I've been coaching or managing my son's Little League teams since 2008. During that time, I've come to expect several events that invariably occur over the course of a season.
For instance...someone's going to cry. This doesn't happen during EVERY game, but given enough time, there will be a child who is overcome with emotion after striking out or taking a pitch in the ribs or...stealing a base? This is the actual conversation that occurred during yesterday's game, after one of my players successfully stole second base and then frantically called time out.
Me: "You OK, Michael?"
Michael: "My hand hurts."
Me: "How'd you hurt your hand? You didn't even slide."
Michael: "I hurt it playing football."
Me: "And...now it hurts because you ran to second base?"
Michael: [sobbing] "Yeah..."
Me: "Can you stay in and..."
Other predictable in-game events include ill-timed bathroom breaks, my son Jalen theatrically hamming it up for the dozens -- and dozens! -- in attendance and...the annual lack-of-effort, mailing-it-in game.
I know this is true, because -- for whatever reason -- I remember each one. Last spring, my Little League Athletics lost to the Braves, 17-5. And, when my team showed more effort and energy in racing towards the postgame plate of cupcakes than they did at any point during the game, I dragged them all back to the field and gave them...the speech. The previous autumn, my team lethargically lost to a squad we'd beaten easily twice before. They, too, were on the receiving end of...the speech.
Perhaps it's not deserving of the melodramatic ellipsis that precedes it, but "the speech" -- my passive-aggressive attempt to convey fury and rage in a way that seven and eight-year-olds can appreciate -- has become a once-a-season tradition.
After our first two games of the current fall season, we'd defeated our opponents by a combined score of 39-4. In our third game, we played another undefeated team. This group was led by a manager who's infamous -- within the admittedly tight confines of our Little League district -- for his over-the-top intensity. And, in spite of the fact that they were missing their two best players, we lost 15-8. I called our performance "listless" on Twitter, but I was being kind. Jalen showed some energy in a failed attempt to score from third base on a wild pitch, but not even his irresponsible Ty Cobb-ian spikes-high slide could motivate his teammates to try.
After the game, it was time for a team meeting and, yes, the speech.
I hit on all of the youth sports talking points, starting with "opening qualifiers that soften coach's obvious frustration":
Look, I know it's hot out here. I know it's been a long day for some of you...
From there, I jumped into the basics of counting, telling time and emphasizing prime numbers:
Three hours. THREE. That's all the time I ask. That's how much effort I need from you. There are 24 hours in a day and I need you to give me three of 'em. The rest are yours. Do whatever you want with 'em.
Now, build to the guilt trip:
If you don't want to give a good, honest effort, then let me know. I don't care if we win or lose, but if you're not going to TRY, then let me know. Let me know so I can tell your parents how much money they're wasting. Let me know so I can give your at-bats to someone who WANTS to be here.
And, finish with the empty threat:
If we play like that next week, I'll just have the league cancel the rest of our season. And, you can explain to your parents why your weekends are suddenly free. Don't have 'em call me! You tell 'em. [pause...point...lower voice] You tell 'em.
Several days later, we held our weekly practice. It was clear that my words hadn't resonated with a certain player. He spent the first few minutes literally rolling around on the infield dirt as he pantomimed dives for imaginary ground balls up the middle. He punctuated this with self-gratifying giggles and an overall obliviousness to the drills going on around him.
Me: "ETHAN! Do you want to be here today?"
Ethan: "Uh, well...not really."
Me: [Genuinely shocked at his honest response] "Oh! Well, how 'bout you spend the next 90 minute running laps around the parking lot? That way, you won't be on the field -- where you don't want to be -- and everyone's happy. Would you like that?
Look...I know how that sounded. In my defense, (1) I immediately felt terrible about telling a child to run around incoming and outgoing cars for the next hour and a half and (2) I used my best "Ben Stiller in 'Happy Gilmore'" condescending cadence, so it was more "comedic" than "child-endangerment". Besides, Ethan pulled it together for the rest of our practice, so DON'T TELL ANYBODY.
Jalen was the starting pitcher in our next game, giving up one run in two innings and reducing his obese ERA from 21.00 to 14.40. (Oh, don't look at me like that. My son's the one who eats up the real-time statistical updates. I'm merely the conduit via pocket calculator.) We won by a 15-2 tally. Everyone in the lineup scored at least one run and, if memory serves, I didn't make any of my players snake their way between entering and/or exiting cars, afterwards.
Who knew the prospect of "parking lot dodge-car" could be such an effective motivational tool?