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Kick off the season with a team meeting

This is an excerpt from Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Baseball by Daniel Keller.

Your first task as a new manager is to hold a team meeting. This meeting is for both the players and their families, and it should be held off of the diamond at a team member's house (better start cleaning). The initial team meeting provides a chance to meet teammates and parents alike. At this meeting, you can break the ice and clearly communicate team goals as well as your own coaching philosophies.

The key to a smooth season as manager is honest and consistent communication. By agreeing to take this youth baseball team, you have signed on as a manager of people—youth and adult—and communication skills are an absolute necessity. This meeting is your first opportunity to establish the guidelines for the season ahead, to let parents know what will be expected of them, and to secure as much help as possible.

Team Meeting Highlights

Open the meeting by introducing yourself and each athlete and family. These are the players whom you scouted during tryouts and you selected during the draft. Get excited about your squad and pass that energy along to the families for the upcoming season. Share your own contact information and discuss important issues clearly and quickly—no one likes a yawner. Here are some issues that should be discussed:

  • Emergency information. Protect yourself and your players. Collect vital information from parents by having them fill out a medical card (most leagues provide standardized and organization-mandated cards). Ideally, you should be CPR trained, carry a cell phone at all times, and have emergency supplies and procedures on hand. Make sure the forms include an area where parents can provide their own contact information and can share any sensitive information or other requests.
  • Schedules. Parents appreciate early notice so that they can plan around your practices. Before the initial team meeting, you should finalize the practice schedule leading up to the first week of games. You can always switch days or times if necessary, but doing this early will help with practice attendance and allow for consistent development. Clearly communicate your expectations regarding punctuality and attendance—it is appropriate to expect everyone else's commitment to match your own.
  • Practices. Practices should be scheduled on regular days and times, and you should complete the practice schedule as early in advance as possible. Parents appreciate this because many schedule their lives around their children's activities.
  • Games. The game schedule will be provided by the league, but you can establish a regular regimen for the pregame, including the arrival time (45-60 minutes before game time).
  • Snacks. Quite possibly the most important schedule of all, the snack schedule should rotate the responsibility for bringing snacks among the parents. Publish the schedule at the team meeting and allow parents to switch if necessary. Communicate how important snacks are and keep a backup (nonperishable) snack supply in your car—you don't want to have a snackless squad of soldiers.

Get Help: Involve Parents

There is a distinct difference between managing a team and serving in the role of coach. You've taken on the manager position and volunteered to schedule practices and lead the team. Therefore, you will need as much help as possible. You'll need assistant coaches, a team mom, and a Web site or communications officer. You'll also need some game volunteers to keep score, count pitches, clean the field, and handle other responsibilities. The league will undoubtedly assign several roles that you must find people to fill. Many coaches struggle to do this. Use the team meeting to fill these roles—do not leave this meeting without filling each league responsibility and volunteer role!

You should select two or three able and willing assistant coaches. These coaches will be in uniform for games and will assist with practices. Enlist as many additional volunteers as possible to also help with practices and team functions. The more the merrier—delegate your heart out! You've made the most difficult commitment; you're in charge, but you're going to need help. The team meeting is your best chance of securing helpers.

Coaching Philosophy—Define, Establish, and Communicate

For this final part of the team meeting, you may want to send the kids into the garage to play table tennis or out into the yard to play Wiffle ball. Take this opportunity to clearly communicate your coaching philosophy—something that you'll have to take some time to think through before the meeting. Sharing your philosophy with the parents will help you avoid issues down the road. Unfortunately, competition coupled with egos will undoubtedly bring out the worst in many parents. If you clearly communicate your philosophy and big-picture perspective at the team meeting, the critical decisions during the season will be much easier for you to make and much easier for other parents to understand.

Coaching youth baseball is a delicate balance of playing to win versus playing to develop. The chance of a high school athlete playing some form of professional baseball is .5 percent (and even more slim when it comes to playing in the big leagues). For a youth baseball player, making the high school squad has grown increasingly competitive as well. At an average high school, seven athletes in each graduating class will letter on the varsity baseball team. This means that the majority of your youth players will not play high school baseball, let alone in college or professionally.

Develop and define your role as a youth baseball coach: You are a teacher of the fundamentals of the game, a provider of opportunities for athletes to perform and succeed, and the captain of a ship that will zig and zag but eventually reach the end-of-season port. Practices and games should blend fun with competition. Make sure your athletes smile regularly. Remind them that at its core, baseball is a game and must remain one. Your athletes will learn valuable life lessons and will endure pressures and stresses, but this game is supposed to be fun. At times, you should do something silly and funny to break the tension. Cut a practice short and play over-the-line, do relay races as a warm-up, or finish practice with a sunflower seed spitting contest. Stay positive and emphasize what you do want done—not what you don't want done. Good sporting behavior is key, and respect for everyone builds a true champion. Say it, mean it, and write it down . . . you will be tested. When developing your coaching philosophy, you should also address each of these points:

  • Team goals. Your goal is consistent improvement. Practices are for coaches; games are for the players. This means that practices will be the opportunity for coaches to help athletes work on fundamental skills. Games will then be the chance for athletes to play—with aggression and confidence and without fear of failure. Over the course of the season, athletes should physically improve and mentally work to avoid making the same mistakes over and over.
  • Playing time. Many leagues dictate minimum innings played, which will provide a starting point for playing time. All athletes should sit out at some point each game, and playing time should be allocated equally at the youngest levels. If you establish a clear formula for playing time, the emotion of making decisions about playing time is removed, and all parents know where their athletes stand. Even with equal playing time, a team can still compete by playing its more skilled players at important positions during the early and late innings.
  • Positions. Athletes should rotate between positions. As athletes grow older, the number of positions played will decrease, and the number of innings spent at one or two positions will increase. For beginning baseball, all athletes should spend time both in the infield and the outfield. Safety must be taken into account, keeping in mind that first base, pitcher, and catcher are the most difficult positions to fill. Find ways to let as many interested athletes play these positions as possible. If an athlete wants to pitch, find the situation where he can pitch—whether it's when you're down by 10 or up by 10, there will be a time to get him onto the mound.
  • Homework. A big part of consistent improvement in young athletes is parent support and buy-in. Communicate the importance of the parents' support in their children's development as baseball players. You should assign regular homework to the players, and the parents need to follow up to ensure that the players get the necessary work off of the field.
  • Attendance and punctuality. You might not be able to avoid having late players or other attendance-related issues. However, you need to find a way to drive home the message that commitment is key, practice makes perfect, and punctuality at all functions is a sign of respect for the volunteers donating hours of their time. Include guidelines for what to wear and bring to practices, proper attire (baseball pants, protective cup), and supplies (water, glove, hat).
  • Communication. Address appropriate communication procedures for all people who are a part of this team:
    • Coaches should remain positive, avoid profanity, and lead by example.
    • Parents should avoid coaching from the stands, berating umpires, or negatively engaging any members of the opposing team or their parents. Request that parents approach you and address any issues away from the field and the athletes. Provide days and times that you can be reached to discuss anything related to the team.
    • Athletes should not argue with umpires, and they should not taunt or disrespect their opponents. Respect and positive sporting behavior should be shown to umpires, opposing teams, and their parents.

Read more about Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Baseball.

More Excerpts From Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Baseball