Ping Pong, Baseball, and the Art of (Non) Competition

February 8, 2016

Ping Pong

“My recommendation.  Lift weights.  Heavy weights.  A lot.”

That’s what my older son’s coach told him at the post-season dinner that ended his first season playing high-school level ball.  He didn’t make the JV team as an 8th Grader, but was invited to play fall ball; an unofficial version the area high school teams playing in the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League.  The coaches are not the high school staff, as they are not allowed to coach during the fall.  Instead, a group of former players in their teens and twenties volunteer to lead the squad.

These young guys all still love to lift, and lift big, and that’s been the gospel in baseball for a while now.  I remember in my injury-interrupted efforts to play college ball, the first thing my coach told me to do when I hit campus was to hit the weight room.  Indeed, strength training has now become a standard element of elite ball, as despite the fact that baseball has a more ecumenical reputation for focusing on performance rather than size, first impressions still matter.

And big guys get the benefit of the doubt.

So it was something of a revelation when Gus’s former travel coach, a seasoned veteran who has been helping kids in the area develop for the better part of two decades now, threw a wrinkle into the traditional off-season grunt fest: he recommended the kids play Ping-Pong.

I had never thought about it before, but the second I read those two words, it was a light-bulb moment.  Both for offense and defense, quick hands, anticipation, and tracking the ball are crucial to a developing baseball player’s skill-set.  And while I agree that getting stronger is important, neither strength nor speed are truly the foundational skill for quality baseball players – it’s quickness.

We asked our boys if they’d be interested in a Ping-Pong table as their combined gift for the holidays, and I was surprised that they both almost instantaneously agreed.  So I found a good deal on a nice table at Costco that fit in what was until December our indoor baseball/football/wrestling/light saber fight space.

Ping-Pong was huge at my high school, and I’m a fair tennis player, so I’ve always been pretty good.  And my skills have held up I garnered family bragging rights as I not only cooked our Thanksgiving dinner solo, but also managed to bag the trophy at the first annual Table Turkey Tourney over Thanksgiving.

And this brought me to a bit of a conundrum.  At the moment, I’m still better than my boys at the game.  Both my fellas have a competitive streak; certainly not a bad thing in itself.  And while I would sometimes let up a bit, I refuse to simply lose on purpose – they won’t get any better or learn any lessons from it (okay, maybe with a little drop of ego mixed in).

But at first what I found was that even after close matches and my noting that they were getting better (and they were), they really didn’t want to play me anymore.  When I coaxed them to the table, they would either get frustrated and either play angry (slamming the ball at my head) or just not take it seriously (slamming the ball at my head).  While they would play each other on occasion, our grand experiment (and investment) looked like nothing more than a holiday fad.

Determined to stem the tide of ambivalence, I thought I had found a fun “power with” way to bridge the competition gap.  I had suggested to my little guy that instead of playing against each other, we see how long we could hold a rally.  He was into it, and we had a nice 10 minutes trying to best our top number.  But as I dreamed of what a wonderful blog post I would be writing about “power-with Ping-Pong,” I found in fairly short order that that there was a downside.

For as we improved at playing together, our efforts to push each other with angles and pace diminished.  We held back, hit more softly, and aimed as much as we could for the middle of the table.  While it was fun, it was clear that the developmental end of the game was being thwarted by the cooperative one.

Once again stymied by, the answer I was searching for presented itself through that wondrous instrument of education: television.  My little guy, not normally huge tennis fan, does love the idea of sports greatness.  And after Serena Williams’s run at the Grand Slam last year, he was very interested in watching her begin a new quest.  So as Gunnar sat on the sofa and watched the Australian Open, my big fella toyed with the Ping Pong paddle; the tennis serving as a Pavlovian call to action.  I asked him if he wanted to play, and a deep throated, “Sure” warbled forth in lukewarm agreement.

But when he started to rally, it wasn’t with any seriousness.  Rather, he began to grunt like a tennis player every time he swung.  I started to become peevish immediately as the balls flew straight past the table (and at my head).

