Bring Back the Draft? A Parent’s Perspective

January 8, 2020

And so the tit-for-tat begins. Iran responded with what is clearly a symbolic military strike, using its own ballistic missiles to show their capacity and technology to strike, but not with the devastating impact that allowed America the political room not to escalate.

But you can read about that anywhere from those more in the know than I. One of my areas of expertise is, however, being a Dad. My High School freshman came back from school yesterday talking about how his AP World History teacher (yes, I’m humble-bragging that my 9th Grader is taking an AP class…) engaged the class in a discussion on what’s happening with Iran. It seems the core element of the discussion was Mr. Moses trying to calm their fears of war; noting that Iran recognizes that U.S. military might is not something they want to instigate a full-scale fight with.

Of course, Mr. Moses is likely right, and the Iranian response seems to validate that theory. But that hasn’t kept my College freshman’s Instagram from blowing up with fears of war—but more pressing to young men and women—fear of the draft. It reminded me to make sure that my boy was indeed registered with Selective Service as I did 30-plus years ago.

My big fella has a lot of his mother’s practicality in him, and spent most of the time trying to settle his friends down. I agreed with his rationale and rationality. There is no political appetite in this country for a draft, and with the force-multiplier of technology (remember, it was a drone that killed Suleimani), the likelihood that we’re going to spend the time and money to increase the size of our standing forces is a distant threat to Millennials and Gen Z.

But while something like a draft would mostly impact my sons’ generation, and the impact that Millennials have on the workplace and culture are almost obsessively covered by the media (AOC, anyone?), very quietly, the overlooked middle child of the “O.K. Boomer” battle—Generation X—are taking the levers of leadership. Indeed, as this fascinating article points out, The Global Leadership Forecast for 2018 shows that Xers have taken the majority of world leadership positions for the first time.

Besides the certainty that music attained it’s absolute height with Peter Gabriel’s “So” in 1986 and there can-and-will never be a better action movie than Raiders of the Lost Ark (note: it is NOT “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars” is NOT “Start Wars: A New Hope”), I as a GenXer remember the establishment of AmeriCorps, President Clinton’s initiative to expand the notion of service beyond the military or international aid (aka Peace Corps) both by providing direct government services such as teaching, construction, and poverty amelioration with grants to existing organizations to bolster their ability to employ and expand their reach. Indeed, it is a model strikingly similar to the signature program that the first GenX President put in place—Obamacare.

I’ve often termed Generation X as the “Live Aid” generation. In general, it’s a notion that we want to make the world a better, place, but there’s no reason we can’t do that and keep the things we love about the world we have. Global hunger? Okay, let’s have a mega-concert and collect a zillion dollars to feed the hungry!

Indeed, I’ve heard from so many of my contemporaries the notion of “working the problem.” Perhaps that’s why as a coach I am so taken with the the RAMP-C method from the Heads-Up Baseball school. Calm down, breathe, don’t get ahead of yourself, and give the best you have at the moment to an immediate goal. Reset, assess, and go at it again. It’s not sexy. It’s not revolutionary; it just works.

I graduated from college before AmeriCorps kicked in. Instead I went the nonprofit direction, spending the next two decades working for various arms control and environmental organizations. I’m still proud of the little, tiny sliver of a Nobel Peace Prize I can clam as my organization worked as part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. But as much as I loved the idea of AmeriCorps back then, I must admit that I had to look it up this morning to see if it indeed still even existed. And when I mentioned it to my College Boy, he looked back at me as blankly as if I had asked my Denison University first-year whether he knew the Occidental College fight song by heart (Of course, it’s, Occidental Fair!).

Right now, he’s planning on public service, but in the government arena as a Poli Sci major. While as a history nerd and non-profit advocacy vet I’m proud of that choice, getting him upped for Selective Service has really reinvigorated the aspirational ideal of AmeriCorps in me. As I mentioned in my last Iran post, when I was a student in Israel, I almost marveled as my friends packed-up the dorm room in order to do their tour in Gaza as part of their obligatory military service.

In a nation so polarized, could mandatory national service be a way to empower the next generation toward a sense of a common future? And could we afford such a thing?

The more I think about it, the more I think that we cannot afford not to.

I’ll leave that on a cliffhanger. In my next post, I’ll give you my idea of why, and how, I think it can and should be done, and how I got at least my Gen Z College Kid to sign off on it.

New Year’s Challenge—Integrated Coaching

January 6, 2020

For a few years, I was the chair of the Social Studies Advisory Committee for Arlington Public Schools (APS). One of my passion projects as a part of that group was the idea of integrated learning. Education, to my mind, has been developed in far too stovepiped a manner. Understanding Newtonian physics could be far enriched and broadened by understanding the life-and-times of the scientist who developed those concepts. Conversely, understanding the historic value of the industrial revolution could be far enhanced by understanding the machines that ushered in that age—experimenting and understanding the steam engine, for example. Life is an integrated exercise, so why shouldn’t education?

In this effort, I will admit I had little success. I was happy that some individual English and History teachers worked to combine reading lists, that was about as far as it went. Teachers and administrators I spoke with argued, and with some merit, that the established curriculums and testing requirements were too entrenched to permit significant integration, even at the elementary level. Teachers had way too much to learn about their own subject, and too many resources were available to give them deeper expertise on what they were teaching, to have time to work on another subject.

I was thinking of this as some 7,000 baseball coaches descended on Nashville for the four-day American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) national convention starting on January 2. I’ve never been (hoping to go next year as the convention is coming to DC), but all the coaches I know who have been absolutely love not only all the great presentations, but the chance to compare notes and talk shop with so many other passionate, knowledgeable baseball coaches around the country.

One of my go-to podcasts is the ABCA Calls from the Clubhouse, and their great resources only scratch the surface of the endless incredible resources available online, conventional old-school paper books like Heads Up Baseball—not to mention just swapping stories with the great coaches I work with. It’s more than enough information for this lifelong learner to last more than a lifetime.

But as I sift through all of the new signs, drills, and philosophies in the notebook I have to learn for my new gig at Falls Church High School, that quote from Coach Kyle Nelson from Cornerstone Coaching Academy I mentioned in my last post keeps popping in my head:

COACH NELSON: One of the things I am going to do this year at our school…is go to different practices. I’m going to go and watch a volleyball practice. I’m going to watch a football practice. I’m going to go watch a soccer practice. And I’m going to figure out what they’re doing that I like. Is there something they are doing that I can learn from and incorporate into what we’re doing. Because coaching is coaching, right? The sport is just the tool you are using to do it.(my emphasis)

At APS, the Social Studies department adopted a fantastic teachers’ curriculum called History Alive! It really delves into how to use history as a vessel to teach students critical thinking skills by using the key question so many primary school Social Studies classes so assiduously (and unfortunately) ignore—Why? And while most of the teachers who took advantage of the program were, as you’d expect, history teachers, there were a minority that took the course because they saw how those skills could port toward invigorating a love-of-learning beyond just that subject matter.

Coach Nelson’s comments brought me back to a time when my younger son was playing Rec basketball in 5th Grade. Coach Jones sent all the kids home from their first practice of the season with an article from Jay Bilas from of ESPN (pdf) on “Toughness” — a subject he immersed himself in enough that he ended up writing a book on the subject. As a nosy Dad/Coach, I couldn’t help but read it over myself. Indeed, I wrote a bit about this very subject a few years back.

Immediately I saw that while some of the specific instructions were hoops-specific (“Set a good screen” “Jump to the ball” among others), many of the lessons from “Talk on defense” to “Take responsibility for your teammates” were equally instructive for baseball. And, as I thought about it, even the subjects that seemed to be basketball-only really had cross-sport value underneath; from a good screen being about thinking about how making a teammate better makes you better, to preaching an aggressive style of play that encourages “new mistakes.”

I used the Bilas piece to create a “grinder’s guide” for my house and travel players, and even created “Grinder of the Week” t-shirts I gave out to players to wear to practices based on how they embodied the spirit of the guide.

For me as a coach, I think there was real value in that. In some ways, it’s almost too easy to hear from and follow subject-specific instruction. As I’ve inculcated the great mental instruction from Heads Up Baseball into my own coaching, there’s been a lot of “plug-and-play” — using the sport-specific terminology and instruction that the authors came up with. While that’s not a bad thing, it was the Bilas article that inspired me to make my own connections, and bring my own approach and experience into play.

