun, and he’ll fall in love with the game.
Then he’ll get better.
As a coach my goal for the team and every individual player is to end the season better than when they started.
It is important to remember it must be relative for each player. For young athletes, it’s simply not fair (or useful) to compare the kids against each other. Remember what I said about mental and physical development. Some kids just do it faster than others.
While it is easy to compare your child to another child on the team, please make every effort to avoid this. Again, it’s not useful and will end in disappointment for you and your player.
I’ve known plenty of 7-year-old studs who never even played in high school. They lose interest. They get tired of being pushed so hard and burn out. Other kids catch up to their talent. The opposite happens too - there are tons of really good high school players who were just average at a young age.
Check out this story about Milwaukee Brewer, Lorenzo Cain. He’s been in the major leagues for 10 years, and made over $50,000,000 playing baseball. He got cut from the basketball team in 10th grade. Having never played baseball before, he joined one of his friends at baseball tryouts.
‘Cain came out — in street clothes, and without any gear. At this football-centric school, however, Myers couldn’t afford to be picky. He told Cain to reach into the cardboard box in the field house and help himself to some equipment.
The young man emerged, and Myers nervously fungoed a pop fly to Cain — who caught the ball with a lefty thrower’s glove on his right hand, removed the glove with his left hand and returned the ball with a right-handed throw.’
Cain went on to play in college, got drafted by the Kansas City Royals, has been a two-time All-Star, and was the 2014 ALCS MVP.
‘“Coach!” Cain pleaded, according to Myers. “If I had one of those other gloves, I could get on it way faster.”
It wasn’t just that Cain hadn’t played the game, he barely knew anything about the game. Once, Cain joined a few of his teammates in cleaning up after practice, with each player grabbing a base for storage.
“We said, ‘Lorenzo, you’ve got home plate,’ ” Myers said. “He would try to figure out how to get home plate [from its moorings].”'
Now back to you. Who cares that your kid isn’t as advanced as another. Who cares that he doesn’t know what to do with the ball after he makes the catch at 7 years old.
Getting better in youth baseball doesn’t mean being the best immediately.
Focus on getting better at something every time you’re on the field. Even a small thing. Then praise the effort and process, not the outcome. Rinse and repeat. Over and over.
Focus on having fun and getting incrementally better over time.
Learn Life Lessons
This is one of the most important aspects of youth sports for me. Not everyone will have the fortune of playing for a living, but they can certainly use what they learn in the real world for the rest of their lives.
According to the NCAA there are 487,000 high school baseball players, and only 7.3% of them will play college baseball. Then there are only about 1,200 players drafted annually in the MLB draft. Of those, many never sign, and most never make it to the Major Leagues.
That brings us back to reality and learning life lessons. Baseball is a humbling game. It allows our children to learn how to compete, how to win, lose, succeed, and fail.
It’s also a great environment to learn about work ethic, respect, humility, and being a good teammate - all things you need to be successful in life. And when baseball comes to an end for most kids, those are the characteristics hiring managers are looking for in the workplace.
This week, instead of focusing on the failure, focus on the lessons learned that your child can take with them into the next game, the next week, and even off the baseball field.
What life lesson will you teach (or learn) today?
What I Really Want You to Take Away
I know we all get caught up in the moment and put pressure on our players.
I got caught up in the “now” and lost sight of the long term goal for my son.
For those of you who’s child is above average - you probably have a shorter trigger given the fact you know how good they can be. Stop. Just because they seem to be able to handle it doesn’t mean it’s good for them long term.
For those of you who feel like your child is behind - don’t worry about it. Stay positive. Encourage them. Praise the process, not the result.
Make sure they’re having fun. They’ll get better. And they’ll learn some valuable life lessons along the way!
Happy Father’s Day! I know today I’ll be focusing on the time I get to spend with my son at the ball park, not so much how he does during the game!
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Kevin Burke is a dad and coach, having coached baseball at all ages tee ball through varsity high school over the last 18 years . He currently coaches his younger son’s 9U “travel” team, Tennessee Prime, based out of Chattanooga, TN.