The Speech

Excerpt from Chapter 8 of Gordie Gillespie: Coach the Kid at the End of the Bench

Only once in the storied history of the ABCA (American Baseball Coaches Association) did a coach receive a standing ovation from 6000 mesmerized coaches. Instead of speaking on what they expected—secrets to winning games—he told them his secrets to winning the hearts and minds and personal development of their athletes.

Gordie sat in an anteroom, just outside the main auditorium, brooding and agonizing as he reviewed his speech the umpteenth time. One week earlier he was honored, humbled and thrilled to be named the 1991 recipient of the coveted Lefty Gomez Award. It is given by the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) to one person each year who has given the most to amateur baseball.

Gordie pictured the 6000 coaches in San Diego attending the week-long clinic; his acceptance speech would serve as the keynote address attended by almost all the coaches. Gordie’s first reaction was that this would be the perfect forum to present his innovative concept, a philosophic approach to what it takes to be an effective coach. It would center on what it takes to mold a successful human being, not so much a successful ballplayer.

Gordie had given over a hundred speeches all over the country to coaches in various sports at a wide range of levels, but those speeches had been on subject matter that the coaches were begging for, why they had come to the clinic, to hear the secrets of the masters. But over the past few years, especially at the hall of fame celebrations, Gordie had given speeches more on the philosophy of coaching than on skill development. This talk would range far and wide. He feared that it would upset many in his audience. “Will they boo me?” he thought. “Will they get up and walk out?”

He had been preparing this speech for years and here was the perfect vehicle to give it, but he feared ridicule.

Gordie waited in the wings, his wife Joan by his side, as his introduction was made. To list his accomplishments took several minutes. Gordie was as nervous as he’s ever been. In fact, he was all set to give up on the speech and resort to giving a safer, more comfortable but pedestrian talk on pitching and batting. As he hesitated, Joan literally pushed him onto the stage. Gordie was suffering from fear of failure, one of the key points he was about to present.

To do the speech justice you have to picture Gordie’s style. It is a cross between Billy Graham, Elmer Gantry and Mother Theresa. At times he’s calm, even quiet and whispering; but then he roars with passion. And he was passionate about this material, so it included a lot of fire and brimstone. He spoke quietly into the mike at first.

The Speech


Hello fellas. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m going to cover a wide range of ideas in this talk. It is about how you can develop.

I’m going to ask you to be introspective. I know “introspective” is a big philosophical word, but it’s the closest word I can think of to describe what I’m going to talk about. I’ve got ten ideas for you; I call them my Ten Commandments of Coaching.

To introduce the first commandment let me ask you: What kind of a person are you? What kind of a coach are you?

There are a number of key ideas you need to know in order to become a great coach.
The number one ingredient is that you have to like kids.
Ha! That’s a hard one, right? But it’s still a key ingredient in how you approach our profession Here I am, I’m 71 years old, and I can honestly say I’ve never coached a player I haven’t loved. I’ve been blessed that way. It’s why we should be in this profession.

[Here the Elmer Gantry in Gordie comes out; you can almost see the veins in his neck as he gets worked up.]

BUT! If you are in it for the wrong reasons, if you are in love with the W’s and not with kids, then get out!!! I’ve got news for you, when two teams play, whatever game in whatever place, exactly 50% of them LOSE. So you are going to lose games. I’m here to tell you, though, how you can always win, even when you lose the game. I’ve coached over 2200 games in my career and I’ve lost my fair share. But if you take pride in the relationships you have with your kids, if your kids turn out to be winners OFF the field because of what you taught them ON the field, then you are a winner.

Number 2 is Discipline.
Discipline is love. If you can make your kids work, (it’s the same as with your family), if you can make them work and strive for excellence, you’ve given them the greatest gift you can give. If you can teach your kids to cherish their work ethic, not to just rely on their talent but to get as much out of their talent, no matter what level of talent they come with, then you’ve taught them how to achieve, ON the field and, more importantly, OFF the field. This is so important that I’ll keep coming back to it.