So while I will certainly continue to dive into baseball-specific coaching instruction (indeed, I’m just cracking open The Mental Game of Baseball), I am challenging myself to read, watch, or listen to at least one non-baseball coaching or teaching resource each week. I’d love to hear suggestions from coaches and teachers, or others that work on leadership or other “portable skills” out there about their favorite resources, and I’m happy to continue to share mine, including non-baseball materials like Bilas’ article that really helped me.

So here’s to a new year of Integrated Coaching. Looking forward to getting better with all of you.

Batman, Bibi, and the Killing of Quassem

January 3, 2020

“Life only makes sense if you force it to.”

—Earth 99 Batman/Bruce Wayne in the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths

Maybe it’s just me, but this one feels different.

The US assassination of Quasem Suleimani, general and leader of the Qods Force of Iran, doesn’t feel like the usual tit-for-tat in our endless war. This would be like Iran directly assassinating our Secretary of State or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Several intelligence sources have noted that both the Bush and Obama administrations had Suleimani on their radar and had opportunities to conduct similar strikes. Both administrations decided not to move forward because of the potential for uncertain results.

However, one of those Bush Administration officials, Michael Doran, saw this move as a positive. He said in a “hot take” in the New York Times:

In Washington, the decision to kill Mr. Suleimani represents the final demise of Mr. Obama’s Middle East strategy, which sought to realign American interests with those of Iran. Mr. Obama’s search for a modus vivendi with Tehran never comported with the reality of the Islamic Republic’s fundamental character and regional ambitions. President Trump, by contrast, realized that Tehran’s goal was to replace America as the key player in the Middle East.

I personally disagree with Doran’s assessment of the Obama Administration’s efforts in the region. I see it more as a belief in multilateral pressure as the key component to moving adversarial powers in the region to policy directions more in line with stability and U.S. interests. Such a core belief had its successes (Iran nuclear deal) and failures (rise of Islamic State) much like the very similar global foreign policy successes (Oslo Accord) and failures (Rwandan Genocide) of the Clinton Administration.

So while I might see that part differently than Doran, one thing I completely agree with is that this action marks the final demise of the Obama (and Clinton) Middle East policy. And, at it’s core, I believe what that means is particularly tragic.

It means the death of hope.

And that’s where Batman comes in.

For while I don’t have Mr. Doran’s pedigree, I have a Nerd’s Eye View he lacks.

While I tried and just didn’t enjoy the soapy, millennial stylings of most of the CW’s “Arrowverse” shows, I have always come back for their crossovers, as to date they have brought back and referenced the “multiverse” of heroes beyond just the shows currently on. And this time, leaping off the seminal 1980s comic series Crisis on Infinite Earths, the writers decided to go all out, bringing in everything from Christopher Reeve’s iconic Superman to my Batman, the Batusi-dancing caped crusader of the 1960s.

But while perhaps the most satisfying part of the first three episodes has been Brandon Routh’s return as the successor to Christopher Reeve (Bryan Singer deprived us of a fantastic era of Superman with his poorly constructed film), what has been most striking was the iconic voice of Batman, Kevin Conroy, making his first live action appearance as the Broken Bat. For while we first think he will become the “Paragon of Courage” we quickly learn that, instead that what light was in this Dark Knight’s soul was snuffed out long ago.

If you’ve got a little over 4 minutes, here’s the segment in its bleak, glorious entirety:

https://youtu.be/62GpdErpjr4

In essence, this feels like what would have become of Batfleck in Batman vs. Superman had he succeeded in killing the last son of Krypton. Indeed that Batman says almost the same bleak line that I quoted to start this piece, before finding hope in Superman’s humanity as Clark seeks to save his earthling mother even at the cost of his own life.

But this Bruce instead saw his world as a bleak and endless battle; the only survival coming from forcing one’s will on reality. It is why he rejects Kate’s pleas to help save the universe. The end of everything is a release from misery:

KATE: Do you understand how many people, how many worlds, are going to die?

BRUCE: If they’re anything like this world, maybe that’s for the best.

KATE: How can you even say that?

BRUCE: Because there is no hope for this world.

For me, this is at the very core of why despite the failures of Clinton and Obama (for Clinton, I highly recommend the incredibly difficult, but entirely brilliant book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch), I will take this world view of neocons like Doran, who tried to force the Middle East to make sense by attempting to export western democracy at the edge of a sword.

Indeed, I remember seeing hope spring in the Middle East when I was studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the summer of 1992. Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party had just come to power on the promise of a serious effort toward peace with the Palestinians. Israeli friends of mine who had to leave school to do their tour of duty in Gaza expressed a spark of hope that it could be their last. And, almost unanimously, they told me that I should be following their lead and voting for “Kleenton.” Time to take a chance on the man from Hope.

Perhaps somewhere else in the multiverse, Rabin avoided assassination at the hands of a Jewish zealot fed in part by the political machinations of one Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. I could go into detail, but if you want the full picture, I recommend Dan Ephron’s seminal Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel. Or perhaps there’s an Earth where Rabin’s slaying inspired Yasser Arafat into seizing on Ehud Barak’s offer at the Camp David summit in 2000. But we don’t live on those worlds.

Instead, Israel’s hope was broken, and what replaced it was Netanyahu’s cynical efforts to bend the situation to his will, inclusive of the call-and-response of Hamas missile attacks on Israel and Israeli strikes aimed at high-level military operatives in Gaza. The Labor Party of Rabin has been reduced to an afterthought. In its stead are parties fighting over who can best manage dystopia.

In this fateful action the Trump Administration has taken, it smacks to me of that final surrender of hope. While it began with abandoning the nuclear agreement and the international consensus behind it, this action feels like Batman finally snapping the Joker’s neck. A decision to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven.

This morning, my wife retweeted something from Congressman Richard Dangler (D-WA) that I think should resonate with any parent:

I try to be a little less judgmental, but the worry rings true.

But despite how I feel, I still find some light. The world’s greatest superpower is still a democracy even in the midst of a growingly undemocratic world. Change is still possible.

As the multiverse collapsed, Brandon Routh’s Superman, flying from universe-to-universe trying to save what was left of humanity, returns to the heroes, slamming his fist on the floor having failed one now-destroyed reality. Lois Lane (from another universe, his Lois was murdered by The Joker) attempts to comfort him:

LOIS: Clark?

SUPERMAN: I couldn’t save them.

LOIS: Do you want to take a minute? Looks like you could use a break.

SUPERMAN: When I put this on—this crest—I made a promise, to keep fighting, no matter what.

LOIS: Hey, why’d you add black to it?

SUPERMAN: Because, Lois, even in the darkest times, hope cuts through. Hope is the light that gets us through the darkness. I must go back.

And in this moment of darkness, I will—no, I must—hope that maybe, just maybe, that we can Make America Super Again.

Coaching Kids—Are We Doing it Wrong?

December 20, 2019

My Arlington Babe Ruth T-Ball Kids. To them I’m “Da Commish”

So this 50-year-old is about to try a new trick, as 2020 will mark my first year coaching high school baseball. I’ll be Head Coach of the JV team at Falls Church High School (Go Jaguars!) and hoping the old axiom, “We all rise to the level of our own incompetence,” will not apply.

I think I’m a pretty good coach. I’ve been at it a while and have gotten more compliments than critiques. But, as I noted in my last post, I’ve found in mid-life that the more I learn, the less I know. This doesn’t mean that I think learning is stupid. But having so much confidence in what you know that you’re unwilling to have it challenged—or better yet, to challenge it yourself seems at best counterproductive.

That’s why as a coach, I consider myself a “lifelong learner.” I credit my past successes, but think it’s folly to believe that just because something worked in the past that it’s the right way to do things. And baseball is a particularly dangerous game in this regard due to the conservative (small c) nature of the game. We care about tradition, and the fact that we feel we can compare players from 25, 50, or even 100 years ago and see an even competition play out among them in the diamonds of our mind.

I have a lot of tools in my coaching education toolkit. For drive time, I’m a podcast guy, though not a religious listener to any one in particular. One of my faves is Coach Caliendo’s Baseball Outside the Box. I was intrigued by a particular episode called “Decision Making in Practice” as I’m always looking for new practice tips and liked the idea of something that seemed to include the mental side of the game. For having graduated from coaching kids to teens, one thing I can tell you without question is that coaching a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old is decidedly not the same.

