I knew that in my son’s first season of Little League baseball he would learn the rules of the game and pick up a whole heap of new skills and techniques. But I didn’t know that just one season would illustrate the many ways that life is a lot like baseball.
Teachable moments popped up in basic instructions and big plays and everything in between. By creating a common starting point for a conversation, baseball scenarios became an easy way to show my son how certain principles apply not just to sports but also to everyday life.
The conversations themselves were very short and to the point, usually not even more than a minute or two. And unlike many parent-child discussions that feel awkward and forced, these chats were all the richer for their being completely unanticipated and spontaneous—and thus pretty relaxed and natural.
The common ground and relaxed approach allowed me to engage my son in real talk about behaviors and attitudes and life in general in a way that he could understand and relate to and accept. Which means that maybe, just maybe, what we talked about might have a shot of sinking in.
I’m not saying that everything my son needs to know, he can learn through baseball. And I’m definitely not saying that he’s learned every lesson perfectly and forever. But I am saying that he—and I—have fielded more than a few life lessons from America’s favorite pastime, including the 15 listed below.
1 • Never, never, never give up.
I don’t know if Winston Churchill was much of a baseball fan, but his famous piece of advice is a staple on—and off—the field and is heard from the stands in a variety of phrases:
Stay with it. Keep going. Stick it out. You can do it. Hang in there. You’ve got this.
A little encouragement of this kind can go a long way because there will be times when you will want to give up: When you don’t get a hit, when you can’t find the strike zone, when you don’t catch the pop fly.
It takes guts to stay in the game—to step back into the batter’s box, to get back on the pitcher’s mound, to keep your chin up and see the thing through.
And just a little encouragement can help instill the belief that you can, indeed, see a thing through. Then once you do see it through, the belief turns into experience, the experience into habit, and the habit into the character trait of perseverance.
2 • You (almost) always get another chance.
Whether it’s another at-bat, another pitch, another inning, or another game (and there are a lot of games—162 in a single major league season!), almost no other sport offers more opportunities to get up there and try it again like baseball does.
3 • Do your part.
The baseball field can be a scary place: Standing out there in the great wide open all by yourself. So that when a ball is coming to you, it’s coming to you and only you!
You are on your own to hit it or catch it or throw it. That kind of focus on the individual can put a lot of pressure on a player to do well both for himself (or herself) and for the team.
Actually, baseball is almost singular among sports in its equal emphasis on the individual and the team. Unlike other team sports, like basketball or soccer, you can’t pass the ball to one dominant player and let him or her do all the scoring. Unlike individual sports like golf or tennis, your actions count for yourself as well as for the other members of your team.
So the dual nature of baseball makes it extra important not only to do your part but to do it the best you can and to do it until it’s done. If you miss the ball, go get it. No one else is going to do it for you. Mom and Dad can’t come out there and help you, and your teammates have their own jobs to do and their own positions to man.
Personal responsibility is a big deal in baseball. It grows the individual players because they are learning that they are capable of doing their part, of being relied upon, and of playing a part in something bigger than just themselves. It grows the team because the members learn to work as a unit, trust one another, and accomplish a common goal.
4 • Hope is contagious.
One thing you hear a lot from coaches, even at higher levels of play, is that batting is contagious. No one seems to know why, but I think it’s because hope is contagious too. And in baseball nothing engenders hope more than a solid base hit. And then another. And another.
As hope rises, so does confidence. And mood. And morale. And crowd enthusiasm. Hope kickstarts a chain reaction that begins with one single act from one single person then spreads rapidly through a whole throng of people.
It may be difficult to keep hope alive, especially when the odds are against you, but it may just be the nicest thing you could do for yourself and those around you—even if it doesn’t spark a victory.
5 • Mercy rules.
For the younger tiers of team play, baseball leagues commonly have what are referred to as mercy rules: certain regulations put in place to keep games from getting overly one-sided.
Some debate surrounds the use of mercy rules, but they seem appropriate for younger-age players who are still learning the game and the skills necessary to play it. Mercy rules keep the focus on playing the game, not running up the score.
In fact, it sounds like a codification of the golden rule: Do to others as you would be done by. After all, turnabout is fair play: A mercy rule that caps a team’s scoring total for an inning may seem like a downer when you’re winning…and a blessing when you’re not.
6 • You will fail.
You will make mistakes. Miss catches. Get out. Strike out. Lose games.
One of the local high school baseball coaches likes to say that you fail 70 percent of the time in baseball. That stat may sound steep, but it’s spot on for sport whose best hitters at the professional level have a batting average in the 0.300 range—a score consistent with 30 percent success and 70 percent failure.
This kind of reliable failure rate, even among the professional elite, means that baseball players of all levels need to learn how to accept failure. And that brings up the next lesson, which is to…
7 • Be a good loser.
Most people don’t like to lose, and they don’t tend to take it well. There’s usually some complaining, excuses, accusations, maybe even some name-calling—and that’s just among the parents!
You don’t want to lose a game and lose your integrity in the process. So keep the game in perspective and remind yourself that your identity is not tied to the scoreboard. Also, behave yourself.
