Hitting the tees
I stood there in the shallow grass, watching the chaos around me take place.
Yes, I signed up to be here. Yes, I naively thought I had seen it all on this subject, but was swiftly reminded of the unpredictable nature of where I was.
This is not for the weak of heart. This is instructional league tee-ball.
I took a role as an assistant coach on my sons’ team this season. It was their first foray into organized baseball (although, every time I called what they were doing “baseball”, I was immediately corrected by my kids that it was “tee-ball” like a pair of ruthless English teachers who had just heard careless grammar). The league was also the first post-pandemic, in-person activity my kids took part in beyond the friendly walls that hold up our house.
As an assistant coach, I had a few responsibilities, including asking the kids to not kick the infield sand, help the kids warm up, position them in the field at certain spots, ask them again to not kick the sand, help kids struggling to swing the bat on how to hold it and where to stand.
And, finally, contain my anguish as the kids ignore me for a 43rd time to stop kicking the infield sand.
For most of the game, I am parked somewhere out in the field to observe and help the kids either run to the next base or encourage kids to stop picking flowers long enough to grab the ball rolling by their feet.
Best seat in the house.
I defy anyone to go to Fenway Park and demand to stand in shallow right field all game. It’s a great vantage point. It gave me unprecedented access to the highlights from team members and opponents alike. It also gave me time to gather enough tee-ball knowledge to pass on a quick tutorial to all you parents thinking about getting your sons and daughters involved in baseball.
My kids in unison: Tee-ball!
Respect the personalities
You will never meet a more entertaining crew in your life than a group of 4- to 7-year-olds brought together in what is for some, tee-ball shirts that drape down to their ankles like an evening gown.
And ohhh the conversations you’ll have.
You will learn more about what these kids ate for dinner right before the game, what shows they think are AWESOME and one kid on an opponent’s team who gave me a game-long description of his pet iguana, Walter.
Forget teaching how to round the bases, spend a few minutes learning about the lizard’s diet and you’ll make a kid’s summer. For the record, lots of green vegetables.
My favorite interaction was with one young man, who was spending most of his time building a mound of sand somewhere roughly between shortstop and third base.
Me: “Hey there, nice sand castle, but want to get ready for the next inning?”
Him: “It’s a sand fort,” he said with every last ounce of condescension in his body.
And the sand continued to pile up.
Distract to attract attention
For those just getting into very young, youth coaching, there are two complimentary rules to learn right away:
1. The kids will ignore 95% of what you say
2. Don’t take it personal
They are just distracted. Always. A 2021 attention span on a kid is about as quick as a 100-mile per hour fastball. Don’t try to fight the distractions, because everything is a distraction...
The wind. The traffic driving by. The kids’ younger siblings running around in the outfield.
And you. Yes, you will be a distraction.
The key? You need to distract them. For instance, if all the kids playing in the field are more interested in watching everything but the ball, tell them your eyesight is bad and can’t tell what color the player’s bat is.
Snacks are everything
Bring them or face child-sized consequences.
The league failed to secure these players lucrative contracts that other professional ball clubs enjoy. Luckily, a snack-sized bag of cheese-flavored chips seems to be enough compensation...for now.
If you have only one takeaway it is this: bring snacks and there will be peace on the baseball diamond.
Kids in unison: the “tee-ball diamond.”
Ahhh! I know, I know kids.
The final lesson
There is a part of me that selfishly wanted to help take all these kids under my tutelage and have them leave two months later as genuine baseball-loving junkies.
Kids in unison: Dad! You mean…
Me: No. I don’t. Baseball, baseball, baseball. There!
You won’t be victorious carrying off a large trophy or igniting a fervent passion for the game. All the incentives are in the small things.
My youngest gained more confidence being on a team.
My oldest showed some small leadership-y skills in demonstrating what the head coach wanted when others wouldn’t at first.
One kid nearly floated to first base, completely bewildered he could finally hit a ball by himself after weeks of practicing a certain swing. I overheard another say it wasn’t as good as video games, but, it was “actually more fun to be outside than I thought.”
I’ll take it.
Plus, all of them went from strangers to cheering each other on in two short months. The greatest lesson - other than the snack thing, of course - is giving these kids your time and giving others a boost of confidence. That’s the soul of youth sports.
So, if you have any inklings of becoming a coach - even an assistant - it is worth it.
And you’ll have the best seat in the house.
I hope you find my beginner’s guide somewhat helpful. You’ll be paid in those small victories and feel like you owe someone change. Because the best moments are built giving time and confidence to the next generation as they toil in the over-kicked sand with new friends.
Have a great summer, and if you’re reading this somewhere, Walter, I hope you are eating the greenest of vegetables.
Josh Farnsworth is a husband, father of goofballs Cooper and Milo, goofball himself, and award-winning writer and columnist living in Worcester. He can be reached for column ideas at email@example.com.