Now, I have coached mostly boys, so I will leave my thoughts on girls and baseball for another post (I absolutely have thoughts on that one—get ready Little League as there is a black mark on their collective soul in that regard). But there is no doubt that each and every teenage player I’ve worked with is trying to listen to me while their Hormone Monster, and Shame Wizard bark constantly in their ear. Now add the sometimes invaluable, sometimes head-smacking chatter of their parents and teammates, and that’s a whole lot of internal and external chaos all on hand while trying to play a very difficult game at a high level.

So while I was listening as always for tips on new drills, this time thinking about things that might be more advanced for h school-level players, the guest on this particular podcast, Coach Kyle Nelson of Cornerstone Coaching Academy, made two comments that got me thinking in an entirely different direction.

The first comment was a shorter aside near the end of the program when Coach Caliendo asked him about what sort of things he is trying to do now to make himself better as a coach:

COACH NELSON: One of the things I am going to do this year at our school…is go to different practices. I’m going to go and watch a volleyball practice. I’m going to watch a football practice. I’m going to go watch a soccer practice. And I’m going to figure out what they’re doing that I like. Is there something they are doing that I can learn from and incorporate into what we’re doing. Because coaching is coaching, right? The sport is just the tool you are using to do it.(my emphasis)

As I’ve made quite clear on this blog, I’m a baseball guy. But this simple statement really hit me. In my interview with the Athletic Director at FCHS, I noted that my primary goal as a coach is to give my kids the life-skills that baseball brings, focus, handling failure, problem-solving, dedication to a goal beyond just your own, and devotion to a regimen, among others.

But this quote for the first time really reversed my whole prism on why I coach. I don’t coach because I love baseball. I love baseball because at heart, I’m a coach. Baseball happens to be my particular canvas of choice because I grew up with it and see the benefits the game brings to kids. But I know plenty of people who are equally as passionate, and for very similar reasons, about their sport of choice.

Coach Nelson’s comment also reframed an earlier conversation he was having, this time about one of my favorite things—coaching mistakes. For while I love to hear coaches talk about their successes, I find it just as valuable when they talk about their shortcomings. Goodness knows I’ve made plenty, and discarded everything from standardizing pitching motions to focusing on top-hand swinging. But Nelson’s comments I found more illuminating:

COACH NELSON: Yeah, that’s one of my biggest complaints about the way I used to teach and used to coach… I could get players to get good at hitting in practice, but it didn’t always translate into a game… Or I could get players really good at fielding ground balls off of the backhand when they knew it was coming.

But with baseball, with the exception of the pitcher, almost everything we do is a reaction. To give you an example of this, the next time you’re working with a kid to catch, and you’re working blocks, throw about four or five blocks in a row…and then throw one down the middle, and watch them drop to their knees and have it hit them in the chest.

What you realize is, is that you’re working the mechanics of blocking, but one of the most important parts of blocking is recognizing the pitch that needs to be blocked and to beat it there… You’re not using that mechanism at all when you are simply blocking 10 pitches in a row. So I would say that happened about seven or either years ago when I looked at our practices and said, “We need to get more decision making into our practice before performing a skill.”

We need to have them make a decision when they’re hitting. They’re not just going to come in the cage and swing at the first eight pitches that we throw. We throw balls in batting practice on purpose. We throw bad pitches on purpose, because if they don’t work on pitch selection in practice, when are they ever going to work on pitch selection? Well, that will be in the game, and if they’re not very good at it, and coaches are going to get upset with them swinging at pitches above their hands, or swinging at balls outside… But if you allow them to get away with that in practice, you’ve really fed the problem.

For infielders, we’ll work “Here’s ground balls at you, here’s ground balls to your forehand, here’s ground balls to your backhand.” They don’t need to read the ball and make a decision on what kind of a movement they need to make.

That to me was seven or eight years ago. I really made that change because I felt like I wasn’t preparing guys for what they actually were going to see. I was preparing them to be really good in practice, but not really good in the game.

COACH COLLANGELO: You know what? Makes 100% sense. And I’ve got to believe that coaches in the U.S. and around the world at all levels, especially at the younger levels, because I’ve said on the show many times we’ve got to make sure that our coaches working with the younger levels, some of them happen to be volunteers, some are not because there are now travel teams running young teams so they’re professionals in the game. A lot of them are guys who study the game. I’m hoping more and more they are taking this philosophy because it’s the only way I see the game getting better.

Kids get a lot better and have more fun because they get to make decisions… Practice is a lot more fun. They get better…

While this is great advice on its surface, including more game-like decision making in practices to get them more prepared for game action, this led me a step further. If, “coaching is coaching,” then why practice, why play games, if we’re not using them to instill the life lessons the game allows us to bring to the players? Are we so invested in the granularity of our particular sport that we as coaches miss opportunities to bring something more valuable to our kids?

I now think so.

After happening by this ESPN piece on how Evan Langoria went from an unrecruited high school player to a Major League star by focusing on his mental approach to the game, I became really intrigued with the “coachability” of the mental side of the game. I bought and read Heads Up Baseball 2.0 written by Tom Hanson and the late Ken Ravizza, both noted gurus of the mental game (Ravizza is prominently featured in the Langoria piece).

I’ll give a full review of this book in my next post (short review—it’s tremendous, all baseball coaches should have one and I think it has value for all sports coaches and, I think educations and parents as well), but the one major ding I had on it—at least at first—was the fact that it is very redundant. Their method, RAMP-C (Responsibility, Awareness, Mission, Preparation—Compete!) is repeated over-and-over in both name and image, and the specific instruction they have for offense, defense, and pitching is so similar that by the end I felt it almost felt like filler.

But then it struck me—the book is written with the same repetition that the authors are asking of the players and coaches; developing a muscle memory with the material that would make it routine. And as I worked with my teen players on the RAMP-C method, I did note that sometimes players would chafe at the repetitive nature of this approach. They understood the value, but it was clear their Hormone Monster was also saying, “Shut the hell up and let me go play, Coach Jackass!”

But while teens might chafe at redundancy, young children eat it up. As this Psychology Today article so perfectly puts it, young children want and need repetition to learn. What might be excruciatingly annoying to an adult (see my personal version of hell listening to The Wiggles “Fruit Salad” song for the 500th time), it is not only desired, but required for a kid.

And yet, while the mental side of the game is really the portable skill that 99% of player will take with them into their adult life, and the vast majority of youth players will never play high school ball (not to mention about 0.5% of all high schoolers will ever play pro ball), I now realize we are waiting too long to focus on the mental skills with our children. Given the rising tide of childhood and teen anxiety and depression, it makes that much more sense that we reimagine sports as a classroom teaching support skills for mental health and strength.

But our shortcomings in this regard are only natural. Most coaches in the 5-9u levels are volunteer parents, just like I was. They are good-hearted amateurs looking to teach the game “right” and focus on the fundamentals; in the case of baseball it’s hitting, throwing, fielding, and running. But what Heads Up Baseball shows is that it is just as easy, and far more valuable in the long run, to teach them how to use routine to help command focus, or how to use a cleansing or energizing breath to take control of your own emotions, among many other life lessons.

So, in my usual long-winded fashion, I have come to the realization that we’re leaving too much on the table for our kids to start focusing on the mental side of the game when they’re older. For my sport, I believe that Little League, Babe Ruth, and, yes, the proliferate of travel teams that in many cases are replacing league play (much to my dismay) need to start integrating the RAMP-C or other methods into the game at the youngest levels, when kids are most responsive to repetition and routine. There are ways to make these methods fun and age-appropriate (we actually use some in the “Game & Derby”(pdf) system I’ve developed for Arlington Babe Ruth (I’ll get to that post, too).

For if you teach a kid to swing, s/he’ll hit for a decade, maybe two. But teach a kid to compete, and s/he’ll compete for a lifetime.

A Useful Tool

December 14, 2019

So here I am on my fancy new iPad my sister gave me for my big Five-O. The last two iPads were victims of my Forgetful Forties—both sacrificed to the travel gods when placed hurriedly in airplane seat pockets while coordinating the family exodus.

The nice thing about a new device—and a new decade—is that it gives me a chance to both start fresh and look back. I always love when cognitive dissonance comes into play—it’s such a wonderfully human trait. After all, every person has an inalienable right to hypocrisy.

As far as starting fresh is concerned, my mid-century tech boost enables me to bid farewell to the literally dozens of failed blog posts, op/eds, and first chapters that litter my old PC. Indeed, I’m really hoping this missive doesn’t wind up in the same virtual dust heap as all those others—it will at least prove that something is different this time. For my 40s featured mostly a point/counter-point that started with some point, and countered with my realization that I really wasn’t making my point particularly well.

