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The Road to Varsity: Lessons from Little League

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My relocation to North Carolina temporarily disrupted my officiating schedule. With membership into a new association pending,  I needed to find a way to work on my game during the summer and fall without the benefit of regularly scheduled summer basketball. Tennis provided an excellent venue for physical preparation.  Tennis, like basketball requires fitness, quickness, teamwork and stamina. But while tennis helped with the physical game, it was watching Little League baseball, more than anything else, that helped the most with the mental side of basketball officiating.

I am no stranger to baseball. I watched my son, now 22, play Little League, Babe Ruth League, and high school varsity baseball. Back then, my role was as sports parent and cheerleader.  Now, more than a decade has passed since the first day of Little League practice and I am watching the game again. This time, I am watching my son as coach, not a player. And this time, I am watching his team, not as 9 and10 year old players, but as instructors into the mental side of sports. Little League players and coach in pregame huddle

I wish I had their attitude, their exuberance, and ability to simply enjoy the moment. After each play or each game, win or lose, they move on without drama. Kids strike out, ground out. Pitchers walk batters or batters turn infield hits into homers. But after the sideline cheering subsides, players collect themselves and move on to the next play, or next inning. And when the game is over, its over. It's that simple. The only ones still talking about the score or plays?  The parents.

During pre-game warmups, kids take a while to get fully engaged. After all, they are kids. Lots of chatter and laughter. But after two weeks of games and practices, while the kids still chatter more than the coach would like, their improvement on the field is noticeable. If anyone thinks the kids are not listening, or if their childlike chatter is impeding the learning process, they are quite wrong. I believe the opposite is true. It enhances their ability to learn.

Teammates

I was fascinated by two players in particular:Jeremy, a pitcher, and Anthony, a catcher. They are best friends on and off the field. Jeremy, I learned, loves baseball and watches the Jackie Robinson movie, "42," over and over again, according to his parents. Jeremy mimics the baseball legends base running moves as much as possible.  Anthony, a Red Sox fan, when teamed with Jeremy, signals pitches which Jeremy either acknowledges with nods or shakes off. Needless to say, they take more time than their contemporaries when the batter is at the plate. 

I point this behavior out for two reasons.  One, at this age group in Little League "minors," the kids are only now learning to pitch. Prior to this year, machines or coaches pitched and caught.  There is no pitching strategy per se, and only two or three seam pitches are in the arsenal, so to speak.  Puzzled at their behavior, the coach asked them what they were doing. They explained that major league pitches and catchers do this. Instead of correcting them, the coach said, "Okay!" and let them play.  Note to self: They were learning while having fun.  And even with walks, hit batters and infield "homers," the two had fun; the team had fun. The second,  more subtle lesson for me, was the demonstration of team communication. The pitcher/catcher communciation is not unlike crew communication in basketball.  What is remarkable though is that in basketball the crew communication takes time to develop.  The 10-year-olds do this naturally and instinctively.

Frustration

Another player, Lenny, also caught my attention.  Lenny is smaller in stature then most of his teammates.  He is also the player who is less coordinated than others, and more quickly frustrated as well. His initial exuberance gives way to pouting, frustration, and self criticism, something I can relate to.

The coach acknowledged Lenny's frustration. Instead of combatting it with, "Dont get frustrated! focus!", which I hear all too frequently from basketball parents, this coach made it clear that he could see much Lenny cares, how he knows Lenny wants to play well and loves the game of baseball. This simple approach seemed to help.  In this weekend's game,  I watched Lenny swing at two pitches and miss.   Instead of pouting, crying or grimacing as he had done in earlier games, he took a deep breath, waited for the next pitch, and got his first hit. He drove in a run, putting his team ahead.  Well, done, Lenny!

Learning to relax

I wish I could think like Little Leaguer. Why is it so hard for a 50 something to learn like a 10 year old? Why do I agonize over a missed or bad call, for days after? And worse, why do  I show my frustration in my face so all can see?   Even my son commented on this during our friendly mom/son tennis matches. "Mom, you show it in your face all the time! Stop!"  I ask myself , "Why can't I be just like Jerremy, Anthony and Lenny, and just play?"  

Time to unlearn that behavior. Better late than never, but how? What do the kids do? They laugh - a lot. They laugh so much, it takes them several minutes to get organized and get their game faces on and begin warm ups. And while this kid-like "delay" could be a mild source of frustration for a time-efficient coach, it is a lesson in mental preparation for someone like me. It is a best practice.

I need to create a regimen, a pre-game relaxation routine before every basketball game, and every tennis match. I need to remind myself that the only difference between me and a Little Leaguer, at least before the game, is that I can drive myself to the game. My mental game pre-game is simple: Laugh. Relax. Laugh some more.  Makes sense, since beating myself up for days after a game is doing little to improve it. 

Basketball season is just around the corner.  Rules clinics and prep start this Sunday with scrimmages starting soon thereafter.  What am I going to do? Study, of course, then laugh, relax, and laugh some more.