But this time, instead of going into “Coach Mode,” I caught myself.  One of the things I sometimes forget as kids – my kids included – is that getting a little silly is important at any age.  Any game, at the end of the day, needs to be a game.  We want our players to work hard and get better, but what’s the point if it’s not fun?

And so I pulled out my very favorite tennis grunt in history, the high-pitched “Wha-Unh!” squeal of Monica Seles.  And we stood there at the table, paddling, grunting, and giggling over our ridiculous contest.  We didn’t keep score, but we ended up having a number of epic rallies; the non-competitive competition allowed me the space to push him without him feeling like he was being pushed.

Gunnar, fascinated by the absurdity, but always the literalist, demanded to know if I was doing an accurate Monica Seles impression.  My wife had just come in, and showed him how well I screeched by finding an old Seles-Graf match on YouTube.  After affirming my skill, he demanded to join in, and a new family tradition was born.

The boys either play each other, their friends, or me must about every day now, and rarely do we keep score.  Instead we compete without competing, focusing on the fun.  The result is that both boys can now far more easily respond to balls with more pace.  Even if they hit the ball out, just by getting to it, they are showing that their reflexes and eye-hand coordination are improving.  Even though some video games do have an element of reflex and eye-hand coordination training, they really can’t match real-world physical interactions (at least not yet—virtual reality may have something to say about that soon).

I saw the proof that this training translates just this past weekend at my 11u travel team’s winter workouts.  I was running the pitching machine and had turned up the speed higher than they had seen it all off-season.  Gunnar, a solid if unspectacular hitter on my B-Team last year, stepped in and simply out-performed about 2/3 of the guys, including about half of the A-Team players.  It was clear that his ability to judge and react was profoundly improved with a couple of months tracking and chasing Ping-Pong balls.

So whether it’s a full-sized table or just one of those portable nets you can spread across in the dining room (but watch out for that chandelier!), I highly recommend Ping-Pong as an offseason training tool.  The Seles squeal is optional, but highly recommended.

Summer Camp, Spiderman, and the Social Art of Catching

December 17, 2015

Scott Catcher

Those who know me and my lunatic ways on the baseball field are often surprised to learn about how painfully shy I was as a child.  Many introverts are shy as kids, as we do not realize until later in life that while we can be social, and, yes, even enjoy being social, that it takes a tremendous amount of energy for us to do so.

As a child, this feeling of social depletion often leads to an aversion to and anxiety about being with people.  I remember this being especially hard for me at my one sleep-away camp, Blue Star, a Jewish camp in North Carolina.  In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad camp.  I made a good friend, almost landed my first real girlfriend, and hindsight tells me it had most of the usual activities and idiocies that movies like Meatballs tell me I should expect from the experience.

But I hated it.

I have come to understand that my particularly strong negative reaction came from the fact that you are never, ever alone at sleep-away camp.  From bunks to bathrooms, there is no respite from socializing other than sleep (fleeting as it was with the usual jackass pranks and early-morning bugles).

Those of you who aren’t introverts might think that the person reading the book in a crowded restaurant has that issue solved.  Now that I’m a little more comfortable in my own skin, I can do that and feel energized.  But at the ripe old age of 12, I knew that just made me look like the weird kid.

My one redeeming moment at Blue Star was in the annual talent show (Meatballs, I’m telling ya).  At that time, I was a huge Steve Martin fan; listening to Comedy is not Pretty until the needle wore out, and tacking his “Best Fishes” photo from the album along-side my poster of U.S. Senator John Blutarski.  My counselor refused to let anyone not participate, and told me to “do something” for the Gong Show portion of the competition.

I really can’t remember the routine, as when he literally pushed me on stage, I just kind of went somewhere else.  I remember poking fun at the guy who went on before me (he used a dead frog on a stick to do a dance) and teased the counselors.

I remember laughs.  A lot of them.

And I remember after asking my counselor whether people were making fun of me when they laughed.

“No way, man!” he replied earnestly.  “You were hilarious! Who knew Scott Nathanson was funny?”

In looking back at my childhood, I realize that there were two places “in a crowd” I actually felt energized: on the stage, and behind the plate.