The 40s me simply hated the sound of my own voice.

Indeed, I recently made this point to my great college friends in life in a 50th birthday bash weekend in LA. 30 years after wandering as boys into Eagle Rock, California, Thom, Dan, and I rounded back to see the decay, gentrification, and renewal in both our old stomping ground and ourselves. To quote one of Thom and my favorite pop culture characters—FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper—such trips are invariably both, “wondrous and strange.”

Dan became a business and marketing expert, though his true profession is people, as it was even back in school. His interest in culture and his natural ease enabled him to build a career that for years took him hopping all over the globe, mostly in Asia. Even so, he and I always had a small pang of regret that we never tried our hand at following Occidental College legend Terry Gilliam in the art of satirical comedy.

Both caustic and quick, Dan and I found pleasure at pushing at pillars we thought needed toppling. Our most memorable campus moment came when we decided that the Oxy Glee Club’s annual Valentines Day foray—going into classes and serenading a student at a lover’s behest—needed a counter. Dan and I felt that it unfairly left out the angry and alone among us, and used our friend Thom as a willing rube to regale his class with a thrilling rendition of everyone’s favorite tune, “I Hate You, You Dirty Sonofabitch!”

Ah, the college comedy stylings of Dan & Scott…

Unlike we Python wannabes, our accomplice Thom did decide to make a career in comedy. He’s written and directed some fantastically funny short films, and with representation now seems on the verge of his long-deserved breakout moment. As we sat in the hotel drinking in every moment together (as well as some plain-old drinking), I gathered a bit of bravery to expose some of my vulnerability.

“So do you ever get frustrated with what you write?” I queried.

“Of course!” Thom responded. “Sometimes I just can’t find the right line, the right joke, and I’ll just put, ‘think of something funny here’ as a placeholder.”

I envied his ability to simply push on over that obstacle. But I selfishly wanted to get more to the heart of my own issue.

“But do you ever look down at the page, and just find yourself sick-and-tired of your own writing? Do you ever just dislike your own voice?”

Thom’s response was almost instantaneous, almost reflexive.

“Oh, that’s just ‘imposter syndrome.’ You can’t let that creep in.”

Our conversation moved on, but my thoughts dwelled on the apparent ease in which he was able to dismiss what for me as a writer is at my core. Indeed, even as I write this, I feel both verbose and whiny.

But my new iPad compels me forward.

So I will punch the keys.

I can see that for Thom, imposter syndrome might be the correct diagnosis for such a malady. But I’m not so sure that applies to me. Not everyone is a good writer—and there are many out there who think they have talent, but simply do not. Why can’t my poor self-review be honest, rather than simple self-loathing?

People who like you, love you, root for you are oft unflinching in their support; for your happiness is their happiness. That’s not selfish—at least not in a bad way. It’s human nature—a symbiotic circle of giving and reciprocity. And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make, as a fabulous set of four philosophers once crooned.

I understand this as a husband and father. My greatest moments of joy and satisfaction lie in knowing my family is thriving. My greatest fears are their struggles. My greatest failures are their failures. I have invested my entirety. And so it is only natural to want a return.

The same goes for my, “relentless optimism” as a coach. I simply do not have it in me not to invest in the kids I work with. To simply give them Xes and Os defeats the purpose of teaching the game. And while I’ve come to understand that my own style needs to change with both age group and the particular player, I cannot distance myself from every pitch, swing, and throw my players take. It’s probably not healthy, but it’s true.

But while I understand that selfish altruism (there’s fun with cognitive dissonance again!), the flip side of that comes with it the pressure to measure up. In my personal case, it’s the pressure that I think comes from everyone who wants you to see yourself as positively as they see you. If they think you are awesome, and you don’t think you are awesome, something surely must be wrong with you. It must be imposter syndrome. It must be depression. You must need therapy, Prozac, something so you can see what they see.

As a teen, my mother put me on anti-depressants, and everyone just loved how happy I was. But I didn’t feel like they were helping me. It felt more like they were replacing me. I felt like I was feeling someone else’s feelings. Like I was the me others wanted to see.

I stopped taking those medications, and some 35 years later with an incredible wife and two fantastic boys, I’ve never regretted the decision to be me; warts and all.

This is not to say I don’t think medication is a bad thing in itself for mental health. It is a crucial component for many and I don’t begrudge anyone that choice. But for me, it was a moment best captured by James T. Kirk in one of the fleeting moments of quality from the ill-fated Star Trek V. When the antagonist Sybok attempted to enlist him as a follower by releasing him from his greatest mental anguish, he refused, saying, “I want my pain. I need my pain!”

And here you thought you’d escape an arcane pop-culture reference. Wrong blog.

In my 20s, that pain was tempered with the endless, impetuous possibilities of youth.

In my 30s, that pain was put to use with empathy, passion, and love to build a family and career.

In my 40s, that pain overwhelmed me with the realization that the endless, impetuous possibilities of youth had given way to the understanding that inevitably comes to most—that I was not special. My mark would be local—not global. I was good at my job, but so would the person taking my job after me, and the next. That what I contributed might be of value, but it certainly wasn’t novel. Indeed, “Midlife Crisis” isn’t a stereotype for nothing.

Here in the infancy of my 50s, my pain has dulled into a sort of resignation—no—an understanding is perhaps the better term. I am loved and lucky. I have made an overall positive impact on the lives of the people closest to me, and of some others around me. I will never become a best-selling author or write the bill that changes the world. I understand now better than I ever did before that the more you learn, the less you truly know. But I see that what I have become still has its utility.

My pain and I are, at last, partners.

I am, finally, a useful tool.

And, at least right now, that is enough.

The Imitation Game

December 7, 2018

Digital Camera Pics 990

We’ve all done it.  Picked up a pool noodle, started some heavy breathing that in any other case might seem a little pervy, and thundered those immortal (if slightly incorrect) words, “Luke, I am your father.”  Or perhaps you caught yourself with a hairbrush and a mirror, belting out your favorite tune as if you were preening in front of thousands of fawning fans.

Imitating our idols, heroes, and even that occasional iconic villain is a universal part of the human experience.  Putting on Daddy’s over-sized coat or Mom’s heels is our entry portal into the world of your imagination.  And triggering that imagination, in all its forms, is a vital part of making things fun.

Sometimes, fun is something that I think coaches forget about too quickly.  I know that I have often gotten myself caught in the, “We need to get all these boring reps in and when we’re done we’ll scrimmage” work/reward trap.  As alternative, we lean on making the repetition into competition.  Turning bunting drills into a contest for best balls or rewarding the win to the group with the most cutoff men hit.

While I deeply believe that increasing competition orientation in drill work is a crucial element in keeping young players focused, motivated, and engaged, it doesn’t take advantage of that even more fundamental part of the human experience—creativity.  That’s where imitation comes in.

Indeed, over the years, I’ve seen boys step up to the plate and do their best to waggle, stride, and swing just like their Major League icons.  Here in the D.C. area, the Bryce Harper is iconic and almost universal (for now).  My older boy used to love to figure out how Travis d’Arnaud could be on time with the bat head pointed straight at the pitcher.  Indeed, I used to do the same trying to figure out Gary Sheffield.

But when it comes to teaching, we coaches will often use video to show kids how the big guys do it, but we’ll often shy away from actually telling our kids to actually try to imitate the pros.  As we know, everyone’s swing is different, and while the MLB players are great examples, they can do things that your average 11-year-old can’t.

This fall, I decided to do something different.  I decided that each week, we’d go out and actually imitate a particular player.  I let my kids make suggestions, then I went and watched video and decided on the player that might teach a particular lesson well.  My kids loved to debate with each other, try to one-up their teammate with an arcane suggestion, or, of course, as one of my kids did, suggest Max Scherzer every week just to get under this Mets fan’s skin.

Now, I know every parent/coach or coach/parent out there is already thinking about the unmitigated disaster of having nine kids all trying to ape a big leaguer’s swing.  I mean, every swing is different, and if you have kids trying to do everything different, all you’ll do is give them brand new bad habits to worry about.

So here’s the wrinkle.  Rather than focus on the entire swing, we picked out one particular component of that player’s swing to work on.  This allowed us to break down the swing into component parts, and push them out of their comfort zone in digestible bits.