Watch your mouth and check your actions. Booing, jeering, and swearing rarely get the results they desire, and throwing dirt, tossing bats, and kicking fences are even less effective. Moreover, this kind of speech and conduct does not reflect well on the individual who partakes in it.
Losing with grace is essential to good sportsmanship, but then so is winning with dignity, making it equally important to…
8 • Be a good winner.
Odds are good that you won’t lose every single game you ever play. Which makes sense because most people do play to win.
While winning may feel a whole lot different from losing, the same advice applies: Watch your mouth and check your actions. You don’t want to win a game and lose your integrity in the process.
Keep the game in perspective and remind yourself to give credit where credit is due—to your teammates and your coaches, for sure, but also to your opponent because a good game requires good effort from a good competitor.
What all of this talk about being a good loser and a good winner boils down to is being a good sport all-around, and the main way to do that is to…
9 • Conduct yourself with respect.
As mentioned above, let your words and actions show respect to the people involved in the game—teammates, coaches, opponents, and yourself.
Likewise, treat with respect the property involved in the game—fields, bats, gloves, helmets, everything. Take care of your own equipment and do not abuse other people’s possessions.
For example, don’t take other people’s stuff, especially without asking; if you have it, use your own gear. Don’t swing your bat (or anyone else’s) into a fence post or drag it on the ground. Don’t leave your glove lying in the outfield. Don’t trash the dugout. Be a good steward of what you use.
10 • Some things just aren’t fair.
They just aren’t sometimes. A pitch that was clearly a ball will be called a strike, and a safe runner will be called out. Or vice versa. That’s just the way it is. And there’s nothing you can do about it but accept it and keep playing because…
11 • The game goes on.
Time, tide, and trolley wait for no man. Neither does baseball. Once the game gets started, it keeps rolling through all 27 outs. No matter the score, no matter the errors, it goes on. And so must you.
11 • You never know.
Baseball is a crazy game. Just because you’re down doesn’t mean you’re out. Not by any means. Because you never know what might happen.
The ball could take a weird bounce. The outfielder could miss a fly ball. The pitcher could toss a wild pitch. The runner could miss the bag.
Your team could hit into a long rally. Walk-offs and come-backs do happen. In fact, this summer I witnessed an unbelievable come-back as a college team overcome a deficit of 10 runs by scoring 13 runs in the last inning to win the game!
So keep running as fast you can all the way to the bag. Field that ball as quickly as possible. Keep on playing hard. Because you never know.
12 • Be ready.
Baseball ready is the phrase I hear the coaches use a lot. By this they mean for the players on the field to be on their toes, have their gloves out in front of them, get in position, and watch the ball.
There are (at least) 2 solid reasons for being baseball ready: First, if the ball comes your way, you’ll be prepared to act quickly. Second, you won’t get hurt by being caught unawares by, say, a line drive to the face.
So pay attention out there—you’ll help your team and protect yourself.
14 • Coaching matters.
It is an unequivocal fact that in his first season of baseball, my son had the world’s greatest coaches. His coaches were kind, knowledgeable men whose coaching was equal parts sound instruction and constructive encouragement.
During practice, they explained the game and what was required of each position. They dedicated time to each individual player, patiently tailoring their directions to fit the player’s specific batting stance or throwing technique. During games, they kept their cool and stayed positive when things were trying or calls were unfair.
During the team huddles after each practice and game, the coaches stressed good citizenship on and off the field, exhorting their players to be sports and cooperative teammates as well as to do their their homework, listen to their teachers, honor their parents, and clean their rooms, reminding them that playing baseball is a privilege that comes after fulfilling all other duties.
The coaches modeled respect and discipline—and expected it in return.
And they got it. But they also got trust, cooperation, and tremendous skill development from each of their players. Not bad for a team whose roster was half-filled with kids who’d never played baseball before.
Because coaching makes a difference.
It makes a difference to the players who look to their coaches for advice, encouragement, and acceptance and who see their coaches as examples for how to respond to failure, loss, challenge, and victory.
It makes a difference to the parents who want their kids to enjoy a sport, learn teamwork, and develop new skills without worrying that their kids will be harshly berated for making a mistake or publicly humiliated for not knowing what to do.
It even makes a difference to the competition. I will never forget one game when a player on the other team was particularly discouraged after an out. My son’s coach, a burly bear-hug of a man who was not this child’s coach, took this player aside, put his arm around him, and walked up and down the baseline for a few minutes to comfort and encourage him.
I was too far away to hear what the coach said to the player, but I can tell you this:
It made all the difference.
15 • Everything matters.
The big stuff, the small stuff. The fundamentals, the finer techniques. In the end, it all adds up.
It’s intimidating to think that all we do and how we do it will count for something. But it’s also very encouraging because it means that none of our efforts are wasted. That we can see the fruits of our labors.
It motivates us to work hard and stay in the game. It inspires us to strive for improvement and cheer on those around us. And sometimes it simply reminds us to keep going.
Because in life, like in baseball, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.