I’m going to ask for a little indulgence today. You see, I coach my son’s 7-9-year-old Little League baseball team, and yesterday we won our first tournament game in what I can only describe as a matchup of epic proportions. I may be a little hyperbolic, but the win has made me a little reflective.
Baseball, as a sport, has fallen a little out of favor over the last several years. It’s a sport that moves at its own pace, and in a world where we demand immediacy, not everyone has the patience for the game. It’s a simple game: throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball. But colored within that simplicity is a complexity that requires knowledge in order to compete at a higher level, not dissimilar from the game of life.
Every spring, teams assemble. A few of the players have played on other teams, but there are many new faces and units must be built anew. Excitement is high and the possibilities are endless. As things come together, there is a feeling-out period where you start to get a sense of what the script for the season will look like. Will it be success out of the gate or will it take a while to hit full stride?
The boys are shy around each other as they try to get a sense of what kind of teammates they have and what their role will be in the overall dynamic. For some players, their role will become clear almost instantly. Others will search longer to find their niche. In a worst case scenario, some boys will go the whole year without finding their place. As a coach, I work hard to prevent that scenario from transpiring.
For my son, this was to be a transitional year. He would be moving up to the next level. He’d been accustomed to being one of the best players on the team, but where would he fall in this new age bracket? The past provides no guarantees.
The season starts and after a few games, a picture of the team emerges. It’s clear that it’s going to take a while for this entity to gel. They struggle with some of the mental aspects. They can hit the ball, but they don’t run to first as hard as they could, so they are often thrown out. They are young, so they don’t always listen to their coaches as they should, which results in missed opportunities.
In the field, the throws to first are often wild. Balls are frequently thrown to the wrong base and opposing teams score off these lapses in judgement. Fielders hold the ball because of an inability to make a decision, which results in more runs being scored. Physically, the team is not overmatched, but other teams are more experienced and better versed in the complexities of the game. There is a learning curve.
My son, Peter, struggles. In my overzealousness to make him as prepared as possible for the season, I took him to the batting cages several times. There, he faced 40 mph balls being pitched at him. A speed that he wasn’t mentally prepared to face nor a speed that he would face in games. The result was a timidness that had never existed took root and his timing was way off. During the first several games, he failed to make contact with the ball, repeatedly striking out, a situation that was unfamiliar to him.
The game had also stopped being fun for Peter. He and I were often at odds. I felt he wasn’t focused enough, nor trying hard enough. He thought I was a jerk.
As the season progressed, the kids continued to work. They discovered that they liked each other. They had fun together. They learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Fathers began to pitch in and help. I’ve never employed a very formal assistant coaching system. I really don’t assign roles and welcome any, without qualification, who want to help. Slowly, kids gained confidence, skills became more proficient, and games became closer.
I decided to make a complete switch in my approach with Peter. He doesn’t respond well to yelling, so I did my best to refrain from yelling. Okay, I admit I wasn’t always successful. I am a work in progress. His timing began to return and he started to become intrigued by the mental aspects of the game. He loved his teammates and reveled in the time spent with them. Things were getting fun again.
As the season closed, we began to win games. Kids who weren’t hitting at the beginning of the season were now making contact. Balls were thrown to the right location with increased frequency. Several times they were down in games only to come back and win. They developed confidence in both their skills and their teammates.
Peter’s timing was also improving and he was getting on base regularly. He’d always been the kid who was overactive. The one who would cover both the pitcher’s mound, center field, and everything in between. A trait that was both a blessing and a curse. As the season progressed, he became less out of control and began to exhibit more faith in his teammates and a deeper understanding of the game. Instead of his energy being a detriment, it was developing into an asset.
Yesterday’s game actually started the day before. In the first inning, the boys were completely out of sync. They were missing routine throws, failing to field balls, and making poor decisions. As a result they were down 6-0 at the end of the first inning. They only managed to score one run during their time at bat.
They took the field at the top of the 2nd with a renewed sense of confidence. As a result, they only allowed one run to be scored. That’s when the rains arrived. The storm hit and play was halted. It would resume the next day, with my Rangers down 8-1.
When play resumed the next day, it was anyone’s guess how it would go. Peter was up first and after fouling off a couple of foul balls, he drove one to mid-right center. That led off an inning in which we’d cut the lead by just one run. The next inning we scored 7 runs and took a 1-run lead.
Over the next couple of innings, the score flip-flopped as both teams played stellar defense. The last inning found us down by three runs.
The opposing team managed to put our first two batters out. We were one out from losing, and up to bat was a young man who had struck out twice today already. This was going to be different though. He got a hit that sparked a 3-run rally, and we were going to extra innings. An important lesson on not allowing past shortcomings to hamper the future was learned.
Our defense held them to one run. All we needed to win was two. We scored one run and then got an out. The next two batters got hits and we found ourselves with a runner on second and third and one out. Peter was up next.
The first two pitches I threw to him, he swung at wildly. “Concentrate!” I shouted. Didn’t he realize what a big moment this was for him? This was a chance to win the game and be a hero. Why was he squandering it?
Looking at him, it quickly became apparent that I was doing it to him again. My perceived effort and motivating were actually having a counter-effect. His body language indicated that he was in the process of shutting down. I was leading him down the path of failure instead of helping him find his own path of strength. It was me who needed to focus, not him.
