Monday Morning Quarterback with Peter King

Fathers Day is 13 days away …

Don’t get him a tie, or a gift card. Get him a book. Or put a book on his Kindle, or his tablet. Today and Wednesday, I’m going to recommend several books I’ve read in the past year. There’s a fascinating book on life behind the North Korean curtain—my favorite of the year. There’s a terrific page-turner by Bill Pennington on the life and times of Billy Martin; can’t recommend that one highly enough. And more. I plan to write about those two and the others on Wednesday.

But today, I want to start with one that hit home with me, seeing that I coached girls softball for 17 years in my New Jersey life, and St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has some tremendous lessons for coaches but mostly for parents in the book I’ll write about this morning:

The Matheny Manifesto: A Young Manager’s Old-School Views on Success in Sports and Life (Crown Archetype)
By Mike Matheny with Jerry B. Jenkins.

Thanks heavens Matheny spoke up. That’s the impression I was left with after reading this ode to parents of athletes everywhere … and to athletes. So many valuable lessons. Let me boil the lessons down to this:

Failure is good. Very good.
Hard work is good. Very good.
Shut up and watch, parents. And play with your kids in the backyard more.
Don’t tie success to achievement, to wins and losses.
“I wanted people to know how sports should look for those out there who really want it done right,” Matheny said by phone from Los Angeles over the weekend. His Cards were there to play the Dodgers. “Sports should be about kids and their passion, not about parents and their goals. We love our kids so much, we want to map out the their futures for them so early. For so many, a college scholarship is their definition of success. That’s sick thinking, and unfortunately, it’s contagious.”

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
What’s great about what Matheny did is that it was truly a grassroots thing, and it spread like wildfire online. Sometimes the internet can be a vehicle for bad, but for Matheny and his ideas, it was a vehicle for very good.

In 2008, his first year out of baseball, Matheny considered answering the call of some in his Missouri community that wanted him to coach a boys travel baseball team with Matheny’s 10-year-old son on it. One night he typed out a five-page letter with his rules; if he was going to coach the team, the parents would have to sign a paper saying they’d abide by his rules. Those rules weren’t complex, but in the era of helicopter parents they went against the grain.

He wrote, “The biggest problem in youth sports is the parents.” He said he would teach the players the game from its very roots, and they would play with sportsmanship and they would hustle and they would never, ever question an umpire. The parents would be quiet in the stands. No, “You can do it, Billy!” Just adds to the pressure the kids feel, Matheny wrote. “You need to be the silent, constant source of support,” he wrote. Every player would pitch; no young arm would be overused. While the players learned the game, the batting order would be meaningless; all players would bat the same number of times. Players would rotate keeping score, because Matheny wanted their heads in the game. Parents, stay away from your kids at all times after you’ve dropped them off for practice or games. Don’t question the coaches, or rather, question them in private but understand there will be no negotiation on playing time or positions played or where kids bat in the order. Let the coaches do their job, and even if you disagree, don’t tell your kids. “Give me the benefit of the doubt that I have [the player’s] best interest in mind, even if you’re convinced I’m wrong,” Matheny wrote.

Matheny read this to a room full of parents one night, parents of the kids he hoped would play on the team with his son. When he finished, he felt a chill in the air. This was not what the parents were expecting. But one said, “I’m in,” and the rest followed, and off he went. Then the letter hit the internet. Until then Matheny’s idea was strictly local. One team. “This was only meant for 13 families,” Matheny told me. “There was no vision beyond our team. But if we did it right, maybe people would see it and learn something.” Then he started to hear from other coaches, and other parents. His message resonated. In a world with relaxed rules, parents and coaches wanted a road map to do things right.

What also struck me about Matheny was how he handled failure. As a youth baseball star in Ohio he struggled when his coach brought in another catcher, and the new kid beat out Matheny. Accustomed to playing all the time, Matheny was morose—and expected his parents to back him and say the coach was wrong for benching him in favor of the new kid. “I was miserable,” Matheny said. “If my parents had encouraged me in any way, I might have been out of there.”

One day, in the car driving home from a game in this disappointing season, Matheny’s father said to him: “Sometimes life isn’t fair. The coach is the coach, and he’s always right, even when he’s wrong.”

Now, Matheny recognizes the fallacy in that—sometimes coaches are flat incompetent or dangerous. But if you’re on a team with a smart coach who has made a call you don’t like, grow up. “We all want to stick up for our kids,” Matheny writes in the book. “But what are we teaching them if we don’t let them face their own difficulties?”

As he said the other day, “Where have I learned the most in my life? Through difficult times. They are no fun to go through. You find out about yourself. I don’t think we’re doing our kids any favors by sheltering them and not allowing them to go through tough times.”

You get the idea. Matheny’s old-school. He’s ancient-school, actually. But he’s been heartened to see how parents and coaches have reacted to the five-page letter and, now, to his book. “I can’t begin to tell you about the cool conversations I’ve had with people. Some of them really emotional. Like parents sitting down with kids and asking about how they wanted them to act at games. They were floored to find out the kids were totally embarrassed with how they acted at the game. The parents re-wired their behavior at the games.”

This is a self-help book that so many parents need. It’s so important today, with so many wacky stories about how win-at-all-cost coaches and driven parents are ruining the games kids play. You’ve got to know someone who could use this book. You’ve got to know 10 people who could use this book. They’ll thank you for getting it.