In case you’re interested, due to lots of rain, we ended up with 6 sessions.  Here’s how they broke down:

  • Ben Zobrist: Hand position and load
  • Chris Carpenter: Shoulder rotation
  • Daniel Murphy: Front foot movement
  • Mookie Betts: Core engagement
  • JD Martinez: Arm movement
  • Tony Gwynn: Body momentum and balanced landing

In each case, for some guys it was an easy transition.  If a player happened to be a “tight hands” hitter like Zobrist is, there wasn’t much transition.  But for my “hand casters” – of which I have many – it was really, really different.

When we worked Zobrist off the tee, holding our hands tight against our body and keeping them there throughout the swing the complaints were legion.

“This feels funny!”

“It doesn’t feel right!”

“I can’t do it!”

“You’re killing my swing, coach!”

And I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t killing their swing.  But as they swung and struggled, I saw them working at it, laughing at each other (and themselves) when they messed up, and getting psyched when they “Zobristed one up.”  I think the fact that they were not using “their own swing” but instead imagining themselves as someone else allowed them to push out of their comfort zone, try something totally new, fail, and be okay with that.  Another plus of getting the kids out of their own skin.

At the end of the tee period, I told all the kids to “go back to their normal swing.”  In the Zobrist case, I moved the tee to the extreme inside corner.  And what I saw excited me.  Most of my casters took one or two “normal” swings and jammed themselves.  Then, on their own, I saw them move their hands in do the “shake-and-rake” prep move, and THWACK, manage to barrel one up.

As coaches, I think we sometimes get caught up in a little too much self-love for our own expertise.  We know each player’s swing is different and has different needs.  But we sometimes forget that young players’ swings are still evolving, and tweaking what’s there may not be as productive for them long term as opening them up to different options and let them find something new that clicks with them.

To borrow form old angler wisdom:

Coach a kid’s swing, he’ll hit better for a season.

Teach a kid to coach his own swing, and he’ll hit better for a career.

CoachN’s Preseason Tips: Snitchball

March 22, 2018

Snitchball2

Here in Arlington, we’ve had a baseball blessing.  George Washington University has combined forces with the county to create the GW baseball team’s home park just a 15-minute drive from home.  Better yet, when the Colonials aren’t using the field, our boys get to go out and play.  This not only gives all the High School teams and the players playing house ball in Senior Babe Ruth access to a big-time ballpark, but the entire field, save the pitcher’s mound, is artificial turf.

Now, I hear all you baseball purists saying, “Turf?  What an abomination to baseball!”  Memories abound of balls bouncing and skidding off the thin green excuse for fake grass in the Astrodome, or poor Andre Dawson handing the Cubs a blank check just to get his aching knees off the carpet in Montreal.  But while it still ain’t grass, turf has come a long way in creating a reasonable baseball experience rather than something akin to playing on something between a tennis court and a trampoline.

Best of all, turf stops rainouts!  I can personally attest to this as I set up a game this past summer for the Greater Washington and Northern Virginia Maccabi teams (I coached the latter) to play on the GW field at Barcroft Park.  Even after a virtual hailstorm came down upon us, in 20 minutes, we were able to play.  I’m delighted that after a lot of lobbying, our youth players will be getting their first turf field come fall.  Even for practices, it is a huge advantage.

There is, however, one place where Turf does no favors for a ballplayer—the infield.  And it may not be for the reason you expect.  One thing I tell my youth players is that in some ways, baseball is harder for them then their heroes in the Majors.  With 50,000 screaming fans, crowd noise is just that, noise.  But with 30 or so folks watching, you can hear every individual voice loud-and-clear, be it your school buddy on the other team giving you grief, or your Mom yelling for you to stop pulling your head.

Another way is on the field.  MLB fields are almost always perfectly manicured.  Millions of dollars on premium soil, grass, and drainage make the days of lumpy red Georgia clay divots at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and playing through puddles at Shea a thing of the past.  The game is hard enough as it is to play even on the most perfect field, after all.

Of course, turf takes care of even the marginal issues on a natural field, like a ball hitting the seam between the dirt and grass.  And so, what I’ve seen in my time watching kids play at Barcroft is that those who play there too much will often struggle once they get back on a grass field.  They become a bit lazy, assuming the genuine hop instead of really looking to field the ball with soft hands and funnel it back into the middle of their body.

Funneling is one of Perry Hill’s “6F” fielding system.  “Bone” as he is known is the Miami Marlins infield coach, and was the 2017 MLB defensive coach of the year.  I didn’t know anything about Hill until I happened on the American Baseball Coach Association (ABCA) podcast Calls from the Clubhouse.  His baseline system – Feet, Field, Funnel, Footwork, Fire, Follow – had segments of much I had taught over the years, but in a form that anyone from my 11-year-old nephew to Gold Glove winner Dee Gordon could understand, with each F being a trigger to a specific skill set.

The “Funnel” F is one that I often have to teach from scratch.  Using both hands to bring the ball to the middle of your body is something that simply doesn’t come naturally for most players.  Indeed, when I did an early round of infield work a couple of weeks ago with my 11u travel kids, not a single one of them was doing it.  They were either over-charging the ball and had their hands way out front, or were trying to field the ball right between their legs.

Neither way prepares them the right way, as controlled aggression is the key to good fundamental defense.  But even with the 6F system in hand, I still felt I needed to find a way to get my kids to understand the nuance of finding that sweet spot between hard charging and soft hands.

And so while I am always looking to learn from the baseball experts on the techniques of baseball, I still tend to borrow from the world of pure imagination when it comes to creating the right mental approach.

During last week’s practice, I showed them this picture before we hit the court (indoor practice still for us):

Snitch

“Can someone tell me what this is?” I asked

Hands jabbed in the air.

“Oh, a snitch!” most responded immediately (and enthusiastically—Potter’s popularity endures).

“And why would I be showing you a snitch before we go field grounders?”

Hands fell.

They pondered, and JoJo queried, “Because they’re hard to catch?”

“Good!” I boomed.  “You’re on the right track.  But go a little farther.  Does a snitch actually want to be caught?”

“No!  It tries to get away,” replied Christian.

Exactly,” I stressed.  “Now, clearly a baseball isn’t a snitch, but it’s a lot closer than you think.  For instance, is a baseball round?”

Most nodded, but not assuredly.  They were starting to catch on to the fact that my obvious questions rarely have obvious answers.

“It may look round, but what about these?” I said, pointing to the raised red stitches.

“Yeah, I guess it’s only kind-of round,” replied Matt.

“Yep.  And how about the field?  Is it perfectly flat like, say, the basketball court we’re about to use for practice?”

“No!” Connor chimed.  “It’s got grass and dirt and all kinds of bumps!”

“And holes, and rocks, and divots in the grass” continuing Connor’s thought.  “Indeed, the fields you play on are actually harder than the ones the big leaguers play on, right?”

“Yeah!  Some are a nightmare,” Matt said, sounding more movie-critic than ballplayer.

“So while a baseball may not be alive like a snitch, it sure can act that way.  So the best way to play defense is to think of the ball as a snitch.  Once it comes off the bat, assume it doesn’t want to be caught.  Sometimes that means being aggressive and getting it before it takes a funny hop.  Sometimes it means giving ground as it tries to whiz by you.  But it always means you’ve got to focus on the ball and expect the unexpected.”

As I looked at the group, I could see the lightbulbs going off.  And I think perhaps my favorite part of coaching is coming up with a way for kids to expand the way they think about the game.  The mind controls the body, so those lightbulb moments seem to really stick and translate to the field.

But this is baseball, not Jeopardy, so making sure the concept translates physically is vital.  And I had nary a magic snitch in sight.

But I did have one of these:

Training ball

“While we’re practicing indoors,” I said, flipping the odd, yellow object in my hand, “we’re going to challenge you to expect the unexpected.  Some call this a training ball.  But I call it a snitchball.”

“I’ve seen those!” said Sam.  “Those things go crazy!”

“Yep.  And you’re going to have to work together to control the crazy if you are going to get your pull from the Bag of Crap.”

We lined them up in two lines facing each other, about 30 feet apart.  Both players would hop over the cone in front of them into ready position (that’s the “Feet” F) and one would roll the snitchball to the other.  As long as the ball stayed in front of them, it would count as a catch.  Back and forth they would go until they reached 10 in a row.

They didn’t come close.

After frustration clearly set in, I stopped them.

“Okay, okay, take a break.  Why are you having so much trouble?”

