Gerald Oda, manager of the Honolulu Little League team that won the 12-and-under World Series in August in South Williamsport, Pa., spoke to my Downtown Exchange Club recently.
He told us that there are over 500,000 Little League teams in the world and that 8,000 all-star teams make the annual tournament.
Gerald Oda, Willis Kato and Keith Oda managed the Hawaii team that won the World Series in 2018. It gave up only three runs in the entire tournament and shut out four of its five opponents.
Oda spoke about the things the coaches emphasized to the kids. I expected him to say something like “practice, practice, practice.”
I was surprised to hear him say things that are more metaphysical than stealing bases, pinch-hitting and ground-rule doubles.
The three things that the managers stressed, Oda said, are:
>> Focus on the effort, not the result.
>> Live in the moment.
>> Love and support one another.
“These are three things that we knew we needed to really instill in our kids, especially in tournament play,” Oda told me.
Focus on the effort, not the result
“We never, ever talked about winning. We never said that you have to win this game. We never, ever mentioned it. All we would say is, ‘Just give us your best effort.’ That’s all.
“The coaches focused on making sure the players had a positive experience at the World Series. We couldn’t guarantee wins.
“Don’t be afraid if you don’t get on base,” Oda told the youngsters. “Instead, really enjoy this moment. This is your time. Face this challenge and do your best, whether you make it or not. Success is based on the effort, not the outcome.
“As long as you do your best, that’s all we can ask. Then you can walk away proud.”
Worry only about things you can control
“Stress comes from worrying about things we have no control over. So this is one thing that we always stress to our kids.”
There are things we just cannot control, Oda said: the time of day they play, canceled airline flights, the weather, the umpire.
“You cannot worry about things you cannot control,” he said.
“Focus instead on the things you can control. So what we would tell the kids to focus on, the simplest thing is breathing. When athletes are under a lot of stress, breathing can be very difficult. Breathing helped to stay in the moment and kept the kids loose.
“So we would actually practice taking slow, controlled deep breaths with our team. ‘OK,’ we’d say. ‘Everybody breathe in and breathe out.’”
The Hawaii boys had to face a Korean team that had not given up a home run in the tournament. “What we told the kids is, ‘Don’t be ashamed if you strike out.’
“And guess what? The first pitch of the game, Mana Lau Kong hit a home run over the right-center field fence. Gone. By the second inning we had five hits and one run. Two innings later we had three runs.”
Hawaii won the championship game 3-0. During the tournament the team shut out four of its five opponents over 10 days, allowed just three runs and struck out 53 batters in 34 innings.
Live in the moment
The second point Oda emphasized is to live in the moment. “Enjoy this moment because it’s never going to come again,” Oda often told the team. “In tournament baseball it’s not about coaching them anymore. It’s just more about helping them really enjoy the moment.
“Staying in the moment helped relieve tension. Relieving tension helped the boys play at a higher level.
“No matter what happens, it’s always a great day. You can strike out or make an error. It happens. Well, what are you going to do right now? What are you focusing on? Are you still focusing on the past, or are you focusing on now?
“It’s going to be a great day” leads into enjoying the battle, Oda said. “Whatever happens, you guys are doing great. Just keep battling. It’s a great day. A great, great day.”
“Part of living in the moment is about showing appreciation. And this is one of the biggest things that we stressed to our kids. Just because you’re on TV don’t mean nothing. It’s not about popularity. It’s not about the fame. Fame is very fleeting.
“Enjoy Williamsport, but don’t let it get to your head. How we did that was to make sure that the kids showed appreciation.
“Whether it was the person that did the laundry or fed us in the cafeteria, or the grounds crew, we made sure that all our players always thanked them.
“We gave gifts to everybody, and I think that’s the Hawaiian style. We bring omiyage; we bring gifts and we share it with everyone. ‘Show appreciation for everyone that’s supporting us here at Williamsport and everyone back home,’ we said.”
Love and support one another
Many team uniforms have the players’ names on the back. The Hawaii team’s said “We > Me.”
“The kids didn’t understand it in the beginning, but by the time we made it to Williamsport, they understood what it meant.
“We” meant all of Hawaii. “Playing in the World Series meant it was our responsibility to show the world the spirit of aloha and how we Hawaiians can compete and still be humble.
“We’re not a team; we’re a family,” second baseman Sean Yamaguchi said. “We always stick together, and we play as hard as we can.”
Oda continued, “We constantly taught our kids that whoever we played wasn’t the enemy. Some teams demonize their opponent. We did not want to do that, especially in this day and age.
“Often, in our society today, you’re either with us or you’re against us. And we really felt that this is something that we do not want to teach our kids.
“We said the enemy is not our opponent. The true enemy is self-doubt. It’s that inner voice that’s saying, ‘Hey, you cannot do this. Why are you trying? Give up.’
“Our opponent in the U.S. championship game was Georgia,” Oda recalled. “Before the game they had made made a donation to the Hawaii Salvation Army to help those hurt by Hurricane Lane.
“So once we heard that, we made it a point to show our appreciation for Georgia by giving every single person a lei and having the kids hug them before the game.
“If you watched our games, you notice that we hugged a lot. This was not natural for 12-year-olds. This was actually something that we had to practice.
“So literally after practices we would tell the kids to hug each other and tell them you love them. You know, it sounds real corny. And even the kids felt uncomfortable.
“The reason why we wanted to teach these kids to hug each other was because we knew that in critical moments when they were stressed out, hugging feels good.
“We definitely could feel the love and support from back home, even though we were 4,000 miles away in Williamsport. Hugging relieved stress, and both the person giving and receiving the hug would change the focus from themselves to the other person. It reinforced that it was not about you, but about the team.
“And so I just want to say thank you to the fans. Because of your guys’ support, it made our journey so much more memorable for our kids. So thank you very much. We did our best to be ambassadors of aloha and represent our great state.”
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