I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “We will either win this game now or we won’t. He’ll either shine in this moment or he won’t. But this moment is not life-defining. It is just one snapshot of who he is and who he will potentially become. I am fostering my hopes, fears, and desires on his shoulders, and I need to stop.”
I smiled at him and said, “Just relax. Let’s get this. He promptly cracked his hardest hit ball of the season to right center. As the ball rolled to the fence, the winning runs crossed the plate. Peter’s joy was unbound and his teammates embraced him as they celebrated the win.
It was one great moment in a game of great moments. Watching our shortstop leap in the air after making a put out at first with a strike. A throw and a catch that had never been a gimme. Watching our center fielder barrel down the first base line intently focused on the bag after a season of oft being thrown out because he watched the ball he’d hit. Watching our third baseman, who’d made an error on a previous play, cleanly field a hard hit grounder and then step on the bag for the out. These are all the little moments that seem so insignificant but are really mile markers. They were matching physical skills with mental insight, a winning combination.
As we gathered after the game, I couldn’t have been prouder of these young men. They’d learned to work as a team. To trust and encourage each other. They learned that everybody brings different talents to a game and success is based on melding those talents together. They’d seen that by sticking with a task and retaining a positive attitude, success could be achieved.
They also learned that failure wasn’t permanent. Our hard-hitting first baseman hit a monster shot to centerfield only to be thrown out trying to stretch it into a double. His next at bat, he hit it deep again and this time made it to second.
It is not only through sports that kids learn these lessons. Through music, band members have similar experiences. Forensic teams, the same. These lessons learned, and more like them, are all so important, yet we lump them under the dismissive title of extra-curricular activities. I would call it part of a well-rounded education.
The lessons don’t just apply to kids either. They are there for adults as well. How often have I heard a frustrated teacher say administrators are critical over a student’s achievement level while failing to acknowledge the accomplishments they had made? How often have we emphasized pace over acquisition? How often have we let our expectations lead a child down the path of failure instead of helping them find their path to success?
High expectations are wonderful except when they become debilitating. We need to always remember that education is a process. A lifelong process. One test score, one grade in a class, is not life-defining. I always tell my baseball team that it’s not the mistake or the shortcomings that should be the focus, but rather what you do after the mistake or the shortcomings. Those actions are what will define you.
For those of you keeping score, the official count of quality leadership that has exited the district over the last 2 years has now broached the 50-people mark. Yep, 50 people who held leadership positions in MNPS are now plying their craft elsewhere. They are leading departments at universities, establishing state outdoor education programs, working with national consulting companies, leading other school districts and schools. In other words, others have recognized what MNPS leadership has failed to recognize – there was a lot of quality in MNPS.
Now that the cupboard is starting to become bare, here is your homework assignment. Name me one replacement who is better than the person they replaced. Good luck and I’ll check back with you next week.
Speaking of former MNPS leaders. I don’t know if it’s official or not, but from what I hear, former Eakin ES principal Tim Drinkwine will be the new principal at Mount Pleasant Middle School in Spring Hill. The high school is headed up by former Maplewood AP Ryan Jackson who is making headlines with his STEAM initiative. The two working together could be dangerous. Former Maplewood HS principal Ron Woodard is the Number 2 person in the district.
Speaking of Tennessee Teachers of the Year, the TNDOE announced its 9 finalists for this year. Unfortunately there are no MNPS teachers among the finalists. That means that no state teachers of the year will be working in the district since this year’s TOY Cicely Woodard will now be working in the Franklin Special School District.
It does appear that Dr. Narcisse will be with MNPS again next year. This week, Newark named Roger Leon as their new superintendent. Interestingly enough, the Newark School Board originally tapped Leon in 2015, but was under state control at the time and their decision was overruled. Chalbeat Newark notes:
The board’s decision to again tap Leon seemed to signal a definitive break from the era of sweeping, controversial changes enacted by outsiders — namely, Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson. Instead, after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district in February and put the board back in charge of the schools, the board’s choice for superintendent suggests that it will rely on local talent and ideas to guide New Jersey’s largest school system in the new era of local control.
Of further interest is an article in Chalkbeat Colorado that discusses the realization in Denver that progress towards their lofty goals is a little slow. Me believes there is some reassessing going on across the country. As voiced by board vice-president Barbara O’Brien:
“We’ve got to get past this chasing the shiny object and focus on some key things that will benefit kids and teachers and implement, implement, implement, (and then) come up for air and see where we are, and learn and go forward harder.”
From her lips to God’s ear.
Last year, the Oregon State Legislature passed a law that used a portion of lottery receipts to fund outdoor school for all 5th and 6th graders in the state. The initiative was designed to “get our next generation of leaders off the couch and out into Oregon’s great outdoors.” They needed a leader to head things up, so they came and grabbed then-MNPS Director of STEAM Kris Elliot to lead the initiative. The program is off to a fantastic start, which leads me to two wishes. One, I wish Tennessee had a program like this. And two, can we have Kris Elliot back?
Remember, if you can, your presence is requested at the courthouse to speak out for public education on Tuesday, June 5th.
That’s another blog post in the bag. Hope y’all have an awesome week. Don’t forget to answer the poll questions. If you need to contact me, you can do so at Norinrad10@yahoo.com. I’m always looking for more opinions and will try to promote as many of the events that you send me as possible, but I do apologize in advance if I fall short and don’t get them all out there.