Top 12 Lessons Learned from 2019 Spring Season

2019 was an interesting year jam-packed with learning.  Biggest take-away for me:  I can’t pull it off again 🙂 Actually, I have no desire to pull it off again! I dove “back” into baseball as a profession, committed to taking the path towards coaching in college as a full-time gig. Thus, I said yes to anything baseball-related that paid while on the field. My time was literally PACKED with baseball and especially so on nights and weekends (huge thanks to my wife!):

  • Coaching Clinics
  • Athlete Training (clinics & lessons)
  • Team Coaching (Community College)

In addition, I ran Dugout Captain, consulted for two (non-baseball) companies, and helped coach my son’s 6U team. For that, I used Dugout Captain to plan, save, and share every practice, improving upon plans I created for Spring 2018 (see 5U DC Plans). I’m thrilled to share that I missed only one practice all year, and left-early or arrived-late at three games only. Super important to me to be a family-man first, and focus on being there for my son. And not as a baseball coach… rather, to be there AS A DAD!!

In no particular order, here are the top lessons learned from Spring 2019:

  1. My Son’s Indifference – He remained a middle-of-the-pack player. He hit the ball most at-bats (we play “machine-pitch”) and caught a couple of grounds balls. Don’t think he caught a pop-up and definitely didn’t field a ball and throw anyone out all season. However, he enjoyed hanging with the fellas and had fun. I don’t think I got overly frustrated at any lack of performance by him. Most importantly, I expect he’ll be excited to play next year.
  2. My Most Frustrating Father Moment – This is an easy one: FOCUS (not paying attention). Focus is the most challenging thing to coach. When I have to “encourage” my own kid to watch the very play that could result in a laser beam being rocketed towards his chest… and do so every pitch of the game… that drives me bonkers. I WANT him to WANT the ball so very bad – and I also don’t want him to get smoked by said line drive. But I can’t be mad that at times he really is indifferent to the whole thing! Heck, he ran hard on and off the field for all the innings I can remember and that’s what I ask him to do. I’ll have to circle back and ask my wife if I handled it well – I think I did.
  3. When I Yell the Most as a Coach – Defensive responsibility. Ball gets hit on the ground… and the first baseman is standing and watching the play. GET TO FIRST BASE! Ball gets past the second baseman and now rolls towards the outfielder… and the short stop is chewing on his glove enjoying the show. COVER SECOND BASE!! Pitcher watches a slowly hit dribbler bounce in front of the plate. GO GET THE BALL DUDE!!! Ball reaches an outfielder, any outfielder. BAG-MAN and RELAY-MAN!!!! Come on fellas, we gotta think. And I know I’m asking a lot when I say that, but true development happens upstairs.
  4. My Son’s Favorite Position Remains… Snack – No matter how I phrase the question, I can’t trick him into saying pitcher, shortstop, or center field… the dude’s favorite part of baseball is snack time. Hard to compete with the drug of 2019 – sugar!
  5. Head Coach Gig is SO IMPORTANT – I wasn’t able to take a team this year, so I partnered up with a fantastic dude that could. He is a father of four and a pastor. Can you say jackpot! I’m going to piggyback on Josh’s shoulders as long as his big ol’ beard will let me.
  6. Head Coach Gig is Thankless – Even though we thank the head coach, they really DO do so much. Arrive early at practice to snag field space. Cart equipment to/from practice and games. Arrive early for every game and prep the field. Set and print lineups. Keep track of who got game balls and on and on and on. I can tell you this much: I was an assistant coach this season and it was WAY WAY easier than being the head dude.
  7. Head Coach Time Commitment – Let’s keep the head coach praise going. With at least 30 minutes extra spent between pre and post practice… as well as 30 minutes extra before and after games, the volunteer time commitment is huge:
    1. 15 practices x 90 minutes = 1350 minutes / 22.5 hours
    2. 15 games x 105 minutes = 900 minutes / 26.25 hours
    3. That’s roughly 50 donated hours at the fields for our kids. NOT including other time spent doing admin / prep work. That end of the year head coach gift card should be a paycheck.
  8. Baserunning Drama (Almost) Started – My blood boiled at opposition coaches… twice. One was when a first-base coached rolled every one of his hitters to second base after we threw the ball away. At 6U, the ball gets past the first baseman roughly 91% of the time. The other time was a third base coach that aggressively turned his kids loose. I know it’s coming next year, as we’ll be going to kid pitch, and coaches will be able to steal runs because defense’s can’t play catch. Frankly, I’m not excited about going through that at all. There are just so many seemingly good people that don’t have the discipline to play the game the right way. Actually, I’d love your feedback as to how you have handled this situation in the past? Do you address baserunning aggression during pre-game home plate meeting with the other coach, make in-game adjustments, or just go straight to fist-fights? 🙂
  9. Competitive Juices Started – We had one team stack the deck, choosing to keep 13 players. In comparison, we had only 10 players – which was great for us! I think those coaches provided an amazing learning environment, I just fear that the game became work and at such a young age. We also had all star drama, resulting in two separate all star teams… for the 6U division… of which there were only 5 total teams in total. Classic.
  10. Positions Played – We pulled off rotating EVERYONE all season. I know the other teams did not. And I do think there is a reasonable safety-argument that says certain kids shouldn’t play corner infield or pitcher. Regardless, we continued to rotate kids through a pre-set lineup without exception. That meant we were on our coaching toes and reminding certain third basemen to turn and face the batter 73 times per inning (can you say exhausting?!). I’d imagine next year (7U for us), we’ll have to tighten the strings a bit and program the defensive lineup for safety.
  11. Swing Hard – Keep this rule and repeat it often! Under the greater philosophical umbrella of “process vs. results”, it’s so so hard for athletes to stick with the process. No matter what, they hear the groans (“ahhhhh” or “ohhhh”, take your pick) from the parents. They feel the eyes on them during the slow walk back to the dugout. And they hear their teammates talking about who struck out. Screw that!!!! We have to continually praise aggression and get the athletes’ focus off of results as quickly as possible. My own kid slowed his swing down NOT to strike out a lot. And I have only one batting rule for him – SWING AS HARD AS YOU CAN.
  12. Practice Works – How do you improve at anything? Practice! Those kids that love the game play more catch. Thus, they throw better and catch more baseballs. Those kids that love the game hit more balls on their own. Thus, they hit better. Because I coached college ball this year, Kobe and I didn’t hit in the open yard by our house more than twice all year. Last year, when I was NOT in a college uniform, we worked out 8-10 times outside of practice and games. I think he was more comfortable catching balls as a 5-year old than this year as a 6-year old. And I know this was true on our team: Our best kids either (1) were naturally gifted or (2) practiced more than the other players. It is my goal to nurture, foster, and support a developing love for baseball. With that, they will practice more… which will result in improvement… which will make everything more fun.
  13. Practice Planning Works – Our team improved. Big time. Again! It was great to test the Dugout Captain practice-planning principles, and to continue tweaking our athlete development path (DC Athlete Dev Plan available bottom of Resources page). Coaching is so much more fun and fulfilling when you take time to plan. Use the Clipboard people!

