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Youth Sports… the Cliff and Jamie Story

Cliff Bottom Row 2nd from Left Jamie 2nd Row 2nd from Left

As a young kid I participated in many sports including baseball, basketball, BMX racing, tennis and others. Along the way I gathered many lifelong lessons and relationships that I carry to this day. As a parent I have made sure that sports are a part of my Daughter and Sons lives so they to will benefit from the enormous value that sports can contribute to ones development and character. Recently I was reminded just how important sports were to my development and the lessons and memories that will live with me for a lifetime.  I never accomplished much as an athlete like most and I refuse to create some false narrative to brag to others about how great I was, like so many others do.  Often we hear from people that tell us how great they were at sports, how they should have been a professional, how something or someone kept them from realizing their full potential.   We all have heard stories like this and simply take them with a grain of salt, smile and secretly know it’s a bunch of bullshit.   In full disclosure, I was an OK athlete, not usually picked last but rarely picked first, I was kinda small and skinny for my age as I grew in my later teens.

 

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I coach my son’s competitive baseball team and it is a very difficult balance between competition, fairness, winning, development, parents expectations, kids feelings, proper training, tough love and sanity.   This summer our team is slotted to go to Cooperstown to play at the birthplace of baseball and have a magical baseball experience with a group of kids that have known each other and played together since they were 6 years old.    During the spring season prior to this summer we lost a few players and families because they felt our team wasn’t competitive enough, wasn’t able to win enough or had kids on it that weren’t good enough to play with them.  This event troubled me deeply as I lost a dear friendship because of it.   I was unwilling to alter the team and change the roster and cut kids based on talent and deny them the Cooperstown  experience that we have been anticipating for years.   During the Spring we did loose a few more games because of the defections, we were not as competitive but looking back I wouldn’t have changed a thing.    Cooperstown is supposed to be the pinnacle of youth baseball, an experience that these kids will treasure for a lifetime and something I was not willing to rob any of them of regardless of our win / lose record.    I never thought I owed anything to the families of our team beyond Cooperstown but I knew I owed them that and I wasn’t willing to trade friendships and loyalty for any amount of wins.

A few years ago I connected with a former teammate of mine and was deeply touched and profoundly impacted by a simple conversation on Facebook messenger.  I am sure Jamie doesn’t know how much he impacted me but it was significant and I would like to thank him for doing so.   Jamie (James) Mills reached out to me on Facebook and just wanted to say hi to an old friend never thinking about the impact that a simple message would have on me.   When I played with Jamie he was an extremely good baseball player the one I thought as a young kid could be a professional, the one I thought could really become a famous baseball player.  Jamie was a big kid for his age, hit home runs and threw the ball so hard my mom had to cut up a sponge so I could put it in my catcher mitt so my hand could handle the abuse.  Jamie and I didn’t go to the same high school, didn’t socialize in the same friend circles and haven’t seen each other since we were 12 years old because I went and played baseball at a different park.  When I look back on my baseball career the glowing memory or thing that I remember the most was that I was Jamie’s catcher.  In my mind I identified my entire baseball memory as the kid that caught the best stud pitcher in the area, his success was my success.  During our brief Facebook messenger conversation I mentioned to Jamie that my son plays baseball and I asked him what became of his baseball career, thinking he might have played in college or maybe the pros.  This was his response that for some reason affected me so much… You mentioned playing ball with your son making you think of the past, I honest feel that when you were my catcher I had the most fun and pitched my best games. I never amounted to much after that (as far as baseball is concerned). I used to wish I went farther in baseball but I think I was just meant to be a soldier and a pilot”.

In the moments after reading Jamie’s message I realized I had no idea how many games we won or lost, I have no idea what my batting average was nor could I begin to tell you the details of any game I played in with Jaime.   What I did know is that it was the experience with Jaime that was forged in my memory, it was the friendship that was created and that will never be forgotten.    Jaime didn’t talk about our record or stats his first description of our playing days was “fun”.  As a coach I constantly struggle with the pull of competition, winning and my competitive spirit but I often find myself remembering a short Facebook message from a friend I once played with a long time ago to help guide me.   I know I have not always made the right decisions as a coach but I know deep down I have tried my best to manage the expectations of 12 kids, 24 parents,  step parents and some grandparents.   It isn’t easy being a youth coach but I haven’t regretted it a day and if asked to do all over again I would say yes faster than a Nolan Ryan heater.  I want to say thank you to all the players and parents that have allowed me to play a small role in their lives.