“Because it’s impossible!” Matt replied despondently.  There were multiple nods in agreement.

“Because people are throwing it too hard!” Logan added.

“Ah!  Thank you, Wolverine!” I interjected.  “Matty, this certainly isn’t impossible, and I could make it easier by just having the coaches roll the balls to you.  I know these well and how to minimize the bad hops.”

“Could you?” begged Sam.

“Nope.”

“AWWWW…yeah!” the chorus responded, correcting themselves in midstream as they belched my least favorite sound.

“I won’t do that because part of this is learning how to win is how to work together.  No one is talking to each other right now.  No one told Matt he was throwing too hard.  No one gave Connor a pat on the back for a good funnel on a tough hop.  You’ve got to figure this out for yourselves.”

Now, I’d like to tell you they were a changed group, and promptly won the game.  But they were still too quiet.  Matty was just having too much fun flinging.  There was more complaining than cheering.

And they didn’t win.

But they did get better.

And that’s all I’m looking for as a coach.

When we finally got outside for our first practice the next week, I took a Ziploc out of the Bag of Crap, and carefully constructed a plastic replica of the golden snitch, wings and all.

“From here on in, every time we go out to play defense, every player must touch the snitch.”

There wasn’t a single, “why?” in the bunch.  Every player promptly went over, tapped the plastic, and headed out to the field.  Indeed, they’ve inculcated it so much that they blamed me for a tough inning because I forgot it in the car for the second game of our preseason tournament.

Baseball is such a difficult and complex sport that we coaches often get caught too caught up in building the body rather than the mind.  But finding techniques that build both is the real magic that builds ballplayers.

And you don’t even need to ride a broom.

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: Let Your Walkup Song Choose You

February 14, 2018

Devil Dogs on Deck

Let me get this out of the way up front—I am not a “music person.”  I’ve been to concerts here-and-there, but would rarely go out of my way to see even my favorite artists live.  I enjoy a number of different kinds of music, from rap to pop to hardcore to Ska to klezmer, but if you ask me my favorite artist for any of those, I’d struggle to tell you.  So you’re not going to get a definitive list of greatest hits here…sorry.

What you will get is a particular piece of wisdom about music that have been attributed to many, but certainly stuck with me over the course of time:

You don’t choose the music.  The music chooses you.

More than food, more than art, more than great literature, I think.  Sound speaks to us in ways that are so personal, so primal that it makes it less of a choice, and more of an instinct.  It can be metaphor.  It can be mood.  But it chooses us, it hits immediately and deeply in a way little else does.

The importance of feeling cannot be overestimated in baseball.  The game is a unique blend of a team game where players feed off each other, and a very individual game where in that moment, be it on the mound or at the plate, the game is entirely in your hands.  Rather than tweaking swing mechanics or a pitcher’s arm slot, one of the greatest gifts a coach can give to both an individual player and a team as a whole is crossing the line with the right frame of mind.

In our preseason hitting classes, our lead instructor Dan Pototsky has spent more time than I think I’ve ever heard before about the mental side of hitting.  “Relaxed”  “Aggressive” “Do Damage” are key words rather than “Keep your head in” or “Don’t drop your hands.”  It’s an interesting shift, and one that I think is becoming more-and-more common at all levels in baseball.  Because as coaches, we’ve all seen it.  That kid struggling on the mound and you come out and say something funny.  They laugh, you head back, and it’s like a totally different player out there.

So I asked myself, “How can we find a way to teach this lesson to kids in a way that is personal, fun, and engaging?”  And that’s when it came to me–the one thing in any professional baseball game that meets all these criteria:

The walkup song.

Whether it’s the crowd roaring 80’s pop lyrics (notably Michael Morse’s hilarious choice of A-HA’s “Take on Me”) or the call of the wild (thinking Yoenis Cespedes’s “Lion King” so popular at Citi Field), the walkup song has evolved into a signature part of the game experience both for players and for fans.  So if the big boys can do it, why not the kids?

I asked each of my 11u players to choose the music that they would want as the tunes they’d stride to the plate with.  Here’s what they gave me:

  • Jacob — Thunderstruck-AC/DC
  • Grant — Welcome to the Jungle-GunsNRoses
  • Logan — 2 Legit 2 Quit-MC Hammer
  • Matt — DNA – Kendrick Lamar (clean version!)
  • Sam — Marquee Moon – Television
  • London — Believer-Imagine Dragons
  • Christian Lam — Thunder–Imagine Dragons
  • JoJo — Believer-Imagine Dragons
  • Gabriel — All Star — Smash Mouth
  • Frankie — We Will Rock You – Queen
  • Connor — Thunderstruck-AC/DC

When we met the week after the list was completed for our winter indoor hitting session, as each player marched up into the loft above the hitting area, I popped their song on.  “This your tune?” I’d ask.  Without fail, a wry grin would spread across faces.  Heads would start to bob with the beat.  And as quickly as they started to move with the rhythm, they would dance their way around me to peek at what songs their teammates had chosen.

When the last tune had played, I quieted my phone to a collective, “Awwww!”

That brought out the patent-pending CoachN fish-eye.  I had already told them that the one sound in the world I could not abide was, “Awwww!”

“Awwww…yeah!” JoJo smartly added.  I had told them how my previous team had learned to game that particular peeve of mine.

“So,” I began. “Two of the songs on our list were chosen by multiple players.  Why am I not asking those folks to choose a different song?  I mean, shouldn’t every player have their own unique walkup tune?”

The guys went silent for a moment, and then London raised his hand.  “Oh, because it was the song that guy wanted?” he said in a query.

Exactly!  We don’t choose the music.  The music chooses us.  This isn’t about finding your unique song.  It’s about finding what makes you feel like you can go conquer the world.  Some guys want to be pumped up.  Some guys want to be calmed down.  I remember a major leaguer who had ‘Call Me Maybe’ as his walkup song.  Do you know why he chose that one?”

“He, uh, liked it?” Grant ventured.

“Nope.  He said he hated the song.”

No raised hands this time ‘round.

“It was because it was his daughter’s favorite song.  So the music helped him remember that there were more important things then the at bat he was about to take.  He needed that to stay relaxed and centered.  That was the song that chose him—and he didn’t even like it!”

“Can we listen to our songs while we hit today?” Frankie asked.  Excited agreement followed.

“Well, we don’t want to bother the other hitters today, so this may not be the right place to do it.”

“Awww…yeah!” the chorus replied.

Buuuut,” I replied, “I will do two things.  First, I want you to hum your music when it’s your turn to hit.  Start putting it in your head and develop your strut.  Don’t just walk to the plate.  Do it your way to the rhythm of your song.”

Mild nods of acknowledgement.

“And, on top of it, how about we make your music our warmup music at every practice. Rather than just run, stretch, and throw, we do it to your tunes.”

Awww…yeah!”

We tried the warmup music for the first time during a pitching workout, and I think the kids would have been fine with an hour of warmups just to get to listen to their music more.  I’m now canvassing parents to see if I can get a boom box for the season, as this looks like a tradition in the making based on my players’ reactions.

Being a good coach or player is as much training the mind as it is the body.  We get so caught up in the physical aspects of the game that we often forget the number one thing that makes us actually want to play.

Because it’s fun.

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: See the Ball Big When You Don’t Really See

January 25, 2018

Small Ball Machine

It was 1986, the year of Mookie, Gary, Straw, Doc, Maz, and Mex—My “Bad Guys” from Flushing who would eventually drive another dagger into the hearts of Red Sox Nation.  I was 16 and playing ball myself in a summer league in Atlanta.  Atl wasn’t yet The ATL, and also had yet to be introduced to the world of high-powered travel teams.  So this league out in Dunwoody was a mix of high school players and guys just looking to hang around the game.

That year, I was having what I would call an “Israelite” season.   I had served faithfully under the same rec ball coach since hitting The Big Field.  I started at first base as despite my skinny frame, my coach knew I could pick it and had pop beyond my size.  But he was leaving the league and I had to find a new team.

And so arose a new coach, who did not know him — to paraphrase from Exodus.  I was still working hard and having a solid season with the bat, but this new guy, a somewhat pugnacious fellow with an unkempt moustache and a penchant for those men’s short-shorts of the 80s that seemed more than a little out-of-place on the over-40 set, seemed to think I could do no right.

Given what a tightly wound ball of string I was, his skepticism became a self-fulfilling prophecy; the worst of which was when I sprinted for home on what I thought was a suicide squeeze…

…it wasn’t.

