We Need Strong & Confident Kids

Stacie MahoeI came across this article recently written by Stacie Mahoe, Stop Babying Your Athletes, Help Raise STRONG Kids Instead!  She’s been active in the softball world and blogging for years now.  In this article she opines, “I believe competing is being hampered, discouraged, and eliminated by people who forever pamper kids, giving everyone a trophy while telling them “it’s okay” whenever they mess up, and instilling the idea that you don’t pay for mistakes or shouldn’t have to.”

She also talks about coaches and parents making excuses for the players, while clinging to the belief, “It’s just a game.”  Her main point is, “Don’t allow them to become victims.  Help raise STRONG, confident kids who believe in their own ability to overcome mistakes they make!”  

An 8 year old making a mistake in tee ball cannot be compared to one made by a 16 year old on varsity or a travel team.

I thought about the possibility that some people may take what she’s saying the wrong way, while getting defensive and missing the message.  I have said many times, “Softball is a game and games are meant to be fun!”  I have also recently written about the developmental aspects of Recreational Softball and tweeted to the girls that I expect them to make mistakes in those games.  And I’ve also texted, tweeted and written things like, “Relax, take a deep breath and swing hard.  Whatever happens; happens.  You can look good striking out.”  So I decided I’d better attempt to clarify the points I have been trying to make in order to avoid any confusion or mixed messages.  

Playing vs Competing

Youth recreational softball for all ages under 10 years old is about playing, not competing.  Playing is equivalent to participating.  For recreational and school softball playing can also take place through Junior Varsity, but this comes with the gradual added emphasis of competing.  Competing is attempting to outdo an opponent or in travel and varsity softball to outdo another player to win a spot on the team or starting position.  Winning is not the same as competing.  Player’s and teams can compete and lose or not get a spot on a team.  Both playing and competing can and should be fun.

A coach may fear the reaction of a player or her parents if he sits her on the bench or disciplines her for her mistakes or bad attitude.

Everybody Gets a Trophy – Recreational & School Softball

I have written about this topic several times before, especially throughout the Levels of the Game articles.  I am not a fan, but for ages 10 and under I don’t think it matters.  They’re just playing, not competing.  For the older ages the mentality should be abandoned like a sinking ship.  Stacie’s article points out, “these kids are being pampered and told it’s okay if they mess up.”  However, an 8 year old making a mistake in tee ball cannot be compared to one made by a 16 year old on varsity or a travel team.  The same could be said for a freshman who is playing a position for the first time in a recreational game, because the varsity coach wants to see her there.  She’s bound to make mistakes.  I feel these distinctions are important.

Many varsity teams are lucky to have more than a couple serious players who have travel softball experience.  These players usually don’t have to look over their shoulders worrying if somebody’s going to take their spots, because there’s often a large drop in talent to the next possible replacement.  A coach may fear the reaction of a player or her parents if he sits her on the bench or disciplines her for her mistakes or bad attitude.  And to make matters worse, if she plays a key position on the team and he refuses to hold her accountable, then she will likely develop into a prima donna.  When the rest of the team sees a prima donna or another player getting away with things, the coach has lost the players and parents respect and control of the team for sure.

I know of players who could not handle the higher level of criticism, discipline and structure and quit softball.

College Exposure Tournaments & Travel Softball

I was at a Premier Girls Fastpitch Independence Day College Exposure tournament in Boulder, Colorado last summer.  It’s one of the biggest travel softball tournaments in the country that the best teams can only attend by invitation.  Many of the most successful college softball programs heavily recruit at this tourney.  The purpose of exposure tournaments is to give college coaches looks at players in specific positions that the coaches are looking for or often to check the progress of one of their commits.  For players and parents it is quite an adjustment mentally.  All the years before this during travel tourneys, the focus was on winning tournaments.  You frequently have situations where your best 9 players are not in the lineup.

I had a conversation with an assistant coach from a very big and prestigious university and she said, “One of the biggest problems with these exposure tournaments is that these girls show up to college and don’t know how to compete or win anymore.”  I can totally believe this point that the mentality of the players is being reshaped to the degree that they become less competitive concerning winning or fighting for a spot in the lineup.  The coach added, “We have to really push these girls when they get here and re-teach them how to compete and fight.”

Another very well known and successful college coach said, “When these girls show up and we start pushing them hard, many of them want to quit and go home.  We need these girls to be tougher before they show up at college.”  I can absolutely believe this too.  I know of players who could not handle the higher level of criticism, discipline and structure and quit softball.  Some even gave up their scholarships.  This definitely proves Stacie right concerning coaches and parents who’ve failed their daughters or players by babying them.  

Travel softball has multiple levels of competition that a below the Elite Premier and Gold levels, which are often referred to as A, B or C.  Many of these teams come and go, may be coached by parents or have trouble finding players.  A player on one of these teams may not need to worry about her performance or messing up, because there’s nobody else on the team ready to take her spot.  Have a dismal game, no big deal.  A player can stay up all night eating pizza and ice cream and play like crap the next day, but have no worry that she’ll get benched.  But, a player on an Elite team is usually held accountable for her performance with many skilled players who are glad to take her spot.

Coaches and parents teach them that they deserve to be rewarded regardless of the results of their efforts.

