Most of the coaching tips on this blog have to do with technique, scheme, practice methods and motivating youth football players. Sometimes it may make sense to take a step back and look at the big picture and examine why we coach and what type of impact we MAY have with the kids we coach.
Last week I saw a front page article in the sports section of the Omaha World Herald. It was about a DI basketball player who I had coached that was having some success. His name is Kang, he is a Sudanese immigrant who has an interesting story. His family fled Southern Sudan, when Kang was just young child during the height of the brutal civil war there.
Kang and I met for the first time when I was handing out fliers for baseball at the local YMCA. He was a very tall and shy kid who seemed out of place. While a lot of the kids came over to me and picked up fliers, Kang kept to himself. I walked over to him in the gym, smiled and asked him if he wanted to play baseball. He looked confused and a little afraid and said, no. I asked him if he knew what baseball was, in a very thick accent, he said no. I explained to him that it was a game, a game with a ball and a bat and that all that mattered was it didn’t cost anything, he would have fun and he would be part of a team of young men that would eventually become his friends. All he had to do was show up the next day at 6:00 at the field across from the housing project he lived in and he was good to go.
The next day, to my surprise Kang was there, one of the very first kids to show up. He wore tan colored jeans, a t-shirt and dress style shoes. Most of the other boys had baseball caps on, gloves in hand and were dressed in baseball pants or sweat pants, all of them wore cleats or tennis shoes. When we divided the players up for teams, Kang went with the 11 year olds, even though he was nearly 6 foot tall and weighed about 140 lbs. I thought he had misunderstood what we had asked him, but when I talked to him about it, he insisted he was 11 years old, even though he had no clue when his birthdate was? You could tell he was apprehensive about this whole thing, his body language and facial expressions said he felt out of place and was a little embarrassed about his situation. I handed him an old glove I keep in my bag for just these type of situations and off we went.
As you might have guessed he had a pretty miserable first practice. Kang was a righty and he really struggled with the glove on the left hand thing. Wearing dress style leather shoes he was also slipping and sliding all over the grass field, the infield was muddy and we didn’t use it that day. He threw like a girl and his batting swing, well it was without question the most awkward thing I’ve ever seen. Thank goodness he was being coached well, all the players start at “atomic level” basics. That means lots of drills with no balls, no gloves and no bats. Lots of bucket drills and step by step throwing and hitting progressions. By the end of practice he seemed to enjoy hitting the ball off the tee and he really got into our little bag relay race game with competing teams.
It was obvious Kang felt extremely out of place and was way behind everyone. This was partly due to the fact he had never played baseball before and the other was he just hadn’t grown into his body yet, he was very uncoordinated. I made sure to praise his effort in front of the team before we dismissed and then took him aside. We talked about how much fun he was going to have, that he would get better, that he would make friends and that we were very excited and fortunate to have him on our team. I measured his foot and let him know I would have a pair of used cleats ready for him WHEN he came to practice the next day. I also promised him that if he came to every practice in the next 2 weeks I would get a glove for him that he could keep. I promptly went down to the local thrift store and spent $10-$15 and got him a set of cleats and glove. I bought some new laces, washed the shoes in the washing machine and oiled the glove up.
Kang showed up to practice the next day, I met him with a big smile and said I was glad to see him. He was very excited about his “new” shoes and I let him use the glove. He had to let me take the glove back at the end of practice; it wouldn’t be his to take home for another 12 days. We did the team buddy thing and I assigned him to a very mature and compassionate veteran player, they bonded well.
That year was the wettest spring on record and the field we were using was a disaster. No one had pulled a permit on the field for over 3 years, it was in an area that was too dangerous, glass, cans, rocks and all types of debris in the grass and infield. Even if we had good weather the field wasn’t dragged until mid May and we couldn’t drag it ourselves because the city had the gate locked and wouldn’t give us a key. To that end, we went into our very first game without every have taking infield or simulating a game.
Prior to us getting 15 runned in that first game, Kang came up to bat. After taking ball 1, taking strike 1 and swinging at strike 2, he was hit by a pitch. Not knowing the game, he ran to the dugout and sat on the bench, he thought he was out. What a game baseball would become if all you had to do to get someone out was hit them with the ball, interesting concept. Our first base coach quickly ran to the dugout and took Kang with him to first base, there were giggles all around but Kang didn’t seem to mind as long as he wasn’t out, he was all smiles.
Kang never matured into much of a baseball player but he came to every practice. Maybe that’s a good thing as he had no birth certificate. The league was very understanding and let it slide after watching him play in that first game. Not only did he come to his practices, he came to every practice of our 2 other teams. He just liked “being around.” He was almost always waiting at the field when I arrived, first to show up and last to leave.
When our youth football season came around, he wasn’t much better. He was physically strong, but had the “gentle giant” complex, he didn’t want to hurt anyone and he still struggled a bit with the language barrier. The football league was more difficult to work with when it came to birth certificates. Thank goodness the church that sponsored his family were able to put something together to satisfy the rules people. He made a few friends and just like in baseball, he became a coaches favorite. We were all rooting for him probably more than he was rooting for himself. His parents never attended any games.
Basketball is where he really shined. We were blessed with a very strong basketball coach who only asked Kang to do one thing on offense and one thing on defense that first year. Coach worked tirelessly with him on basic fundamentals and built off of those base skills and confidence Kang gained in his first year of play. Kang went on to have a stellar career in basketball. As a High School senior he was 6’8” tall and led the state in blocked shots. He got multiple DI offers and ended up going out of state to play. He was the first in his family to attend college and will graduate in May of 2013.
Did we have anything to do with his success? We won’t ever know, but I do know I’m glad I went out of my way to get him to come out for baseball and encouraged him stick it out. You never know how much a smile, encouraging word or some extra effort may affect the path of a young man.
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