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T-Ball Journal: The Father Factor

At our most recent practice we wrapped things up with a little scrimmage. There were only a half-dozen Dodgers on hand but one coach pitched, the other played some outfield and we put a ballgame together. My eight-year-old son Noah started it off by hitting a hard ground ball into a wide open expanse out in right field. As he raced to third, one of his teammates retrieved the ball and ran all the way through the infield toward the third-base line. Noah rounded third and stood there a few steps beyond the base, oblivious to the fact his teammate, who by now was moving slowly (stealthily even), had the ball hidden in his glove. A couple moments later his teammate stepped right up and tagged him on the chest. In the process his glove caught the bottom of the mask in front of the batting helmet and brought it down so it made contact with Noah's face. He became upset, saying the mask had "really hurt" his lip. My unsympathetic reaction was that he was more upset about being tagged out. That did not go over well.

At our most recent game, one of my coaching counterparts asked one of his cohorts to switch with him and work on the right side of the diamond during their defensive half of an inning. In the first three T-Ball innings of our league's hybrid games (the last four frames are coach-pitch), two coaches can stand in the outfield to help their fielders. He thought his son, who would be playing on the right side, might need some assistance and it would be better if it came from someone other than his dad. I knew exactly what he was talking about . . . but it didn't mean I would employ a similar plan.

This was not the first time I had heard a coach voice this theory - that it is best to avoid having dads give their kids feedback, especially when it is negative. The theory is kids are more dismissive of what their parents are saying than they are of statements made by other adults in authority positions. It is a bit of a depressing realization for all us dads out here but probably true at least some of the time. It depends on a given kid's (and dad's) personality, of course, as well as his or her age.

And then there is the fact that every coach who has his kid on the team worries about coaching him or her differently than the rest of the players. Maybe somewhere at some time the primary concern was making sure one's own kid didn't get any special favors. But these days I'm confident most coaches face the same dilemma I do: trying to make sure you aren't too hard on your own kid. And that is what I worried about (again) after my son's and my little exchange at the end of practice.

I have never asked an assistant coach to give my son the bad news. If there is something I think needs to be said, I say it. Unfortunately there have been plenty of times when, upon further reflection, I've realized what I said probably wasn't absolutely necessary. That is part of the reason I made the decision at the start of the recently concluded school year that Noah and I could use a break from each other. I had coached his soccer team during his first two years of AYSO competition but I took a pass this time around. And I will continue to do so.

But I coached his baseball team this spring and summer and I hope to do so again next spring and summer. I know that a plenty of what I say to him does need to be said. For instance, if a kid becomes overly upset about something that happens in the course of a game, especially a relatively meaningless end-of-practice scrimmage, something along the lines of "don't get so upset" must be said.

I'm a believer in flat out flooding young (pre-middle school) competitors with positive reinforcement and I think I do that for all the Dodgers, my son included. But I do give Noah a bit more of a hard time when he does not-so-focused things. That is in part because he is one of the better players on the team, one who is capable of staying focused for long stretches. And that is also in part because he is definitely the team's mouthiest competitor. He does it less now that my wife and I have had repeated conversations with him but he is wont to speak up when he doesn't agree with an umpire or one of the coaches. And he has on occasion (again we hope less as the season has gone on) made teammates feel badly with his commentary on their play.

Then again, I alway have to remind myself that if my son over-reacts to sporting stimuli, he comes by it naturally. His father was a noted crybaby in his day, reacting furiously to calls that didn't go his way. As I headed into my teens I remember consciously trying to tone down my act, which had led to my being dubbed a CM (competitive moron) by a staffer or two and by fellow bounders at my longtime summer camp. I kept a more even keel in high school, which may have helped my overall psyche but which didn't exactly hone my competitive edge. I was a pretty good soccer player and swimmer at good old St. Ignatius College Prep along with being an enthusiastic bench-warmer in my final year of varsity baseball. But I bet I could have been better.

Oh by the way, can you imagine a camp counselor calling a camper a competitive moron these days? I'm thinking the child's parents might file lawsuits in state and federal courts. And oh by the way, the Dodgers won their only game of last weekend, clawing their way back to the .500 mark (6-6-1). My daughter Alana's T-Ball team suffered a couple tough losses, but she made her coach happy by drawing him a little picture and writing what was essentially a thank you note. I don't think the thought of drawing a picture for his coach has ever occurred to my son. I'm sure it never occurred to me when I was his age.

At a July 4th picnic a couple years ago, Noah entered a sack race. It was an event that my family had attended for years and years and I always saw good friends there that I oftentimes didn't see the rest of the year. In fact, just about all of them were from that aforementioned summer camp. The sack race began and Noah took one jump and went down in a heap. I hustled over and helped him up and encouraged him to keep going and finish the race. But he was bawling and just wanted to quit.

Suddenly a voice rang out across the front lawn of our friend's beautiful old Evanston house. It was one of those old camp friends I mentioned, one who knew me by my childhood nickname. "Hey Jamey, like father, like son, eh?"

I paused and then I turned to Noah. "It's OK if you just stop." And I may have thought but I didn't actually say "But we're gonna kill them in the water balloon toss."

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Jim Coffman's daughter is in her first season of T-Ball. Her older brother is in his last year in the Junior Division. Coffman is chronicling his travails as coach of his son's team and observer of his daughter's initial foray into this slice of Americana.

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