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Coaching, curveballs & class
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I walked onto the football field for the first time as a player in 1968 and walked off for the last time as a coach in 2002. In 1998 I started sports writing with a focus on youth sports and have been doing so more or less ever since – for one paper or another.

Throw in a Little League-coaching stint of about four or five years and I have seen a lot of coaching in youth sports – both good and bad, with extremes of each. Everyone has to learn – I got fired from my second coaching gig (at 17 I was getting $1 an hour to coach my parochial grammar-school alma mater) because my hyperbole was not age or “element” appropriate. Plus, I screamed a lot and punched on walls.

 As I said, everyone has to learn and that began my learning curve. By the time the ‘90s came around and I was coaching youth football and Little League, I did so with the primary philosophy of preparation for the next level. Winning was important – I hate to lose as much, if not more than anyone – but wins at the next level are more important.

I have been asked the difference between teaching a kid to win and preparation for the next level – and in Little League, it can be summed up in two words: curveball. Yes, pitch counts are now employed to limit pitching, but under no circumstances – none, zero, zilch – should a 12-year-old – or in my opinion, even a 14-year-old – be throwing a curveball.

My last year coaching Little League (majors), we had a kid who could throw and wanted to throw a curveball. The manager told him he could do so, but only twice a game – no more. This year I saw kids as young as 10 throwing curves, with their coaches’ encouragement. That is just wrong.

As I am compiling youth football schedules for the upcoming season, I am seeing that some organizations require coaches to be accredited through one agency or another. In theory, that is a good idea – it certainly can’t hurt. I know some Little League coaches could have used some fundamental training this year.

Twice on the same day – different divisions, different leagues – I saw a third-base coach (adult) chastise a player who had been on first and did not track a ball hit to right field, with one of the admonitions being, “It is your job to pick that ball up.” No coach – that may sound good, but that player’s job is to look at you and you communicate to him whether to advance or not and if so how far. And when that kid moves on, he is going to do so with a fundamental misunderstanding that will need to be corrected.

Twice in the same game the Spreckels Park juniors third-base coach and the opposing third-base coach were faced with bases loaded and less than two outs. The opposition coach told his runner at third to take out the catcher to “break things up” and the Spreckels coach told his guy to “give yourself up if you have to.” Real class, opposition coach, real class. Of course, this opposition coach is the same one who chastised a kid for stealing third because, “sometimes it is better to be on second.” Not in any baseball game that I know of – classless and stupid, that is one heck of a combination.

Not to be outdone, at a youth football game last year where the local team was getting shellacked it was bad enough that the parent “posse” patrolling the front row of the stands with the game action as it moved up and down the field were hurling one ‘f’ bomb after another. It was absolutely disgusting and absurd when an assistant coach for that team ran to nearly the center of the field to complain about a call – and the coach was ignorant of the rule he was complaining about. He should have been ejected on the spot as should have the parents.

The vast majority of youth coaches are diligent and earnest, but unfortunately, one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel. When that happens, it is up to the board members to earn those spiffy jackets they sport and do their flipping jobs, disciplining and if necessary releasing coaches from their duties.

This is going to run long, but I must include something that happened to me as a coach. I was turned into the league when coaching farm baseball for two indiscretions – my volume and my discipline. There was a kid on my team who had been molested, and at times I could be loud – and that scared him. Once I was made aware of that, I made a conscious effort to dial it down around him.

 Another kid on the same team – the sponsors’ kid – was just a little putz. He was a smart-aleck and wise guy, and at age 10 there is not much I could do but drop him for pushups, just like I did any other smart-aleck wise guy. And did his parents thank me for trying to reign in their little darling? Not a chance – they turned me into the league.

And the board member that chastised me was probably the biggest putz of all. When our team played his, he got so angry – remember, these kids were 9 and 10 – that he kicked a batting helmet the length of the dugout. And what became of him? He went on to become and football official and a baseball umpire – the worse I have ever seen in either sport.

The absolute bottom line is the coaches and administrators are there to properly coach the children, and if that is not happening, they need to go – now. They had their chance in the sun – time to let the next generation prepare for theirs.

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