Summer Sandlot

For the past seven weeks, a group of kids (ages 6-8) met at a local elementary school in Montgomery County, MD at 10:00am with baseball on their minds.  They didn’t show up with helmets, or uniforms or bats.  They came with just their gloves and a desire to play baseball.  For the first 30 minutes I took them through skill work: agilities, proper throwing mechanics, approaching a groundball, etc.  After skill work, the kids were divided into two teams.  Usually we had enough for 5 on 5.  Each team set their own lineup and came up with their team name.  Once teams were set, I pulled one kid from each team to decide which team would be visitors.  We did it the old fashioned way.  A bat was thrown in the air, and after one kid caught it, they did “hand-over-hand” to see who got to choose visitor and home team.

The ball of choice was a tennis ball.  For bats, kids had the option of using a corked whiffle bat (stuffed with newspapers) or a sawed-off broomstick handle.  Most opted for the broomstick handle since it offered the most pop.  We used a piece of plywood that acted as a catcher.  With duct tape, we mapped out the strike zone.  Any pitch taken that hit the zone was a strike.  And because of the age group, I pitched (goal for next year is to have the kids pitch).

Because we didn’t have enough players to field a proper lineup on each side, we improvised like kids did years ago when playing sandlot or stickball.  We played without a first-baseman so we utilized pitcher’s poison on ground balls fielded by infielders.  During a 3 on 4 game, we had to use ghost runners, which the kids loved and created many questions.  And some of the kids’ fathers even played OF.  Not sure who had more fun, the kids or their fathers.  And the dads, including myself took it just as serious as the kids.  We didn’t let balls drop just to let the kids get a hit so they could “feel good.”  Heck, there was one dad that was diving for balls!  It was great for the kids to see their dads having so much fun.

Games were very competitive.  The kids, on each side, took winning seriously.  And I did not discourage that.  If anything, I fed into their intensity.  I tried to coach as little as possible.  My preference was to discuss situations after the game.  But, there were times when I felt a break was needed and took a few minutes to go over some situations during the games.  But, my objective was to let them play.

Running the program cost very little.  To rent the community field for 7 weeks cost about $100 total.  Other expenses included the broomstick handle (couldn’t convince my wife to use one from the house!); whiffle bats; plywood for the strike zone; and water each week for the kids.  So, maybe a grand total of $150.  Not a bad price for seeing a bunch of kids enjoy the game.  I did charge for the 30-minute skill work; but the game was free.  Kids could simply show up when the game started and there was no fee.

When I put the program together, admittedly I did so for a selfish reason.  My 7 year-old is an only child (but that will change in February 2017!).  Over the past year his love of baseball has grown much quicker than I could have anticipated.  So, I wanted to organize the Standlot stickball games as a way that he can continue to play; but in a way that I used to play with my brothers when I was young.

But a few minutes into the first session, I realized that this program is one that I MUST continue next year.  And it needs to grow.  Many of the kids that participated were kids that I coached in the Spring.  I noticed they played a lot looser, and enjoyed the game more than in the Spring.  Since our last Sandlot game, we’ve started the Fall season, and I’ve noticed that their enjoyment of the game has carried over from the Sandlot to their practices.  If seven weeks of Sandlot ball can have that effect on a dozen kids, why not try to do the same on a larger scale?

When kids only play organized baseball (Travel, Little League, Cal Ripken, etc), they do so because they have to.  Their parents signed them up and they need to adhere to the practice and game schedule.  Of course they can quit, but I’m sure their parents will say “let’s finish the season and if you still don’t enjoy it, you don’t have to play next year.”  However, with our program, every week was optional.  When kids showed up, they did so because they were playing mostly on their terms.  Their team, their lineup, they decide which positions they would play.  They showed up because THEY WANTED TO PLAY BASEBALL.  And not because they had to.  There was no cost to play in the game so their parents didn’t have a financial investment.  It was great.  Everyone that showed up did so because they wanted to show up.

I don’t expect today’s youth to organize their own Sandlot games.  Maybe its because they play on too many teams and don’t have time, and are just tired of baseball.  Maybe they just don’t love the game enough.  Maybe its that the parents are scared to let their kids go to the park on their own.  Whatever the reason, you simply don’t see kids playing in parks anymore.  So, a parent, or a coach will need to organize games.  And that’s ok.  Whatever it takes to get the kids outside and playing the game.  Show up with a ball and bat and say “Now go play.”  I guarantee you that they’ll make it work.  And I guarantee you that they’ll come to you and say, “Can we do this again.”  We don’t want to force the kids to play.  Rather, we should guide them.  Provide them with the understanding of something they just don’t know.  Once we show them how much fun they can have playing the game, the chances of them carrying this newfound passion to their organized teams will greatly increase.

