Most of the 9-year-olds I’ve coached start out believing there’s nothing they can’t do on the field. Hit? Sure, I’ve got this. Field? Just watch. Throw? Better get a glove with extra padding, my friend. Steal a base? Ever heard of Billy Hamilton? I beat him last week.

That’s how most of them think, and I love it.

And then something happens to some of them. They swing and miss. They make an error. They get called out. For some players, these events are crushing. For the first time, they realize they are not perfect. At this point, they go one of two ways. They either try again or they feel defeated and give up.

Their body language will be clear: those who feel defeated, who believe they simply can’t do whatever “it” is, these are the kids whose shoulders and head drops, whose eyes show fear, who refuse to attempt the skills with full effort, who stop swinging, who swing at everything, who let up on a throw…you get the idea.

They’ve lost the belief that they can be successful. And they’re right. They really can’t do it anymore.

As a coach or parent, what should you do? That’s the real question in all of this.

First, you need to be honest with yourself and with the player. Honest about skill level. Honest about attitude. Honest about expectations. You need to let them know that, no, they can’t do everything, but they can improve at nearly anything. Honesty, not criticism, helps them maintain perspective on what they truly can and cannot do.

Second, you need to understand what shapes behavior. Whatever they believe in a particular situation will dictate what they do. This isn’t about believing they will get a hit. It’s about believing what success or failure is in the first place. If they believe that making an out is failure without exception, you’ve just defeated them. After all, nobody avoids an out every time. If they believe that swinging the bat is the only way to have a productive at-bat, you’ve just created a player who will do everything he can to avoid taking a pitch, even a pitch he couldn’t hit with a boat oar. If they believe that making an error in the field means they are a bad fielder, you’ve just caused them to avoid trying anything that might one day turn into a great play. Get the idea? You are in charge of reinforcing whatever belief they have.

Third, you need to understand that their experiences will always shape their attitudes, which will always shape their beliefs. Ultimately, it starts with the experiences they have. Physically, if you cannot find a way for them to have a measure of success, don’t expect anything out of them on a larger scale. Mentally, if you do nothing but get on them for failing (even when they’re working on a good process), good luck digging them out of a slump. Emotionally, if you express only anger and disappointment when they “fail,” it’s no wonder they’re a head case. But, if you can reshape their experiences physically, mentally, and emotionally, you just might be able to build into them what it takes to believe they can succeed.

Players will try whatever they believe they can do, and vice-versa. As a parent or coach, what are you reinforcing? It’s worth considering, but I know from experience that it’s not at all easy. This is a constant battle, one you’ll feel you are losing quite often. But just remember, whether they believe they can or they can’t, they’re right. And remember you have a huge part to play in that belief.

How else can parents and coaches help with this? Post a comment on the blog, Facebook, or Twitter.

This is the third in a series of posts entitled “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from 9-Year-Old Baseball Players.”

See the Game Notes page for the other posts in the series.