Build Self Esteem – Reward Your Players

By Olan Suddeth

So, you are coaching youth league baseball. Did you realize how important you now are in the eyes of a dozen or so kids? If you doubt this, then ask a few random ex-youth baseball players about influential adults from their childhood. I guarantee that a large number of them will answer “youth league baseball coach” – assuming, of course, that they were lucky enough to have a good one.

Don’t think for a moment that your job as a coach is just about teaching kids to catch, hit, and throw. Baseball is full of valuable life lessons, as well – how to work with others, the importance of hard work and discipline, how to succeed, how to handle failure. You have a fantastic opportunity to help build confidence and self-esteem in these kids… the opportunity to make a difference.

Now that I’ve perhaps overwhelmed you a bit, let’s bring this discussion back down to earth. Understand, I expect a lot from my players – even if they happen to be only five or six years old. If they dog it and don’t turn in a good effort, I’ll let them know it. I don’t believe in coddling baseball players; organized sports are not play groups, nor should they be. However, if you are always negative, not only can you hurt a kid’s feelings, but you run the risk of no longer being able to reach them – and thus, your team suffers. Address problems as they arise, deal with the incident, then move on. Stay positive!

Encourage, encourage, encourage

It may sound trite, but if a kid does a good job, let him know. You know good and well that if he misses a grounder, you’ll remind him to stay in front of it, to get his glove down, etc. Are you telling him “good job” when he makes a good play? You don’t have to brag on every routine grounder in practice, but you need to let kids know that you see and approve when they do things right.

If a kid makes a bad play, but is giving it his best, let him know that it’s okay. He already feels bad about not making the play – and what more can you expect than his best effort? It’s fine to give him pointers on what he can do next time to help succeed, but don’t berate him just because he fails.

On the other hand, if he’s not giving it his best, point that out, and let him know that you expect more – and that he should, too. Your players will respect you for this, especially if you apply this standard to the whole team (star players should never be exempt).

Don’t underestimate the power of a bribe

Kids love to get rewards. Heck, people in general love to get rewards. Sure, your players are there to play baseball, and some coaches seem to think that baseball in and of itself should be a reward. I say, bribe ’em!

Go to your local sporting goods store and invest a few dollars in some helmet stickers (these usually retail for around $2.99 per pack). Think of the tomahawks you see on the helmets of the Florida State Seminoles football team – the principle is the same. Set some standards early in the year, then announce them to the team. When players meet these standards, give them a sticker, and let the put them where they like.

Ideas include: hitting safely in a game, making a good stop in a game, stealing a base, throwing a runner out, etc. I’ve also seen coaches give out baseball stickers for hits, skull & crossbones stickers for defense – this is very popular with kids.

Give out game balls. Select a player who has done a great job during the game, and give them a baseball. In most leagues, this one won’t cost you a cent, since the ballpark usually provides at least a couple of balls per game. Don’t just hand over a blank baseball, however. Grab a sharpie, wite the player’s name, the date, the teams involved, and “Player of the Game” or “M.V.P.” on the ball. You’ve now turned just another baseball into a keepsake – reminder of a special moment.

Game balls are a great way to make sure that everyone gets some recognition over the course of the year; keep track of who has and who hasn’t gotten one, and try to make sure that every player gets at least one. However, don’t fall into the trap of bragging on the “lesser” players every time they manage to put a bat on the ball, while still neglecting your good players if they fail to go three for three with five put outs in the field.

If you own a computer and a printer, you might want to consider giving your players certificates. Pre-print some “player of the game” certificates to go along with their ball. At the park, you can fill out their name and the date, and sign it. These don’t have to be fancy, but they can really make a kid fee special. Give out certificates (and balls) for kids that get their first home run.

Extracurricular activities

Sure, you’ve spent hours at the ballpark this week. The game is over, practices are done, and you are ready for some relaxation time. Guess what? You are a youth league coach. Relax in the off season!

Now, don’t be silly and insist on taking the team somewhere after every game. You should, though, take the team to Pizza Hut, McDonalds, or an ice cream parlor at least a couple of times over the course of the season. I have observed a direct correlation between the number of such after-game events and the overall happiness of the team.

Go to your local dollar store and buy enough water guns for the whole team. Have a parent fill them, and then pull them out, unannounced, after practice or a game. Add some water balloons, and you have a happy team!

Bring a football to practice one day, end practice early, and play a little two hand touch. Bring a couple of half gallons of ice cream to a game once during the year. Give your kids small hollow chocolate Easter bunnies right before Easter.

At the end of the year, go and spend the five dollars per kid – collect money from the parents to finance this, if need be – and buy the team simple medals to go along with whatever league trophy is handed out (you can get these from any trophy or award store – they’ll be happy to help you). Be really classy and have their names engraved on the back for another whopping dollar or so!

Be positive, be upbeat, and demonstrate to your players that you enjoy them, believe in them, and appreciate them. Not only will you enrich their lives, not only will they play harder for you, but you might just get a little bit out of it yourself.

Olan Suddeth is a Little League coach in the Birmingham, Alabama area. His website, Youth Baseball Info, offers free articles, drills, and tips for youth baseball coaches, parents and fans.