Life Lessons from a Youth Baseball Coach
Forget the competitive dads. To teach children about baseball—and life—a coach looks to their moms for help
By Laura Meckler in the Wall Street Journal
Over two decades of coaching youth baseball, John McCarthy has learned that dads often have trouble with the most important parts of the game. They’re too competitive, he says, and too emotionally wrapped up in the success of their children. Dads don’t want to hear why batting practice is more important than games. They don’t want a lesson about how to bury their own egos or why they need to build up what he calls kids’ “emotional software.”
So Coach Mac, as he’s known to thousands of ballplayers and their mover-and-shaker parents in the northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., often tries something different. He works on the moms.
For the past two Octobers, he has held a clinic for mothers to teach them how to hit, throw and catch—and to share his views on how to motivate young baseball players. The rest of the year, he plies his philosophy at his Homerun Baseball Camp, now entering its 22nd season. He describes his coaching style this way: “You will hustle, you will be on time, you will give 100% to the team today and we’ll see how the game comes out.”
At a time when parents worry if their children aren’t as overscheduled as they are, when each season of sports or theater or community service is seen as a line on a future college application, Coach Mac’s real lessons are about supporting emotional and physical development. “Good coaches are gardeners, and they grow human beings,” he says.
With three locations in the Washington area and one in Brooklyn, N.Y., his camps serve more than 350 children, ages 4 to 12, each week during the summer, with smaller groups the rest of the year.
The camps have taken off, in part, because Mr. McCarthy, 46, coaches life as much as baseball. His royal blue T-shirts trumpet, “Talent Is What You Have. Effort Is What You Give.” He tells his charges that the five most important words in the English language are: “How can I help you?” He tells them to polish their shoes, because a neat uniform shows that you care.
He has found that moms take to his philosophy more naturally than dads do. “He focuses so much on the why of the game—on effort and sportsmanship and the pieces that are not about winning but will get you to winning,” said one mother, Jordan Lloyd Bookey, whose 5-year-old son is participating in baseball camp this spring.
“Dads want to raise a performer,” Mr. McCarthy said. “I’ve seen really good boys quit baseball because their relationship with their dad was almost all performance-based, and the kid was like ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ You never see that with moms.”
His advice isn’t always popular. He isn’t a fan, for instance, of travel baseball teams—the competitive leagues favored by elite young players. The problem, in his view: The kids spend too much time getting to games and not enough in volume repetition to build their basic skills.
He also works to expose his players to the world beyond baseball. For a recent Saturday session, he had the jazz saxophonist Antonio Parker play the national anthem. But before that, he interviewed Mr. Parker about his craft and compared music to baseball. “Both are performance-based. Both are joy-based. Both are rhythm-based. And both are practice-based,” he said. Then he explained to his young charges the proper way to stand, hat in hand, heels together, while the anthem is played.
His camp sessions all begin with a morning meeting like this. The first time I witnessed it, my baseball-crazed son, Luke, had just turned 4 and was finally old enough for camp. He practically flew from the car to the field. With a little help, Luke climbed onto the bleachers and took his place with the others for the morning meeting. Coach Mac began pacing in front of them, a dozen or so coaches behind him. He then asked all of the coaches—mostly high school and college students—what they were reading.
The next day, Mr. McCarthy came back with a pile of books—including “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s 1,344-page biography of New York’s “master builder” Robert Moses—and handed them out to his coaches. The goal: to make sure the coaches, and campers, knew that he was interested in their minds as well as their bats. The next day, in a similarly edifying vein, Coach Mac extolled the health benefits of kale.
Luke wasn’t sure what to make of it all, but he was entranced. Most moms are too.
Mr. McCarthy started the moms’ clinic in 2013 at the suggestion of a camp mother who thought other women would benefit from learning the fundamentals of baseball. It grew to about 40 moms in 2014. He plans to hold it again this fall.
He also talks to parents before and after camp, particularly if a child is struggling. He will ask for help, for instance, if a child is having trouble listening or isn’t putting in much effort. “He’s sort of the antidote to the business of kids’ sports and pressure,” said Tamara Smith, a mom who attended last fall’s mom clinic.
Colleen McCarthy (no relation to the coach) remembers two years ago when her son Carlos, then 6, was benched for not paying attention. Later that summer, she said, he resolved to win “camper of the day,” and figured out that the honor always went to the camper who hustled, volunteered to help, encouraged his teammates and was kind to somebody having a bad day. He focused on doing all that and one day, he won. Coach Mac’s philosophy “comes a lot more easily to me because I was never any good at sports,” Ms. McCarthy said. “I never expected to win.”
Coach Mac was born in Washington and grew up across the street from Friendship Field, where he has run his camp as his full-time job since 1994. He played baseball in high school and college and, in 1992, signed with the Baltimore Orioles organization. After a few months pitching for their rookie league team in Sarasota, Fla., he was cut. He then came home to start his Homerun Baseball Camp.
As a player, Mr. McCarthy saw differences in how his parents responded to the ups and downs of his career. At the moms’ clinic last fall, he told the story of one summer when he was 22, playing for a team in Utica, N.Y. He was having a terrific year, and his father, Colman McCarthy—a former newspaper columnist and peace educator—flew up from Washington one day to see him play.
“I had a very bad game. And after the game, outside in the parking lot, he’s crying. Really sobbing,” he said. “I said, ‘Dad, look, it’s a tough game…winning streaks end.’ ”
When Mr. McCarthy was cut from teams, he remembers his dad taking it “very hard.” He was on a “roller coaster,” he said—up when his son did well, devastated when he didn’t. His father was incredibly supportive, he adds, just emotionally invested in his success. His father agrees. “I think that’s natural,” Colman McCarthy said. “I think that’s part of fatherhood.”
It was different with Coach Mac’s mother, Mavourneen. If he was cut from a team, “my mom would say, ‘They just don’t see what I see. There will be another team for you,’ ” he said. And when she visited the towns where he played, “she would say, ‘It’s so beautiful here…and your teammates are so interesting.’ I was like, really?” He laughed remembering the moment. “She would find the joy.”
As for my own son Luke, I don’t know how much longer he will play baseball. He’s 5 now, and pretty soon he is going to realize that other players are bigger, stronger and better able to throw and catch. But I hope he’s the best at trying his hardest, and at being kind to the player who’s having a bad day. I hope he keeps finding the joy.
1) I think we all know that boys and girls are different, thank goodness many will say.
2) The human species is dominant on the earth these days because the combination is doing so well, like when we breed our own young. Many would say we have a big problem with numbers, with it only getting worse, like too many people with all the obvious impacts.
3) This article is just such an example of the usual problems with raising our young these days, I believe.
4) The good news is that it is about sports. There are many things we learn in school, but there are many things we also learn in life, including sports.
5) If you find the “universal truth” about all this, please share it.