My Other Calling? Coaching Jack and Luke
My iPhone died and I didn't even care. A cooler full of water and ice was dumped on my head, which soaked not only me, but also my phone. My older son Luke's Little League team, called the Nationals, had just won the Majors championship in Northwest Little League, and the boys were very excited and eager to douse their coach -- just like on TV. I was so happy for them that I really didn't care about the soaked iPhone!
I coach both of my sons' baseball teams. Luke's team was undefeated in the AA League (the younger kid's division where I now coach his 8-year-old brother Jack). Then we won the AAA championship two years ago, and now the Majors, which is the division for the oldest kids in Little League. When I was asked by other coaches what my secret was in sweeping all three Little League divisions, I pondered the questions thoughtfully and then gave them an honest answer: My secret is having a son who hits in most of your runs and then pitches no-run innings against the other team!
I played baseball as a kid too, until I was about 16, but Luke has already gone way beyond what I ever did, and he is still just 12. He now has "real" coaches (not just his Dad) on both his travel team and his middle school team. He hears the other voices he needs with great instruction from serious young men who actually played serious baseball -- some through college. Having coached him since he was 5 years old, I'm proud that Luke is now on track to play high school and maybe even college baseball. That's what he has always wanted, even as a little boy, so I have done my job. Luke sometimes still fantasizes about Major League Baseball, like most kids his age who play, but he is realistic enough to know that it is unlikely for even the best kids at his level. He is also thinking about the other things he would like to do that "have a better chance of changing the world than being a professional baseball player," as he puts it.
But even more than just watching my talented son play baseball, I have just loved coaching him for all these years. It has been a father-son bond that will always be with us. For days after the game, Luke would come up to me with a big grin on his face, give me a fist bump or a high five, and quietly say, "We did it, Dad." Coaching also enabled me to get to know all his teammates and their families, and the kids on other teams -- his best friends in the world. When I come home and walk into our family room to a bunch of guys watching a game and say, "Hi guys," one says back, "Hi Dad," and the rest reply, "Hi Coach." This has been a great experience. Our house has always been the team club house, and I'm sure other parents can understand how great this is for us.
Though we have always had winning teams, we have never stressed winning as the primary goal or made competition our driving energy. I've always had just three simple rules on our teams: to have fun, which after all should be the whole point of Little League for kids; to always be good teammates (there is no negative talk allowed from players, parents, or coaches); and to learn to love the game of baseball while becoming better ball players. But these principles seem to have produced winning teams for us. We all make mistakes, including the coach, but when we do, there is always "next time." And we all learn to love this game, even the families, who become a little community for the season, and even beyond. The friendships that are created continue past baseball.
I know baseball well enough to teach and coach the kids, but the skills have never been my strength as a coach. Rather, I bring the qualities from the rest of my life as a speaker, preacher, and pastor to my Little League team. I try to inspire, encourage, support, and guide the kids in ways that will work, not only for baseball, but also for the rest of their lives. Their parents often smile and comment on my continual narrative from the sidelines. When I gather the players around me in a team circle, their parents say that I am teaching them "the lessons of life." At the beginning of our championship game I gave the kids a little talk (of course!) and predicted who would win the game. "Who?" they demanded to know. "Whoever is the most focused today; whoever doesn't let bad calls bother them but just keeps going; whoever is most supportive of their teammates even when they make mistakes; whoever digs deep inside and offers their very best today and leaves everything on the field," I replied. They won a close one, 4-2.
Of course, I feel a sense of joy and even pride when Luke hits another towering homerun, or gets the biggest hit in the All Star game, or pitches the lights out and shuts down the other team's batting, or makes a great pick at first base, or while catching at home. And I try not to act too excited as the Dad/coach. But honestly, the deeper delight often comes from the kid whose nervous face is replaced with a big smile when he finally learns to connect with the ball, or from the one who, after making lots of errors all season, ends up making the game-winning play in the field and gets the game ball, or from the parents who tell you long after the season is over that whenever their child is facing touch challenges in school and life, he is encouraged when they remind him to "believe in yourself, just like Coach Jim believed in you." Most coaches will tell you that helping the kids who struggle more with the game is often the most satisfying accomplishment.
Now that Luke has aged out of Little League, I'm done coaching his team. From now on, as I watch his baseball career unfold, I will just be a Dad and fan. This summer Luke is on the Northwest Little League 12U World Series team. They will enter the tournament that will take the top teams to Williamsport -- the tournament that is on television every August and that our family has watched for years. This is Luke's year for that and our family will follow the team as far as they can go. My younger son Jack has made the 8U traveling team this summer too, and my coaching will now focus just on him. We are both very excited.
This July 4 weekend is the annual DC "Stars and Strikes" tournament, and both our boys will be playing -- in different divisions and on different fields. Joy and I will drive back and forth between fields, making good on the sign she put out in front of our home when the spring began: "We interrupt this family for baseball season." I build my schedule now, including my travel, around Little League baseball. Coaching has been an anchor for me, a deep connection to my sons, and a critical balance to the rest of my life.
And guess what? The iPhone dried out and is working just fine!
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.