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The Big Guys of Little League : There's More to This Coaching Than Filling Out a Lineup and Teaching the Fundamentals, but the Rewards Usually Outweigh the Frustrations

June 05, 1986|STEVE HENSON | Times Staff Writer

"When you are discussing a successful coach, you are not necessarily drawing the profile of an entirely healthy person." --Bruce Oglivie,sports psychologist

After offering instruction on subtleties of the squeeze bunt, the coach of a West Hills youth baseball team ends practice by saying: "Does everybody have his glove? Some turkey left his glove the other day. And nobody get hurt before Saturday's game. We only have nine guys."

During practice, a portly 12-year-old player nonchalantly chases after a foul pop fly. His coach, who has been sitting in a shaded dugout while the team works out in the sun, hollers: "C'mon. I expect maximum effort out of you." The player shrugs and replies: "Well, excuse me for missing the ball."

Believing he has the undivided attention of a team of 12-year-olds, a coach instructs: "Hone your swing until it is smooth, sweet, in sync, balanced and a thing of beauty. Watch yourself swing in a mirror."

Despite the coaches' eloquence, the players appear distracted. The manager is the last to notice a group of young girls standing nearby. The five boldest boys stand and walk toward the girls. Six feet from them, the boys veer away and begin wrestling with one another.

Although youth baseball players wear professional-looking uniforms and adultlike expressions of seriousness on game day, they are children. Of that fact, their coaches are constantly reminded.

Coaching kids is more than making out a lineup and teaching baseball fundamentals. Shaping a positive experience for every youth is the real task. And considering that coaches are volunteers offering spare time after long work days, it is a formidable one.

But for most of the 350,000 youth coaches across the country who adjust their caps, stuff equipment into cars and head off to diamonds, the rewards outweigh the frustrations.

"Coaching has enriched me in two important ways," said Chuck Treend of Woodland Hills, who has managed youth teams since 1970. "My sense of humor has sharpened and I've become absolutely sold on kids."

Richard Newman, a former Simi Valley deputy police chief, has coached children aged 10 to 12 in Thousand Oaks for 11 years and is as enthusiastic as ever.

"What keeps me going is that every year I find a boy to root for," Newman said. "Even in an affluent community, some kid doesn't have much going for him. Watching his self-image grow makes coaching worthwhile. This is a dimension parents of other players don't see. Many parents are only sensitive to the needs of their own children."

Youth coaches are easy targets for cynics. Their shortcomings often are glaring. Their successes, the ones not measured in wins and losses, often go unnoticed.

Most enjoy youngsters, but few know how to keep a dozen or so occupied for hours at a time on a ball field. Most enjoy baseball, but few understand the game's nuances.

And most aren't sure quite what to expect when they agree to take a team. But when a season comes to a close, nearly all are able to look back on a worthwhile experience.

"There are three types of players. Those who make it happen, those who watch it happen and those who wonder what happened." --Tommy Lasorda

Successful coaching on the youth level is measured in small increments. A boy who can barely tie a shoe can't be taught to lace into a fastball the first time he tries.

Newman recalled a 10-year-old couldn't swing until he survived an at-bat.

"In anticipation of facing a top 12-year-old, all he could talk about was how fast the pitches were going to be," Newman said. "So I wasn't surprised that he looked at three strikes without swinging.

"But when he returned to the bench, the 10-year-old said put on a brave face and said, 'That pitcher wasn't so fast.' The other kids fell off the bench laughing."

The way players react to the smaller outcomes in a game usually determines how the team fares in the final outcome. A manager has to be like the guy on the Titanic who spent all his time telling the passengers what great swimmers they were.

"The hardest part of managing is keeping the players on an even keel," Ritter said. "When we take a lead, the kids get really up. When we lose a lead, it's the end of the world in their eyes."

Jerry Lang, who coaches 13-15 year olds, keeps his team from riding an emotional roller coaster by chattering nonstop.

"I keep reminding them they're good even when something goes wrong," Lang said. "It helps them keep the little things in perspective."

One coach compared the rough spots during a game to bumps in a road.

"It's like driving a car," he said. "Keep your eyes focused way down the road and you'll steer right down the middle."

It was a nice metaphor except that none of his 10-year-old players had acquired a drivers license.

"I'm not the manager because I'm always right, but I'm always right because I'm the manager." --Gene Mauch

What does it take to manage a youth team? The inclination, mostly. Most leagues are hard up for qualified coaches.

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