How Little League prepared me for the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John Briner
  • 341st Maintenance Operations Squadron Commander
I believe that there are two seasons - winter and baseball.  For the past few years, I've been coaching Little League and the experience reminded me that baseball teaches us much more than pitching, hitting and imparts lessons that apply to life in and out of the Air Force.

You have to master the fundamentals.   You won't improve if you don't practice, and baseball takes a lot of practice.  When I was 10 or 11, my coach had us hit 30-40 balls off the tee at every practice.  I detested hitting off the tee--all I wanted to do was take live batting practice and announce my presence with authority (or in my usual case, hit into a double play).  He told me that major league baseball players hit off the tee every day as they are continually refining their swing.  I found that hard to believe...after all, they're professionals!  Thirty years later during practice, my son said the same thing and then I showed him videos of his favorite players hitting off the tee in the batting cage.  After that, the tee became "cool" because it's how the major leaguers practice.

The Air Force "fundamentals" are our core values--Integrity first. Service before self. Excellence in all we do.  We are Airmen 24/7/365, on and off base, at work and at play.  Aristotle wrote, "We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."   It's up to all of us to make our core values a habit--part of who we are, at all times, in every situation.

Pay attention!  The sound of a wood bat making solid contact with the baseball is a distinctive crack.  When I was 13, I was playing third base during practice and I remember that sound coming from the bat of one of the bigger kids who, if memory serves, was already shaving daily and I'm pretty sure was dating a sophomore.  I'd been talking to the shortstop in between pitches and wasn't paying attention.  I heard that crack and turned just in time to see the ball headed straight for my head.  I flinched just enough that it didn't hit me squarely but it glanced off of my ear.  I spent the next couple of days with a headache and swollen ear...totally avoidable if I'd just paid attention. 

The same is true in the Air Force--what we do is serious business.  For those who work in the Malmstrom missile complex, just driving to and from your duty location for the day can be a three-hour, 150-mile drive through some of the toughest weather conditions anywhere.  Many Air Force jobs are inherently dangerous, so you have to be on your game 100 percent of the time.  The truth is that most incidents are preventable and we must take the time to prepare for the task and pay attention to the details.

Win (and lose!) graciously.   We've all seen the players who throw a fit when something doesn't go their way. Then there are the ones who gloat when they get a good hit or make a good play.  As a coach, you use those moments to teach the players about sportsmanship and remind them the great thing about baseball is there are endless opportunities to succeed...or make an error.  Those people who can learn from their mistakes and be ready for the next play are the ones who will have more fun playing and will eventually have more success.  

As Airmen who are continuously improving, we will make mistakes.  We can't be afraid to make a decision because it might not be perfect. We gather information and advice, ensure compliance with directives and then move out.  When we do make a mistake, we learn from it and make adjustments--we can't obsess over what we should've or could've done.  Babe Ruth said, "Never allow the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.  Every strikeout gets you closer to the next home run."

So, for the next few months, my family will be spending our evenings at the ballfield--coaching, mentoring, cheering and encouraging.  I wouldn't have it any other way--the kids think they're just playing a game, but they're learning lessons that they'll use their entire lives.