Sunday, June 5, 2011

play ball!

I was all set to write a post about Sam's baseball experience this year and how wonderful it has been and how he has learned so much but most importantly how his coaches have reinforced the importance of sportsmanship and being a good teammate. And then I caught the tail end of the other night's game. The last one of such an awesome season. Where, at Sam's last up at bat, he struck out (AGAIN! ), and in a very good John McEnroe imitation, he stalked over to the batting cage and threw, heaved!, the bat and it sailed over the cage and into the pitching pen where some boys were playing catch. Thank God none of the kids were hurt.

I was stunned. Not only is this just not like Sam at all, it was not typical of how the kids on this team behave during a game. Sam's coach ran into the dugout and spoke to Sam and I was comfortable knowing he would address the behaviour appropriately. Joe also leaned into the dugout to add a disapproving frown to punctuate the coaches' words. But as I watched the last few minutes of the game I struggled internally with how I should address what just happened. In between the "oh my God!!!"s and the "my poor poor little guy"s, the questions flashed through my mind. "What was he thinking?" "Is he that big of a sore loser?" "Did I somehow forget to teach him that this was not okay?" "Is this my fault?" "What must the other parents be thinking?" I took a couple of deep breathes, told the voices in my head to "shut it up!" and calmed myself down.

Sam has been paralyzed all season with this fear of getting hit by the ball when batting and would rarely swing at the ball because he was busy stepping out of the batters box to avoid getting hit. In practice and at home this was not an issue. He would swing away and hit more often than he missed. But in the games, he was frozen with nerves and indecision. We all kept encouraging him to swing away and in this last game he did start swinging. Unfortunately, no hits resulted from those few swings. He was frustrated with himself, upset they were losing, utterly disappointed the season ended without him contributing much hitting and it all just came to a boil. He knew immediately he had made a very bad choice which compounded his anger and disappointment. I knew he realized his mistake but I could not just let it go at that. I had to speak to him about it and add my disappointment to his own, his coaches', his teammates' and his father's all without harming his precious developing sense of self. Now that isn't a tall order, is it?

To start, I decided I would have him apologize to his coaches. These men give baseball their all and do not deserve to have a player throwing a tantrum, especially one that could have caused injury to an innocent bystander. I headed for the dug out as soon as the game ended and listened to the coaches pep talk to the team. The boys were all very upset they lost so badly. Coach addressed where they let things slide and praised boys individually for plays done well. He also added a reminder that the ultimate aim here is to have fun and exhibiting poor sportsmanship was not acceptable behaviour. He managed to do this without shining a spotlight on Sam's stand out heave ho of the bat and for that I was grateful. The boys trickled out of the dugout but typical Sam, he was still busy packing his bag with his belongings that were strewn all around the dugout. I approached the coaches and apologized for Sam's outburst and both coaches assured me it was understandable, not alright but they understood, and told me Sam had already apologized to them on his own. I was thankful to hear that. Once we were in the van, I gave Sam a talking to. Explaining as gently as I could that I would not tolerate that kind of behaviour and if I saw it again, I would ask to have him sit down on the bench. He sat there, silently, nodding his head and looking at me with big brown eyes shining with tears. It broke my heart to say it, knowing Sam was already punishing himself pretty hard.

These are the hardest of lessons, for him and us. I'm so glad he has the coaches he does. They will not make him feel bad about this as the team moves into the playoffs. They will work with him and continue to let him know he is a valued member of the team.

As this season has played out, I've gotten a chance to see some of the other teams coaches coaching styles and let me tell you, it can be appalling. Coaches berating the boys. Coaches yelling. Coaches commenting disparagingly and loudly on an opposing players abilities. Sam has had none of that this season. His coaches infuse their practices and the games with excitement and fun. They notice every single contribution and effort and make sure to praise the kids. When criticism is due, it is given with a hand on the shoulder and with respect. I think respect and fun are the hallmarks of his coaches approach and it makes such a difference. This team has the best sportsmanship (the other night's incident aside) of all the teams. I witnessed boys on other teams yelling at their own teammates when one flubbed a play or struck out. I was disgusted with the excessive gloating of some of the teams when they won a game. Our boys slap each other on the back after a good play and call out a "good try" when one didn't go as hoped. They high five each other and cheer each other on. I believe our boys exhibit the conduct they do because of the fine example and teaching of their coaches. I can only hope that Sam continues to have such positive role models in subsequent sports seasons.

So you know what, Sam's outburst may have been a huge mistake. But that one mistake doesn't make a season. I'm proud of my boy's hard work this year. I'm proud of him for getting out there and giving it his all every single game and practice. I've watched him learn the finer points of the game and work out where the ball should go in a variety of plays. I see him being a good teammate and having fun. And yes, I share his agony as he learns to deal with frustration, disappointment and an ump who makes bad calls.

Last night his coach held a practice and they happened to have enough Dads there that they held an impromptu game. The men and boys were all laughing and joking and there was plenty of good natured ribbing. Every single one of them left the field smiling. Sam was all enthusiasm when I returned home and he narrated the entire "game" for me, play by play. That is what he'll take away from this season. The memory of the frustration he felt over his lack of big hits will fade. But the memories of fun and camaraderie will stick with him forever.

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