The one unifying factor for both?

I was Spiderman.

That nerdy kid who put on the mask and became the wise-cracking hero.

Whether it was playing King Achashverosh, the drunken regent of Persia for my 3rd Grade Purim play (back by popular demand in the 4th!), or the lout of a husband who gets his just “desserts” in my fabulous filmmaker friend Thom Harp’s Proof is in the Pudding, putting on the mask of another character felt freeing rather than draining.

I felt the same way when I put on a catcher’s mask.  While normally my coaches had issues prying a single sentence out of me, when I caught, it was hard to shut me up.  I talked to my pitcher non-stop.  I urged.  I coaxed.  I may have even taunted the batters just a little, tiny bit at times.  I distinctly remember a few hitters telling me to, “Shut the hell up.”  I would merely shrug, and continue to yammer away.

And despite being born with a terminal case of “Catcher’s Disease”—I’m left handed—I was pretty darned good.  I remember getting validation early on.  I was nine, and our ace Pitcher Wes Winterstein was on the mound.  I was late to the game and arrived in the 2nd to find that we were already down to the Phillies 6-0.  To make matters worse, they had runners on first and second with no one out.  I remember the coach saying, “Thank god you’re here,” and taking out the boy catching in the middle of the inning as soon as I was suited up (not something I would do today as a coach, mind you).

The change in Wes was immediate.  I remember to this day yelling at him, “I’m back, let’s go!”  He stared in, and buzzed a strike down the middle.

The Phillies wouldn’t score again.

It’s funny how in the scramble to help kids find their own path, we coaches – and I think teachers and parents as well – will sometimes shy away from our own stories.  We don’t want to do the, “Back in my day…” thing; feeling rightly that each child and each generation has unique characteristics and qualities.  And as the mercury pushed up past 70 degrees this past Saturday, I organized a special catcher’s clinic for my 11-year-olds.  My main goal was to start working on how to frame pitches and the mechanical skills it takes to move (or not move) the glove.  And I had been watching a lot of videos on technique and found new approaches to framing I had never learned as a player.

But as I brought the boys to the backstop, all those old memories began to flood back.  And so we spent as much time talking about who you need to be as a catcher than what you need to do.  Both are important, but I realized just then that I had been remiss with my catchers in instruction on the former.  I think it’s because that, ironically for an introvert, that was the one part of this very difficult game (and an even more difficult position) that actually came naturally to me.

And so, I have committed myself to working more with my catchers in general, but go beyond just framing, throwing, and blocking.  Those skills make for getting better at playing baseball, but they don’t make for better ballplayers.  In addition, the social art of catching transcends the game itself, teaching empathy, leadership, partnership, along with verbal and non-verbal communications skills that can help a player mature as a person.

Now there are a million great catching videos out there (I’m quite partial to the Touch ‘Em All series, and this GameChanger blog has a nice compilation) that go into the mechanics of the position.  But for those interested, here are my tips that look at the skills you need behind the mask.

