By: Jordan Randall
Kutno is a mid-sized city of around 47,000 in central Poland. Aside from being an important railroad junction for Poland, Kutno is known as a hub of Little League®. In 1996, the Little League European Leadership Training Center opened in the city, and it has been the host of Little League Baseball® and Little League Softball® games, clinics, and tournaments ever since.
It’s a hub that Mark Cooke has found himself in more than once.
Mr. Cooke is the Head Softball Coach at Winthrop University located in Rock Hill, S.C., a position he has held for 27 years. And he and Kutno do not have much in common, except for softball.
The softball link between Mr. Cooke and Kutno began several years ago while Mr. Cooke was at a coach’s convention.
“Sara Thompson, the Director of Little League Softball, who played at our conference rival, and I have crossed paths several times over the past few years. At the National Fastpitch Coaches Convention, we had a discussion about clinic opportunities,” said Mr. Cooke. “One thing led to another, and she asked me to go, and I did.”
For the past two years, Mr. Cooke has been traveling to Kutno for an annual clinic where he uses his extensive softball knowledge to help Little Leaguers® from Europe and Africa in their pursuit of playing the sport he has built his life around. The clinics feature on-field skill development for the players, while also helping show softball volunteers how to run drills and grow their coaching skills. The clinics have been so successful that Mr. Cooke also went to Puerto Rico to hold softball clinics for Little League players and coaches at the end of October.
Even after only going to Poland for two years, the response Mr. Cooke has gotten from the recipients of his coaching will keep him coming back.
“You have no idea how hard these kids and these coaches work when I’m there, they are like sponges,” said Mr. Cooke. “They’re thirsting for knowledge and they work really hard to learn everything I teach. It’s rewarding to see those people do that.”
Being in Europe, softball is not as prevalent to these children as it is to children in the United States. Mr. Cooke, though, said that does not inhibit the growth they experience during the clinic.
“The athletes are there,” said Mr. Cooke. “They have just not been taught.”
This past year, in conjunction with a coaches clinic, which took place during the Little League Softball Europe and Africa Region Tournament, Mr. Cooke saw individuals from Hungary, Poland, and Uganda.
“The coaches from the clinic came out to the field and worked with the players with me. We discussed drills and how to apply them, to teach and improve on the players’ skills. This group of coaches also were very motivated to improve their skills so they could work with young players. I could not have been more proud that happened,” said Mr. Cooke.
Mr. Cooke doesn’t just coach these Little Leaguers, he builds lasting relationships with them, as well.
“This year one of the kids we worked with in the clinic last year were playing against Prague and when she got back she came just to see me and say hello,” said Mr. Cooke. “That’s what it’s all about. Malgorzata came out and spent some time catching up after she got off work. It was a real treat to me to see her again. Last year she was my unofficial translator and worked exceptionally hard to help the other players. She is a good example of a terrific athlete who had she lived in the U.S. would have certainly been a Division I player.”
Mr. Cooke will continue his annual work at the clinics in Kutno. If someone spends 30 years in one profession like Mr. Cooke, odds are they enjoy what they do. Mr. Cooke does enjoy what he does for a living, but the clinics in Kutno give him a new, different look his career.
“You get a sense of fulfillment,” said Mr. Cooke. “And the sense of loving what you do over there is multiplied because of (the Little Leaguers) thirst for everything that we do.”