Third is Fear of Failure. Again, this is so important for you to understand. All of you coaches who have never been afraid, raise your hand.
[There’s a short pause.]
What? No one raised their hand? Sure, everyone is afraid at times. Sometimes, in fact often, we’re afraid at crucial times.
Bob Hope – the greatest comedian ever – for five years he had to have boards taped to his legs they shook so much from fright and he had to be pushed onto the stage.
Barbara Streisand – pretty good singer, right? – one of our greatest talents – she wouldn’t perform in front of a live audience for 30 years, she was scared to death of going on stage.
Elvis Presley, the King – loads of people call him the best entertainer ever – at age 44, would hesitate to go out in front of an audience. He’d ask his people, “Do you think they’ll like me?”
Sir Lawrence Olivier – the great English actor – for 5 years suffered severe stage fright.
If these people, with so much more talent than you and me, if they become afraid, then all of us do too. And so do your players.

But it’s not physical pain they’re afraid of, is it? Why, if you do it right, coach, they’ll run through that wall for you. If you love them and you teach them how to work hard, and if they love playing the game for you, then they’ll never fear the pain that goes with it. But they will be afraid of failure.
Listen, how many of you have ever been up in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs and you’re down by one, and you’ve gone oh-for-four so far.

Heck, I was oh-for-Georgia once.

You’ve been there. How did you feel? You were afraid, right? Yet right here is where we can teach our kids one of the greatest lessons of their lives. Not how to “overcome” fear of failure, but how to come to grips with it. If they fail, be there for them. Sure, you might have lost the game because the kid dropped a pop up or struck out or booted the ground ball. But that’s where your love of that kid comes into play. If you love him, not only will you show him it’s OK, but you’ll show by your example that it’s important for the entire team to pick up your kid; let him know it’s just a game. It takes discipline; discipline and love. And sometimes it’s hard to do. You feel dejected at the loss, but your love of your kids must come first. That’s how you teach them how to come to grips with fear of failure.

Here is where you’ve got to be smart. Sometimes your player is loafing or not paying attention or not giving his best effort – sure, then you have to get on him. Do what you can to wake him up. But I cringe when I see a kid in a tough, do-or-die situation, who fails and the coach berates him even though the kid gave him his best effort. If you’re that kind of coach, get out!! You have the power to destroy a young person’s self-esteem forever with that kind of loathsome behavior. Use these precious moments of success-or-failure to boost your athlete’s confidence even if; no, especially if, they fail.

We coaches can do this. We can turn kids’ lives around. So many of them are fearful of so many things in their lives – and they shudder away from handling them well. We can show them how to do that. And they don’t know how much we are going through ourselves as coaches. We understand. We have to show them how to do it as we go through it ourselves. I remember 25 years ago when I coached Joliet Catholic High School in our first Illinois state championship. I was so scared when I walked to the center of the field before the game I thought I would pee in my pants. I don’t know what I was afraid of; maybe I thought I might fall down on my face and embarrass myself. I wanted to win that game so much, and here I was, a fifty year old man. But if I was that nervous can you imagine what my players were going through? But we have to overcome these moments and we have to show our kids how to do it. Too many kids shy away from putting themselves in positions of win-or-lose. We can show them how to face up to challenges. This is what we do best. We put kids in tough situations where they fear failure, but we teach them that it’s OK; win or lose we’re with you, we love you, and even if we lose we’ll improve and get back out there.

But coaches who are in it only for the W’s, what will they do? They scorn the kid who made the last out or missed the tackle or blew the free throw. They feel betrayed by their players because they, the coach, didn’t get the prized W.

Forget it! We don’t need people like that in the game, in our profession.

Does it make sense to be macho? I don’t think so. We’ve got to be smarter than that. What do some coaches do on the first day of football practice? “OK, guys, we’re gonna find out who’s tough.” So everybody hits and hits and hits, and you wind up with so many guys injured and half the team quits.

“But we showed ‘em who’s tough, huh? But we were macho, right?”

NO! We’ve got to be smarter than that.

Everything in life is building confidence. In every walk of life, on the job, in your family and playing sports, it’s about confidence. On the first day of tryouts every kid who’s there is scared. They won’t admit it, but what do they fear? They’re worried that they won’t perform up to their ability. They might not make the team, or even if they’re the star, they fear they won’t show it.