Don’t Hate the Coach

327For 5 years I have dedicated myself to coaching my Son’s baseball teams, but this week was the most extreme event of all.   A seventy five year old Grandfather threatened to hit me in the face.  I’ll get to this later, but first I want to share with you my journey as a Coach.

Five years ago I walked into a youth Baseball Park to sign my then 6 year old son up for recreational youth baseball.  I was immediately asked if I would help coach a team and I reluctantly said yes but was unsure of my ability.  Soon after I agreed to help coach I was asked if I would be the Manager of that team,  The park wasn’t able to get enough managers, I once again reluctantly said yes.   Over the past 5 years and 14 different baseball seasons I have either coached or managed the team my son has been associated with, with what some would consider decent success.  As a highly competitive person, coaching youth sports becomes a huge balance between player development, player happiness, competitiveness, parent satisfaction, personal interest and team success.  It is difficult to achieve all of these at the same time without one of the other aspects suffering a bit.   I always use the term, “everyone can’t play shortstop”.

Lets talk about DADDYBALL for a moment.  Often parent’s claim daddyball when the coaches son always pitches, plays shortstop or bats towards the top of the lineup.  Daddyball is certainly a real thing and if egregious should be addressed, but often I find that the coaches children are at the top of the skill level on most teams.  I also know there is a phenomenon we should call BleacherDad/Mom, this is where the parents seem to want to control the coaches decisions from the other side of the fence.  Please know that as coaches, we are cognoscente that you are out there, have opinions and 2nd guess everything we do.   This is simply the greatest challenge that a coach with a heart, feelings and desire to do the right thing struggles with the most.   Every parent in the stands focuses on their child while in the field or up to bat and is always biased towards the betterment of their child.  I have never seen a parent take a photo of another persons child and post it to social media.  Youth coaches don’t get paid, rarely are thanked and expose themselves to extreme scrutiny season after season and guess what they also have a bias towards their child and must struggle with it constantly.    When things are equal or close to it, it is likely that a coach is going to express bias towards their child.   As much as no one wants to hear this, it is true and maybe that is the payment a coach gets for sacrificing thousands of hours of coaching.   Every parent of a child playing baseball wants to control where and when their child plays but unfortunately for those in the stands only the coaches can actually control this; hence the DADDYBALL effect.

So this week, I was screamed at, cussed at and threatened with physical violence from a grandparent of a former player.  I was told that “I was a horrible coach”, “his grandson knows more about baseball than me”.  Most of the things that were said are a blur because I was screamed at with a finger in my face for more than 20 minutes.   Not sure what to do or how to handle the situation, I merely stood there with my hands behind my back and let the man vent until he allowed me to speak.   The crux of the issue was that the player was removed from the team for many reasons including the mother expressing to one of the coaches that “he is going to stop playing baseball and focus on basketball”.   Apparently missing several games, practices and showing lack of commitment to the team isn’t acceptable reason to replace a player.  After sharing with the grandfather all the reasons that the team decided to go a different direction that weren’t given to him by the mother he reluctantly seemed to accept what I told him, kinda apologized and shook my hand.  Regardless of how it ended I was hurt and disturbed that a parent/grandparent was so angry with me and believed that I affected his grandson so badly that he wished to do me harm.   After pondering if coaching is worth the scrutiny, stress and hatred that comes with it I seriously considered stepping aside and listening to my wife who has preached that coaching only makes people hate me.   I have realized that the desire to share the youth baseball experience with my son is so much more important to me than those that I may offend, I will continue to coach.  This decision came from the result of multiple conversations with parents, coaches and trusted individuals.

Remember most coaches that volunteer their time, resources, knowledge, compassion, passion, finances, emotions and heart are doing the best they can.  Just as there is no book or class on how to be a parent there is no real book on exactly how to  coach each and every team. Coaching is a very fluid situation with many people, feelings, opinions and outcomes.  If you believe the person who is coaching your child is trying their best cut them some slack and if you don’t then volunteer yourself.