Three Lessons Learned From A Return To The Field

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but one of the primary reasons I got into teaching was baseball. I knew I was never going to be a professional baseball player–Derek Jeter may or may not have stolen my life–but I grew up in a baseball family. Spring and summer family dinners were planned around our (my sister, brother, and me) game and practice schedule. The dinner conversation would often lead to someone getting up from the table to demonstrate a specific swing or skill. I grew up with a love for the game and knew that I wanted to coach.

Truthfully, the job of coach, when done right, is the same as the job of teacher. You are entrusted with a group of kids and it is your job to not only teach them, but to foster a culture of engagement and fun. Achievement is important, but it is not as important as improvement and learning.

I actually started coaching high school baseball before I graduated from college. I was lucky enough to get a junior varsity head coach position at one of the best programs in the county. The varsity coaches helped me learn the ins and outs of coaching my own team while allowing me to be myself, learn from my mistakes, and to really understand the potential that a coach has to positively impact young people. I would coach JV baseball for six seasons before taking the middle school job at the school I was teaching. Years three, four, and five of teaching were spent in the middle school with the additional title of baseball coach. It was a difficult decision to leave that middle school, partly because of the coaching job. But, I decided to leave for the only district I would’ve left for–the one I still work at 15 years later–and to give up coaching. I didn’t give it up for that long because two years into my high school teaching career, I was asked to assist the freshman team. After that one season, my 10th as baseball coach and my 8th as a teacher, I decided to step away from coaching.

While I have always been a baseball fan, I didn’t miss coaching all that much. The classroom became my favorite place. Being “Armida” the teacher was far more rewarding than Coach Armida. Maybe it was because I was getting older, but I do think it was because I realized that the classroom was why I got into coaching, not the other way around. It was never about wins and losses for me on the field. It was always about teaching kids, helping them improve both on the field and in life. I was a teacher who happened to coach, not the other way around.

Fast forward a dozen years to this past March. My District’s middle school baseball coaching job was open. I simply asked about it. Suddenly, it was offered to me. I wasn’t sure for a number of reasons. First, it has been 12 years since I last coached a team. Could the older me still do it? Could I do it without sacrificing job performance? And, would I still be able to relate to today’s players? After a whole lot of thought, a blessing from my daughter, and the green light from “The Admin”, I decided to give it a go.

The season comes to an end this week. It is has been one of the most positive experiences of my 20 year teaching career. The baseball has been fun. The team is comprised of 18 great, young men. Our experience together has led me to learn even more about kids, what they perceive, and what drives them. Despite having quite a bit of coaching experience and being involved in baseball for my entire life, this season has been a reminder of something that I have been preaching about the education field; no matter how much experience you may have, you must continue to learn and evolve. I learned that because of my time with these 18 young men. Those lessons will stay with me for the rest of my teaching career.

Lesson One: Kids Have So Much Pressure On Them

In the 12 years since I last coached, the most significant change to school baseball is the proliferation of private coaches and intense travel schedules. 12 years ago, kids played school baseball and Little League. A few played on a travel team. Now, almost every kid plays on at least one travel team. Some are playing on two, while also playing in their local town league. And, a bunch of my players have their own, private coaches. A couple have their own private batting coach, another couple of have a private pitching coach.

What was once a game is now something that has specialization and intense training sessions, all with the “next level” in mind. With competition, scholarships, and even scouts in mind, many middle school students are already thinking about how they can get to the next level. Now, this isn’t like the dream of being the Yankees shortstop that I had; that was more fantasy and wonder. Today’s kids are training, targeting specific exercises and drills, and have multiple “experts” making decisions about the number of pitches thrown, number of swings taken, and positions they should play.

With all of that, every at bat, every pitch means a lot to them. They press, they analyze, and, even after a successful play, they are analyze what they can improve.

That’s similar to what happens in the classroom. Today’s students are highly competitive. College looms over their every test performance, their every essay submitted, and every lab completed. Many believe that one bad grade could take them off that path. It’s why more and more students are getting less sleep. It’s why more and more kids are stressed to the point of breakdown. Many students are pushing themselves through whatever means necessary to perform at the highest level. There isn’t much down time. There isn’t as much fun as there should be.

On the field, it was my job to decipher when to push my instruction and when to back off. It was my job to see which player was pushing too hard, so hard that it was detrimental to his performance. A classroom teacher has the same responsibility. A teacher must know when to push instruction, but, more importantly, when to backoff and give kids some time. A teacher must be able to see that the quiet, often unnoticed kid in the back of the room, needs a kind word or even just acknowledgement.

This generation gets the bum rep of being apathetic and lazy. They are neither. The majority of today’s kids are so motivated that they are pushing themselves too hard and sometimes missing out on the real reason why they are in school or on the field. It is up to us as teachers and coaches to remind kids that it is about learning, about exploring passions, and about enjoying to process of improving. It is up to us to acknowledge all of the pressure and stressors and put our students/players in the right mindset so they can thrive in a healthy manner and learn lessons that will take them through the rest of their lives.

