Every Little League manager or coach knows that their most important job is to make sure the players are having fun. That said, the temptation to focus on winning can be overwhelming, which is why every league traditionally has one coach who has completely lost perspective and started having his infielders put on weird shifts or encouraging his worst players not to swing. This is always ugly to watch. But competition doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Winning isn’t at odds with having fun (to the contrary, actually) if the adults in charge know how to run a system that is both baseball smart and emotionally intelligent. It’s a big ask, but experienced coaches and managers know how to do it.
Rob Grano is one of those experienced coaches. In 2017, Grano led the Holbrook Little League team from Jackson, New Jersey through the Mid-Atlantic Regional to the Little League World Series. Grano is a fierce competitor who absolutely hates losing. But he’s not a guy who makes it about himself. Instead, he thrives to create a relaxed environment for his team and then get the kids to focus on working together toward a common goal. Grano says he has five strategies for doing this successfully that have served him well.
1) Never Yell
Major League Baseball coaches yell. They get intense when situations get intense. Sometimes they kick a bit of dirt or get thrown out. This can be a motivational technique for their players. But Little League coaches shouldn’t be doing a Tug McGraw impersonation unless they care more about stats than children (in which case they should strongly consider focusing on fantasy sports). Why not, because kids don’t respond well to negative reinforcement and because the dynamics are fundamentally different. The kids aren’t making millions more than the coach. The kids don’t have endorsement deals. The coach isn’t getting fired.
“Who is yelling good for?” Grano asks. “When you yell, you’re not helping them or making the team better. You’re yelling for yourself. Whenever I can tell a kid is expecting me to yell, that’s when I am the least likely to raise my voice.”
As an extremely competitive guy, Grano understands the frustration of players making avoidable or lazy errors but he says a good coach doesn’t let their frustration boil over into yelling or berating players. Instead, he will pull a player aside and let them know their mistake while offering advice on how to avoid that same problem in the future.
“In terms of motivating, you have to watch how you’re presenting the message,” Grano says. “If we have corrections to do, I will make sure to talk to one of my players but it doesn’t need to involve embarrassing or belittling them. In my experience, that does more harm than good.”
And you can always freak out privately in your car after the game.
2) Know Your Players
Managers will often have a distinct “style” of coaching — demanding, funny, anal-retentive — but Grano says he has found the most effective way to coach is by getting to know each kid and understanding their needs. He coaches the team, sure, but spends more time focussed on coaching individuals.
“I can’t be a great coach unless I really know the kids,” Grano says. “I know who I can be sarcastic with and who doesn’t take jokes too well. Not all the kids are the exact same and I don’t treat them like they are.”
For a manager, knowing a player allows you to connect with them and help them reach their full potential. Because while some kids may need constant encouragement, others might want something else entirely out of their manager. That is why Grano makes a concerted effort to really get to know all of his players as people.
“Some kids need a hug when they are feeling down but other kids would like nothing less than a hug in those moments,” Grano explains. “It’s not my job to teach them to ignore their feelings. It’s okay to be sensitive and to have strong emotions. For me, knowing how they will respond and understanding why they are acting the way that they help a ton.”
3) Let the Team Dream Big
While other coaches might tamper their players’ expectations in order to not risk them getting disappointed, Grano believes that it is a coach’s job to encourage players to not be afraid to dream big.
“It helps to show the kids that these goals of theirs are achievable,” Grano says. “It’s not ridiculous to have big dreams, as long as you’re willing to put in the work to do it.”
Last season, before they made it to the Little League World Series, Grano found a unique way to get his team to believe that making it to Williamsport was an achievable goal. “I would have the kids line up on the left field baseline during practice and I would tell them to close their eyes and imagine they were standing on the left field baseline in Williamsport for the World Series,” Grano recalls. “I would have them do it pretty much every practice.”
Grano admits that some of the players were hesitant at first, but, as time went by, they became more comfortable. By August, they were really standing on that left field baseline in Williamsport. Did they learn that you can accomplish anything you can envision? Of course not, that’s ridiculous. What they learned was to play with a big win in mind.
“It helped the kids see it wasn’t impossible,” Grano says. “It’s something that can happen. You just have to put in the work.”
4) Always Build Confidence
Baseball is a tough game. Failure is unavoidable. For kids, it can be difficult to accept the fact that even the best baseball player in the world is bound to miss the occasional grounder or strike out in a big at-bat. Grano knows how important confidence is for his players and so he makes it a priority to let kids know he believes in them even, and especially when they are struggling.
“If a kid makes a mistake, there’s always a danger that they are going to be way too hard on themselves,” Grano explains. “They’re going to feel like failures. But if you can really show a kid you believe in them, it is crazy how quickly they can turn it around and be the best version of themselves.”
Grano says he will often take a kid aside that he sees struggling with confidence and offer some simple encouragement to keep them from getting too in their own head.
“When I notice that one of my players is struggling because of a lack of confidence, I will pull them aside, put my arm around them, and tell them to go out there and get a base hit,” Grano says. “I treat them like it’s a sure thing. It doesn’t matter if they strike out again. They believe in themselves and that is going to yield positive results in the long run, guaranteed.”
5) If It’s Not Fun, Stop What You’re Doing
According to Grando, one of the worst things a competitive coach will often do is take all of the fun out of the game because they think it distracts players from focusing on winning.
“Make it fun,” Grano says. “Baseball is a fun game and if you remind them of that, they’re willing to put in the hard work because baseball is fun and being good at baseball is fun. It’s really that simple.”
Grano will often let players decide a drill or mini-game to play during practice in order to “break up the general monotony.” While some might say that will not help the team improve, Grano says that not losing sight of the fun is essential to keeping any time motivated for the long season ahead of them.
“As long as they are focused, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be enjoying themselves,” Grano says. “Yeah, it takes work but that doesn’t automatically mean your team should be miserable.”
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