One of the things I enjoy most about Dugout Captain is calling our league partners.  When someone fills out the league interest form, I pick up the phone and say hello, answer questions, and ultimately state the following fact: “Yes, free. There is no catch.” But whats interesting is how similar the conversation goes, regardless of what state they are from. The rec league board member in rural Arkansas is experiencing the same challenges as the urban crew from Philadelphia. Five people from the league do 99% of the work required. All stars turn otherwise rational humans into monsters. Parents are nuts. We’re in this together folks, let’s try to see the big picture, have fun, and play hard!

20 thoughts on “Top 12 Lessons Learned from 2019 Spring Season

  1. I coach rookie league (7 &8 year olds) and minors ( 9 & 10 year olds). I am that coach that teaches his team to take extra bases when ever possible. Our leagues have rules on how many you can take on an overthrow or per pitch if it’s a steal. Until we have a decent league my teams run. it pisses off certain opposing coaches and there fans. It teaches my boys to be aggressive, to pay attention, to read the ball, and the importance of just physically being able to run. it also forces the other team to be on their toes and bring their best game. I do not apologize for this.

    1. Interesting. I’d like to think there’s a happy medium to the aggression that develops baseball skills and awareness as well as taking extra bases. I also agree that aggression can increase with age. At our age (6), we have a 5-run inning maximum without any sort of official extra-base limit (outside of common courtesy). If we ran our guys every overthrow, 5 kids would hit each inning and 5 kids would score. If we run the bases more conservatively, and more realistically, I can get 8-10 hitters up per inning. I’d way rather have 40-50 at-bats as compared to 25 at-bats.

  2. Great blog. I just coached “coach pitch” for 6-8 year olds, and I’m pretty sure the 73 reminders to the 3rd baseman per inning to pay attention to the batter is an understatement. Oh and the swing hard thing is absolutely a constant struggle. And in our league, I’d say instead of 91% of throws went past the 1st baseman, it was closer to 99%. Oh and the “defensive responsibility” was a HUGE hurdle that some of our kids started to get but others just never did.

