Q&A with Peter Ambrose

Cardinal Spellman High School (Mass.)

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.7, September 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1207/qaambrose.htm

Peter Ambrose is the only baseball coach Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton, Mass., has ever had. Thatís not uncommon in places where schools seem to sprout up every few years, but Spellman was founded 47 years ago.

Along the way, Ambrose has also been the schoolís head football coach, athletic director, and dean of students. Retired from other duties since 1998, Ambrose remains the volunteer head coach of baseball and football.

Ambrose has spent his entire coaching career at Spellman, a private, co-educational, college-prep Catholic school of about 650 students near Boston. A 1986 inductee into the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, heís also among the half-dozen members of the stateís 500-victory club. His 2004 team made its divisionís sectional semifinals.

In this interview, Ambrose discusses how heís kept the focus on the athletes.

Why have you stayed in coaching so long?

I donít believe in getting burned outónot if you enjoy something, which I still do. The old knees donít work as well as before, but I still enjoy seeing the kids progress as athletes and as people. I still look forward to practice each day, and I still enjoy helping the kids overcome their personal problems. Some of my fondest memories are of kids who have turned around.

How do you deal with problem kids?

You have to sell them. We try to sell them on the philosophy of ďwe and us,Ē teamwork, knowing the rules, playing by the rules, and knowing the sacrifice you have to make to be an athlete. Iím at a tuition school, and some of these kids have to go to work after practice and around games, and itís a hardship for them, but they make that sacrifice. I think thatís important. Kids have to know that they have to be accountable to themselves, their parents, their teammates, and their school. And I think athletics does a lot toward that.

I donít have any discipline problems on my teams. They know up front where they stand with me. If they screw up in the classroom or are disrespectful to their teachers, we donít want them on the field. They know that theyíre going to have to conform to the rules and be respectful to the coaches, their teammates, and themselves. Those who do not conform to the rules usually quit on their own.

But there must be times that players have to be corrected and disciplined. How do you do that?

I like the youngsters to know first of all that I really care about them. I care more about them as a people than for their ability. They know Iím fair. And Iíll listen. Even when I was handling discipline at the school, if a kid was right and a teacher was wrong, Iíd back the kid. They have to know up front that youíll treat them as adults and that you want them to treat you as an adult.

Most important, youíve got to take the time to listen to them and let them take the time to listen to you. Let them weigh things and make choices. You have to respect that there are a lot of distractions and choices in the high school years. Thereís no set thing that turns kids around. Some of them just want attention, to know that you care about them. Some need to know that if they make a mistake, they need to learn from it and keep going. Iíve had youngsters who were just pains in the neck when they first came out, and they were like sons to me when they left their senior year. They knew I cared about them.

How do you deal with declining interest in baseball relative to other sports?

When I was a kid, on a Saturday morning you had to get down to the park early so you could reserve the diamond. Now you could fire a cannon down there and you wouldnít hit anybody. Thereís too much specializationócamps and playing year-round in one sport. I donít think thatís good for the kids, even if all they play is baseball. If youíre capable of playing two or even three sports, and if you can handle the academic work, I think you should. Thereís a lot you can get out of being on a team that canít be counted in wins and losses.

It also takes good coaches to get kids to play. We need coaches who arenít in it for the money or just the winning, but who are interested in the kids as people and who show it.

What skills do young players lack from not playing as much as in years past?

Well, we spend 80 percent of our practice time strictly on fundamentals. We can practice only two hours a day, so we stress defense and hittingóand situations. If you get into a situation you havenít been in before, thatís when you break down and make mistakes. I strictly follow my practice scheduleóI know what I have to cover each day, and I focus on going from point A to point B.

How do you keep kids interested in learning the fundamentals?

Even though theyíre 17 or 18 years old, they still like games. You canít just stick them in a cage and tell them to hit for an hour. So we break them up into two squads for hitting contests and things like bunting drills where thereíll be Gatorade, a T-shirt, or some other prize. Itís also important to let them see their progress: How many hits out of 50 can they get today? How many tomorrow? How many the day after that?

I also talk to them about how the fundamentals help us win. I go over each game, usually right after it ends. If we lose, Iíll say, ďWeíre back at practice tomorrow, and this is what weíre going to do.Ē I help them see the little things that they may not see themselves.

How do you find assistant coaches?

I use volunteer assistants. I get people who played for me, went on and became successful, and want to give something back. Itís a variety of peopleócaptains in the fire department, corporate CEOs.

How have parents changed?

Theyíve become worse. If the parents had the intelligence of their offspring, weíd be better off. They put too much pressure on their kids. And if a kid strikes out, they blame the umpire. The way some parents act, youíd think these kids are getting paid.

To deal with them, I let them know I wonít put up with it. When they start getting too vocal, I take them aside and speak to them. I have some who canít watch the game from inside the fence, so they go outside and get out their screaming and hollering where no one can hear them.

As coaches, we try to demonstrate the opposite way to handle it. If a youngster strikes out or makes a key error, we never, ever, ever humiliate the kid. Weíve lost games where kids have dropped pop flies that an 8-year-old could catch. But theyíre not doing that on purpose, for heavenís sake. You canít be screaming and hollering at them.