Lesson Two: Delivery Must Change

I was never the militaristic coach. I never believed in yelling at a team or embarrassing a player in practice or during a game. But, during my first run as a coach, it was definitely a top-down approach. I set the agenda. I set the drills. I told players when and where to be. I had practices laid out down to the second with notes full of what they would be doing each and every one of those seconds. While I would also teach why we were running a certain play the way we were or why we were doing a certain drill, the players had zero say in practices. They had very little say in positions they could play or plays we would run in defensive situations.

This is another area where my years in the classroom helped me with this year’s team. The successful classroom is a collaborative effort. Students should have a voice in their learning, or, at the very least, how they learn. Lectures only reach a portion of students. Students learn best when they are allowed to explore things they feel are relevant. Students learn from each other as well as the teacher. The environment must be one that encourages collaboration, challenges, failure, and opportunities to learn from that failure.  

On the field, the players had a voice in practices and instruction, even if they didn’t know it. Like the classroom, taking the time to talk with kids will help form instruction, or, in this case, practice plans. During the walk out to the field, I would make a point to talk with different players. I’d ask about school, how their other games went, and what they felt they needed. Those conversations formed practice plans. During practices, drills were designed to address common team skills as well as individual needs. Players were paired up to allow collaboration. If a player saw something that a teammate was doing incorrectly, he was encouraged to point it out respectfully. 12 years ago, I would never allow that. My voice was the only one allowed when it came to instruction. That doesn’t work today. Kids need to feel a part of the process. If they feel that way, they are more engaged and more likely to take your lessons seriously.

Does it take time to set parameters for how to help teammates? Of course. It wasn’t perfect at the start. But, it is worth the effort. During our last game, I overheard one player tell a teammate that he noticed that he was constantly behind in the count and that he should be more aggressive. Now, this was a message that I’ve been harping on, but a teammate helped contextualize it in a slightly different manner. The next at bat, the player was aggressive, getting a base hit, which ended a bit of a slump. That culture of collaboration helped a kid with his performance.

In the classroom, there cannot be one method of instruction. And, that instruction can’t always come from the teacher. With a culture of collaboration, all students have a value and a role in the classroom.

Lesson Three: Let Them Think And Experience

Coaching is a delicate balance of preparation and allowing teams to take action. The tendency of most coaches is to instruct every single possible scenario. During practice, this is important. Baseball is as much of a mental game as it is a physical game. Knowing where to throw the ball and where to position yourself ahead of time is essential. In practice, you drill this. You teach the different scenarios. You expose players to certain scenarios so they are prepared for the real thing in games. But, then, you have to let players experience them. You have to let players work through them without you giving step by step instructions, for every possible scenario. So, my goal when my team is playing defense in games is to be as quiet as possible. Sure, I’ll cheer for our pitcher and when we make good plays, but I will not go over every scenario before each pitch. I’ll call a play if the situation calls for it, but then I let the players perform. Most times, they perform well. Other times, not so much. If it’s the latter, I will make a note and then review in practice the next day. But, that experience, whether positive or negative, leads to more impactful learning. Players have to learn to think for themselves. They are reinforced when successful. They learn better from mistakes because they are allowed to make those mistakes.

The same thing is true in the classroom. Students need to be given opportunities to learn from mistakes, go through a process, and demonstrate mastery. They cannot do that in the traditional lecture classroom when all that happens is talk, homework, test, and move on.

One of the buzzwords in education is grit. The only way that is developed is when students are allowed to perform, explore, and then receive feedback. If we want kids to become writers with something important to say, this is the only process that allows them to develop and refine their voice. We cannot give them fill in the blank templates, graphic organizers that basically layout a cookie cutter essay, or example essays to copy. They must be allowed to think for themselves, experience the failure that occurs in almost every writing process, and then learn from that failure to produce something meaningful. We must take a step back from controlling each and every moment and allow kids to develop a sense of fearlessness in the learning process.

Final Thought

Like the classroom, sports have evolved. But, they have evolved because kids and the world have evolved. What worked even just a few years ago must change to meet the needs of today’s kids. The game of baseball is essentially the same one that has been played for a century. Yet, the teaching and skills required to excel need to be different because more is known, athletes are different and better conditioned, and more strategies have been incorporated because of all that has been learned about the game.

A school’s purpose is essentially the same as its purpose a century ago: to produce young people who can thrive in the world. Yet, the teaching and skills required to excel need to be different because more is known, students are different and smarter, and more strategies have been incorporated because all that has been learned about education.

Tradition is important in baseball, but that tradition hasn’t gotten in the way of training methods evolving, the game being played better, and kids learning differently. We must apply the same logic to education. A return to the coaching sidelines after a dozen years away reminded me how we all need to evolve, even if we have a lot of experience. If we don’t evolve, we are doing a disservice to kids.