    1. Ain’t that the truth! It’s amaazing how much “better” those athletes played that were paying attention. Focus could be labeled a P.E.D. at our age and was likely more important than innate skill. That’s probably true at the highest levels too – where ability levels out (everyone is physically talented) and the great differentiator is a combination of head/heart/stones.

  3. How I have handled the aggressiveness in baserunning in my 20 years of coaching is let them run, let the kids play, baseball has too many unwritten rules. In my son’s Bronco division everyone steals down 10 or up 10 cuz its fun and exciting and great practice. My biggest problem with coaches is not rotating the kids enough…

    1. Totally agree that rotating kids is a huge-challenge for league play. However, I think I would exercise restraint stealing bases and find a happy medium of stealing when the game situation would support it. Rather than stealing simply because the other team can’t play catch, I’d look for situations, and counts, that are base-stealing opportunities and aim to teach the team why we would run in that situation. At least I think I would! Hard to say until we get to Bronco age. Thanks for the comment!

  4. I found this year to be a struggle to reel in the base-running. Aggressive base-running is something we work on a whole lot because in t-ball, that can win and lose you lots of games. Because of that, our kids are naturally aggressive, but if were up big, we do make a point to do less coaching on the bases and let the kids run on their own. Granted, they are still pretty aggressive, but it’s really hard to scale that back when we’ve been teaching it and working so hard on it all year. Also, it’s not fair to our kids when they get good hits to scale back the aggressiveness because they’re 5 and 6 and want the HRs if they can get them. After the hits though, we do try to show some grace and keep it station to station. We don’t want to humiliate the other kids so bad they don’t want to play anymore. They may not can throw and catch, but they can all read that scoreboard. The struggle is real.

  5. For our 7-8 year-olds, it’s coach pitch and you can only move ahead one base (including the batter) if the ball stays in the infield. On a ball hit to the outfield, you can run until an infielder controls it. So missed throws to first base don’t lead to any penalty at all. There is a little base-running shenanigans that can occur on the outfield hit that misses the cutoff, that rolls past the infielder to the infield fence as the batter turns a good single or double into a “triple” or “home run”. We also play the 5-run maximum.

  6. I have been coaching youth baseball for 15 seasons. All of your lessons learned are on point. Regarding base running, I coach the kids on my team the fundamentals of running and to go when the situation allows it. In the long run, they are better off learning how to play the game. If they are not being coached at the younger age groups, than when they get to be 11/12 and on up, they are going to get hosed on the bases because of base running errors. It all boils down to, do you want to teach the kids how to play the game. Or, do you only want to win? You will lose some ball games because you are doing it the right way. But you will gain the respect of parents and other coaches who know what is most important. And, I’ve been following your blog and using your practice plans long enough to know that you know what is best.

    1. Amen!! I couldn’t agree more. It’s the simple question I ask myself all the time, “What’s the right thing to do?”

    2. I’m coaching in the 11-12U division with Pony rules, but I’m a Board member leading the 7-8U player pitch division. I teach my 11-12U players aggressive base running and let them run in their own. The only coach contributions are holding or advancing when the ball is at their backs. I believe they need to develop instincts and reduce fear. I taught them to delayed steal, get into and win rundowns, and defend against the same. The kids’ interest and IQ skyrocketed and their fear went way down. It also intimidated our opponents quite a bit, and half our opponents felt we were unsportsmanlike. However, I praised opponents who got us out and ALWAYS asked my runners what they learned. The runners that waited for coaches to tell them what to do? We picked them off, caught them stealing, and they left many runners stranded. The 7-8U division we have a rule preventing advancing on overthrows by infielders. If the ball is into the outfield, running is free until an infielder possesses the ball. Runners not half-way to the next base are sent back. We believe runners should be aggressive, but place more emphasis on throwing the ball to bases and batters hitting the ball. We have a rescue rule for player pitching where on ball 4 a coach pitcher comes in to finish until the batter hits or strikes out.

