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Little League Baseball Needs a Growth Mindset

Coaching practices in youth baseball defy best practices in education.

On baseball fields around the country, Little League teams are competing in high-stakes playoff games. I’m so glad not to be there. My son Teddy played Little League for seven consecutive seasons until he aged out last year. His time in Little League had its highs and its lows, as is true of any activity, but the lows were very low. Teddy coped with the lows much better than I did. Every game set me off, angered by the favoritism, the nepotism, the slights, and the snubs. But what got to me the most was the message, conveyed consistently from one coaching decision to the next, that if you weren’t born a baseball player, you’d never become one.

Andrew Shtulman
Source: Andrew Shtulman

The belief that a person is born with certain fixed abilities (or not) has been dubbed a “fixed mindset” by psychologist Carol Dweck. Fixed mindsets contrast with “growth mindsets,” or the belief that abilities can be nurtured and developed. Individuals with fixed mindsets see tests and competitions as opportunities to showcase innate talent, and they see failure at such tasks as evidence of incompetence. Individuals with growth mindsets, on the other hand, see tests and competitions as opportunities for achievement, and they see failure as motivations for growth.

Growth mindsets are beneficial for students, particularly low-achieving students, but they’re also beneficial for instructors. Growth-minded instructors emphasize learning and development over the mere demonstration of competence, and they motivate persistence in the face of obstacles. They also reduce achievement gaps between those who are stereotypically viewed as competent (white men) and those who are not (women and underrepresented minorities). Perceived differences in competence often become real differences in achievement, because instructors focus more attention on those who they perceive capable of benefiting from instruction. Growth mindsets preclude such inequities because growth-minded instructors seek to promote achievement in all students.

Growth mindsets have permeated education, but they are foreign to Little League baseball, at least in my experience. It’s fixed mindsets that seem to drive the coaching decisions. Players are assigned semi-permanent positions at the beginning of the season, with little regard for the players’ own preferences. Players assigned to pitch or catch have special practices, where they learn skills that differentiate them from the other kids, including those who want to pitch and catch but were assigned to the outfield instead. The batting lineup rarely changes, even when the top of the lineup (typically the coaches’ kids) hit worse than the bottom. Games conclude with lectures in which some kids are routinely credited for wins and others are routinely blamed for losses. One kid is singled out for his superior performance and awarded the “game ball,” and it’s usually a kid who already thinks of himself as superior, given his top position in the lineup and his choice position on the field. The season is capped with the selection of All Stars, who will play the All Stars from other leagues. Lucky kids awake one Sunday morning to discover an All Star sign in their yard; unlucky ones awake to discover All Star signs in their neighbors’ yards.

My son’s first few years of Little League were fine. Things turned bad when he transitioned from machine pitch to kid pitch, at age 9. The trouble started at tryouts, where a group of boys were pulled to the side to demonstrate their pitching skills. Teddy wanted to pitch, but he was not invited to participate. The coaches had decided, before the season even started, who would be a pitcher and who would not. Teddy’s coach did end up teaching him some pitching skills, but he never allowed him to pitch in a game. Teddy first had to prove that he could pitch 10 strikes in a row—a high bar for a 9-year-old novice. So high, in fact, that I never saw any kids meet it, including those who had been ordained as the team’s pitchers.

The following year, Teddy was drafted by a different coach, who discovered he actually pitched well. The coach had drafted a kid generally viewed as the best pitcher in that age division, but he had drafted no other pitchers, so Teddy came to be the star pitcher’s reliever, taking the mound when the star had exhausted his pitch count. (Players are only allowed to throw so many pitches per game). I kept statistics for the team and discovered that Teddy was actually pitching better than the star. He had more strikes, fewer walks, and a lower ERA by two whole runs. The coach knew Teddy was pitching well, and so did Teddy’s teammates. But the league insiders had not ordained him as a pitcher, so they didn’t select him to be an All Star at the end of the season.

When we confronted the league president about this oversight, we were told that the kids who had been selected were just better athletes. When we showed him Teddy’s stats, we were told that statistics don’t really say much about a player’s true talent. Some of the most talented players had poor stats, and some players with great stats were just lucky. Who could argue with that fixed-mindset logic?

The following year, Teddy was drafted by a coach who let him pitch only two innings of the entire season. He put Teddy in the outfield instead, when he put him in the game at all. We tried to view the season merely as practice—practice for next year, practice for high school. But the experience was so demoralizing that I doubt Teddy will play again. He came to see himself as the coach saw him: a bench warmer.

When instructors have growth mindsets, they inspire growth mindsets in their pupils, increasing their motivation to achieve and instilling the expectation that they actually will. When instructors have fixed mindsets, they do the opposite. Fixed mindsets destroy motivation by leading pupils to value performance over learning, to avoid difficult tasks rather than attempt to master them, and to dwell on failures rather than plan for the future.

As someone who didn’t play baseball, I often second-guessed my judgment and assumed the coaches knew best. But one incident convinced me that the coaching could be better. When Teddy was 10, on the team where he was allowed to pitch, he played a typical game in which he relieved the star pitcher at the end of his pitch count. The star had pitched well, but Teddy pitched even better—more strikes, fewer hits, no runs. At the end of the game, the coaches praised the star pitcher and awarded him the game ball, his fourth or fifth by that point. We went home annoyed but happy for Teddy. I had been keeping stats using an app called Game Changer. When I uploaded the stats to the web, Game Changer summarized them with a mock headline, something like “Cubs defeat Angels, 6-2” or “Cubs fall to Dodgers in close game.” The headline for that day’s game was “Teddy R.S. leads Cubs to victory.” At least the app could see what the fixed-mindset coaches could not.