For about 10 years, out of town baseball trips have always included visits to Waffle House for me. Whether it is late night post-game, or early morning pre-game, there is connection in my mind between Waffle House and travel baseball. Part of it is no doubt the overlap between Waffle House locations and good baseball. It is a special place, any time of the day or night. Good Food, Fast is the motto. Plus, some entertainment.You can learn a lot from Waffle House if you pay attention. So, this is first installment of “Lessons from Waffle House”.
My wife Lauree shares my affection for Waffle House. A big difference, though, is that she actually has conversations with people and learns things. Here is what she learned at Waffle House in Southaven MS this weekend:
Of the people who are given jobs as wait staff or cooks at Waffle House:
Only 1 in 5 (20%) make it through the 2 week training
Only 1 in 10 (10%) make it through the 3 month mark
Only 1 in 80 (1.25%) make it through their 1 year anniversary.
The way Waffle House operates demands fast paced work, good communication and the ability to learn a strict verbal cue system for ordering, food prep and service. It is a very challenging job. There is little room for error — if you screw up the verbal cues at Waffle House, all hell would probably break loose. I would end up with onions in my hash browns. So, people try out for the job, the vast majority fail or are fired and then they move on to more traditional work.
As 14 year veteran waitress Margie boasted on Saturday morning “If you can work at Waffle House, you can work anywhere”.
And you thought playing college baseball was hard to do. 7% of high school baseball players go on to play college baseball at some level. It takes a lot of training, playing, practicing and hard work to get there. Those are pretty stiff odds. But, a lot better odds than making a career at Waffle House.
It’s not just Waffle House and baseball though. To EXCEL at something, to be EXCEPTIONAL requires you to stand out and beat the odds. Part of it is talent, part is effort, part is passion and a big part is perseverance — the ability to overcome barriers that block other people. That how exceptional performers separate themselves. To be exceptional, you need to do exceptional things.
This past weekend, a number of Gamers teams made the annual journey to Southaven MS for the Super NIT event, comprised mostly of teams from the mid-South — AR, TN, MS and AL. A few teams from St. Louis and a few from Louisiana. Midwest teams that make the trip down usually end up with a short game schedule and rarely make it past round 1 of elimination play. And, the scores at young ages (say 10-12u) get way out of control. It sometimes looks like men playing against boys at young ages.
By contrast, when the Gamers 15-17u teams play these same mid-South teams/programs in the summer, the competitive levels are very close and we tend to win more games than we lose. What explains this difference in outcomes?
First, there are clearly important regional differences between the sports environment in the mid-South versus St. Louis. Here are the obvious ones:
– Soccer and hockey are only minor sports in the mid-South. Kids play baseball, football and basketball. In St. Louis, a number of very good athletes are playing these sports instead of baseball. This makes a big difference at 10-13u.
– Baseball is just a bigger deal in the South. Despite the Cardinals fanfare, St. Louis is not a baseball town. Just compare the quality of baseball fields and facilities in the mid-South versus those in the Midwest. It is night and day. Small high schools in TN have better fields and practice facilities than any college in the St. Louis area, including SLU. 10 year olds in Memphis play and practice at better facilities than high school players in St. Louis.
– Not only is baseball a bigger deal in mid-South, so is youth football. Football training, even without weightlifting, makes kids stronger and faster. Athleticism from football translates immediately to the baseball field. The 11 year olds hitting home runs in Southaven are probably great offensive tackles. Not many young offensive tackles in St. Louis are athletic enough to also play baseball.
– Finally, and most importantly, baseball is a warm weather sport. The 4-8 weeks of warmer temps in February/March makes a huge difference. Many of the teams in Southaven this weekend had already played 40+ games — versus 20 games for our teams.
The net impact of all the factors above is that kids play more baseball against better competition in the mid-South than they do in the Midwest from ages 7u-14u. You get good at baseball by playing baseball. There is no other way. For example, the Memphis Tigers 7u team played 47 games last Spring/Summer. Repeat that difference at 8u and 9u and it is a hard barrier to overcome.
I strongly believe the “10,000 hour rule” discussed in Malcolm Gladwell book “Outliers”.
Below is my rough estimate of the cumulative hours of practice/game baseball time for kids in the Mid-South versus St. Louis. I also added the Gamers program hours of games/practices from 10u on. Eventually, because of how we run the Gamers program, our players catch up — usually at around 14u. At 14u, we play head to head vs. good mid-South teams every year. But, we are definitely playing catch up from 10-13u.
