Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lonely Days: Managing a Team Solo

If you survey coaches from almost every sport, boys or girls, I would bet my lunch money on what they would say is most enjoyable about coaching. That’s easy; it is the relationships. Not just with the players, but their fellow coaches on staff. That is the “good stuff” about coaching behind the homeruns and no-hitters. These relationships often grow through the off-season and many times a long-standing friendship develops.

Making a commitment to a team, coaches spend a lot of time together in preparation, practice, and while competing in games. If it is done correctly, a strong bond should grow between the coaching staff. It is only natural. After awhile, coaches count on each other to offer guidance in making important decisions about strategy, discipline, and techniques. The solutions to these issues are always better when different perspectives are provided.

What happens when a coach has to drudge through the season alone? Who does he look to for answers? How does he organize practice? Will players still be able to develop? In 2009, I got a chance to coach a junior varsity team by myself for almost the entire spring season. In this article, I will share the lessons I learned from the experience. Also, I will offer some insight in making the most of the situation.

1. Making Decisions

When you are alone, making decisions can be tough. On a coaching staff, there are different perspectives and thoughts. These different viewpoints help to shape any of the team’s decisions. When you do not have these voices in the decision process it is hard to know if you made the right choice.

Everyone needs a sounding board, someone to talk to during the rough times. Without an assistant coach last year, I used my wife as a voice of reason. Her perspective became invaluable to helping me dealing with issues. She applied a lot of common sense that people too close to an issue cannot see.

After hearing her opinions, it dawned on me that using people outside of the baseball “bubble” is a good thing. Being teachers, coaches have an endless supply of colleagues to seek out for advice. These people bring a wealth of knowledge to the table to regards to dealing with kids.

2. Organizing Practice

Without an assistant coach, having an organized, productive practice is not easy. I struggled with it a lot during last season. Many times, kids are in areas that are not totally supervised. Therefore, a lot of responsibility falls into the hands of the players. Coaches have to make sure these players know the proper effort, concentration, and conduct required during each practice station.

Staying focused on the littlest detail is one lesson coaching alone taught me. Practice had to be set-up just right before activities started. If not, practice could get extremely off-course. Once they get out of rhythm, players had a hard time getting back in the groove. By being alone, I had to account for the time before practice to adjust materials and areas so they could be supervised from a central location.

Another good thing about practice, when coaching by alone, is the incorporation of live game situations. Without several coaches, it is hard to work on traditional position work like massive amounts of groundballs and flyballs. Instead, coaches must use multiple positions at once to run a drill. Otherwise, there is a lot of standing around by the non-used players. Therefore, each batted ball requires several positions to execute catches, tags, and throws.

3. Promoting Development

How could coaches promote development when the player to coach ratio is 15 to 1? With these circumstances it would seem like players should worsen with a lack of supervision. How could a player possibly improve in this kind of environment?

One particular instance that came to light was not having a first base coach. At first, players were very uncomfortable without a coach in the box telling them exactly what to do. Some even got pickoff on a good move by the pitcher or catching throwing from behind. Over time, players were forced to be more aware of the game’s details. Did they really need a coach to yell,” Back!” when the pitcher picked off? Or was the coach just a crutch for them not to think for themselves?

4. Discipline

With only one coach to administer discipline there is no “Good Cop, Bad Cop” roles to be played. Often a coaching staff might balance themselves out; having a few coaches on staff that kids may feel more comfortable around. With just one guy coaching the team; it isn’t like that.

It is easy to react rashly when you are by yourself, especially when a player has done something to anger you. There is no one else there to calm the situation and offer differing opinions. Coaches must be careful not to overreact to a situation without first taking a step back.

To combat acting irrational, coaches should not make any decisions for 24 hours. Giving a situation a little time helps both parties experience a period of “cool down”. After that, coaches should be able to make decisions based on merit not anger. Believe me; it is hard to resist reacting immediately to a player’s bad decisions. But, taking time to think things through is always the best practice when it comes to the team.

5. Staying Sane

This is probably most difficult of all the categories. Being around kids without any adult interaction is mentally draining. There is no one to joke with, talk to, or bounce ideas off. You can feel isolated and alone. To combat these negative feelings, coaches must open up and create some mature relationships with their players.

For some coaches, including me, this can be very scary. Over the years, it has been difficult for me to open up to players about things. During this experience, I was forced to show a different side of myself. I had to drop some of my defenses and let the kids participate with their own successes.

For one, I started to let the kids throw their own batting practice. That was a big step for me. Also, I let the players lead their own warm-ups and stretch time. In the past, I was always in the outfield keeping things moving along. With all the pre-game duties to complete, I could not be two places at once. I had to let these small things go. It was rough at first, but soon things ran smoothly. The kids, after a rocky start, got on board and did a nice job. Though the experience was always on the verge on teetering out-of-control, it definitely made me a better coach!

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