As we were getting to the end of the season, Coach Short-Shorts kept throwing me in right field and lowering me in the batting order until when I arrived that day I saw myself etched in dead last.  When I finally got up to the plate for the first time, it was already with two outs in the 3rd inning.  Their pitcher had been perfect through 2 2/3 with five Ks so far.  As I brooded from the dugout, I managed to notice that he had a solid curve that was giving our players fits.  So I went ahead and guessed on the first pitch and got what I was looking for.  I was a little out in front, but the curve landed right in that low-and-in hot zone we lefties love so much.  I hooked the ball right over the first baseman’s head and stood into second with a double.

The pitcher was clearly flustered as he gave up his first hit to the last batter.  He toed the rubber, and I noticed that he forgot to switch to the stretch—not a crazy mistake for a pitcher who hadn’t done it yet that day.  In one of the few good baserunning moves I had made that season, I took off as soon as I saw him start his wind and made it in standing on 3rd.

The only thing Coach had to say to me upon my arrival was, “No squeeze.”  The jab hardly boosted me, but the pitcher then uncorked a wild pitch and I scored our first run.

After that, the pitcher lost his cool completely, and through walks, errors, and a couple of hits, we plated three more.  He didn’t come back out for the 4th.

And that’s when we started turning it on.  Their pitchers struggled, and we surged.  My next at bat I cracked a wicked line drive up the middle.  My next time up with the bases juiced, I drove a fastball that three-hopped the wall in left-center and plated them all.

In most summer games, you’d be lucky to get a 3rd at bat—particularly at the bottom of the order.  But as both Lady Mercy and the time limit approached on our game, I was due to bat 3rd in the final inning.

One of our players had arrived late, and we already had our “Bat 10” in the order.  So, of course, Coach High Socks (did I mention that?) told me that he was going to pinch hit for me given I had three ABs already.  I simply nodded my head and wound myself a bit more taught.

But while I was not one to stand up for myself, my teammate Derrick was having none of it.

“Dude, you three-for-three, right?”

I nodded again with the same insular mannerism.

“Coach, coach, coach, coach, coach!  You cannot take him out!  He could go four-for-four!”

“He’s right, coach,” another teammate chimed in.  “You can’t lift a guy when he’s three-for-three.”

“Ain’t nobody taking me out of the game if I’m three-for-three.” Derrick added.

Coach Fishnet Tank Top (okay, that’s a lie, but I’m on a roll) turned to me and said, “So, do you want to hit?”  That emphasis clearly saying, “Just say no kid, so I can get this over with.”

I must admit that’s what I probably would have said.  I was very much a rules guy, much like my younger son is today.  Coach says…I do.

“Of course he wants to hit!” Derrick blurted before I even had a chance to unleash my patented sullen head bob.

“Coach, I’m not going to go in for him if he’s three-for-three!” said the kid who had arrived late.

That put the seal on it.

The pitcher walked the first two batters, and I strode to the plate with us up nine.  One RBI and it was over.

It was hot, late, and the game was already over.  I knew the pitcher wouldn’t want to toy around when there were Ms. Pac Man machines and cold, smooth Orange Julius at the mall just a couple of miles away.

So I sat on a fastball.

He threw me a fastball.

And for the first time ever, I saw it, right out of his hand.

The ball looked big.

Like, bigger than a softball big.

Like, it could have been 95 or had a 8-inch break and it wouldn’t have mattered big.

The ball vaulted off my bat maybe 30 feet in the air at the most.  But I hit it so hard to the right field gap that it hit the base of the wall on the fly.  I’ve hit some balls out, but I don’t think I ever hit a ball harder in my entire life.  I raced around and slid unnecessarily into third clapping my hands hard in a hitherto unprecedented public display of positive emotion.

I tell this story because players will say that they are, “seeing the ball well right now” or, “seeing it big.” And you’ve probably heard and announcer-or-six say, “The ball must look like a grapefruit to him!”  When things are really rolling, that grapefruit can even look like a beachball sometimes.

But other than that moment, I’ve never had an experience in seeing the ball big until some 30 years later, playing old man baseball this past fall.  I went four-for-six with three doubles, and each time, the ball looked absolutely huge.  It was my first game actually playing in years, so as I strutted off the field (my 13-year-old son’s team played next, so I got to gloat a bit) I tried to figure out why I was seeing the ball like that.

Then I realized it was because for the past year, almost every swing I took off of a moving baseball was off the Jugs Small Ball pitching machine.  I was so used to swinging at golf ball-sized objects that a baseball actually looked huge to me.

It may sound axiomatic, but seeing the ball is most important thing we do in hitting.

But the crazy thing is that we really don’t see anything.

What do I mean?  Well, enrich nine minutes of your life and listen to this TED Radio Hour Piece, “Isaac Lidsky: How Can Going Blind Give You Vision?”  If you don’t have time, here’s the operative, fascinating soundbite:

“What does it feel like to see? You open your eyes and there’s the world. Seeing is believing, sight is truth, right? Well, that’s what I thought. Then from age 12 to 25, my sight became an increasingly bizarre carnival fun house hall of mirrors and illusions. Objects appeared morphed and disappeared in my reality. It was difficult and exhausting to see. I pieced together fragmented transitory images until I saw nothing at all. I learned that what we see is not universal truth, it is not objective reality. What we see is a unique personal virtual reality that is masterfully constructed by our brain.”

We don’t see, our brain interprets stimuli for us.  It’s the same basic reason why it feels good to swing a weighted bat before going to hit.  It tricks our brain into making our regular bat seem light.  So we feel quicker and like we don’t have to put in as much effort to swing.

The Small Ball Machine accomplishes a very similar task.  It trains the eye to expect somethings smaller, so when we hit for real our brain interprets a baseball as big.

The Small Ball Machine is not the only trick in town.  Major League Catcher Paul LoDuca’s mother would throw him pinto beans (I’m guessing dried) in the back yard to help train his eye.  Now, check out this favorite drill from Carlos Pena on MLB Network—hitting popcorn kernels with a broom stick (this one getting small both ways!).

So below find my Pros/Cons for the Jugs Small Ball Machine.  But whether you are using foam balls or popcorn kernels, remember that training the brain is the most important, yet often most neglected part of the way both players and coaches prepare.

Jugs Small Ball Pitching Machine

The Pros

  • Hit Small: See above.
  • Self-Feeding: No one to hit with?  This loads about 24 balls and pitches them in 5-7 second intervals.  Great for hitting alone.
  • Soft Balls: The golf-sized balls are made out of foam and would not be a threat to a window unless hit extremely hard from a very close distance. They can still sting if you get pelted by one (which is why feeders are instructed to stand behind a net) but so long as the neighbors are okay with a few (or more) balls in their yard, it’s a great backyard hitting tool.  Likely even better yet for those with unfinished basements provided you have 25-30 feet of space.
  • Variable Speeds: There is both regular and advanced speeds.  It’s not a dial, just two to choose from, but the slower is around 50mph and the faster is mid-80s from 20 feet away.  You can, of course, adjust the speed by moving the machine closer or farther from the plate.
  • Curve Balls!: Also at regular and advanced, the machine has a nice little bender.  Not huge break, but enough to practice tracking a ball that is moving both toward you and down.  I mostly hit off of advanced curveball.  By moving the machine a bit farther away, you get more break (and of course less speed).
  • Consistency: I find a lot of foam ball pitching machines to be highly variable in terms of putting the ball where you want it.  Every machine will have some variability, but I find this one to be amazingly consistent in keeping the ball in the general zone once you have it set up.  Not a lot of time waiting for balls to finally come into the zone.  This also helps if you are trying to do a drill working a specific spot in the zone.
  • Great for Catching, Too: My 16-year-old will use the machine for barehanded receiving drills and for blocking.
  • Price: Pitching machines in general are expensive. At $240.00, this machine is a bargain for what it delivers.  However, see my note about the price of the balls below.
  • Durability: Over a year in, lots of use, kept out in our shed, and chugging along without an issue.

