Making the decision to become a coach—whether you are a parent volunteering to coach t-ball or a former player accepting your first high school job—carries a tremendous amount of responsibility.
At the youngest ages, coaches serve as authority figures, models of behavior and even heroes to the kids on their teams. They have an opportunity to create a fun and positive experience that fuels an interest in baseball among their players that can last a lifetime. As the players get older, coaches have the ability to impact the lives of their players on a different level—passing on life lessons that make a lasting imprint as the players move forward in baseball and school. These lessons can be powerful, carrying over well into adulthood and eventually getting passed down to future generations.
So, while you may not be the best athlete or feel that you know that much about the game of baseball, as a coach you will make a big impact on your players through your actions. Some of the coaches kids remember most are those who make the game fun and really show that they care about each member of the team. If you keep this in mind at all times and remember the responsibilities you have as a coach, you will be successful.
Below, we've outlined your most important responsibilities as a coach. You'll notice that these responsibilities go way beyond setting your lineup.
BE AN EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATOR
One of the most frequent excuses that we hear from coaches is that other parents aren’t willing to help – that it is impossible to run effective practices or coach effectively when flying solo. We feel that many times this is a simple issue of communication. A meeting with the team’s parents before the season and an open line of communication during the season can eliminate this problem.
Before the season begins, the coach should hold a meeting with all of the team’s parents. In this meeting the coach should discuss what he or she hopes to accomplish with the team during the season. This should be in line with age-appropriate goals that the coach has established. However, it is important for the coach to stress that in order to run efficient, fun and effective practices and to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for the kids, parental assistance will be needed.
Most times a coach will ask for one or two volunteers to serve as “assistant coaches.” Trying to find one or two more people with the free time to be at every practice can be quite a challenge. What generally happens is that the assistants volunteer and have good intentions, but because they are not head coaches, they find it easier to miss a practice or a game when another commitment arises in their lives.
A more effective way to enlist support and ensure proper staffing of all practices is to explain that to run great practices and make the experience as fun as possible for the kids a certain level of support is needed. Explain the elements of a good practice – small groups or stations, a variety of activities, organization – and how those practices will benefit their kids. If the coach has a plan and is organized, most parents will see the value and try to figure out how to help.
Developing an email list and sending out a short practice plan to all players and parents or sending out the batting order for the next game the night before also makes parents aware that the coach is organized and concerned. By keeping people informed, the chances of enlisting their support on the field increases. Coaches should always be accessible to parents who have questions, and questions should be answered in a timely and polite manner no matter the circumstances.
For coaches of older and more advanced teams, good communication will help parents understand and appreciate the time commitment made by the coach and will eliminate some of the questioning that often goes on during a season and can be demoralizing and frustrating to a coach.
CREATE A SAFE, ENJOYABLE ENVIRONMENT
When parents trust their kids with another adult, they want to be sure that their children are going to have fun and be properly supervised. It is imperative that coaches design their practices so that there is adequate supervision. For example, if there is only one volunteer assistant for a particular practice, it doesn’t make sense to divide the team into three groups. That means one of the groups will be unsupervised. Unsupervised groups generally don’t accomplish what they are supposed to, and the lack of adult supervision can lead to injuries.
Baseball is a game and should be treated as such at all levels. Sure, winning becomes more important as the players get older and better, but if we are not dealing with professional athletes, the lessons to be learned through playing the game and the positives of being part of a team have a much bigger impact on the lives of those involved than winning or losing ever will. Those concepts should be stressed in hopes of making the experience less pressurized and more enjoyable – at all levels.
Baseball games are always fun for the kids, but there is no reason that practice can’t be just as enjoyable – or even more enjoyable – than the games. Remember that baseball is a game that lends itself to a good deal of standing around. Practices should be created with an eye toward eliminating the standing around. Small groups moving from station to station every few minutes will help kids maintain their attention and excitement level. Understanding what skills certain age groups are capable of handling will keep the frustration level to a minimum. Getting creative by devising games and contests that help players learn skills will increase the level of enjoyment.
It is recommended that all coaches be safety, first aid and CPR certified. However, until this is required by all youth baseball organizations, it is impractical that everyone will have the time or desire to obtain those certifications. It is important, however, to have a stocked medical kit on hand at all times and to be aware of the particular league or organization’s safety, emergency and lightning policies. Another good idea is to be aware of any parents on the team who may work in medical fields or be safety, first aid or CPR certified. This knowledge can be invaluable in emergency situations.
Coaches should always make sure that all required protective equipment is worn by players at the proper times (protective cup, catcher’s gear, batting helmets, etc.) and that the protective equipment fits correctly and is in good working condition. Helmets should be worn by all players who are at a hitting station if possible.
BE A ROLE MODEL
Just as kids imitate their parents and teachers, they are going to take their cues from coaches when it comes to how they act on the baseball diamond. A coach’s attitude and behavior sets the tone for the atmosphere surrounding a team. If a coach gets visibly frustrated with his players, the more-skilled players on the team are more likely to get frustrated with the less-skilled players. The less-skilled players may get easily frustrated with themselves and not enjoy the sport.
Similarly, a coach who yells at umpires is going to foster that type of behavior within his or her team – and among the team’s supporters. At the youngest levels this may translate into players who grow up thinking that abusing umpires verbally is part of the game. At the older and more advanced levels this type of behavior may create an ugly atmosphere that surrounds a team as coaches, parents and supporters get a reputation for being abusive toward umpires.
Coaches at all levels should be positive and upbeat when dealing with their teams. If a coach is consistently negative the players are going to dread coming to practice. Even young players are very observant. If it looks as if the coach does not enjoy being there, why would the players enjoy being there? Coaches should NEVER single out a player about a mistake in front of everyone on the field. For one thing, that type of embarrassment can lead to a negative experience that may diminish a young player’s desire to play the game. Second, a player who has made a mistake on the field already is upset. He or she is worrying about the next play or what mom is thinking. At that particular time, that lesson is not going to be absorbed. Always wait until there is an opportunity to discuss the situation with the player in private. We like to call this a “teachable moment.” Then, at the next practice, a drill can be devised to re-create the situation without singling out a particular player.
Kids are very perceptive – often even more so than parents. If a coach is coming to practice without a plan and basically is flying by the seat of his or her pants, that will be evident to the kids. Of course, parents will pick up on this, too. By spending a few minutes the day before developing a practice plan (and preferably e-mailing that to all the players and their parents), the coach will show everyone that he or she really cares about creating the best possible experience for all who are involved. In addition, a well-organized practice will minimize any down time or standing around. If the coach can create a schedule and stick with it, the kids should move from one activity to another quickly, which will ensure that they maintain their attention and stay energized.
ADHERE TO THE RIPKEN WAY
After years of instructing thousands of youth baseball players, we have developed what we call The Ripken Way. By sticking to our philosophy – keep it simple, explain why, celebrate the individual, make it fun – it should be relatively easy for you to adhere to the responsibilities discussed above. Remember, if the environment you create is fun, safe and educational, you are off to a great start.