This week's "Dear Younger Me" letter is the fruit of forgiveness and grace. Having last encountered one another in the spring of 2010, Coach Keith Wahl and Hunter Bingham sought reconciliation through a common friend, CG founder Justin Dillard. Hunter was a C team and JV-level player in Coach Wahl's program, and transferred from the school leaving unresolved tension for both of them. In their individual pursuits of high-level baseball, Keith and Hunter went seven years without speaking to one another. They had the opportunity to sit down for lunch attending the American Baseball Coaches Association convention in Anaheim in early January. This letter to their younger selves draws each of them back to one of their last conversations. While each letter is personal and directed to a specific situation, both Keith and Hunter hope that coaches, players, and parents will read the perspectives of this coach and player in hopes of helping people throughout the baseball culture currently struggling to live in right relationship with one another.
Dear Younger Coach Wahl,
It’s an overcast afternoon in the cold early spring of Colorado, and you’re driving home hurt and angry that Hunter Bingham told you he is heading off to a club tryout. He’s a “lower level” player in your program, and you were hoping to coach him this summer. The allure of the club circuit has drawn away yet another player. In a few months, he’ll transfer to a local public school and you’ll lose the opportunity to have ministry with him. Stop worrying about what the club has promised him - he doesn’t care about a Division I scholarship. Stop and listen.
I’m writing you seven years later after having the opportunity to eat lunch with Hunter at the ABCA convention in Anaheim. Surprised? So was I. Want to know what’s more surprising? He desires reconciliation with you as much as you do in this moment. He works for FCA in Southern California and for the SoCal Catch in the summers out here. He’s found the Lord, works in ministry, and thrived in programs other than yours. Humbled yet? Let me share the lessons you learned from him as he gave his perspective across the table at the local Cheesecake Factory.
1. Tell him what you think of him…even if it breaks the rules. First of all, stop calling JV and C team players “lower level” players. It’s demeaning. You’ll have a mom in your program challenge you on this in the fall, and it will change the level of respect people feel from you throughout your program once you stop. Now that we have that out of the way, tell Hunter what you think of him. He doesn’t know. Tell him that you believe in him. Tell him that you love his approach at the plate and how many Quality At Bats he posts. Tell him you can see him being a contributor one day. You’ve got to release the bondage you feel from the rules of the state organization, and the cloud you feel over your head from making a mistake as you came here. The players love and respect you. They want to hear from you. Speak truth, but also speak hope. When you figure this out, your ability to coach the heart of these kids will go through the roof.
2. Use the numbers and system you create, but recognize the qualities of the human spirit stretch far beyond any set of data you can possibly collect. Hunter feels trapped by the data, all of the numbers you collect. He’s smaller. He hasn’t fully matured yet. Help him know that you see good in him on and off the field. Keep collecting the data, but use it to chart growth in the players. Don’t create an oppressive system where kids feel they can only succeed if they fit a certain mold. You know Hunter will mature and fit the mold soon, but he doesn’t know that. He feels trapped (and I’m sure he’s not alone). Free him up. Look for the movements and the potential to grow. Help them know that character matters and their spiritual growth is paramount. Data is fine, but a team of young people powered by the Holy Spirit can accomplish far more than what the numbers say. You’ll learn that in 2016. I promise.
3. Club baseball isn’t the enemy - you are. You’ve got to grow in deeper relationships with your players. You need to hold them loosely so they know you have their best interests in mind, not your own. You’re so worried about building some sort of dynasty through wins and spiritual impact that you don’t know your players. Hunter’s leaving because his dad works in real estate and the market just crashed. It has very little to do with you, though the self-absorbed part of you will believe that. Start asking yourself this question - do you know if all of your players have accepted the redemption offered through Jesus Christ? Stop worrying about stuff that doesn’t matter, and dive deeper into the lives of your players. You invest in the players who click with you, but it’s time to take another step in your journey. Find a way to click with all of your players. Every one of them. Take that challenge and watch how much you grow.
It’s amazing how much you grow in seven years, man. These are tough lessons, but they will help you grow with Hunter and many other players. Listen to them and all of the counsel around you.
Dear Younger HB,
It is early in your sophomore baseball season and you have just upset Coach Wahl by telling him you are considering playing for a club team over the summer instead of with Valor. Even though he doesn’t know about what’s going on at home, you figured he would have understood this decision or at least not cared about it since you have interpreted his message and overall feeling towards you to be: You don’t have what it takes and you should not have hope in becoming a starter on varsity. I know you are hurt by his reaction and that you feel it represents the struggle you have had since starting high school baseball to not have the support of your coach. I also know you feel hopeless about your future as a baseball player, but let me tell you a little bit about what God has planned for you as a player and for your relationship with Coach Wahl.
