I have three boys and a girl, in that order. After coaching boys baseball for ten years, adjusting to little girls softball was, well, an adjustment. My daughter played pretty hard, and was not too afraid of getting hurt, but one little girl, Zoe, taught me some of the most wonderful lessons of my coaching career.
I walked into the first year of girls softball, (ages 11-12) thinking that it would be pretty much like coaching boys of the same age, only with pony-tails. That thinking went out the window when, at the first practice, half the girls came dressed like they were going to a friend’s house to play. Instead of sliding shorts and knee pads, several wore thin, short-shorts and one even donned a skirt! I had planned on covering base running and, by extension, sliding, but that game-plan changed when I saw the attire.
After getting the girls to dress properly, it was still a challenge to make them slide. One girl in particular, Zoe, the most adorable little blonde-haired, blue-eyed sweetheart, just couldn’t force herself to go into the base on the ground.
One game early in the season, Zoe made it to third and represented a critical run in the game. She was my least confident base runner so getting her this far was a minor miracle. I had little hope of getting her to be able to steal home on a passed ball, even though their catcher was having problems. As the pitcher delivered to our batter, I coached Zoe and got her to take a big lead-off after every pitch. I knew I wouldn’t send her home unless the perfect situation arose when she’d be certain to make it safely – standing up.
Then, it happened. The ball got past the catcher and was rolling slowly to the corner of the backstop. I instantly recognized that by the time the catcher would be able to retrieve the ball, Zoe would be easily safe. I yelled to her to “Go! Go!” She took off for home and it was obvious she was going to make it.
But she stopped. She stopped running momentarily and pulled up her sliding knee pad. Then she continued to the plate, arriving daintily at the same time as the pitcher and the ball. It was close, but she was out.
I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. Did she really stop halfway to home? As she came into the dugout I called her over. “Zoe,” I asked. “Did, you stop and pull up your knee pad?” She looked at me sweetly, without the slightest hesitation and said, “Yeah. Sorry.”
So we continued to work on it at practice. One of our CoachDeck drills, “Two Team Slide,” was extremely helpful getting girls to get used to sliding. The whole team, including Zoe, was actually sliding into bases now. Fast-forward to the playoffs and we’re in the semi-finals against a team we’d only beaten once in three tries. They had the lead by one in the last inning and Zoe was on second with two outs. If i could get her to third, I knew there was a chance she could score, even on an infield hit. A pitch went in the dirt and I exhorted her to run, the catcher pounced on it faster than I’d anticipated and made a perfect throw. It was going to be close if we slid. But Zoe was my runner.
Zoe not only slid, she slid so hard she completely dislodged the base from its peg. She was safe. Two pitches later a ground ball which could have been the final out was bobbled in the infield and Zoe scored the tying run. A steal and a base hit later, we won the game in a walk-off fashion. Zoe got the game ball for her slide. I got the reward of a lifetime as a coach. I learned (again) that the true measure of a great coach is not necessarily in wins and losses, but in maximizing the potential of each player on the team. I believe I got the most out of Zoe. I know she got the most out of me.
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