The Cons

  • Ball Price/Loss: The machine is inexpensive under the circumstances, but balls go in buckets of 48 for about $1/ball. That’s a bit pricey for what amounts to be a foam golf ball.  The balls are durable but if you’re using this outside, be prepared to lose and replace.  I’ve bought about 300 balls so far, and have very patient neigbors.
  • No Warning on Self-Feed: The self-feeder is pretty consistent in timing, but it’s hard to prep and be counting the seconds in your head. So that notion of “Spider Sense” anticipation is difficult to replicate as the ball will just pop out at you without warning.  This can be okay particularly when practicing a two-strike hitting approach, but you can definitely get a better rhythm having someone feed the ball to you.
  • Need Nets: Not sure this is a con, but you will need two hitting nets to use this machine. One to protect the feeder, and one to catch balls.  So there’s an added expense to cost in.
  • Portable Battery: I plug my machine in, but if you want to take this out to the field with you, the portable battery is pricey (pretty much same as the machine), heavy, and has a bit of a spotty record on holding its charge.

Really that’s about all I have on the downside.  Highly recommended if you can find the right space for it.

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: The Backspin Tee & The Story of Your Swing

January 11, 2018

Backspin Tee

While I noted that I believe the most important off-season activity for any young baseball player is to go play another sport, there is one baseball activity that you can do year-round:

H
I
T

I haven’t found anything in all of sports so thrilling, maddening, complicated, or controversial as striking a pitched ball.  I’m convinced that it is the single most difficult thing to do in all of sports.  It is a full body activity which demands both rotation and verticality simultaneously.  It requires dynamic movement and stillness at the same time.  Minute mistakes mark the difference between a travel-caliber player and one whose knees are knocking on that 3-2 pitch desperate for that Ball Four in a house game.

What I tell my parents and players is that when it comes to hitting, there is a thousand ways to do it right, and a million ways to do it wrong.  That’s why it’s so important for anyone serious about the game to hit, hit, hit.  The journey is to discover the swing that is right for them; always knowing that swing is a living beast, needing constant care and feeding as the player grows and changes.

As I’ve noted before, I am a huge proponent of tee hitting at any age.  This is particularly important for younger players in the 7-10 age group who often resist tee hitting as “for little kids” or “too easy.”  But a swing is so complicated that it really demands time to not worry about location, speed, break or release points, but instead be able to just have a ball sit there and allow you to try different approaches.

Hitting off the tee is particularly effective in the winter for a number of reasons.  First, the player can do it by her/himself. Daylight is fleeting and the chance to get out and hit doesn’t always dovetail with spending an hour with buddies.  But you and a tee can get 15 minutes of swings in taking a break from homework (or Battlefront II).  And if you have a buddy, winter is really the time to let the arm rest up after 9 months of abuse, so trading swings off the tee still makes a lot of sense.

Another nice thing about a tee in the winter is that both because of the lack of flight, and the fact that it’s pretty easy to use anything from a baseball to a rolled-up pair of socks, the chances of getting jammed and having the sting of 1000 bees course through your hands is pretty low.  The one kind of ball I’d suggest laying off are the heavy balls, as despite the limited flight those will harden in the cold and both be potentially painful to hit and potentially cause damage to the bat.  And remember, if you are using a composite bat and it’s under 50 degrees outside, you shouldn’t be hitting anything harder than a tennis ball.

All that said, the very hardest thing I’ve found to overcome with a young player and a batting tee is that, “It’s SO boring!”  And, yes, unless you are a complete baseball rat, tee hitting is really not a thrill.

Now, yes, you can think about trying to mix things up a bit.  Come up with competitions to incent the repetitions.  Video even off a tee to take a look at the mechanics without the ball in flight, and compare it when you hit a moving target.

But the only way I’ve found any consistent success with young players getting them to enjoy hitting off a tee is by changing the tee itself.

And that’s where the Backspin Tee comes in.

I’ve been both hitting with, and coaching with this new contraption for about a year now.  And while my kids understand the need to hit off the tee, they invariably get excited when I bring out my new toy:

Here are my pros-and-cons:

The Pros

  • It Works and the Kids Dig It: This thing is almost magical—more of a contraption than a tee.  The fact that it does a good job holding the ball upside-down (and I’ve found works with tennis balls, squishy balls, whiffle balls, and regular baseballs) makes it just plain more fun to use than a regular tee.  If it does nothing else better than a standard tee, this fact alone has made it worthwhile.
  • Bottom Half Hitting: Unlike when I was in school, it’s all about launch angle these days. Having a tee designed to focus the swing on hitting the bottom half is both intriguing to kids, and is helpful, particularly for players that tend to be “chop” hitters.  I’ve had a lot of success with this tee helping to retrain swings of players who complained of grounding out too much.  If you’re looking for a great analysis of this approach, check out Antonelli Baseball’s analysis of Kris Bryant’s swing.
  • Stay Inside: Players who cast their hands and come around the ball are far more likely to clang against the pole of the tee. It acts like the Belly Button Drill (explained at the bottom of this post) in that it helps to diagnose and keep players focused on getting the barrel straight to the ball.
  • It’s Sturdy: You know those kids who cast their hands and clang on the pole?  Well at least my pro model is built to take a licking.  The same thing can happen with trying to work to the opposite field, particularly if you are working on an inside-out swing.
  • It’s a Great Diagnostic Tool: My favorite drill using this tee is actually a 2-Tee drill. Use a standard tee and put it about a foot behind the Backspin and about 6-8 inches below the hitting point of the Backspin.  This creates a “corridor” effect where the kids are learning how to create a slightly upward plane to their swing without dropping their hands.  Trying to hit line drives and fly balls with this setup can be tough, but it creates the kind of bat angle and staying “long through the zone” that we’re looking for.  A lot of the times, you’ll see kids either knock the back tee (too much uppercut) or hit weak spinners (to much downward angle, not enough time in the hitting zone).

The Cons

  • It’s Not Really Backspin: So in the ole’ days, we used to talk about creating that tight backspin that allowed the ball to carry by having a slight downward angle toward the ball. This created a slight slice that made for a tight backspin on the ball.  This tee does NOT work for that.  Instead, it rewards a slight uppercut that allows you to keep your bat in the hitting zone longer.  Having myself been a hitter/teacher of backspin, I can tell you that it can get frustrating hitting with this tee.  Guys with a more traditional backspin swing will find themselves mostly hitting little spinner flares as they strike the center of the ball rather than the bottom.  So unlike a traditional tee, this is NOT for everyone and if a player is struggling with it, a coach shouldn’t just jump to the conclusion that there’s a flaw in the swing as it’s really teaching a specific swing path.
  • It’s Complementary: Even if you are sold on what this tee is teaching (or showing), I would never use this tee as the only tee.  First, as I noted, I really like this tee as part of a two-tee drill, so you need a more standard tee right there.  Second, while the concept of seeing/aiming for the bottom of the ball is sound (indeed, this would more accurately be called the “Bottom-Up” tee if I were to name it), it really isn’t how a hitter sees the ball coming down out of the pitcher’s hand.  A traditional tee is far better for that.  In the end, I’ve found the Backspin Tee to be most effective for 20 swings before switching to a traditional tee.  It helps me get my swing path in shape, then I go “around the world” (start outside and deep, work middle on the plate, inside and out front) with a traditional tee.  I find myself and my kids hitting fewer grounders and more line drives and fly balls this way.  But I find it a struggle going from Backspin directly to a pitched ball.
  • It’s Heavy: I have an ATEC T3 tee, and it’s fantastic for porting around. Light, small, but stable.  My Backspin tee is a pain to take around.  It’s not only heavy, but the shape makes it hard to fit.  You could take it apart, but that just makes it more of a pain.  The extremely heavy base is great for stability but a chore to get to the field.  If you have a cart, it’s not too bad as you can pop your bucket of balls on top of the base and keep it stable, but this isn’t a great one for a casual trip to the park.  For kids, I’ve also found that if things are less convenient, they’re used less.  This is NOT convenient.
  • It’s Expensive: So you can get a quality, pro-level tee for $75 or so, and a decent rubber one for $40.  The basic model for this tee comes in at a whopping $200.  The pro model that I have comes in at $300.  A little do-hickey that tilts the ball to be more accurate angle for low pitches is $50 by itself.  My wife got me this for my birthday, as it was just too expensive for me to justify buying it for myself, even as a coach who does individual lessons.  For about the same price, I could buy the Jugs Small Ball Pitching Machine and 100 balls (my next review).

So there you go.  I’m not going to recommend or not recommend this toy.  It definitely has its uses, but I think any coach or player using it should know exactly what it is useful for before making the investment.  But no matter what tee you have, go put on your ski cap and snow boots, take some cuts, as the story of your swing is written year-round.  Your spring self will thank you for the chapter you scribe today.

Next, does hitting small mean big things?