We understand that; they don’t! You’ve got to reach out to each of those kids and make it comfortable for them to perform. You have to have that practice so organized you know just what’s going to a happen at every minute. Then they’ll have confidence in you.

Next is Take Pride in your Team. We have to teach our kids how to work with and be proud of their teammates. I think of Vince Lombardi. He was the greatest, right guys? But one day, after a tough loss, a reporter asked Vince how he felt. “How do I feel?!” he barked at the young man. “You don’t understand, young fellow. Listen, son, losing is worse than death!”

Did he say this?!! Did he really say this?!!

People have had a field day with that one. Even school administrators have used this quote to denigrate coaches and athletics. But they don’t know what he was saying. It might be the most misunderstood quote of all time.

Vince did it right. He loved his players, they loved him, and they loved each other. They worked harder on the practice field than anybody, and they did it for love of each other, so every one of them could become as good a person as they could. They ran the off-tackle play a hundred times a day. Fuzzy Thurston once said that he felt that if Lombardi ran it one more time he’d choke him; and Lombardi called for them to run it another 10 times. But they all knew and trusted the Coach. They took the field on game day as a team. They battled as a team, everyone pulling for each other. If they won, there were no prima donnas, everyone was praised. If they lost, they lost as a team. Since they put everything they had into winning, it did feel like death, like the end. But only for a short while. The passion they brought to the field would drain out. They knew that eventually they’d recover and then get back to it, back on the field, remember the loss and use it to become even better. Maybe they’d even run the off-tackle play another hundred times.

It’s a kind of pride. It’s the feeling you have to create in your team. We are the Green Bay Packers, We join hands. We play arm-in-arm. We go into battle together. We have to have such a feeling of pride and brotherhood so that if we get beat, yes, it initially feels worse than death.

Think of firefighters. When they rush into a burning building, when everyone else is running away from the fire, they run in – TOGETHER. They practice together. They pledge to risk their own lives to save one of their team. These are the people you have to look up to. This is the pride I’m talking about. We can’t play the game with lukewarm people. Jesus Christ wanted no lukewarm people.
[Gordie is screaming by now. He’s forgotten about what they might think – he’s now on a mission. He’s got to get these wonderful coaches to see what he means.]

We’ve got to do it Lombardi’s way. Either you are with us or against us. Jesus didn’t give us ten “suggestions.” He gave us ten commandments. You gotta do it His way, the right way. We’ve got to get our players to do it the right way. Pride! Pride in your team. You get that pride by working hard at practice and leaving nothing out on the field. No lukewarm practices.

We have to have such a feeling of togetherness, of pride in playing side-by-side. We have to be dripping in all the hard work we put in together that, yes, when we lose, it feels worse than anything – at that moment!

That’s the feeling you must develop in your team.

I don’t think you see that feeling in professional sports now. Once free agency is here and guys are here today, gone tomorrow, the idea of team pride is gone. If I hear one more of them say, “Oh well, it’s just a business” I’ll puke! That’s baloney! Don’t turn to them for guidance. You’ve got to be like Lombardi, that’s how you’re going to coach. Team pride.

That’s the way you will get the most out of each of your kids. How do you do it? They look up to you, coach. They admire you. You have to lead the way. You have to work harder than anyone. Be their role model. They’ll run through that wall for you, coach. Use that passion and intensity they bring for you to the practice field to get the best out of them.

How do you do that? That’s my next point.

Organization and Preparation. At the University of Arizona there was a great coach, Jerry Kindal. Jerry was the NCAA Coach of the year three times; he won three national titles. I know him very well. At the start of every season he would give his players a questionnaire. He asked his players, “What do you want from me? What is the most important commodity I can give to you so you can become the player you want to be?” The most important idea he got from his players was the one thing every player wanted from him; it was organization and preparation.

Are you highly organized? Do you have a concrete plan? Do you have written down the specific drills you are going to give your players month by month, week by week, day by day, even minute by minute? How do you run your practice? Is everyone moving, running, working all the time?
What does your practice look like if you don’t have excellent preparation?

