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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Youth Sports


The Concept of Perfection

Ken Kaiserman

The Dodgers had a breakfast a couple of weeks ago to tell their story about off-season moves and the team they'll put on the field for 2005. I was there to listen to the new owner, Frank McCourt, the general manager, Paul DePodesta, Hall of Famer, Tommy Lasorda, and the Dodgers' manager, Jim Tracy. They told a good story about the Dodgers and what their plans are, but the most interesting aspect to me was something that was said and its application to teaching kids about sports and ultimately, life.

After the presentation was finished, people from the crowd were allowed to ask questions. One guy asked about Milton Bradley and the Dodgers' thoughts on the negative example that he sets as a role model for high school and younger ballplayers. You may remember, Mr. Bradley has not always been a shining example of good sportsmanship and is currently undergoing anger management counseling as a result. To a person, each of the four Dodgers representatives, while acknowledging that there had been problems, defended Milton Bradley as a great guy who is often misunderstood; as a member of the Dodgers family, he deserves a second chance and that everybody really does like him as a person.

The Concept of Perfection

To me the most interesting comments came from Jim Tracy. Not only did the Dodgers' manager say that Bradley is somebody he loves working with, he said he is an ever better player to manage because he is a "perfectionist". I'm paraphrasing, but Tracy basically said that he loves Milton's attitude because he never thinks he should make an out when he's at the plate and he doesn't feel like there is ever a ball he can't catch in the outfield. He expects and demands that he will be "perfect" every pitch, every out, every inning, of every game. After the meeting, I talked to Jim Tracy about this idea of "perfect" as it applies to kids.

What we talked about was perfection: how is it good for a ballplayer, especially a child, to expect to be perfect? More so in baseball, where failure is the expected norm; failing 7 out of 10 times makes you a star. Everybody swings and misses. The best players in the world regularly walk in runs, and errors are made almost every game. Why is perfect the right goal? Jim Tracy had to leave before we had a chance to finish the conversation, but it did get me thinking about the goals and attitude we should teach our SportsKids.

The Right Attitude - It's about Control

Why would anybody ever tell there kids to be perfect? Michael Jordan once said: "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Babe Ruth had the record for strike outs in a career until his record was broken by another Hall of Fame member of the 500 HR club, Reggie Jackson. Nobody is perfect!

If you can't be perfect, what is the right goal? In his fantastic book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey talks about being "response-able" for your actions. In sports and in life there are so many things that are completely out of our control, but we individually have the ability to choose our responses to each situation - positive and negative. In essence, you can't control the actions of anybody else or the results; only yourself. Consequently, the focus has to be on what you can control.

Surprisingly, my 5 and 6 year old basketball team that I coach had the answers. Since I was thinking about Milton Bradley and perfection, I decided to ask some of the kids their thoughts on the subject. First, each of them is afraid of different things playing sports. Some didn't want to miss a shot, get a rebound off their head, make a bad pass or lose the game. So we talked about Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Kobe Bryant and others and how they made mistakes too. It became very liberating for them to realize that they didn't need to do everything perfect to be a good basketball player.

The more we talked, the better the kids started to feel about themselves. Realizing that you don't have to be perfect is a good thing, but does that conflict with what Jim Tracy said was so great about Milton Bradley: expecting to get a hit every time at bat and to catch every fly ball? Not necessarily if the focus shifts from being perfect to doing what you can control. While my older teams that I coach focused on the "results" of actions, it was again the 5 and 6 year old kids who did a great job in helping me understand what elements of a game can be controlled:

1. Fundamentals - there is no reason that every kid can't learn to do things the right way. If the coach can teach a kid to perform with proper fundamentals the results will follow. The emphasis here has to be on first, the coach learning the right things to teach, and then, insisting that the kids do it correctly. Remember: Practice makes Permanent!

2. Focus - Every kid can think and have their head in the game. Even the kid who can't make a basket can be in the right place all the time.

3. Hustle - Do your best and put out the most effort that you can on every play. Every coach should be working on kids to hustle, play hard and put out effort - not on results.

4. Teamwork - This plays into focus as well, but working with your teammates is something that every player can do, control, and excel at.

5. Sportsmanship - There is never any reason to not be a good sport. This year, I've seen far too many kids saying "bad game" instead of congratulating the other team on their effort. Be a good sport - always!

Measuring Your Results

At the end of each game, ask the kids to evaluate their individual and team performance. You'd be surprised at their own understanding of how they did. Don't spend time on performance measurement, but on the non scorebook things that the kids can control. We can't control the results of our actions, but if we work on everything we can control, we won't be perfect, but we will be the best we can be.

Copyright Ken Kaiserman -

Ken Kaiserman is the president of , a leading youth sports website featuring games, sports news, sports camp and league directories, community features, and Kid Sports with over 150,000 products.

Ken coaches youth football, basketball and baseball. He also serves on the local little league board of directors as well as the Park Advisory Board. You can read and subscribe to the SportsKids blogs at

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