After the response I got from my OP on my son’s pitching style I figured I would share a little actual dugout wisdom with everyone. This concerns a chapter of a fast pitch softball book I read and how I adopted and adapted that coaches very simple mental attitude/condition indicator on my son’s minor league baseball team. I would love to give credit to the coach but I cannot remember the name of the book. I believe she was a coach for a university in Michignan. Her philosophy on coaching was great and although the years have dulled my memory to the point of forgetting the book title, I have not forgot her teaching. A huge shout-out and thank you to her, whatever her name is.
Her whole theory on the ability of a player to perform at their peak ability is as simple as Red, Yellow and Green. Think traffic lights.
Green: David Banner, Betty Ross and a bottle of wine.
The player is at peak focus. Situational awareness on the field is high. They are thinking about the next play and how they relate to it. Most importantly, they are receptive to your instruction. You can coach without interference from the big green baddie.
Yellow: "You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry."
At this phase the player is starting to question something. Their decision making is hindered by their preoccupation with past events. Some indications are “tossing” helmets into the bat bag after a bad at bat, sitting on the end of the bench stewing, making excuses or blaming others for their mistake (or sometimes for an exceptional play from the other team that caught them in the crossfire). This could be any number of issues based on the player and their disposition. I once coached a player who would go into the yellow if he had to pitch to more than 5 batters an inning because he felt he was that much better than anyone in the league. Whatever the reason, however major or minor the issue, the player is now in a danger area. The player is less likely to listen to instruction or be focused on the game going on around them. What did grandma think about me striking out? I always sit the bench. I just lost the game. At this point you must, as a coach, focus on getting them back into the green as soon as possible. If not…
Red: “We’ve got a Hulk.”
In the new “Avengers” movie Iron Man jokes that one Hulk can take on an Army. In Little League baseball one player in the red can take on an army of coaches, and it’s not near as entertaining as the Marvel comics version. If you’ve coached many years you’ve seen this. It is nearly impossible to get a child in the red back to green. Arms crossed feet together in the field. Bat on shoulder standing upright in the batter’s box. Glazed, uninterested look as you try to calm, instruct, or cheer them. Degrading/rude comments to the umpires, coaches and teammates. The signs are as numerous as the personalities you coach in Little League but all are equally devastating to the mental state of the player, and team, if you don’t catch it early and correct/contain it. When a player is in the red on any of my teams they sit until they are least in the yellow heading toward green. It is detrimental to the individual as well as the team when they are in the red.
As an example of how fast player can go from green to red my son, my own flesh and blood, threw a bat into the backstop after being hit by the ball in prep league. One strike, no balls, and he was hit in the hand by a pitch. He started running down the baseline to take his free base, but…he was in the act of swinging. The umpire called strike two on him and called him back to the plate. I called time and thought I explained the situation well enough and then sent him back to the plate. The look he shot the umpire was one of green-eyed frustration as he stepped back into the batter’s box. It was my second year coaching and I had no idea what was going to happen next. As the ball crossed the plate my son swung very hard. That is to say to say that he was way in front of the ball, pulled his head, swore (I think) and blew the pitchers hat off his head with the wind as he missed for strike three. In retrospect, the look on the umpire’s face was begging me to intervene but I watched in dumb silence as it happened. My son will tell you that the umpire danced like Leslie Nielson in Naked Gun as he called him out on strike three. That the umpire was laughing at his inability to hit the ball and mocking his general lack of understanding of the game of baseball. What I saw, on the other hand, was man that understood what too many gamma rays could do to an eight year old boy and he was beggin me as a coach and father to calm the monster. My son stood there for what felt like an eternity to me, took the bat in both hands and hurled it ten foot into the backstop and screamed at the umpire, “this is stupid!”
The other night my eleven year old son fouled a ball off and the umpire called him out on strike three. It was one of those quiet soft pings that could be mistaken for a missed swing if the umpire forgot to wear his hearing aid, but I watched my son’s reaction as the parents were yelling that it was a “foul tip.” Jonathan opened the dugout gate, placed his hand on the Hulk action figure that is a perpetual reminder to “keep it in the green” and smiled at me when he walked up.
“What happened, I ask?”
“I tipped it but the ump called me out,” he said in a matter of fact tone.
“Really? Are you okay with that?” I asked.
“Yeah, we all mess up sometimes,” he shrugged as he replied.
Last year I started teaching all of my players about the lights. I am up front about their emotional state and how it affects our team play. Green equals play. Yellow equals talk. Red equals bench. Both my son’s 10-12 year old league and my daughter’s 9-13 fast pitch league respond very well to this lesson. Expectations are established. Justification for play/no-play is understood and every player starts to see the symptoms. The players will point them out to each other in a positive way. “Get back in the green” is how we start but nearly all of them realize soon thereafter that a word of encouragement will yield better results faster which results in a very motivating force on the bench. Children encouraging other children. At its core, this is what youth sports is about.
Of course, the lesson is not that cut and dry. They are children after all and stop lights are inherently boring. There is a whole story about how I am lazy getting ready for work, then I start running late, I imagine the Hulk to make red lights go green faster, get more frustrated and start beating my car, turn into the Hulk, scream, yell and…realize I have sat through an entire green light because I was mad at having to wait on a red light. Make it easy. Make it interesting. Make it fun, and maybe someday you’ll have a Hulk-Buddha in your dug-out, too!