by Ariel Levis
The Maroon & White
His team has worked all season for this very moment. All the hours of practice and conditioning, all boil down to today's contest. As he looks into the eyes of his players, UMass men's track & field and cross country coach, Ken O'Brien knows that his team is focused and ready to win. His players look directly back into his eyes, and with a confident expression, assure O'Brien that today is more than a battle for the coveted championship trophy. Today, the team is playing for recognition, admiration, respect, and most importantly, the pizza and ice cream party following the game.
These players are not the collegiate track athletes that O'Brien is used to coaching at UMass, but instead are 10-12 year old baseball players who are part of the Amherst Little League baseball club.
For the past 18 years, O'Brien has been a volunteer coach for the boys and girls club in Amherst. The league, which offers three different divisions characterized by age group, first caught O'Brien's attention when his son tried out for the 10-year-old division. After his son made the squad, O'Brien figured it would be a great idea to volunteer as an assistant coach. Whenever he had spare time, he would lend his coaching knowledge three nights a week and help coach the team. After a short stint as an assistant coach, O'Brien decided to make the jump to a full-time head coach.
"It was nice to have the chance to work with much younger kids, and I've also always had a love for baseball," said O'Brien. "Plus, I was able to meet new parents that I wouldn't be able to meet through the university."
The idea of coaching nearly year round never tired O'Brien.
"Little League came at a great time for me," said O'Brien. "The league didn't start until about the end of the spring, right after the school year. After my duties as [track & field] coach at UMass, I would go right into coaching baseball. Even if it was a complete change from what I was used to doing, the transition was easier because I was coaching."
Like O'Brien, members of the UMass athletic staff also volunteer around their respective communities in several different aspects. Women's crew coach Jim Dietz has been very influential in getting area rowing clubs started such as the US Rowing Pre-Elite Team and Olympic teams. Dietz has also helped create a rowing club out of Northampton for the physically challenged. The club, which rows year-round, has an impressive female turnout as approximately 150 of the 200 members in the fall are women, and 90 of the 150 rowers in the summer.
Prior to rowing on an actual river, the teams must first go through indoor training to help prepare for any dangerous situations. Dietz' league has the fortunate opportunity to use the facilities of the UMass campus. With the help of such machines as the Concept 2 Odometer, rowers are able to simulate the motion of rowing. The machine is also able to measure energy in terms of meter/seconds.
After a sufficient amount of time training indoors, the team is then ready to hit the water. Most of the rowing is on the Connecticut River, but the team also trains at Northampton's Ellwell State Park. While there are always safety risks when rowing, Dietz says that the well being of the rowers is truly a priority.
"We put a real emphasis on safety," Dietz said. "All of the necessary safety precautions are met when we go onto the water. Our leaders are people who are not only knowledgeable rowers, but who are trained lifeguards in case anything should happen."
Dietz, who has been active in the sport of crew since 1964 and involved with the crew league since 1995, credits the growth of crew to Title IX.
"A big reason for [the popularity increase of crew] comes directly from Title IX and everything involving gender equity," said Dietz. "You have these big schools where football and basketball tends to dominate, and they run into problems with gender equity. Now these schools have to find a sport that will make up for the dominant athletic programs. Women's crew fits in well because it is not expensive and there always seems to be a big turnout. At UMass we have about 80-90 women on our roster."
While Dietz has the ability to coach crew year-round, O'Brien must learn to be able to shift from track to baseball, and most importantly from college students to elementary students. Despite the differences, O'Brien says that the similarities are very apparent.
"I could see where some people would think it might be a problem since the contrast is so great. Also because of the difference in physical and mental makeup of the athletes. To me coaching is teaching. That applies to anything, whether it is math or music, it all boils down to the same thing.
"I could never get frustrated with the age difference," he added. "First, the season only lasts two months. Second, it's baseball, it's easy to get excited and stay excited. And of course, you are dealing with kids who are full of energy. They are always grabbing their gloves and running to the field from their cars. That motivated me to satisfy their opportunity."
In fact, O'Brien says that some of the similarities between the two sports are so specific, that he often finds himself repeating his coaching advice. "Some skills are very similar between the two. My philosophy has subtle differences between both [sports]. I'd say 85 percent of the game is relaxation, participation, and just having a good time. Sometimes you like to win big games and make the playoffs, but really you want to improve your skills. Plus, you are still teaching the same lessons, teamwork, sportsmanship, and so on. That's apparent in every sport." said O'Brien.
While Dietz and O'Brien use sports to benefit the community, both encourage people to find an activity which they enjoy, and use it as a way of teaching others in a relaxed state.
"[Coaching] is very relaxing," said O'Brien. "Some people work in their garden, while others play 18 holes of golf. They are in search of a hobby in their mental or physical pursuit. Little League is my change and I love it."