Let players grow up before competition gets intense

ASK CAL

July 02, 2006|By CAL RIPKEN JR.

I help coach a 9U baseball travel team where we've found that our boys fade in late games at big tournaments. It has more to do with mental lapses than physical fatigue. Can mental toughness and focus be taught or coached at this age, or is it just a matter of waiting for these boys to mature?

Dan Markim, Austin, Texas

DEAR DAN / / I think you hit it right on the head with your last statement. Sometimes in the quest to provide our kids with opportunities to improve and allow them to play more games, we put them in situations that they are not mentally and emotionally prepared to handle.

Tournaments are competitive by nature. One team will be crowned champion. Kids know this, and the games seem to take on more meaning. It is crucial for coaches of younger players to maintain an even keel throughout the season.

You want to give players every opportunity to compete, but not to the point of burning them out. Try to treat every game the same way, whether it is a regular-season game or a tournament. This is important for parents and supporters to understand as well. If the coaches are more uptight than normal -- if they seem on edge and the parents are louder and more demonstrative than normal -- the players will feed off of that and put more pressure on themselves to succeed.

Nine-year-olds are not as developed emotionally as older players and adults, so a constant diet of ultra-competitive, high-tension games can wear them out mentally. Focus on getting kids to give their best effort and to be competitive every time, instead of making winning the ultimate goal. This should help keep their brains from getting overloaded and allow them to maintain their mental focus.

My son is in a 12U travel baseball league, and we had an incident where one of his teammates was called out immediately after a base hit because the ump claimed his back foot was out of the batter's box. I believe the opposing team's coach tipped off the ump from an earlier at-bat. It was only a matter of inches, and the batter's box line had long been obliterated. Isn't it appropriate at this level of competition to warn the batter before the pitch? What is your opinion about coaches tipping off umpires for obvious petty calls?

Brad Hayek, New Market

DEAR BRAD / / Bench jockeying has become a part of sports at all levels. It seems as though coaches are always trying to get an advantage by talking to officials and tipping them off to things that they should be looking for -- working the officials, as it has become known. Unfortunately, to some degree, the media glorifies this type of behavior by focusing on the actions of professional and college coaches on the sidelines and in the dugouts. At some point, athletics does become more competitive, and this type of behavior is more acceptable. There is no place for it in youth sports.

If a player on another team is violating a rule that has a true impact on the game, thus gaining a competitive advantage, then, by all means, that coach should bring the situation to the umpire's attention. This should be done professionally, without making a scene. However, I have a problem with coaches who insert themselves into the game and try to gain a psychological advantage over a group of kids.

What advantage was the player in your scenario gaining from being a tiny bit out of the batter's box? Probably not much. But, by bringing the situation to the umpire's attention, not only was the opposing coach trying to get a call for his team, but also he most likely was trying to get your team off of its game a little bit. I would prefer it if coaches stuck to preparing their teams to the best of their abilities and then let the players determine the outcome through their on-field performance.

My 14-year-old son is in his second year of Babe Ruth baseball. In a recent game, there was a man on second and the pitcher called time out. The infielders came in to talk to the coach and then went back to their positions. Then as our runner got off to take his lead, the shortstop tagged our runner, and the ump called him out. What do you think about tricks like this?

Dustin Tinney, Castle Rock, Wash.

DEAR DUSTIN / / The hidden ball trick has been attempted for as long as kids have been playing baseball. While this play should never work if the base runner is alert, I'm not sure I like the message that the coach who tried the play is sending to his team.

In many ways, coaches are educators who communicate a lot more than simply how to play the game. There are many life lessons to be learned through competitive sports, and part of a youth coach's job is to be a positive role model and help players relate situations that arise in games to everyday life. It should be the goal of every coach to help make the members of his or her team better players and better people.

This particular coach was sending a message that it is OK to stretch the limits of what is commonly accepted as sportsmanlike play to gain a competitive advantage. I'm all for coaches teaching their players creative pickoff plays to limit a team's aggressiveness on the base paths, as long as those plays are within the accepted strategies of the game. A coach who stretches those limits, however, in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage is not sending the proper message to his team.

Keep in mind, though, that if your team is the victim of a play such as this, instead of getting mad at the opposing coach or complaining to the umpire, you should use it as a teachable moment to explain to your players that they should never take a lead until they are sure the pitcher is on the rubber.

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Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to askcal@baltimoresun.com.

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