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Depending on your perspective, the Little League World Series is one of the best events of summer, or it’s, well, one of the worst. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see kids working together to achieve a common goal. On the other hand, it’s fair to question whether putting preteens on national television is the right thing to do. There’s nothing like the excitement and jubilation of a 12-year-old who just hit the game-winning home run. But there’s also nothing like the sadness and despair of the pitcher who gave it up. 

In those instances, win or lose, coaching – and parenting – become paramount. Kids should experience all of the emotions that come with sports – the good, the bad, and everything in between. But they need to know that winning isn’t everything, that losing isn’t failure, and that tomorrow is a new day.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer some reminders to coaches and parents of young athletes. Full disclosure: These reminders come from someone who learned on the job and didn’t always do things perfectly. But I’m proud to say I’m a parental survivor of youth sports, and I want you to be, too.

First of all, I am a big supporter of youth sports and the lessons they impart. Those lessons, though, aren’t limited to kids. The people in charge – the adults – can learn a thing or two as well.

One of the most common mistakes that coaches and parents make in this area is forgetting the true purpose of youth sports. So often, coaches and parents internalize a child’s success – or failure – and make it about themselves. If my player or my child strikes out, it will reflect poorly on me, they think. 

That is not a healthy mindset – and I know from experience. I’ve been the head coach of a team that’s gotten 10-run-ruled in the fifth inning. I was a two-time MVP for the Atlanta Braves, and I can’t coach a Little League team to victory? Or at least a closer defeat? Wow, this is embarrassing. I must not be a good coach. Can you imagine what the parents must be thinking?

Looking back, it’s easy to laugh at those insecurities, but hey, we all have a competitive gene in us. We all want to win, and we want our kids to win because we think it’ll be a better experience for them. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, the switch gets flipped and we say or do things that we regret. As hard as it can be, it’s crucial to not lose sight of who you’re out there for – and why. 

Youth sports are about youth. They’re not about you. 

Always remember that.

Bobby Cox, even while managing at the highest level, understood his purpose. “Hey, I got a competitive needle like everybody else,” I remember him saying. “I want to win. Of course I do. But it’s not about me.”

Bobby never made it about himself. If you make it about yourself, your decisions become emotional and reactive and aren’t always in the best interests of your players. Bobby wanted to beat Tommy Lasorda – or whomever the opposing manager was that night – but he was always loyal to his players. He always put them in position to succeed. 

Don’t underestimate how much players pick up on that.

The best coaches are typically the ones who deflect. Steve Kerr is a perfect example. He wants to win, and he’s happy when he does, but he’s self-aware. He knows he’s got the best team. Which is why he always makes everything about his players, not himself. 

We, as coaches and parents, need to remember that. As much as we want our kids to win and succeed, inevitably, they’re going to strike out. They’re going to lose. How we react to those setbacks will affect how they react to those setbacks – and it says more about us that any batting average or win-loss record ever could.

It’s also important for coaches to admit when they make an error. When I retired and started coaching Little League, I realized how much I took scoreboards for granted. In the major leagues, everything I wanted to know was right there in front of me. But in Little League, I was constantly asking the umpire, “What’s the inning? What’s the score? What’s the count?”

One day, I’m coaching third base, and our leadoff hitter was up. Next-door neighbor of ours. He was maybe 13 or 14 at the time. Really good kid. Anyway, the third baseman standing next to me was playing back – way back – so you know what I’m thinking: If our guy lays down a bunt, it’s a guaranteed base hit. So I give our hitter the bunt sign, and he looks at me a little confused. I give it again. The pitch comes, he bunts it foul, and he starts walking toward the dugout. I’m thinking, “What the heck is going on?”

Well, when I gave him the bunt sign, there were two strikes. And I didn’t know that. 

Needless to say, the optics weren’t great. I played 18 seasons in the major leagues, and here I am calling for a bunt with two strikes. Everyone is looking at me as if to say, “What were you thinking?”

