Monday, May 4, 2009

Exemplifying Character

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I had a number of potential topics last week, but for one reason or another I considered none of them ready to publish at the moment. A series of events over this weekend's May Day Classic tournament, however, led me to a topic too significant to ignore: exemplifying character on the field and in the stands.

The first example of a character-lesson presented itself in our second game of the tournament. We had added two pitchers to our rotation, and this was my first chance to see one of them in action. He was pitching quite well for most of the game, with a formidable cutting fastball that was proving untouchable. He was flawless, that is, until he walked his first batter.

The gesture was really inconsequential. The slightest shrug with his palms held upright, along with a surprised glance at the umpire. It was enough to catch the umpire's attention, however, and from that moment the strike zone grew quite minuscule.

In the second example, we were playing what would be our last game in the tournament. After two consecutive innings leaving runners stranded on loaded bases, we were in too deep a hole to win. With a team waiting outside the dugout to take their turn at the field, I asked my kids on the bench to begin clearing the dugout.

Having heard my request, one of the kids' parents chastised me from the bleachers and instructed his son not to listen to me. Fortunately, I managed to rein in my normally unbridled tongue!

As I pondered the weekend it occurred to me that there were more than two character lessons in the midst of it all. My pitcher learned that even an innocent gesture can be devastating for your team. Arguing with the umpire seldom, if ever, works to your benefit. My kids got to see a slightly ugly side of youth sports in an umpire that, at least at face value, punished an entire team for the actions of one of its players.

As a coach, I was convicted in realizing that my own desire to keep things in order could be interpreted as something much less benign. I really thought my blog entry would focus on the parent. We all know it's not a great idea to teach your kids that it's okay to disrespect the authority figures in his life. Somehow, though, I was more sensitive to the more subtle message that presented itself.

As coaches, parents, players and volunteers in the already emotionally-charged environment of competitive youth sports, our actions have the potential to be significantly amplified and misinterpreted. At one point I even found myself complaining about the umpire in front of my own players. Again, how did my complaints help my team win, grow or learn? We all must be sensitive not just to the explicit messages and lessons we're communicating, but in how our words, attitudes and actions are perceived by the other players, spectators, officials and coaches.

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