I am writing this from 7 years in the future, where I have just had lunch with Coach Wahl in between sessions at the National Baseball Coaching Convention in Anaheim, California (which is very close to where I currently live, with my wife, and where I also still play college baseball). Coach Wahl recently reached out to me through a mutual friend, and without even knowing his intention for the same thing, I knew God wanted me to talk with him about my experience playing for him. We ended up having a powerful conversation, and I was able to articulate exactly what you are feeling now and share my experience as a player at Valor and how he impacted me as a young man and baseball player. Coach was incredibly humble and received everything I said with sincerity and compassion. He asked clarifying questions, apologized for different aspects of my experience, and let me into his perspective on the situation. He shared ways he has grown as a man and coach, owned mistakes he made, and genuinely cared about me and my experience as player in his program. I left the lunch with a restored and healed relationship with Coach Wahl. Although this may be impossible for you to believe or understand right now, I need to share some things with you that I have learned over the last 7 years since this moment of hurt from coach.
1. Do not play to prove Coach wrong. Forgive Him. I know you are incredibly upset right now about the future of your baseball career. I know it’s not just from this interaction with coach, but from the lack of hope that has been dwelling in you over the past few years. I understand how you feel and that is why this advice is especially important for you to not be mentally stuck in this place. The first step to healing and being truly motivated to keep working hard is forgiveness. In order to be free and have genuine hope for playing this game with joy, you must forgive Coach Wahl in your heart. By not forgiving him, you are choosing to carry the burden of bitterness and resentment, and it’s actually holding you back more than you realize. You must forgive him and move forward, focusing on what you can control and not playing out of a response to your fear and need of Coach’s approval. This is very difficult to do, but when you consider the way you have been forgiven by Christ, you will find the strength to forgive him. The sooner you can begin this process, the better off you will be as a player and young man.
2. Play for God, not for your coach. Your purpose for playing baseball is not to please Coach Wahl (or any coach). A coach does not have the power to dictate your identity or worth as a man. I know you respect Coach Wahl and that is what makes this especially hard. You respect his leadership and the way he talks about being a man. You respect his work ethic, knowledge of the game, and faith. Having his approval matters so much to you because of how much you look up to him. I know you think that if only you had his belief and confidence, you would be secure and free to be the best baseball player he has ever had. It is normal and necessary for you to want approval and belief in you from a coach whom you respect. However, the problem is that the opinion of a coach can’t be the foundation upon which you build your identity as man or player.
Your purpose for playing baseball is not to please your coach. Although it often feels like it, this is not your purpose for playing the game. Please hear me on this, you play to glorify God and please him, not your coach. And God sees you much differently than your coach does. Unlike the way you perceive coach, God does not base his love for you on the results you produce or the amount of potential you have as an athlete. God does not love you more if you have a good day at the plate and He does not love you less when you make an error. You see, God is the one who created you and baseball. God gave you the gifts, abilities, passion, work ethic, and dreams to play the game. On top of this, God demonstrated his love for you by dying for you in your place so that you never have to doubt his love. Because of this, God is already pleased with you. You will experience significantly more joy and freedom playing baseball if you can remember that you ultimately play for God’s glory and approval, which has already been secured for you. You can’t mess it up. Therefore, you should compete with complete freedom and passion at every practice and game. You glorify God and fulfill your purpose for playing baseball when you give your full effort to be the best you can be with every lift, every at bat, every throw down to second, and every other situation the game throws at you. You please God by committing to the process of using the gifts he gave you to the best of your ability as a baseball player. You should be confident that the person you are truly playing for loves you regardless of the results you produce, so go out there and play fearless.
3. Focus on what you can control, and trust God with what you can’t. You hear this all the time in baseball, “focus on what you can control.” When you hit, you know you can’t control the umpire, the pitcher, the fielders, the weather or the field dimensions. If you worried about these things while hitting, you would go crazy and never get a hit. So what can you control when you hit? You focus on your approach, focus, visuals and mindset in the moment of an at bat so that you give yourself the best chance to succeed. This same principle applies to this situation with your coach and fear of your future in baseball. There is so much you can’t control in this situation. The more you worry about what your coach thinks, your future, and all the variables associated with this, the more stressed and miserable you are going to be on and off the field. The best way to fight this is to focus on what you have control over in this situation and ask God for strength and faith for all the areas you have no control over. Focus on your attitude, heart, communication, and effort to do your best. This is all you can control when it comes to dealing with your coach and the game going forward. The only way to deal with everything else is trust God. Trusting God with everything you can’t control in this situation is what faith in Christ looks like for you right now. I’m not going to tell you exactly how things turn out, but I can promise you that God knows what is best for you, even when you don’t understand. There will be more adversity coming, but God will use this to grow you into the man and baseball player he wants you to be. God doesn’t promise to help you avoid adversity, instead he promises to guide you and provide strength as you journey through it. And it is this journey of going through difficult obstacles that you will grow in your relationship with Him, experience true confidence, and gain a renewed passion for baseball.
You have an incredible 7 years ahead of you. More good than you know will come from this.