Orchestrating Optimism in Young Athletes

By Greg Bach

Former Major League Baseball second baseman Jack Perconte has never forgotten the message – delivered without words – from his manager during a hitless stretch he was mired in at the time.

And it's one coaches of young athletes should strive to share with their players, too.

"I remember being 0 for 25 once and I went to the ballpark worried about being in the line-up and I find out that I'm leading off," says Perconte, who has coached and trained young baseball and softball players for 30 years and is the author of Creating A Season to Remember. "So when a coach shows that kind of confidence in you it just really boosts you and makes you want to play hard for them, too."

Moments like those, that Perconte can recall from decades ago, showcase how influential coaches can be in bolstering confidence in young athletes.

"Coaches have to realize that kids are going to remember them for the rest of their life so how they want to be remembered is very important," he says. "I had some coaches who made a really big difference in my life and it's not necessarily what they said as much as the faith and confidence they showed in me."

Perconte made his MLB debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and played for the Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox during his career.

We caught up with the long-time youth sports advocate and respected teacher of the game for his insights on coaching kids and leading teams:

SPORTINGKID LIVE: With so much failure involved with baseball, how can coaches help kids keep a positive frame of mind?

PERCONTE: Confidence comes and goes so I always tell coaches what I try to do is build an optimistic frame of mind for young people that goes beyond playing the sport. If they can help build a more optimistic person I think that's just as important as confidence. A lot of times I'm telling kids things like 'forget the bad at-bats and just remember the good ones' and things like that. So, it's just a constant process of telling them that that is the nature of sports and what makes you an athlete is how you are going to embrace challenges and try to overcome them. It's also how we define success. Success is preparing the right way and then giving your best during the action. If you've done that then you're a success and often we forget that as coaches.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What's the key to preventing young athletes from being overwhelmed by pressure on game day?

PERCONTE: I think the start of that is to talk to parents first and let them know that you don't want them out there screaming at the kids and giving instructions. And you have to create an zimbra52osphere where you don't blame kids and penalize them for mistakes but just teach through them. If they can play a little less fearless out there then that's going to pay off. Pressure is a tough thing because so often it's just ingrained in kids because they want to do well, so it's a process over time where we're trying to ease the self-pressure and the outside pressures on them. A coach's attitude is crucial in not treating every play or mistake as so important.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What's a change you've seen occur in youth sports in recent years?

PERCONTE: The biggest change I have seen is that the more money that is involved the more expectations there are. I'm part of the problem because people pay me to help their kids improve, so there is extra pressure on the kids because the parents expect so much more because they are paying for more. There is no automatic switch that makes a kid better, but the pressure parents are exerting on kids now is so much greater.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What's your philosophy for working with young athletes?

PERCONTE: I believe it has to be fun and I know everybody says that, but I really believe in that. Along with being fun there are expectations of working hard and giving it your best shot, and I try to combine those two things. What I want them to get out of it is obviously that the game is fun but even more so that they learn the importance of work ethic. You only get out of something what you put into it. If I can teach them that one relates to the other, that when you put in the work and have fun that success is usually the result, then I feel like I have done my job.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can coaches create a team zimbra52osphere where players support each other?

PERCONTE: From Day One coaches have to build team chemistry and there are many ways to do that. A lot of it has to do with just talking to them about what a team is and that players must pick each other up; when one person fails the next person picks them up, and so on. It's the overall zimbra52osphere that you create – trusting in each other and that everyone is in this together. That starts with coaches and the examples they set. Having respect for the game and for each other are things that coaches should be teaching all season long, along with making it not about individuals but about the group.