In one of my previous lives, I was a coach for something like 24 seasons of youth baseball (having four kids and living in an area where you have Spring Baseball and then Summer League and then Fall League makes that number easier to reach than many might initially understand …). I did not dive into coaching as a guy who had dreamed of and longed to coach, but rather because an emergency need came up, and I was the only one available willing to step in one week.
But once I was in the dugout, I became hooked.
Over the course of that 10-year coaching span, I started to notice something remarkable and unexpected: I started to realize how many of the oddly trite coaching points and lessons I was preaching on the baseball field actually applied to my own writing pursuits.
Here are a few of my favorites:
“There is no such thing as talent.”
A lot of my fellow coaches would say things like, “Oh, that kid is a natural talent” or “he was born to be a ballplayer.” Like a lot of familiar coach-isms, that sounds kinda nice if spoken quickly and without much deep analysis, but turns out to be a load of warm nonsense when you actually think it through. Because nobody is “born” a baseball player. No child yet has emerged from the birth canal with a bat and a glove and a pair of cleats (and I feel confident that we would have heard about it had such a thing ever happened).
In the same way, nobody is “born” a writer. No child yet has entered this world with a red pen in one hand, a pot of coffee in the other, and a twisted cynical outlook on their laughably dismal prospects for financial success. No, those things have to be acquired. Learned. Encouraged.
Talent is not awarded at birth—it’s acquired over the course of a lifetime.
The sooner you start and the harder you work, the more “naturally talented” people will one day claim you to be. But you should always know better and understand that talent is not a gift but rather an obligation. If you are able to do a thing spectacularly well, it’s almost certainly due to the sustained efforts of a cast of people of which you are but one.
“Practice does not make perfect.”
That old “practice makes perfect” line also gets repeated endlessly, and again, I wonder why. Doing the same wrong thing over and over does not transmute that wrong thing into a right thing. Flailing away at every pitch in batting practice in an effort to show off with your batting power does not help the team when a game-day pitcher paints the corners with pitches you are unable to handle.
Practice is a time to identify weaknesses in your game and find ways to improve those weaknesses.
Similarly, I have often done writing exercises never intended to “win” in contests or pro reads, but they DO translate into usefulness come “game day” when I am writing something intended for actual critical evaluation and potential sale. If I were content to merely keep writing the same style and form all the time, it would be foolish to expect much change or improvement in the way that writing in received by others.
Practicing what I already do does not perfect it—it merely ingrains it. Useful practice should lead to improvement in both the level and variety of skills you bring to the table.
“Don’t think about it—just do it.”
A curious thing I noticed among a lot of my better ballplayers over the years was their propensity to get into a funk or a slump and then try to explain it was because they were doing *this* wrong or maybe they needed to do *that* a little better or differently or perhaps *such and such* was the problem. I quickly realized that the real problem was just too much thinking.
To this day I still have former players—many of them now into their early 20s—bump into me around town and they’ll smile and repeat back what they heard from me a hundred times from my coaching position at 3rd base: “STICK. BALL. HIT.” That was a mantra I shouted to remind them to just ignore all the “thinking stuff” and focus on the “doing stuff:" take the stick, see the ball, hit the ball. Relax and focus the most basic needs of the moment rather than loads of theory and advice.
Trust your knowledge. Trust your ability.
In the same way, oftentimes I find myself falling into the trap of overthinking and overanalyzing and over-intellectualizing the “process” of writing, because at the end of the day it remains pretty much a simple thing: “make the reader eager to learn what happens next.” If you can summon the simplistic will to just wipe away the other fears and concerns and focus on that one thing, you almost always can get yourself back into the groove of writing effectively. Don’t worry about being good enough. You are good enough. Just do that thing. Then do it again even better next time.
“It’s not about YOU.”
This insight probably stands out for me as the biggest “eureka moment” takeaway from coaching: I’d see loads of players (and coaches and parents) fall into a hole of focusing on only what most fed their own Ego’s immediate hunger. Pitchers started wanting to strike out every batter. Hitters worried only about mashing homers. Parents steadfast in their belief that any time little Jimmy was called out, it was part of some huge galactic conspiracy by the umpires and the league and everyone to somehow rain shame upon their family honor into perpetuity.
Writing absolutely offers similar Ego quicksand pits. If you don’t advance in a contest (any contest), then clearly there is some problem in the way that contest is run. The judges are blind. The script is flawed. That producer is brainless. Those reps are clueless. You’re an awful writer.
All of these thoughts are nonsense. They are excuses the Ego whispers to provide cover from a simple harsh reality: you cannot win every battle. At some point, you will fail.
And here’s the real moral of that story: that “failure” might well have had not a thing in the world to do with your effort, with your skill, with your worth as a player or a human being. Sometimes the right script just didn’t reach the right pair of eyes at the right moment. Maybe you sent a truly breathtaking war script on a day where the reader is already dealing with the grief of remembering their grandad dying in combat. Or on a day where they’d already read ten other far less breathtaking scripts in a similar genre and were just tired of the form, regardless of execution.
Very often your failure is not about you. It’s not personal—it’s just a part of the game.
“This is the good stuff. This is why we play.”
When things are going great, it’s easy to be gracious and inspired and proud. For me, the great thing about baseball is how much of the game is defined by failure. The game provides opportunities to try, but in the final analysis it also guarantees that you will fail more often than you succeed. To rise above a certain level in the game requires a strange mix of arrogance and indifference.
In much the same way, we writers have that moment when it’s time to hit [SEND] on that piece we’ve labored over. So long as we are safe in the dugout, cheering for teammates, writing for just our own eyes or maybe to be shared with that handful of friends who are kind to us because we are kind to them when they send us their writing, we can somehow ignore that terrible nauseating moment when, in order to finally fully succeed, we must stand alone and risk public humiliation and failure. You can either cower from that moment, or you can revel in it.
One option is way more fun.
It’s strange to think about it: I coached my last inning of youth baseball almost a decade ago, but not a day has gone by since where one or more of my coaching lessons/mantras hasn’t echoed in my own head while I am writing or doing something else. And every time it happens, I smile a little to hear that echo. I share these lessons and thoughts now, not because I think of myself as any great voice of wisdom or experience or success, but because these little lessons and thoughts have (I believe) helped me improve and endure. Maybe one or more of these odd little points can spark some useful internal conversation and consideration about your own practices, perspectives, and tendencies. Maybe you’ll find something useful.
And if not, no big whoop. We’ll get ‘em next time.
*Feature photo by Steshka Willems (Pexels)