Sunday, August 13, 2006

Who's a Great Coach? Two Profiles

What makes a great coach?

As thousands of teams vie for the chance to play in the Little League World Series next month in Williamsport, that's the question that parents and kids are asking themselves.

When I covered youth baseball last summer when researching Little League, Big Dreams, I got to know a broad and diverse bunch. In their day jobs, they did everything imaginable. The 2006 Little League World Series included a banker, truck driver, teacher, electrician, phone company retiree, and pizzeria owner. The assistant coaches for the team from Maitland, Florida, had a couple former major leaguers, Dante Bichette and Mike Stanley.

Before anything else, a great coach is a great teacher. He's someone who finds a way to get a group of 12 to 14 pre-teens to focus on the job of becoming better baseball players.

A great coach teaches kids how to get around on fastballs with major-league equivalents of 90, 95, even 100 miles an hour. he teaches them how to pick up a pitch as it comes out of the pitcher's hand.

A great coach also teaches how to play in the field. He finds the right position for all the kids. He teaches kids how to play together. He develops a pitching staff at least five players deep. He teaches those pitchers to get the other side to put the ball in play, rather than gunning for strikeouts.

Before a coach can do any of this, he needs to get the attention of the palyers. Anyone who has worked with kids -- in the classroom, on the field, at camp -- knows that the first few days and weeks are critical. If the coach wants to be a pal, he risks losing the kids for the rest of the summer. But if he comes across like a colonel, barking orders and making sacrifices of kids, he creates an environemnt that drains all the fun out of the game.

Two coaches impressed me more than anyone else in the 2005 Little League World Series -- Layton Aliviado of the West Oahu Little League in Hawaii and Rich Knight of the Westbrook Little League in Maine.

Aliviado is a fortysomething truck driver, a lifelong Hawaiian who spent years buiilding his team. He worked his players hard, with practices six days a week, lasting four hours or more, all summer long. Aliviado developed a training regimen that started with building strength in the legs, moved toward field skill drills, and ended with situational training.

Aliviado's answer any time one of his players started goofing off was to have the whole team run . . and run and run and run. By the time the team started its summer of tournaments, the team was strong. The Hawaiians were the only team that did not wilt or break down during the World Series.

But don't think Aliviado's approach was all about hard work. The kids and their families socialized after virtually every practice and game. When one of the coaches had to undergo chemo for testicular cancer, everyone pitched in to help out. I spent a week in Hawaii with the team's players and families and was impressed at how tightknit they were.

But what I like the most about Aliviado was his simple decency. He's a quiet guy, not a speaker. But wherever he went, kids clustered around him for guidance. He worked them hard and then let them play. When things went wropng on the field, he told his kids to just have fun and play hard. They were loose all the way.

Jerome Williams, now a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, is Aliviado's most famous player. Williams played for Aliviado's PONY League team more than a decade ago. Williams, a black, struggled to deal with racist garbage from other teams. Aliviado told him, in his quiet way, to ignore the slurs and concentrate on his game. Sometimes only a coach can tell a kid something like that.

My other favorite coach, Rich Knight, was much different. Knight started coaching when his company, Verizon, offered time out to employees to do community work. He had no kids, but threw himself into coaching. He takes kids to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox. For years he took kids to Williamsport to watch the Little League World Series.

Knight's Westbrook all stars made it to Williamsport in 2005, defeating better-regarded teams from Toms River, N.J., and Farmington, Conn. Maine lost its first three teams at the New England regional tournament but survived pool play and got hot at the right time.

The Mainers were not as big and strong as other teams in Williamsport. But theyb played a sound game on defense and got good pitching most of the time. They could have won all of their games in Williamsport. They ended up going 1-2, but they impressed everyone.

One of Maine's bench players was a shy, homesick kid named Michael Mowatt. For the better partv of the summer, he sat on the bench. When the team arrived in Williamsport, Mowatt got sick. He kept throwing up. A nurse suggested he was homesick. Knight offered to drive him back to Maine. The idea that he could go home if he wanted relaxed him.

And he became the star of the team. In fact, his slugging percentage was the best of all players in Williamsport.

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