Five rules for Little League: Smile, listen, hustle, safety and orange slices

Little League’s version of spring training started in our house today. Our preschool-age daughter grabbed her brother’s old jersey and her pink bat for her first ever T-ball practice, and our second-grade son started AA ball.

This will be my third season coaching my son’s teams. I learn a little more every year about how to lead 12 fidgety grade school kids through a successful 10-week season.

This year, I committed more time than ever to learning about the craft of coaching. I was inspired in part by great coaches and leaders who have been part of my life: My dad, high school baseball coaches and good bosses.

Last May, I heard St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny on “Fresh Air” talking about his experience coaching 10-year-olds. His approach connected with me. He judged his success as a Little League coach not on the team’s record but on whether the kids wanted to come back for the next practice and the next season. His “Matheny Manifesto” is packed with thoughtful approaches worth copying.

I looked around for blogs and podcasts to dive deeper. The Winning Youth Coaching podcast provided great tips on how to manage a youth team and how to get the most out of our players. (One gem: Teach and celebrate transferable life skills: Put another way: Don’t prepare your players for the season. Prepare them for life.)

Every year, our teams have had one short set of rules. The rules are always simple and basic. (Another podcast tip: Always, always keep it simple.) But these rules also serve as our core values, the foundation upon which the entire season and experience is built. They also happen to be useful life skills we want our players to continue developing to be productive students, professionals and citizens.

At the start and end of every practice and game, we recite the rules with the players to remind them of what matters most. The phrases have evolved every year but the messages have been the same. Here’s what we used to kickoff the 2016 season:

  1. Smile: Having fun is far and away the most important part of any sport, especially for younger kids. Kids who have fun at practice learn better and improve faster.
  2. Listen: This is meant broadly to include focus and concentration. These are hard for young players. They talk over coaches. They ask questions. They build sand castles at second base. But without listening, focus and concentration, we can’t teach. Players who can’t listen sit the bench and spend practice in the bleachers.
  3. Hustle: We told our parents tonight: We may not finish in first place but we will lead the league in grass stains. One of most repeated drills this year will teach the players how to sprint down the first base line.
  4. Safety: Remember, we’re arming these kids with metal bats. Safety has to be a core value.
  5. Orange slices: Is there a sweeter way to end practice? Everyone leaves feeling satisfied and energized. And if we’re successful, they’ll want to come back next practice, next game and next year.