Do your kids a favor next summer.  Organize at least 8 kids to meet at a local field.  Bring a broomstick handle or whiffle bat and a tennis ball.  And just let them play.  And see what happens.  I’m sure it won’t be the last time they do it during the summer.  No cost to you, and isn’t it better than having them sit inside playing video games?!



Support Kids’ Big Dreams

“If you can dream it, you can do it.” – Walt Disney

I’m tired of reading articles or blogs that cite the statistics on the percentage of kids that end up playing collegiate or professional sports.  A recent blog post I read stated the following, “If your child does participate in high school sports, it’s highly unlikely that he or she will play college sports, let alone earn an athletic scholarship.”  Oh great, let me show my players this so they get their dreams of playing at the next level out of their system.  What do you think happens when kids read these articles; or see these statistics?  There’s a good chance their mindset may change.  There’s a good chance they may begin to believe that they will be one of the many that never make it to the next level.  They may begin to reduce their effort, their practice time, their determination.  As coaches and as parents, we cannot allow this to happen.  Why bother showing these statistics to our kids?  Why bother even reading them ourselves?

My son is currently 7.  Over the course of the last year, he has become obsessed with baseball.  He can recite every MLB team (and by division!); and his favorite thing to do on his iPad is watch videos on MLB’s At Bat App.  I won’t lie.  I absolutely love it.  But, as much as I love the game, I didn’t force it upon him.  He grew into it on his own.  And what does he want to be when he grows up? “A Baseball Player.”

As a father of a kid who wants to be a professional baseball player; and as a coach to many kids who want the same, my job is to help them achieve that dream.  What I will do is help them create a plan to get them there. What I will do is work with them as much as possible.  What I will do is be honest with them when I think they have holes or weaknesses.  What I will do is be supportive of them when they fail; and encouraging when they need to get back up.  What I will do is give them every ounce of energy I have when working with them.  What I will do is help them develop their perseverance, work ethic and passion for the game.  What I WILL NOT do is discourage them from attempting to fulfill their dream.

Why do I believe that we should never discourage kids from moving towards their dreams?  In order to achieve a massive goal like playing collegiate or professional baseball, one must possess determination, grit, resilience; all of the life skills that are needed to be successful in any endeavor.  The longer a kid can sustain their mission, the more enhanced these life skills become.  But we need to be honest with the kids.  To say that they want to be something is not the same as taking the steps to be what one wants to be.  We need to be quick with our assessment of them and their efforts in working to achieve their goal.  We should not let them stray.  We should remind them of what they want.  It’s a quick way of getting them to take an honest look as to whether they truly want it.

With every goal, there will come an end.  They will either achieve it or abandon it.  In some cases, the abandonment may be forced because of an injury or some other cause.  Sometimes I feel that parents or coaches persuade kids to abandon their dream of playing at a higher level because they don’t want their kids to experience the failure of not making it.  I’ve come to believe that we do a LOT of this these days.  We put our kids in leagues that don’t have championships.  We create travel teams with rosters of 10, 11 or 12 kids so they don’t have to compete for a job.  We do everything we can to make their lives easier so that they don’t have to deal with failure.  Well, guess what, failure can make us stronger.  And putting our kids in situations where they simply cannot fail does not help them in the future.  At some point in their lives they will have to compete.  They may need to compete for a job.  They may need to compete for a sale.  If they fail, they will have very little idea on how to get back up and keep going.  They will be quick to place blame elsewhere.  We need to put our kids in situations where they will win or they will lose.  And we need to let go of the rope.

Our kids’ dreams are our kids’ dreams.  It’s very tempting to integrate ourselves in them because of our past experiences and our knowledge of “the statistics.”  But guess what?  Our kids are not us.  We don’t know what they’re capable of.  We don’t know what they can achieve.  Only they know what they can do.  What we can do is be supportive.  Be there for them and help them when they fall.  They will fall at times; but remember, they need to fall so they can learn how to get back up and move forward.