Here we go, here’s a typical little league practice. You’ve seen ‘em. None of the kids can get the ball over the plate consistently, so here’s the coach pitching batting practice. One kid is catching, one is hitting, and everyone else is standing around doing nothing in the field. This goes on forever! This kid hits ten, that kid hits ten, the poor catcher is catching the whole two hours and when he goes to hit the coach says, “Well, son, my arm is sore so you can hit next week.” And people wonder why so many kids quit the game.

The kids are bored! Do you understand? They want to have fun, to run and improve their skills. No one should ever be standing around at your practice. If you run the off tackle play a hundred times, sure, your players will be tired—but here is where you have to be smarter than them—explain why you are doing it! To remind them, yell at them “Work! You’re becoming the best team in the league!! You’re gonna knock ‘em on their keysters!” You can do this! If I come to your practice and I see a line – I’ll go home!

Don’t waste anyone’s time, coach. Split your team into small groups. Have three or four in one corner of the field practicing hitting, have four or five fielding ground balls, have four more shagging flies and doing “Who’s got it!?” drills. If you have a small field use wiffle balls; you can have everyone hit a hundred wiffle balls in 20 minutes using four stations. You’re working on a level swing, load and explode! We use wiffle balls this way every day in the spring, coach. Every kid gets between one and two hundred swings a day, working on the fundamentals of the swing. Each kid is watching the others, pointing out ways to improve.

Every drill is broken down, highly organized. Think of practice as a race against – what, coach? Yes, TIME. Time is your most valuable commodity. Use it wisely.

Every one of your players comes to practice to get better. Sure, they want to have fun but deep down they want to work to be the best that they can be. You’ve got to have them working. Don’t let ‘em leave with anything left in the tank. Work ‘em and they’ll love you. They’ll see themselves improving, individually and as a team, and they’ll love you for it.

Now I’m going to give you a syllogism. That’s a big word, right? Something right out of college logic. But here it is. Where did we start? And where are we now? We started with: You gotta love kids! Where are we now?
You gotta love kids!!

See what I mean? If you love them you won’t cheat them, and to not cheat them you must be organized and prepared. Simple syllogism, right?


[Gordie knows now that he’s given them a lot to swallow, so he slows down. He’s been a fired-up preacher for 10 minutes, but now he changes his delivery to a calm, even mellow cajoler. He pauses for 10 seconds and then almost whispers.]

For seven years I worked with Ernie Banks. A really nice guy; a really bright guy – and what a teacher! Every day he came to our camp he’d say, “Let’s play three today, guys!” and he meant it. Playing the game was sheer joy for him. And teaching the game to kids was thrilling for him. He’d walk onto the field with that huge, endearing smile of his and the kids would flock to his side They’d hug his legs; be all over him. And he never turned one kid away. In fact, his smile never left his face. Do you see what I mean?

Enthusiasm. That’s my next commandment. What does it take for us as coaches to be enthused, to smile, to joke around? We’re outside coaching and teaching the greatest game there is – what’s there not to be happy about? Show it! Show your kids that you are thrilled to be there with them.
How did you come to this clinic this week? Did you come with enthusiasm? Sure you did. You’re learning, understanding, putting it all together. You’re having a great time. Do the same on the practice field. If one of my assistants comes to practice without a smile, all droopy-eyed, I give him a candy bar. Nothing like a shot of chocolate to perk you up. Get perked up for practice, coach, and your players will give you all they’ve got.

Be like Jack Benny. You old timers remember Jack.

[Gordie slowly folds his arms, rolls his eyes like a Ferris wheel and gazes off to the side, ala Jack Benny.]

He could do everything with his looks, glances and frowns. He got loads of laughs by saying nothing, just giving one of his patented facial expressions. Start practice with a smile, give a few laughs during, and end it with a smile. Show enthusiasm. You’ll get so much more out of your players with enthusiasm than if you’re constantly screaming and yelling at them…

Read the full Speech

Gordie Gillespie: Coach the Kid at the End of the Bench includes the entire historic speech.

Gordie's Commandments

Based on Gordie Gillespie’s historic speech at the American Baseball Coaches Association.