Thanks to Northwestern Mutual, the large financial services company that has been around since 1857, the Gamers program is able to award two $2,500 scholarships to graduating seniors who represent the principles of the Gamers program. This was our first year for the awards, and it was incredibly difficult to select the recipients. So many 2014 Gamers could have received the award, including:
Trey Bauer – MICDS, going to Cornell, 5 year Gamer
Jackson Bishop – Montgomery County, 3 year Gamer, going to BYU
Shane Strom — Timberland HS, 3 year Gamer, going to Quincy University
Conner Wardlaw — Desmet HS, 6 year Gamer, going to Jeffco
Lucas Swindle – St. Charles Lutheran, 4 year Gamer, going to Missouri S&T
Clifford Chi – Parkway West, 5 year Gamer, going to DePauw University
Trenton Green – Perryville HS, 4 year Gamer, going to Missouri S&T
Graham Thomason – St. Charles Lutheran, 4 year Gamer, going to DePauw
All of players listed above are prototype Gamers — great academics, hard workers who care about doing things right. They are going to be very successful young men. They have been and continue to be an absolute blessing to the Gamers program. They have earned a lot of respect and love around the Gamers program.
The two scholarship winners hold a special place in my heart and are both 6 year Gamers.
Adam Mundle is literally an Eagle Scout who is an incredibly gifted athlete and a 4.2 GPA student. If I had a daughter, Adam would be the one kid I have coached that I would want her to bring home. At 13u, Adam was the best player on the least talented team in the history of Gamers program. At 14u, he taught himself how to switch hit, and despite going 1-35 at the beginning of the season, led his 14u team to an incredible winning streak in June in July. Since then, he has been playing SS or CF, batting at the top of the order and using his speed to impact games. He is a great student and does everything well. I would trust him in any situation. He is the guy I want up with 2 outs and the winning run at 2B — just ask Dulins Dodgers.
Jake Hemphill is the best pure pitcher and toughest kid I have ever coached. He has been a Gamer since 13u, when his head coach wanted to cut him at the end of the season. Then, he grew a foot and, through hard work and shear determination, molded himself into an exceptional HS pitcher. He might not light up the radar gun, but, I have never seen a HS kid dominate the strike zone and compete on the mound like Jake. That is why he is 16-1 in HS baseball, against the best HS teams in the area. With the Gamers, for the past 2 years he pitched against the best teams in the country every weekend and gave his team a chance to win every game. When he is on the mound, ice runs through his veins. It does not matter if he gets hit around a little. The next pitch will be a 2 seamer in that gets a double play. He is a relentless competitor.
These two players, along with the players mentioned above, have been an incredible honor to coach and to mentor over the past several years. I cannot wait to see their futures unfold!
One of the reasons I enjoy coaching teenagers is that they keep you off balance and say things that make you think. Several weeks ago, a player said to me:
“Coach, I think you hate losing more than you love winning”.
My immediate reply was “That is absolutely right, I HATE losing”. That was a very honest response. But, I have been thinking about it ever since.
We want our players to play to win, to do the things required to win => like having QAB’s, throwing strikes, making routine plays, winning innings and playing with effort and focus. These are all positive actions to achieve an outcome that they control.
Instead, if a player “plays not to lose”, this sacrifices all this positive energy and completely changes their approach=> they take too many fastball strikes, are not aggressive on the bases and in the field and play tentatively, afraid to make a mistake.
There is a prevalent coaching philosophy in HS/youth baseball coaching that you win most games by letting the other team beat themselves. Unfortunately this is somewhat true, but is not very inspiring and gets less and less true as players move up the ranks. I would rather coach kids to WIN, not just survive.
The difference between the two approaches boils down to level of commitment and willingness to take risks and control your own destiny. It reminds me of the Chicken and Pig fable below — the difference between being involved and being committed. Commitment to winning is a more powerful and positive to achieve than “not losing”.
Maybe it starts at the top??
So, thanks to an 8th grader, I am re-evaluating my approach to coaching (and other things too). My new goal is to LOVE WINNING more than I HATE LOSING.
Part of this is going to be redefining WINNING — it is not going to be the results of the scoreboard. Fortunately, John Wooden’s definition of success provides a good guidepost for this:
“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming. John Wooden.”
Chicken and Pig Fable
A Pig and a Chicken are walking down the road.
The Chicken says: “Hey Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!”
Pig replies: “Hm, maybe, what would we call it?”
The Chicken responds: “How about ‘ham-n-eggs’?”
The Pig thinks for a moment and says: “No thanks. I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved!”
Once good baseball players get to be 8th grade and beyond, they get the opportunity to play against older kids a lot more often. Our 14u Gamers have played a number of 15u teams already this Spring and recently came off a game vs. a very good 16u team in Des Moines. This can be an intimidating experience. But, it is very important to the process of learning to play baseball.
Size, strength and athleticism are important in baseball — but it is only part of the game. Skills, execution and mental toughness are just as important. When younger players play older players that are more athletic, they need to rely on the other elements of the game to compete. Throwing strikes, hitting cutoff men, controlling the running game, Quality at Bats, etc.. are still the secret to winning. It is all the little things that matter even more in these situations. It is how David beat Goliath.
As these opportunities becomes more frequent, good players rise to the challenge and start enjoying the process of competing against players that are older and more athletic. Slowly, players realize that the age and size of competition does not determine success. What determines success is performing to the best of your ability, regardless of the situation. If you achieve this, the competition does not determine your success — YOU DO.
