For the Dad Behind the Greatest Little League Pep Talk of All Time, Coaching Is Parenting

Hands in, everybody. Coach Dave Belisle has another pump-up speech for the ages.

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Dave Belisle coached his Cumberland, Rhode Island team to the Little League World Series in 2014 and, following an 8-7 loss, gave a speech so memorable he became a legend overnight. “I’m getting to be an old man,” he told his players. “I need memories like this.”  A few months later, Belisle received the Musial Award from the National Sportsmanship Foundation and was nominated for Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. The twin ironies of that sudden fame? Dave Belisle is the second-best coach in his own family and the speech was not exceptional.

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Bill Belisle is the John Wooden of high school hockey. Over 42 seasons at Woonsocket, Rhode Island’s Mount Saint Charles Academy, he’s won more than 1,000 games and 32 state titles — including a mind-melting 26 straight championships from 1978 to 2003. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016 and, at age 87, still patrols the bench. Dave, who went into the family business, is his dad’s co-head coach and star pupil. Together, they’ve created a “Belisle Approach”–though they wouldn’t be grandiose enough to name it–that calls for team leaders to also be role models, teachers, and strategists attentive to every player on the squad.

The best way to do that? Come at the job with a lot of energy and get very, very comfortable giving speeches. Dave Belisle gives one almost every day. The Little League speech was just one in a long series of addresses his dad started decades ago that have helped shape and motivate generations of young men. Eager to be on the receiving end of that kind of address, Fatherly asked Belisle to give us a pep talk for coaches eager to get their players inspired.

Naturally, he told us about his dad… 

Where I grew up, people shared milk and sugar. Everyone knew all the neighborhood kids. Parents let them leave the house! You played sports with your best friends. The coaches were all volunteers. After a victory, we’d get free ice cream from a local place. That foundation taught me the nurturing part of coaching.

I was fortunate to have my dad, a coaching legend, as one of my premier coaches in baseball and hockey. I still use his coaching techniques: Everyone comes to practice. Schedules are communicated. You’re accountable. You’re gonna work. It’s gonna be fun but you have to pay attention, work hard, develop simple skills, and bring it together. The best players will play a little more, but everyone gets their fair share of practice time and game time. Everyone plays.

Preparation was the most important part. Practices were fun but hard. If kids weren’t paying attention, my dad would stop practice and make you take a lap, stuff like that, but he didn’t single out anyone. He had a knack for making things a little harder for the really good kids, pushing them, but he made everybody feel special. He wouldn’t go to the next kid until he was satisfied with each player’s effort. He got the most out of us because he was so dedicated.

He incorporated everyone. If somebody pitched a great game he’d say, “You threw strikes but you had great defense behind you.” We weren’t playing for ourselves but for the guy beside us, our best friends. It’s about us, not you. He never put anyone above the team. That’s what put him in the Hall of Fame.

At the end of any practice or game — and I still do this — he’d circle us up, tell us how it went, mistakes we made, how to correct them. Then it was, “Hands in’ and ‘We’ll get back at it.”

I got thrown into the fire; I coached my youngest brother in baseball when I was 20, without my father’s help. Everything I learned from him came out without him being there.

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Courtesy of Little League Baseball and Softball

Parents can help but coaches lead.

As I started coaching my own kids, a different generation, I had to treat it differently and add my own techniques. My father had closed practices. No parents on the field. No input. They wanted and trusted coaches to teach their kids about sports and work ethic without getting involved. You can’t do that now. So I gather parents at the start and tell them exactly my plans:

“We will have fun. Players will be on time. If they aren’t or can’t make something, you let me know, not a 12-year-old. You’re welcome to watch practice but I’m the coach. You’ll have to trust me. If you want to help, rake the field, assistant coach, fine, but I lead. I won’t stop coaching to argue. We will not embarrass anyone in front of the team. Nobody argues with umpires. And no matter how good your son is or you think he is, if he’s missing practice, the boy who shows up will play more.”

Coaching is parenting. You don’t just study drills. You need nurturing, discipline, caring, and passion.

You can’t be so involved with your own child or so influenced by parents that you forget the other kids. Give the kid who’s almost as good a chance to play a key position. Put kids in positions where they’re gonna succeed and have some fun. Don’t put the weakest player in right field for three innings and that’s it. Teach him everything he could possibly do on the field to make him feel his position is just as important.

Every kid is different.

I learned coaching on my own that you have to make every player take pride in their role no matter how weak or strong they are. That’s the beauty and biggest challenge of coaching: every kid is different. You have to recognize everyone’s different abilities and push the right buttons to keep them enthusiastic. Everyone’s involved, no one is slighted, we’re all together.

I’m the first to admit I learned from my mistakes. My older son was a fantastic athlete and I saw his potential and pushed him. But you can only push so much. My wife always put it in perspective. She didn’t want him upset with himself.

Make every last minute of practice count.

That’s when I started making sure to spend the last five minutes of a game or practice talking to the kids. By talking as a group, you see who’s upset and who’s feeling good. You make sure the kid that struggled can discuss it, doesn’t quit on himself, and sees room for improvement. It brings them back in. “This practice was tough but I liked his effort. He didn’t quit. He’s gonna get it. And tomorrow we’re gonna come back, work hard, and no one’s gonna quit.”

I was taught by the best. But you only figure out what your coaches were trying to teach you once you’re older and wiser. I’ve learned that while the goal is success and winning, we’re here to learn to overcome adversity, be leaders, be good teammates, and support one another. We’re only as good as our character. That’s more important than ability. I started coaching young but it took me years to figure that out.

Coaching is parenting.

Coaching is parenting. You don’t just study drills. You need nurturing, discipline, caring, and passion. Organizations need to reward that — parenting first, coaching second. We need to work on fundamentals, unity, sportsmanship. Teach kids that way from a young age and they’ll end up good teammates and leaders with great character, able to accept losing and work to accomplish something better.

Let’s bring the joy out of our young people. Not just their abilities but their characters. They all have a beautiful spirit in them; you have to find it. It’s not easy. Everyone can’t play nine innings but you can make everyone feel good about themselves.

Let’s bring the joy out of our young people. Not just their abilities but their characters.

That’s what the speech was. That year was difficult; my wife was struggling with cancer. The parents and kids all knew. She surprised us in Williamsport and sent us all the message, including me, that this was a special time to be together and have fun. The game was never more important than the kids. They didn’t just play for me, they brought out all the good things in my life. They reminded me how lucky I am to have a family like I have and to be able to coach incredible kids with families that care about them on the biggest stage. That’s how the game should be taught and played.

In the end, you go play with your friends and after the game, life goes on. That’s the great thing about coaching. Win or lose, if you got the kids smiling, feeling good about themselves, and they had a good time and learned something about the game, there it is: success.”

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