I’m extremely proud of my big fella for many reasons, but for today, let’s talk baseball (shocker, I know).
He’s used his experiences of just missing making the team not as excuse, but as motivation to make himself a better ballplayer. This culminated in his making his first “district team” outright over the past summer and having a bang-up season with the bat, behind the plate, and on the mound.
Okay, that was just a little parental chest-puffing, as it’s what happened this fall that really got my attention.
As 9th Grade began, he was again selected to be on the “A” squad for the 14u travel team. He’s made it—he’s where he has always wanted to be. But then another opportunity presented itself, as his high-school team has a fall squad as well. Very few kids who weren’t on the spring JV or Varsity squads ever play on this team. Indeed, the coach of the team when he invited Gus to work out with them was very careful to state that there was likely not going to be room for him.
Given the amount of baseball rejection endured over the years, including not making the JV team when he tried out last spring, Gus could have easily—and justifiably—just said that he’s going to play plenty of baseball with his other team, and that with adjusting to being in High School, he’d just stand content on where he is. Indeed, as a concerned parent not wanting him to overwhelm himself, I myself was leaning in that direction.
Not only did he accept the invitation to work out with the High School team, but he chose to miss the Mets-Nationals Labor Day game (you know, back when the Nationals were in a pennant race? LET’S GO METS! Sorry can’t help myself) in order not to miss a single practice, even though he was told that just making one of the three would be sufficient.
In the end, he was indeed invited to play with the team, and is working his keester off to balance his academic demands while playing baseball six days a week.
And the point of all this is?
Gus sucks at catching pop flies.
[Insert sound of record scratching here]
I know, after heaping on all that praise, why am I focusing on what he struggles at? Am I that kind of coach and father that is simply never satisfied and always picks on the weaknesses?
I really hope not.
But, ever since having his finger sliced open by the stitches of a ball on a pop fly back in 4th Grade (I know! What are the chances? He needed four stitches), Gus has struggled with infield fly balls. And whether it’s learning how to lay off a high fastball, stay in front of a sharply hit grounder, or, yes, get the right break on a pop fly, every single ballplayer, no matter how accomplished, has weaknesses in their game. And practice is the time to focus in on those weaknesses.
But what kind of practice?
Indeed, after Gus had a fantastic game with his “A” squad a couple of Saturdays back, going 3-3 and having a great defensive day behind the plate, he still missed a foul pop fly at first base. His coach complemented his overall game, and noted that his struggles with popups made him “look like a bad player” even though it is clear he is a very good one.
That’s when his coach sent him this video, one I think every player and parent should watch:
This video speaks to an essential truth, it is very difficult to become a better ballplayer just practicing those couple of days a week that even most travel teams do. For my 11u team, it is especially difficult, as we’re limited to only one practice per week in the fall.
But this shouldn’t apply to my big boy, right? I mean, he’s practicing or playing five or six days a week. So he should be covered, right?
Again I say, not practice, but what kind of practice?
The one issue that video didn’t cover, and I think a crucial one, is that when teams come together to practice, it is so they can get better as a team. In 90 minutes with a dozen or more kids, you simply don’t have the time to break down swings, do detailed mechanical analysis on fielding, or correct every single player’s release point on the mound. Getting leads, hitting cutoff men, defending the bunt, situational hitting—all those and many more take priority over the individual—they have to, because it is a team sport.
So while a player will get some individual instruction during a practice, the only way to really work on getting better is to find time outside of the team practice to focus on the areas in need of improvement.
Now you might be saying, “But my kid spends every waking moment in the back yard practicing. It’s getting him to crack a book that’s the problem!”
Again I’ll say…
What kind of practice?
Players of all stripes, but I’ve found this to be true especially of the talented players, tend to shy from working on the areas where they are weak. It’s natural to want to improve on strengths, so good hitters love to swing and good fielders love to play catch. To my big boy’s credit we were out last week for a full hour taking popup after popup, and he’s yet to miss one in a game after that.
But for others, the myriad responsibilities and opportunities of modern youth call them away from the diamond or even back yard. Other sports, homework, and, of course, those rectangular black holes of time and space often win out for right or for wrong.
While I agree to a certain extent with Coach Antonelli’s lament regarding the rigid overscheduling that often besets modern kids, these are the times in which we live. So rather than fight the tide, I am trying a new system where I am giving my players a discrete, 15 minute task every day we’re away from the field.
To me, doing practice outside the team is about trying to build a routine—something that can help kids gain self-discipline and organization skills. Yes, it helps them become better ballplayers, but it really plays into my mantra as a coach to try and make youth baseball about something that transcends the game itself.
Here is my Arlington Aces Fall 2015 Practice Chart. It focuses each day on a different aspect of the game; including the mental and physical conditioning they’ll need to step up even more during the winter. While I have no doubt that many coaches may have different—and perhaps better—ideas for their players, I believe this to be a solid template of drills designed to keep kids motivated but not overwhelmed.
Now, as to that motivation, I know that kids are also, well, kids, and I know that even the baseball-loving guy or gal might submit to the siren song of the boob tube. But there’s another thing I know kids like.
They like to say the word because it’s rude without being profane. And despite all those electronics, a piece of candy or a little squirt gun is still a huge draw.
And so I have created CoachN’s Big Bag of Crap (patent pending), filled with candy, chips, and cheap little toys I get on clearance. In order to earn a pull from the magic bag, they need to do one of three things:
1) Turn in their weekly practice sheets with each day signed off by their parents;
2) Win our weekly “Grinder of the Week” t-shirt—an award given to four players who showed exemplary grit and determination irrespective of statistics;
3) Have a perfect team warmup. We have a relay play they must do 10 times perfectly.
I have had some issues with kids focused more on the BoC rather than the practice, it is easy to turn the conversation back to the matter at hand by simply saying, “If you’re talking about the bag, you’re not getting anything from the bag.” And the resounding “BAG-OF-CRAP” chants that delight the kids and make parents ever-so-slightly uncomfortable is worth the fairly insubstantial investment to stock it.
So whether it is for love of the game, or love of crap, finding the ways to get kids thinking about practice as more than just showing up to a field will help them mature both as players, and as people.
And, yes, I do filch a treat now and again.
Stupid delicious Swedish Fish.