Competing vs Playing

Pampering vs Fostering Confidence

Summing up Stacie’s and my point concerning the older ages of recreational, high school and travel softball, to pamper a player is to not hold them accountable for their poor performance, attitude or mistakes.  In doing this coaches and parents teach the players that no matter what, they deserve to be rewarded regardless of the results of their efforts (Everybody Gets a Trophy).  I’ll go out on a limb and also suggest that pampering kids in the classrooms and homes also contributes to their weakness.  Today we pass kids to the next grade so they don’t rebel or have their self-esteems damaged.  Some parents often let their kids get away with disrespecting them and others including teachers or let them off the hook if they don’t do their chores.

When they grow up and venture out into the real world, they’ll be in for a shock.  Their employers won’t be rewarding them for performing poorly, a bad attitude or making mistakes.  They may even be fired or disciplined.  Basically, they will have developed into societal victims with weak spirits, low self-esteem and no self-confidence and are ill-equipped to overcome obstacles, setbacks or injustices.  They will not be able or willing to fight for what they want, whether it’s a job, promotion or standing up to those who are doing them wrong.  No, they’ll just feel sorry for themselves and/or bitch and whine when things aren’t going their way.  What we’re really talking about is a sense of entitlement.

Rather than get stuck in an abusive relationship, she’ll throw the bum out and find somebody who will treat her with respect?

On the other hand if the girls understand that there are consequences for the actions, they will want to learn how to change the actions that caused them.  Don’t want to get pulled from the game?  Then, charge the ball next time like the coach has been telling you.  Don’t like seeing your daughter get pulled from the game for not charging the ball?  Back up the coach and tell her you would have pulled her too instead of coddling her or telling her the coach is an idiot. A couple decades ago this was known as tough love.

Over the years if she is being held accountable for her actions, just maybe she’ll be better able to handle those curve balls life is going to throw her down the road?  Rather than sulk or whine if she doesn’t get the promotion, maybe she’ll be more determined than ever to work harder to get the next one?  Rather than get taken advantage of by the automotive repair shop, maybe she’ll call them out and take her car elsewhere?  Rather than get stuck in an abusive relationship, she’ll throw the bum out and find somebody who will treat her with respect?

My Personal Example

During my daughter’s freshman year on the varsity team, early in the season she was up to bat, took a wimpy swing and grounded out to 2nd base (again).  The 1st base coach wrapped her arm around my daughter telling her something like, “It’s ok honey.  You’re doing a great job.”  I knew she was taking defensive swings that day, which comes from the fear of striking out.  I recognized this from the years of elite travel softball she had already played.  Keep in mind this very important point: I am NOT talking about my daughter failing.  I am talking about my daughter playing it safe and NOT giving the effort she was capable of.  There’s a big difference.

Her mother saw what the 1st base coach was doing too and it really pissed her off.  She enacted the 24 hour rule, then called the head coach and politely told him, “Stop babying my daughter.  If anybody is going to baby her, it’s going to be me.  You need to stop telling her it’s ok for playing like crap.”  That’s the gist of their conversation and most likely the G-rated and abbreviated version. 

The coach later told me he had never been scolded by a parent for taking it too easy on a kid.  The normal parent complaint he received was something like, “These girls are in track. They’re in softball. They don’t need to be running the bases in practice.”  The bottom line is that if they continued to baby her, she would have headed into the summer unprepared for the extremely competitive travel season.  It would have effectively set her up for failure.  Instead, she went on to get the attention of many college coaches that summer.

I first teach them how to play, then how to compete.

My Simple Coaching Philosophy

I try to be up front and honest as possible with the players I work with and their parents (high school aged girls).  Many times I have stated, “I can teach players the fundamentals, advanced skills and the mental mindsets of the game.  But, it’s up to the player to actually be able to do them in the games.  I cannot promise any player they’ll be a superstar.  I can only help them be the best that they can be.”  I first teach them how to play, then how to compete. Keep in mind that some girls are competitive by nature and require less guidance. 

They will learn that they are accountable for their performance.  And they will also learn that there are consequences for their attitude and behavior if they are pulled from a game and fail to support the teammate who replaced them.  Teaching players how to compete demands accountability.  Allowing players to perform skills incorrectly is pampering them.  In competition there are winners and losers as players and teams try to outdo their teammates and/or the other team.  That’s the risk athletes must take.  

Sometimes they need a pat on the back and other times a kick in the rear.

If they learn to avoid the risk or that they should be rewarded for losing or their failure as an athlete, how is that preparing them to compete for what they want in the real world?  Why not help them learn to handle failure and overcome adversity at this stage in their life?  How can you expect them to take the risk of chasing their dreams if they’re afraid to fail?  It’s been said that, “Softball is a game of failure. You are really good if you get 3 hits out of 10 at-bats.  That means you fail far more than you succeed.”  

Teaching players to compete involves teaching them accept their failures, while working to improve their chances for future success or not to give up and quit.  With the different personality types and confidence levels of the players, teaching this can be a fine line between pampering and pushing them.  Sometimes they need a pat on the back and other times a kick in the rear. I find it especailly enjoyable watching a player who has recently failed at something come back and be successful the next time.  And I am quick to give them praise and encouragement.  For me, this is one of the most rewarding benefits of coaching.

So, who’s crazy?  The coach who allows his player to swing away after missing the first two bunt attempts?  Or the coach who makes her bunt with two strikes, benches her after failing to get it down and the parents who support and reinfocre his decision?

*Note - The picture above is from Stacie Mahoe's web site, which has a lot of interesting softball articles and information.