By Paul Siegenthaler
It was an overcast New England Saturday in October. It had rained hard on Friday night and the premier baseball diamond, set to host a tournament in two days, was underwater. The field was low-lying and prone to flooding. The “lake” between first and second bases was about 20 feet long, eight feet wide and several inches deep. Other parts of the infield were puddled up as well. I began the unenviable task of pumping water by hand and dumping it bucket by bucket outside the outfield fence.
About half-way through the effort, at the point that is most discouraging, my phone indicated a new text message. Wiping the mud off my hands, I pulled out the phone and took a look. It was from a good friend in town.
“You just got mentioned in some kid’s bar mitzvah speech. He compared you to God or something”.
With that one text, the work became so much easier. I finished the job, groomed the infield and the field dried out in time for the tournament.
I had been using PCA techniques in coaching youth baseball for about three years at that point. It had gone well. My pre- season Letter to Parents and Letter to Players were very well-received and helped me learn more about the kids as individuals. My post-game “award” – nothing more than a verbal acknowledgement – often focused on the player who performed above his ability. Not necessarily the best play of the game, but a definitive step forward for that player himself. But one of my favorite PCA techniques was the mistake ritual. In my case, I encouraged my players to get past their mistakes by pantomiming crumpling up and throwing away a piece of paper. Sometimes I’d call out to a player in the field immediately after an error. They’d look up and see me crumpling an invisible piece of paper and toss it aside. They knew right then that I’d moved past their error. Usually, they’d return the gesture. Did it work? I couldn’t say for sure, but my players generally were resilient and played hard right up to the last out.
As I found out over the weeks following the text message, the bar mitzvah boy was someone I had coached for three seasons previously. He had been talking about mistakes, and how God forgives us for our mistakes. It was at that point that he said his baseball coach Paul taught him to throw away his mistakes. A PCA life lesson if ever there was one.
Interestingly, this was not a star baseball player. He was a coach’s dream, though, in that he worked hard every day and loved the game. He was easy-going – perhaps a bit of a cut-up – and very popular with his teammates but never disruptive. He knew the game well and played it the way it should be played.
But as a quiet kid, I never really thought he was listening to me. We never explicitly discussed these things. I am extremely fortunate to have had a friend in the audience who picked up on this boy’s reference to his coach and connected it to me. Most of my fellow coaches will never be so lucky. But have faith that these impressionable athletes are listening, watching and learning, and you are making a difference. You may never see it, but it’s happening.