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For the love of the game

I have had the privilege, responsibility, and joy of coaching youth baseball for the past seven years. Charles Pettis asked me to coach my son's five-year-old T-ball team. I had no idea how coaching would reignite the love of baseball that I had when I was younger. The past seven years have brought back many memories of the days when I was that age and of the people who taught me the game. Two of those people in particular were David Bennett and Cecil Poss.

It was especially Coach Poss that instilled in me my sense of sportsmanship and dedication to making sure that all kids enjoy learning and playing the game of baseball. As a coach, you are not just teaching your team how to play baseball. You are guiding the families of each one of your players through the baseball experience as well. Your example of sportsmanship, fair play, and outlook on life will be followed by your team and all those involved with your team. Coach Poss and Coach Bennett never valued winning over the improvement of their team. They always took the correct approach in instructing their players by looking for something positive to say, even when calmly pointing out a player's mistakes. One of the highest honors anyone involved in youth sports can have is to be referred to as "Coach." Cecil Poss was always "Coach Poss" to me, even years later when I had the joy of coaching his grandson.

I have noticed, over the past seven years as a coach and as an umpire, that fewer and fewer coaches and parents share the same attitude toward baseball that I grew up with. It seems that far too many people are more concerned with winning at any cost as opposed to teaching our young people the baseball skills and the life lessons that will benefit them down the road. I have seen one coach tell a player, as he came to bat in a crucial situation, that if he failed now, he would be a failure for the rest of his life. I have seen parents openly yelling for the opposing pitcher to throw a ball instead of a strike. It did not matter to the parents that they had a ten run lead and that the pitcher had already walked three batters in a row. I have seen coaches publicly belittle and embarrass players. I have noticed players that get the "high-profile" playing positions simply because their father is the coach. I have seen coaches verbally threaten umpires. I have seen parents and coaches loudly argue calls made by umpires, when many times they did not even understand the rules of the game. I have heard coaches respond to inquiries about their questionable sportsmanship by saying, "That is why we are number one." If that is what it takes to become number one, then please, count me out.

As coaches, we must understand that we are there to instruct and improve not only our own players, but also those of the other team. If we truly want championship caliber high school players, we must do our best to develop them when they are young and ensure that their love for the game does not fade. Sportsmanship involves striving for success. As long as athletes are putting forth the effort and attempting to achieve new heights, success can be realized. That process does not mean that winning will always occur, however. We must encourage our young player's to face all challenges head on. While it may be within the rules to intentionally walk a player so that he cannot hurt you with his bat, are we really doing what is best for the batter or the pitcher? Intentionally walking a 9, 10, 11 or 12 year old batter hurts two people. First, it sends the message to the pitcher that you as a coach do not have confidence in your player as a pitcher. You have just taken from your player an opportunity to face a challenge head on and succeed. You have just told the player it is more important to win than for him to develop as a player.

Secondly, you are depriving the batter of an opportunity to succeed. In order for any player to improve at the plate, regardless of their ability, they must see quality pitches. Players should focus on improving their skills and enjoying the baseball experience. Coaches should remind themselves, their players, and their parents that striving for excellence will lead to many future successes both on and off the playing field.

We live in a time when our children are confronted with many poor role models and negative influences. I have heard one coach justify his ideas of sportsmanship by saying that he is only coaching his players "to play the same way they play on ESPN." Unfortunately professional sports are rife with poor role models for our children to follow. We all complain about players using steroids, fighting among players and spectators, extravagant celebrations after scoring and players who sit out demanding more money. I firmly believe that the poor sportsmanship displayed by professional players today is a learned behavior.

Many times people choose to remain silent or simply withdraw from the situation when confronted by displays of poor sportsmanship. I was loudly accused by a coach of "taking a game from a team" while I was umpiring the other week. I was so offended by this coach's actions that I chose to withdraw from the game and to go so far as to say that I would never umpire again. Several people have come to me and urged me to reconsider. I have since realized that walking away and leaving our children to coaches and parents that exemplify the very traits that I dislike is a mistake. Many people in our society are unwilling to take a stand for their own values these days. Those of us who sit back and do not stand up for the values that we believe in are no better than the people we complain about. It is for that very reason that I will continue to coach as well as umpire. I encourage everyone to take a similar stand and address all examples of poor sportsmanship whenever it is displayed.

I have coached T-ball all the way up to high school ball during the past seven years. I have encouraged all of my teams to abide by the following code of conduct:

(1) Always maintain a positive attitude.

(2) Never get irate with an official. Umpires are to be treated with the same respect that you should demand your child show towards a teacher, a police officer, or yourself.

(3) Cheer and applaud your team's success, but never cheer for your opponents mistakes.

(4) Remember that the most important play you will ever make is the next play. Regardless of whether you just let one go between your legs or just hit a homerun, you must be fully focused on your next play or trip to the plate.

(5) Whether you win or lose, do it with dignity.

This has been my attitude toward the game, and it has made for a more enjoyable experience for me and my team. It is my hope that by sticking with this philosophy, one of my players will pay me the ultimate compliment by still referring to me as "Coach" more than 20 years later.

I encourage everyone involved in youth athletics, regardless of the sport, to adopt a similar philosophy. I also encourage anyone who shares my concerns about sportsmanship and has a desire to see our children succeed to get involved. Our Recreation Department struggles each year to find the best possible coaches and umpires. If your philosophy is similar to mine, I encourage you to volunteer next year.

Web posted on Thursday, June 8, 2006

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