Monday, March 7, 2005

Third Base Coaches, Listening and Perspective

I had some time to kill on Saturday while waiting for a friend of mine, so I found a local community park where a Little League practice game was in session. The boys looked to be between 8 and 11 years old. The fathers/coaches, were of course, more competitive and demanding than the children themselves were; nevertheless, it was a friendly game. It was clear to see that many of the boys knew each other from school or other activities.

All of the sounds were just as familiar to me as if I was one of the players on the field. In fact, if I closed my eyes and listened, it could have just has easily been me on the field ready for the next ball, praying I didn't miss it when it was hit to me, or settling myself into my stance in the batter's box hoping to at least connect with the next pitch. The banter of the coaches to the boys, parents cheering and teammates encouraging each other -- all these sounds brought me back to my own days of playing softball in high school.

The most confusing part of the game for the boys seemed to be running the bases. As a bystander, it was easy to chuckle at some of their rookie mistakes and know that with time and practice, that part would come easier to them. I listened to what the coaches were telling the boys, and I wondered if it really made any sense to them. They are, after all, only young boys. Can they see through the inanities of things such as, "Focus!" "Don't hesitate!" "Listen to me!" "Watch the ball!" "Way to be there, Johnny!" to understand what the coaches were really trying to tell them? I guessed not.

About the time I had the thought, though, that the boys just needed more practice instead of useless phrases hollered at them, I remembered again what it was like to be a base runner. It can be confusing, which as a spectator, you wouldn't think it should be, but it is. It's easy to hesitate, not because you're dumb and don't see what's going on, but because you don't want to make any mistakes. You want to be sure that the ball has gone bast the outfielder before making a clean break for third base. You want the ball to go past the catcher before taking the full leap towards stealing second.

Nothing can make you doubt yourself more in baseball than being a base runner. Sure, running towards first after hitting is easy, plus you've got a coach right there telling you to "Run it out!" That part becomes instinctual in no time at all. And even running towards second is pretty easy. After all, you've still got the first base coach there to tell you when to tag up, when to hold up, and when to make a break for it.

But somewhere between first and second you hit no-man's land. "Should I slide? Where's the ball? Head first or feet first? Did the catcher throw it?" These and a thousand other thoughts go through your mind as your legs pump and you think about the timing to slide under the tag. Sure, the coaches are probably hollering either "Stay up!" or "SLIDE!!!!!" but you may not be able to hear them because you're farther away from them than you were before and there's a lot of other noises, both of the other team shouting and your own internal monologue.

So now you're on second base, adrenaline pumping, smiling a little because you were safe, and the stress starts all over again. Even though you've got coaches at either end 60 feet away, they're far enough away to really not be easily heard. Now is when you really feel like you're on your own. Now is when the self-doubt really settles in. I watched it happen with the boys on Saturday. Before they took off for third, either on an in-play ball or to steal third, there was always a hesitation about whether or not it was totally safe to go. And that hesitation would be just enough to make it not safe to go. The coaches would be yelling, "GO! GO!" and it didn't make any difference. By the time the boys decided to run, it was too late and the coach had to quickly say, "Go back!"

The boy would look a little abashed that he hadn't gone, always with a determined, "I'll do it next time" expression, while the coach invariably yelled, "Johnny! Don't hesitate! You've got to just GO!" And the boy would nod obediently, but just underneath the determined look was also a little bit of fear.

As I was remembering those feelings of being a base runner and feeling all alone and not knowing what to do next, I started thinking about how much like life that is. It's easy to make it to a certain half-way destination with a little bit of encouragement. But once you get there, it's just as easy to wonder how you got there and what should you do next. It seems like you're on your own with no one to offer encouragement and only the derisive voices of the other team hoping that you fail -- that they can get you out next time.

It's at that time of feeling hesitant and doubtful that you need to listen to your third base coach. He doesn't have the same stresses you do of needing to concentrate all your energy on getting the perfect jump and running as fast as you can with excellent timing. He can just survey the playing field, where the ball is being played, and the opposing team all at the same time and is in a perfect position to tell you what to do next and when to do it.

You have two jobs at this point. The first one is to know how to tune out the other voices and concentrate just on that one. That means you need to have been at practice to know what the coach sounds like.

Your second responsibility is to trust what the coach tells you to say, even if you don't believe you're capable of what he's telling you to do right then. If he tells you to run, you run like the dickens. And if he tells you to slide, you hit the ground as low as you can go. And if he tells you to keep going, you round the corner with as much speed and as little space as possible, put your head down, pump your arms, and run for home.

Isn't that just like life? You have to know which voice is the right one to listen to and you have to trust it even if you don't trust yourself. The right voice will never tell you to do something you shouldn't.

Got your cleats on? Get ready to run, then, 'cause the third base coach wants you to get home safely.

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