Harold Weissman, 63, is the administrator for Little League District 27, an area of Queens, N.Y., bounded by Aqueduct and Belmont Park racetracks. He jokes that his is "the only district where you can place a bet on either end." It may also be the only Little League district where the volunteer managers are as knowledgeable about sports psychology as they are about team standings.
Weissman, who managed his first team 25 years ago, had long wondered whether he and other coaches knew enough about the mechanics of teaching—enough to ensure that children actually had fun playing baseball. He wanted to spare players the pressurized competition for which the league is known, while helping them "get the most out of themselves." But to attain that goal, Weissman thought he and other managers needed help as well.
"People think that just because they played ball as youngsters, they're automatically baseball managers," says Weissman, a ribbon manufacturer. "That is a myth."
Weissman attended baseball workshops—"anywhere they offered one," he says—but it wasn't until 1976 that he found what he had been seeking. He was reading the Delphian, the student newspaper of Long Island's Adelphi University, where his three sons had gone to school and played baseball. He came across an article about Adelphi's Sports Medicine and Fitness Institute's work in training public school coaches. The institute's director, Ronald S. Feingold, was quoted as saying, "Sometimes volunteer coaches do more harm than good." Weissman had found a man after his own heart.
August 21, 1988
He invited Feingold and C. Roger Rees, a sports sociologist at Adelphi, to speak at District 27's next meeting and was so impressed with their presentation that he asked Feingold to help arrange an annual coaches' workshop. The program is now in its 11th year.
This spring more than 100 Little League managers and coaches from around Queens met at Adelphi for 3½ hours on a Sunday morning to hear the school's faculty members speak about first aid, psychology, instructional techniques and conditioning and to participate in question-and-answer sessions. The workshop's presenters hoped to persuade managers that their duties go beyond deciding who will play what position. "The critical difference between a positive and negative experience in Little League is the coach," says Feingold, who coordinates the lectures.
Managers need to remember that they are working with children, points out Gary Barrette, coordinator for teacher preparation in Adelphi's physical education department. He believes that young players should take advantage of every opportunity to learn how to hit, throw and catch. "Standing around is O.K. for the pros. They have the skills; little kids don't," says Barrette, who urges coaches to organize practices during which players keep active. He also suggests repeated drills to develop fundamental skills, as well as the use of a tennis ball: "Some kids are afraid of the ball. If one kid can catch a baseball, throw him a baseball. If another kid can't, throw him a tennis ball. As soon as he catches 15 or 20, switch him to a regular baseball."
Without some knowledge of the basics—and a few kind words from a manager—a Little Leaguer may feel as though he's under enormous pressure, says Rees, who speaks on sports psychology and sociology. The British-born Rees, a former rugby player, points to a 1976 study of heart rates among Little Leaguers, conducted by Dale Hanson, then a professor of physical education at the University of New Mexico. The study shows that a player at bat can have a heart rate as high as 204 beats per minute, more a result of emotional stress than of physical activity.
Rees says coaches can help children avoid undue stress by praising them constantly for their effort—regardless of the outcome. He tells the story of a Little League batter in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and the bases loaded. The batter is the boy who always strikes out; this time the game depends on him. Remarkably, he hits a fly ball to centerfield, at which point one of two plays will occur: 1) The outfielder will catch the ball—ending the game—or 2) the batter will make it to first and a teammate will score. "The coach should give praise in both situations," says Rees. "After all, this is the first time the child has hit the ball."
Children need generous praise because "they don't have the wider perspective of an adult," Rees says. A young child who strikes out may think that he or she is not only a bad ballplayer but also a bad person. "For a child involved in the Little League, sport is a very important part of his or her self-image," says Rees. If a player believes he has performed poorly—and if this thought is reinforced by an overly competitive manager—he may deliberately get injured to avoid playing. Or he may develop a fear of success and play poorly intentionally to avoid falling short of his goals.
John Genna, a manager for seven years in the Ozone Park-Richmond Hill-Wakefield League, attends the workshop each year. "When I left my initial workshop," he says, "I felt as though I had just learned about baseball for the first time." Other reactions are not quite so extreme. "I like the idea that children respond when you take the pressure off them." says Richard Ross, another manager in Queens who has attended 10 of the Adelphi workshops. "But I agreed with that philosophy all along."
Like Ross, many of the coaches who come to the workshop already believe that Little League should be fun. Weissman concedes, with some dismay, that of more than 1,000 coaches and managers in his district, only 100 attend each year. Bob Dodson, 53, who was at the original workshop and managed a Cambria Heights team for 10 seasons before retiring last year, says, "The ones who really need to attend always seem to find something else to do on that day." It should be noted that many Little League coaches feel that they learn enough in one workshop, a notion that is supported by the fact that more than 60% of this year's attendees were there for the first time.
Weissman also admits that the effects of the workshop on District 27 have been "very subtle." But not quite as subtle as he might think. Last year Bob Yates, president of a Little League in Jamaica, Queens, and a seven-year workshop attendee, tried to abolish scoring in his league's six-to-eight-year-old division. Yates failed because some parents objected, but he thinks he might have enough support to propose the idea again. The Ozone Park-Richmond Hill-Wakefield League postponed this year's tryouts so managers could attend the workshop.
Artie Martello, who is the manager of a team of nine-year-olds in the Ozone Park league, attended his first workshop this year. He has started using tennis balls and has tried to be more creative in his practices. What he finds most valuable, though, is "the philosophical aspect—the idea that baseball has to be fun."
If Weissman has any more doubts about the program's success, he need only speak with Jeffrey Roman, the nine-year-old pitcher for Martello's Giants. In a game this past spring, Jeffrey pitched the first two innings of the Giants' game against the Tigers, another Ozone Park team, and walked more batters than he would care to remember. Martello yelled to him, "Just relax, Jeff. Just throw the ball, and you'll do fine."
Jeff crouched down, then he pulled off his cap and looked skyward beseechingly. When later asked whether he had felt pressured on the mound, Jeffrey assumed the look of a child who can't believe an adult would ask such a stupid question. "Of course not," he replied, and returned to his teammates, who were cheering on a fellow batter. He was swallowed up in the playfulness and laughter of children, just as Weissman would have wanted him to be.