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Aug '10 10

Old World Pastime – What makes a great coach?



Old World Pastime

John Miller, who is playing and coaching for the Brussels Kangaroos in the Belgian 2nd Division and is a reporter for a big American newspaper, is now also the Little League Commissioner for Belgium. He is also back chronicling the 2010 season in his “Old World Pastime” column on Mister-Baseball.com for a third straight year.

Where have you been all my life, Buck Showalter? After going 28-72 under Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel, my Baltimore Orioles are now 6-1 since Uncle Buck rolled in a week or so ago. OK, they’re still 30 games out of first place in the American League Beast, but what’s happened in Baltimore offers a cool lab experiment in baseball leadership and performance.

First, let’s assume that 6-1 is not a fluke. The Orioles swept the Angels and took three out of four from the White Sox. Yes, the real test will come against the Red Sox and Yankees, but let’s say that they actually are really, truly playing much better under BS. They didn’t go 6-1 under either of the other two managers. Let’s also take the players out of the equation.

So why the Buck effect? My answer is that an overwhelming part of being a successful manager or coach, after your players are over 15, is actually more akin to a good parent. It’s setting a tone, a level, a standard, and expecting people to live up to that. It’s a cool, unspoken attitude that says Enough! A grown-up is here and I’m not taking this crap. It’s knowing exactly who you are and what you stand for when everything around you is sinking. Buck is that grown-up.

When I first started coaching, I thought the job was all X’s and O’s. Know how to explain a bunt or correct an elbow position and you’re headed for glory. I was wrong. For younger kids, coaching is organization and structure. It’s explaining the game, setting the parameters for a practice, workout or game, and then letting the kids play.

Talented players will figure it out. A coach has less influence than he thinks. The good news is that plenty of kids do have talent and if they’re left alone to play and play and play in the right conditions, they will flourish. And those who struggle will still like baseball instead of quitting because their coach is always nagging them about what they’re doing wrong.

I was successful coaching kids up to age 16, but struggled directing our men’s team in 2008. I’ve given that failure a lot of thought, and I think I know why. I wasn’t able to set that grown-up tone. I reacted emotionally to players not playing well. What? How can you idiots make so many errors? I yelled and screamed. It was silly.

Deep down, I didn’t really expect them to make the plays, and my anger and frustration was more my problem than theirs. I didn’t have that confident expectation, that Buck Showalter-like ability to be the anchor in the storm. (Of course, there’s also this approach)

So how do you achieve that winning attitude? I think it’s something you develop, like learning how to dance, fly or speak a new language.

It’s not rocket science. Coaching baseball is a craft, and if you work at it, and do it over and over again, admitting when you make mistakes and learning from them, you get better at it. It explains why older managers are better.

Meanwhile, man, winning is, like, better than losing.

Share your theories on what makes a great baseball general at oldworldpastime@gmail.com

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