Truth be told, I wasn’t. And that’s the thing: As a coach, you’re going to mess up. You’re going to be humbled. Don’t beat yourself up for it, and just focus on the kids. The more you do that, the less you’ll worry about results, and the more your players will have a good experience – win or lose.

Earlier, I said I love youth sports because of the lessons they teach. While that’s true, I don’t think youth sports are the only – or even the most important – vehicle for kids to learn valuable life lessons. They can do that in any number of extra-curricular activities and, of course, the classroom. No matter how talented your child may be, don’t force him or her into one sport or one activity. 

Case in point: When my son, McKay, was playing Little League, we were driving to a game and I asked him what his favorite position was. 

“Benchwarmer,” he said.

I laughed, and so did he.

“No, seriously,” I said, “what’s your favorite position?”

“Benchwarmer,” he repeated.

At this point, I was confused.

“What about centerfield?” I asked. “You were playing center the other day, and you got that guy out at second base. That was a great throw! You were really good!”

And that’s when McKay, who was maybe 8 at the time, gave me some timeless advice about how we should coach – and raise – our kids:

“Well, dad, I may be good at it, but that doesn’t mean I like it.”

That hit me. Hard. 

But it makes sense. Just because a kid is good at something doesn’t mean he or she likes doing it. And, on the flip side, they might not be great at something but still really love it. That’s okay, too. When it comes to youth sports, performance is secondary to passion and fun. You should encourage kids to try their best, sure, but the results – the final scores – don’t matter. What matters are the lessons they learn.

During a child’s formative years, parents should find out what their kids like to do and give them opportunities to pursue it. I’m so grateful that I had parents and mentors who gave me a chance to play a game I love – and I never once felt pressure to play or perform.

Don’t believe me? Well, this is a true story: In my first year of Little League, I got one hit all season. That’s it. But never once did my parents try to convince me not to play. They weren’t embarrassed to watch me play a sport that, at the time, I wasn’t very good at, nor did they consider it a waste of time. The next year came around, and I wanted to play. So they let me play.

Whether it’s sports or music or art or theater – or anything else your child wants to pursue – let them give it a shot. Let them discover what the world has to offer, and let them decide how they want to spend their time. Maybe it’s in sports, and maybe it isn’t. Just remember to put their happiness before yours.

Speaking of which, that year when I only got one hit: I didn’t even know that. I didn’t know the difference between a base hit and an error. I was just so dang happy to put on a uniform and have fun with my friends. My parents, bless their hearts, didn’t break the news to me until years later. I just laughed and shrugged my shoulders. I got to play baseball. That was all that mattered.

Keep that in mind when you’re coaching and parenting. Youth sports is not a make-or-break time in a kid’s life in terms of their athletic future. We don’t know at 10 or 12 what’s going to happen at 12 or 14. A kid who’s not great one day could be great the next. Or they might find something else that they’re better at – or just something that they enjoy more. That’s okay.

In the end, be supportive and encouraging of your kids, stress a strong work ethic, and show them how to win with class and lose with grace.

And whatever you do, don’t ever, ever, call for a bunt with two strikes.


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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Chris Carpenter says:

    Thanks, Murph. What I like best about your post is an acknowledgment that coaching/parenting our kids in youth sports is hard.

    Most of us do not step out there to make fools of ourselves or hurt the kids, but two things at play make the best of us irrational: the love of our kids and competitiveness. When those are combined, it can lead to some poor behavior and misguided parenting. The typical “Remember- it is about having fun” advice not only doesn’t apply with blanket universality, but it also undercuts the hard work many of us involved in coaching our kids put in to making it a great experience.

    If we really want to create better environments for our kids in which to play youth sports, we need to have more nuanced conversations acknowledging that many of us grew up learning the wrong way to do it, it is much harder to be a good sports parent than recognized, and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to it.