Four accomplished Little League coaches on proper encouragement, teaching kids the art of winning (and losing), and what they've learned along the way.
Sure, they teach kids the bones of baseball: how to swing a bat, secure a pop fly, steal third. But Little League coaches do so much more than explain the sport: they educate and entertain, nurture and encourage, laugh with and lead their players in an effort to develop life and leadership skills that will translate far behind the field. Coaches help kids learn everything from the value of competition and what it’s like to work towards a collective goal to how to win (and lose) gracefully and what it means to respect your environment, your team, and those who help you. They teach baseball, yeah. But they use baseball to teach more important stuff.
It’s also a lot easier said than done. And why we wanted to talk to some notable Little League coaches about everything from how they run practices and encourage players, and what they’ve learned along the way. While each has his own style of coaching and ideas about the game, one thing is for sure: their commitment to helping create strong, productive young men is all the same.
Lee Jackson, President and Coach, West Dallas Little League
Years coached: 7
What made you want to coach Little League? I was a college baseball player and grew up in the inner city so I had the knowledge and experience to give back. I also wanted to be a good example to the kids out here to show them that it is able to make it out.
How do you get kids excited to play? We don’t practice like everybody. We practice once a week instead of the three, four times like other leagues. And I only have them for like an hour. So I don’t have time to waste. But the key is fun. We offer a lot of encouragement a lot of competition, both with each other and themselves. One of the things we do with the kids is create records for particular drills every practice — how many balls you can catch in a first and third situation? for instance — and see how many times the kids can be their own personal and combined records. Small games like that that teach while challenging the kids independently and together.
What core values do you try to instill in your players? Love, respect, and loyalty. We talk about what it is to love a community, how to respect the community. We talk more about how it’s not just about respecting those who play against you but also respecting the fields and everything else you are surrounded by. We talk about being loyal not just to your team but to your family, your coach, the game and about being loyal in the school and classroom. I also make sure kids know that they’ve been given the opportunity to play this game of baseball, that some other kids don’t have all their limbs or the tools to play this game and God blessed us with an opportunity and that means you should play it to the best of your ability and not worry if you fail.
If our kids don’t enjoy something, they’ll be miserable the rest of their lives because that’s all they see is tough paths, struggling paths, hard paths. So we teach them to enjoy the game, to love it.
What’s your advice for other coaches? It’s bigger than the game. When I’m talking to parents and other coaches I’m asking them what kind of legacy they’re trying to leave. I tell them, ‘Don’t coach just to say you want to win the championship this season.’ I ask them ‘What legacy do you want to be seen by the community? What legacy do you want to be seen by these kids?’ I tell all my coaches and anybody else who’s asking: If a kid here makes it to the MLB what would they say when interviewed? Are they going to say I want to think my little league coach for instilling core values in me, and the right way to play and how to encourage people? Or will he remember you as someone who didn’t know anyone’s names and just cussed and hit chest-level grounders all day?’
Baseball is a game of failure. How do you help your teams learn how to handle losing? Where we’re from here in West Dallas? It’s not an easy place. It’s tough. It’s the inner city. And there are inner-city problems. Because of that if these kids don’t enjoy something, they’ll be miserable the rest of their lives because that’s all they see is tough paths, struggling paths, hard paths. So we teach them to enjoy the game, to love it; they also need to know that baseball is a game of failure and that it’s not about winning. We teach them to overcome adversity, because these kids will always have adversity.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from coaching? It’s not about me. It’s bigger than me. It’s not about me because I’m with a whole different team of kids that won’t get to me if I don’t get to them. So I have to value every kid that I have. I have to know every kid by name and their parents and where they live and their situation. Because at the end of the day, when the next 15-16 kids come, I need to know them and make an impact. So when you see me and hang out with me? I’m talking to all 400 kids in the league. I’m hanging out with all 400 if I can.
What’s your favorite thing to yell to encourage your kids? Oh if I’m saying something, It’s ‘have fun’ or ‘I need to see you smiling’. That’s what they need to hear.
Dan Ventrelle, President and Coach, Lafayette Little League in Northern California
Years coached: 15
What made you want to coach? Well, I was always an athlete and I work in professional sports (editor’s note: Ventrelle is the Executive Vice President of the Oakland Raiders). But I wanted to be a part of a forum where the kids learn how to skill-build, compete, fail, succeed, respect an opponent, have something they want to get better at and work for some number of months to improve, and contribute to a collective goal.
How do you get kids excited to play? I think it’s important to make the game fun for all of them and I do that by stressing to them that everyone has a job to do and that, no matter what it is you’re asked to do, the whole team is supportive of the importance of that job. And it’s about making sure that from the start every kid understands that.
Also, and I think this is important: We try to never gravitate towards the best player or the leader. You don’t need to lift that guy up. The most competitive players have that in them. What you have to do is try to make sure to work with the kids who don’t play that well and make sure the other players and everybody acknowledges their importance. So we’ll emphasize things like turning the lineup over or getting on base. It doesn’t have to be a hit off the wall for a triple. We’ll talk about working deep in the count and not giving up on your at-bat and little ways to compete that don’t necessary have to be amazing walk-off home runs. It’s about having the team rally around those little moments.
Making them all believe they can do it, that they can contribute, that their contribution is important to the success and well-being and good of the team.
What core values do you try to instill in your players? I start the same premise every year: I tell that that I only expect them to do three things: always pay attention, always try their very best, and to never give up on anything — on an at-bat, the team, the game, whatever. And I tell them and I mean this: If you do those three things well, everything else will work out. Nobody ever says you have to be perfect, you’re going to make mistakes. You don’t need to make a play or get a hit. Just give your best effort, pay attention, and never give up. If everyone follows that, everyone can have a good experience together.