That is a great spot to be in, competing against yourself.
Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.
Volunteer coaches are at the heart of 9-14u youth baseball. If you coach the right way and at a high level, it is an incredibly time consuming activity. And, more than time, it absorbs an enormous amount of emotion and energy. The guys who do this while also working full time jobs are true servants to the sport of baseball and to young men. This is especially true at higher competition levels. Coaching is like a second job, except without pay and longer hours.
Most volunteer coaches at this age group are also dads. It is incredibly challenging to coach your own son while also trying to coach a high level team. It is the most difficult thing I have ever done. You cannot understand this unless you have done it. You are pulled in so many directions. It swings like a roller coaster from incredibly satisfying to incredibly frustrating, and back again. Dad coaches who do it right and can stay balanced are candidates for sainthood. I was not even close.
Parents in the stands need to be thankful for the coaches who do volunteer their time and appreciate the service they are providing. And, parents need to be supportive of coaches. It is really hard for a player to play for a coach that is constantly criticized by parents in the car ride home. It turns into a death spiral pretty quickly and the young player usually ends up with short-end of the stick, because they get less comfortable with playing, play with less confidence and start using the coach as an excuse for poor effort.
So — to volunteer coaches, especially dads, thanks for your important contribution to youth baseball.
To parents, please appreciate of the hard work and service volunteer coaches are providing. Accept the fact that mistakes are going to be made and keep things in perspective. 80% of the coaches are doing things for the right reasons and trying to do things the right way.
Regarding the other 20%, don’t let your son play for them ! That 20% is easy to spot at the select level of baseball:
– They are personally vested into winning instead of actually working with kids to get better. Their relationship with players is one-way, and players are a tool for them to get an ego boost from $4 trophy on Sundays. This is easy to spot by observing the interactions between the player and the coach and also by watching pitch counts climb to crazy levels.
– They are focused primarily on just recruiting early puberty kids instead of using the principles of hard work and passion to develop them. This is easy to spot too — the players are large, the fundamentals are tiny and the coach spends more time talking to parents than to kids. These coaches are a lot more comfortable with a cell phone than a fungo.
Players are better off playing with a lower level team that is better coached, than to play for a 20% coach on a top level team. Ideally you can have both, but that takes some judgement and perspective.
Other than a few issues regarding competitive courage and Playing Big, I am very proud of the 14u Gamers this weekend. Becoming baseball players is a PROCESS. And, we made a step forward this weekend. We had a CF with a huge chunk of flesh out of his leg ready to start the next game but was trapped by urgent care, we had a RHP dominate a very good 15u team, we had three other great pitching performances, we played catcher like studs and had a 3B and SS make every play with guts.
Also we ran 34 poles.
Here is the other side…. Through 4 innings, the cumulative score of our games was 5-2. The final score after 7 innings was 17-2. What happened in innings 5, 6 and 7? We can compete against good 15u teams if we play 7 innings!
Two issues — courage and confidence.
Answer is to Play Big. It is really that easy. Not mechanics, not strategy, not anything but allowing yourself to Play Big.
Gamers first PG25 event this weekend in Des Moines, Iowa. Perfect Game could not get enough 14u teams in the Central region to participate (literally hundreds of 14u teams chose not to participate), so the 14u Gamers played up at 15u — which was great for us but would have been a disaster for most 14u Central Region teams.
Des Moines is a great city. Would have been a great college baseball exposure town if Drake actually had a baseball team.
Great to play against 15u Iowa and Wisconsin teams that were pretty darn good.
Solid umpires except for an egregious homer call at 3rd when we were pressing the favored Iowa team that the local ump proudly knew by their first name. Other than that, umpires were good.
Bad marketing — a PG25 regional with a 14u berth to Ft. Myers but 2 14u teams — in Perfect Game’s home state of Iowa. I think I would have been paying teams to play if I was PG to rescue the situation. Embarrassing to me personally who built this up as a big event for the Gamers 14u squad … lesson learned on that one.
Bad organization — sold as a 4 game minimum tournament, but no 15u team wanted to stick around for a consolation game (because they considered the event no big deal???, the Gamers have never turned down a Perfect Game consolation game unless it meant missing a school day or a flight from FL). So, I had 13 families stick around for 3 1/2 hours in the parking lot of Simpson College after our 3rd game only to to be told that the consolation game would be versus a 17u team in another 2 1/2 hours at 5pm — which would put us home at 1am. Four game minimum with no actual plans to make it one. That was quite embarrassing to me.
When I make players/parents travel to compete, I do not expect to be embarrassed. This is not a very high expectation.
So, net-net, left with 13 14u players/parents totally unimpressed with Perfect Game that I am now trying to convince to spend a fortune to go to East Cobb and to Ft. Myers. Not very smart business — for me, or for Perfect Game. Especially, when the competing program in our region is selling the Premier Tournaments are better than Perfect Game.