As a prelude to my upcoming podcast series on resilience, I wanted to tackle a particularly insidious issue involving the mental side of baseball that not only happens at every practice but happens many multiple times at every practice. Consider this...
In the typical youth baseball or high school baseball practice, coaches speak up only when something goes wrong.
A booted ground ball.
Throwing to the wrong base.
Swinging at a pitch above their head.
Not only that, but when the coach speaks, the player who made the mistake is publicly thrown under the bus. The coach vocally calls him out in front of his peers and teammates.
Think about this for a minute. How would you like it if your boss called you out in front of all your peers and co-workers at the office each time you made a mistake?
You'd probably think your boss was a jerk and that such treatment was unnecessary because your boss should just talk to you in private.
Yet coaches all across the nation publicly disown their players at every practice. Including myself. And it doesn’t even require ranting at the top of the lungs for a coach to qualify for showing up your kids.
Remember, for kids to love the game of baseball, it has to be fun. And it's no fun when you get publicly called out in front of your friends and teammates every single time you goof up.
When you punish your people for making a mistake or falling short of a goal, you create an environment of extreme caution, even fearfulness. In sports, it’s similar to playing “not to lose”—a formula that often brings on defeat."
- John Wooden
It's time to re-think how coaches handle errors in practices.
A new approach
First, coaches should commit to not publicly embarrassing kids when they make mistakes in practices.
Next, and if you're still on board with me at this point, I hope you're asking "What do we do instead?" After all, the goal of this blog and the podcast is to give you practical, actionable content. And I'd hate to leave you with a theoretical concept but no plan to put it into action.
I'll suggest a few ideas. Feel free to swipe as many as you like.
- Do activities in small groups as much as possible instead of team-wide activities.
In small groups of 3-4 players, the setting is more private, so your correction won't have the feel of a public rebuke.
- Explain and demonstrate the activity prior to having the team try it.
Do this even if the players have done this activity in the past. Coaches sometimes are loathe to repeat past concepts for fear of appearing long-winded or boring kids with information they already know. But research has shown that the more often a student hears something, the better they will retain it. And the more your players know what they are expected to do, the less you will feel the need to say something when they don't do as expected.
- Have a player demonstrate the skill to be learned to his teammates. Research shows that people who can explain a concept in their own words are better able to retain the concept. Plus it helps subtly promote leadership and public speaking skills in your kids. Whatever the case, the point is again that the more your players know what they should do, the less verbal correction you need to give.
- Have the kids copy or mimic what you're doing before they actually go on the field to begin. This allows you to correct in a gentle way while still huddled up before the activity, rather than yelling across the field during the activity. (As a bonus, it also helps give the kids a feel for what needs to be done ahead of time.)
- Save your comments for a private conversation in-between practice activities. As the kids shuffle to the next activity, few (if any) will notice your private conversation with the player in question. And even if they are noticed, private conversations by definition do not publicly embarrass people.
- Instead of telling the player what he did wrong, simply ask the player to "try it again." Although saying "try it again" is a public statement, it actually makes no judgement. It is simply a request. And since you already explained beforehand what they are working on, they should know what they need to try again without you needing to tell them. You can even periodically have a player who executed properly to "try it again" to further prove that the request makes no judgement.
- Ignore any errors that do not involve the specific skill being practiced. For example, let's say you are breaking down how to throw and are focusing on having them point their glove-side arm to the target. If you notice the player's footwork is awkward, do not point out the footwork. Instead, save that feedback for a drill or activity that focuses on footwork.
Are coaches not allowed to criticize players, ever?
This change in practice philosophy does not mean you can't tell your players what they did wrong. Believe me, I'm not into everybody-is-great and everyone-gets-a-game-ball. I'm not trying to pander to kids who are overly sensitive and easily offended.
I am, however, saying there is a right way and a wrong way to correct your players. Do it off to the side. Do it in a small group. Do it calmly in a huddle so that you don't need to raise your voice so it can project across the field. Stick to correction that is not tangential.
When else can you criticize specific players? You'll likely need to give immediate feedback when running a team-wide drill or activity that integrates/tests multiple skills or aspects of the game, such as a "Situations" drill or mass grounders. In such scenarios, I would call the entire team into a huddle so you can give your feedback in a team context without needing to yell across the field to highlight a player's error.
For example, say you're doing a "Situations" drill and on a particular play, the second baseman stood around instead of covering second base on a grounder to short with a runner on first. I would huddle up the team as soon as the play is over and ask, "What did we not do well on this play?" Notice the use of the word "we" here. I did not say, "What did Johnny not do well on this play?" which singles out the player in front of his teammates. Instead, the term "we" identifies the team, not an individual.
Of course, the kids will likely answer your question by singling out the player (e.g., "Johnny forgot to cover second."). If that happens, you should correct any such answer by responding with something like, "We forgot to cover second. It was Johnny this time but it could be Tommy or Andrew or Devin next time. The specific player is not what's important, so going forward, let's use the word 'we' instead of the person's name. We are focusing on what we didn't do well, not who didn't do it well."
You may be asking, "Do I have to huddle up after every miscue? Can't I just yell out once in a while?" When it comes to yelling out, even just occasionally, I offer two words: Must. Resist. It's not the yelling out per se but publicly showing up the specific kid that we want to stop.
Let's say you're doing team-wide mass grounders, with four groups of kids on the infield. When a ball goes between a kid's legs, every coach's inclination (and I do mean every coach) is to yell out, "Get your glove down, Johnny!" Even if you don't use the kid's name, everyone knows who that was directed to, so that comment still publicly embarrasses the kid. If the kid is older or experienced, he probably knows what he did wrong so perhaps you could get away with saying nothing. If not, I would wait until I see this problem happen multiple times, then pause the activity, huddle the team up and give team-wide reminder to get their gloves down early.
A common objection to huddling up after every significant miscue is, "If I did that, wouldn't it break up the momentum of the drill? Or waste precious practice time that could be used instead to give kids extra reps?" Reps are of course important and I'm a huge advocate of getting kids as many reps as possible. But huddling up to teach something is not a waste of time if kids are learning. What good are extra reps if you're missing teachable moments? What good are extra reps if the kids repeat the same mistakes during those extra reps?
The bottom line
Coaches love to correct. Coaches think they are not a good coach if they are not correcting something, as if we're showing off our knowledge of the game by correcting often. And there's nothing wrong with correcting—or even correcting often—if done in a way that does not show up the player publicly.
By implementing this new kind of mindset and altering your practices accordingly, you are radically changing the way baseball practices are run. Practices—and baseball in general—can become more fun and more freeing.
I'm making the change. Will you join me?It's time for coaches to stop showing up kids in practices Click To Tweet
P.S. If you have additional suggestions to share with the Edge Fraternity for how to avoid publicly embarrassing your players, leave them in the comments section below.
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