Baseball is a game of failure. How do you teach your team to handle losing? One of the first things we do at the beginning of the season is ask players to raise their hand if they’re going to strike out this year. And some kids don’t and I tell them ‘You’re wrong. It’s going to happen. Everyone is going to do it and it’s okay.’ So you have to address it on that level and let them know that individual failure is okay. And we tell them that the most important thing is not whether you’re happy with something that happened or disappointed, the most important thing is that you recognize it and move on, to have a short memory. At the end of the day, it’s about giving your best effort for the other 11 guys on that team. It takes time, but it sticks.
What do you think the most important lesson you’ve learned as a coach is? I think it’s that on every single team, every single kid is important. And making them all believe they can do it, that they can contribute, that their contribution is important to the success and well-being and good of the team. All the kids need to leave the practice thinking that they’re an important part of this and what I do matters here and matters to the other 11 guys. That’s the most important thing.
What’s your favorite thing to yell at the kids to encourage them? I don’t know. You have to ask someone else who works with me. Probably: “You got this!” “You’re in control!” “You’re on this!” I tend to do a lot of second person commands.
Tim Kimbrough, Coach of Douglass Little League in Indianapolis
Years Coached: 21
What made you want to coach? I played little league and I wanted my son to be in sports and so I started coaching him when he was 5 years old. I also wanted to give back to my community. We do more than just baseball. We’re in the inner city and to help our kids more, we do a mentoring program year-round. We coach them during the season, yeah, but we talk to the kids at school and have indoor practice in the winter time and take kids out to batting cages and out to eat and just experience different stuff.
You have to have patience with the parents, the kids, and the people you work with to make everything successful.
When it comes to the season, how do you get kids excited? We keep every practice interesting and exciting for the kids to keep them into it. We do a lot of activities: relay drills, ground ball drills, fielding drills, hitting drills, different stations. It’s not just batting practice. We have four or five stations set up per practice. And the atmosphere is fun and loose.
We teach kids from scratch so we’re all about the fundamentals. I don’t care if you already know how to play, we all learn from scratch. We all go from one spot to the other as a team and see how we develop throughout the season. Everything we do teaches our kids balance and routine and fundamentals.
What core values do you try to instill in your players? Simple: we teach the importance of respecting their teammates, their community, and their parents.
What’s your advice for other coaches? Talk to kids like they were our kids. This is something they’re going to remember for the rest of their life.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned? Patience [laughs]. As I get older, I tell all the younger coaches I said I did a lot of stuff differently as I’ve gotten older but you have to have patience with the parents, the kids, and the people you work with to make everything successful.
What’s the phrase you use most to encourage kids? I usually say is, “We got to bring it together so we can beat these people!” [laughs]. I’m just kidding. I just make sure they’re smiling.
Andrew Solomon, Coach of Pearland Little League in Texas
Years Coached: 10
What made you want to coach? My son joined the league, so I coached he and his friends from t-ball through proper Little League, until they were 12 and I coached those 12-year-olds in the Little League World Series in 2015. Gaining national attention, coaching became far larger than I ever expected which was surreal. Starting out, I wanted to do it for my son and because one of the great things about Little League, for the people who do it the right way and for the right reasons, is to teach kids about life, about more than baseball.
What core values do you try to instill in your players? Well, as far as I see it, Little League is a vehicle to teach kids about leadership and life and about success and how to be successful. In terms of core values, I aim to teach kids life lessons: how to win, how to lose, how to play as a team, how to respect your team and carry yourself in situations that life throws at you — good and bad. I try to develop these kids into young men who can be ready for the world ahead of them.
I want them to be a bit low, but I don’t want them to be crying and thinking that it’s the end of the world either or thinking they’re terrible. So teaching about failure is teaching them to be competitive but realistic.
What’s your best advice for talking to and connecting kids? First of all, you have to try to get down on their level and that’s in the way that you talk to them but also literally: kneeling down and being eye-level with the kid. But I also think one of the most important things is to try to treat them equally. I think a lot of coaches focus more on their better players than their worse players and they don’t appreciate team dynamics and the important of them. It’s hard to do anything well in life by yourself and you’re usually not successful because of yourself alone. So one of the things that I’ve always preached is the team, the team, the team.
Baseball is a game of failure. How do you teach kids about losing? I drill down that even if you’re a really good player, you’re going to fail a good amount in baseball and I tell them that even successful people fail a good amount of time. Its how you respond to failure that’s the really important life lesson. Now, I don’t want my kids to be happy they struck out; I don’t want them to be happy when they lose. I want them to be a bit low, but I don’t want them to be crying and thinking that it’s the end of the world either or thinking they’re terrible. So teaching about failure is teaching them to be competitive but realistic. And it takes time. Because you’re dealing with kids who aren’t fully mature, who don’t fully understand it. They take it hard, they cry, they beat themselves up. It’s about constantly repeating how to react and handle it when things don’t go your way, and how failing isn’t the end of the world.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned coaching? That you step back and understand that you’re teaching much more than baseball. There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids to be competitive and to want to win but that’s certainly not the primary thing that teaching. You’re teaching hard work, team work, things that translate outside the baseball field to successful human beings and success in anything that they do.
What’s the phrase you use most to encourage kids? Ah man, I say everything. I can’t pick one.
Interested in Little League? Check out Fatherly’s complete guide to all things Little League and youth baseball related. We’ve got great coaching tips, funny stories about life in the dugout, and features about the past and future of one of America’s great athletic institutions.
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