  7. Best way to keep the coaches under control when it comes to the running game is to institute rules that can’t be manipulated. For 7 and 8 year old Rec Ball, close home plate and don’t allow runners to score on passed balls/wild pitches. Only way to score from 3rd base is on a ball hit into play, a bases loaded walk, or a bases loaded hit by pitch. Rotating “lesser talented” players into 3rd base is an issue too. It’s dangerous when the runner is stealing 3rd and the catcher fires one down to 3rd base and the kid on the receiving end of the throw is not paying attention. I’ve seen baseballs whizz by an unsuspecting player’s head and it makes you cringe. Bottom line…most coaches at the lower levels don’t know how to “play baseball the right way”. They want to win at all cost. The league needs to have appropriate rules in place to keep these coaches in line. Winning games by having runners break from 3rd base to get in a rundown between the catcher and 3rd baseman (who can’t catch a ball) is not how baseball is supposed to be played. That’s not a winning coach. That’s a Dad who probably played Little League baseball through age 12 and is now “living the dream” through his 8 year old son. The Dad never won a trophy as a youth player because he had no skills. Now he wants to embarrass 7/8 year olds and win the League Championship so he can feed his ego. Happens all the time.

  8. At the six year age group, winning and losing shouldn’t even be a consideration. I’m disappointed by a couple coach’s comments about running the bases to “win” the game at this age level. In our league, we were just trying to get kids to run “through”’ 1st base, while understanding that it’s the only base you’re allowed to do so. Taking extra bases wasn’t even in our minds. Thankfully, almost 100% of the time our games coach’s held up their kids on wild throws/catches. I mean we didn’t even keep score. Our focus for base running was to position themselves to “sprint” to the next base, not to take advantage of a a young boy who either can’t make a good throw or a good catch to/at 1st base.

    1. Agreed Jason! We had the same challenges… all in all, I think our league was pretty good about baserunning. Most coaches see the big picture and do the right thing 🙂

  9. I enjoyed reading your “Lessons Learned” from this year. I am now coaching 10U minor little league after 2 seasons coaching 8U coach pitch. These aren’t select travel teams, our rosters are given to us by a random draft. In our league, each team has multiple kids still struggling to catch and throw. Now, some coaches will “hide” those players in the outfield or bench. I choose to continue rotating them as much as possible, giving them opportunities to play all positions. So that means I might have a second baseman or third basemen lacking all the skills (at this time) to properly field a throw on a steal or run downs. So the aggressive base running wears me out and is not teaching the kids anything down the road as that type of play will not result in success as they get older and the competition gets stiffer. Those teams that “hide” their below average players is not doing anything to help them develop or enjoy the game. Those are the kids that quit baseball before their 12. The coach, parents, league officials, nobody knows how that kid will develop or what position is is most suited for at age 6. We need to keep it fun, prepare them for the next level, and teach discipline.

  10. I coached a 9u team this spring, first year of kid-pitch. Stealing second and third was allowed, but not home (ball had to be put in play for a runner to score, or forced in by a bases loaded walk). I rarely had my players straight steal a base. Instead, I taught them how to take secondary leads and read the pitch. If the pitch went into the dirt, or over the catcher’s head, or otherwise went to the backstop, our runners moved up. (Trust me, there were plenty of chances to run on wild pitches at 9U). This seemed like a way to use to game to teach a skill and help players learn to make decisions about when to be aggressive. Stealing wouldn’t have provided our players much of a challenge, the odds of being thrown out was very low. Having to read the pitch at least provided a mental challenge and engaged their brains.

    1. This is a really, really good idea. And a skill that we used A LOT at Cypress College (CA) this past spring. Our baserunners did a great job of reading downward angle, and taking off once they saw it. If the catcher, picked a short-hop and threw them out… we tipped our caps and never got mad at the baserunners. Needless to say, the chances of that happening even at the college level are very low – and our guys had lots of success. Great idea for younger baserunners!

  11. As a parent/coach of a son who has been through every youth league level, all I can say is, the win at all costs will cost you in the end. Sure taking the extra base is part of the game and you can make rules to limit the chaos that happens when circus ball starts after an overthrow, but it’s the attitude and demeanor of the coaches / parents that comes into play. Parents turn into their alter ego and start coaching from stands adding to all the confusion. The key is what Dan stated earlier about his own son and what he loved to do and that was hanging with his buddies. There is no substitute for the feeling you have after a win, but at what cost. Focus should always be on the development of the player along with the team development. All the youth baseball that my son played was awesome, but when you get to the high school level it all changes and can hinge on 3 days of tryouts that determine weather or not you make the team. So when it’s all said and done at the end of the year, if you’re the coach you’ll still get the team picture mug, signed ball, and a gift card at the end of year pizza party. Oh don’t forget that trophy you got for winning at all costs that will just collect dust and eventually end up in a box somewhere.

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