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Teaching Accountability: Pick The Right Time

Imparting life lesson important, but not at fragile moment

Teaching youth athletes personal accountability for their actions on and off the field is important, but finding the right time to impart that life lesson can be tricky, as I recently found out.

My son Alan was pitching in a tournament and had worked himself into a jam in the second inning. He'd given up three runs and then loaded the bases with a hit and two walks. The other team's best hitter stepped up and hit Alan's first pitch over the left-center-field fence for a grand slam home-run. That made it 7-0. Youth baseball player crouching in sadness

I was impressed by Alan's ability to bounce back from that gopher ball. He had a smile on his face; he knew he'd been beaten.  I appreciated that he was both humble and still in a good emotional place. I kept him in the game because he still seemed to have a good attitude. His pitch count was low and I wanted to see how he would respond. He struck out the next kid, but the catcher dropped the ball and the batter ran to first. The catcher made an awful throw, way over the first baseman's head and into right field. The batter ended up on second base. Alan became distraught, and his good attitude quickly became frustration.

So I marched out to the mound, took the ball and put him at third base. As Steve took his warm-up pitches, I went over and talked to Alan. He was still fuming. "It's no fun when people can't catch or throw the ball," he spewed. "We're losing, and I get a strikeout and we can't even get an out."

Not the right time

It was uncharacteristic of Alan to speak badly of his teammates; he usually was able to overlook miscues. And,  I thought, his anger was a bit misplaced: the dropped ball wasn't the reason he gave up the first seven runs.   I've wanted Alan - and his teammates -  to take more personal accountability for their actions on and off the field, so I gently tried to put things in perspective.

"Alan, buddy, you know your fielders might all be saying the same thing after you walk two batters and then give up a home run," I explained in a soft and supportive voice.   "They don't like losing if they don't even get a chance to touch the ball. You have to take responsibility for what you can do and not blame your teammates."

I immediately realized I had made a mistake.  The moment was much too fragile. Alan burst into tears.  "Nice move, coach," I thought to myself.  Great. "Way to go, dad, go ahead, kick your 12-year-old when he's down."

I put my arm around him and said, "Hey, come on now. You've got to shake this off. Games like this are going to happen. You're going to give up home-runs like that. All of us do. You have to learn how to accept it, learn from it, and move on."

He looked at me like I clearly didn't understand his despair. At 12 he was still under the notion that I walked on water as a player. I wanted to comfort him, but also reinforce that I, too, had been in those lonely shoes, watching a pitch sail effortlessly over the fence.

I saw that Steve, our new pitcher, still had a few warm up pitches left, so I turned back to Alan and quickly recounted my experience of pitching in an American Legion state playoffs game after graduating from high school.  I started the quarterfinal game and managed to load the bases and give up a grand slam home-run. I explained to Alan that, not only did it travel over 400 feet, I suffered the additional embarrassment of knowing the game was being broadcast on radio. I hoped it would comfort him to know everybody in the stadium and the entire radio listening audience knew I just given up a colossal grand slam home-run. This seemed to calm Alan a bit, and so I trotted back to the dugout.

Laughing it off

The next day I heard Alan and my dad laughing as they were coming upstairs. I poked my head out of my office just in time to hear my dad say, "Yeah, not only did I see it leave the park, but I also listened to the radio announcer describe it." And they broke into laughter again.

I gave my dad a crusty look and retreated back to my office.

At least Alan has recovered.

Adapted from the book, A Perfect Season: A Coach's Journey to Learning, Competing, and Having Fun in Youth Baseball (Quiet Path 2010) by Dan Clemens. It is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and other bookstores.

Dan Clemens is a leadership and communications consultant, and has been a youth coach for 10 years. You can email him at Dan@CoachClemens.com.