CoachN’s Social Skills Catching Drills

  • “Talk” with the umpire: A catcher is having a game-long conversation with the umpire, both verbal and non-verbal.  Remember that you want it to be a friendly conversation, not a debate.  Introduce yourself to the umpire at the beginning, and make him feel like you’ll do your best to give him the best looks at the pitches and protect him as best you can.  Then continue that conversation with every pitch you receive.
  • Your #1 job: be your pitcher’s best friend:  The best friend a catcher has on the team is whoever it is on the mound at that moment.  Your job is to make him feel comfortable and confident no matter what the situation.  Talk to him, point at him, take the blame for wild pitches if he’s having trouble even if it’s really not your fault.  Plain and simple, the pitcher is the center of the action and driving the plot, not you.  Your job is to try and get the best out of him you possibly can.  To geek-out a bit, he’s Luke, you’re Yoda.
  • Be positive: About the worst thing I have ever seen a catcher do is call time out, go up to the pitcher, and tell him that he stinks (and yes, I have seen that).  If you think that is a good move for a catcher, it’s time to find another position to play.  A catcher should be relentlessly encouraging to his pitcher, giving him fist-pumps and thumbs-ups on good strikes and close pitches, and little encouragements and the occasional pat on the keester if he’s struggling.
  • Be honest: If the coach comes out and asks you how you think the pitcher is doing, be honest with the coach.  You have the best view of the pitcher, and if you are focused on him, should be able to get perhaps an even better sense than he has as to whether he has anything left in the tank.  If you think he does, go to bat for him, as that buys you considerable cred with your pitcher and will pump him up.  The coach will make the final call, but you can definitely help him, the pitcher, and the team by being honest.
  • Speak like Spiderman: Chatty, competitive, and a little funny; just like you see the catcher in movies from The Sandlot to Bull Durham.  So talk all the time, not just when you have a conference on the mound.  While you need to feel out if this is working for your pitcher or the umpire, these are the good base traits for a catcher.  A chatty catcher will sometimes engage and sometimes annoy hitters.  Either way, they are thinking about something else other than the pitcher; that’s a good thing.  Chatty catchers help keep the umpire engaged and develop a relationship.  Getting a grin out a pitcher in a stressful moment helps to relax him.  Chatting also helps keep you focused and not falling asleep behind the plate.
  • The catcher/pitcher relationship does not end on the field:  When an inning is over, players tend to go find their buddies on the team and hang with them.  Remember, no matter what the case outside the ballpark, the pitcher is a catcher’s best buddy. Unless you’re getting ready to hit, spend the time in the dugout talking about the last inning—what was working and what wasn’t.  Go to the coach together and give suggestions (particularly if the coach is calling pitches) as to what pitches and locations seem to be working or if something is making your pitcher uncomfortable.  If it looks like a new pitcher is coming in the game, bring that pitcher together with the last one to share information.
  • Talk catcher-to-catcher: Talk to the other catchers on the team during the game.  You may not catch the whole time, but the catcher who was in the game should be giving information to whomever is coming in about the umpire, the pitcher, and anything you’ve seen in the hitters.  That information is vital and you do no favors to the next guy by having him come in cold.
  • Frame a ball, tell a lie: Umpires will know a clear ball if they see one–it’s usually anything more than 2-3 inches (that’s not much) outside the strike zone.  Any pitch you jerk from far off the plate is a lie you are telling to the umpire and your pitcher.  It makes both of them less trustful of you.  Just catch that ball and quickly throw it back to the pitcher to keep him in rhythm.
  • Move a strike, lose a strike: This is about the hardest thing to do at the same time that you are learning to stay outside the borderline pitches and catch the ball with a slight movement toward the corner of the plate.  If a strike carves the outside corner and you move it toward the middle, you are telling the umpire you think that pitch was outside.  If you catch a pitch crossing over the middle of the plate and you simply follow it as it finishes inside, you’ve turned a strike into a ball.  Same goes for a pitch at the top or the bottom of the strike zone.  For any pitch anywhere in the strike zone, the less movement, the better.  This may be a skill, but it’s also part of the conversation, as by holding a ball in place, you are telling both your pitcher and the umpire to, “check out that beautiful strike.”  Now that’s framing.

Now, you’ll note that this list does not include anything on the “field general” end, such as calling out plays and cuts and such.  I’m just starting that with my catchers, and really want them to get comfortable with the pitch-and-catch aspect of the game, as most coaches will tell you this aspect is about 75% of the job.

Until next time, True Believers!

Of Tacos and Teamwork

December 15, 2015

Aces Trophy

Perhaps the biggest upset a team that I coached ever pulled was a couple of years back with my 9u Aces.  In the first game of “The Doc” – the season-ending tournament here in Arlington – we were matched up with the rival Arlington Travel Baseball Arsenal.

This was the ATB “Blue” team—meaning their A-squad.  We were the B-team for Arlington Babe Ruth, and after struggling for most of the season, we had bounced back with a couple of big wins and were starting to feel like we could compete.  ATB, however, were feeling like the team to beat.  Indeed, I found out from their coach later that weekend that they had just come off an improbable first-place finish in an elite tournament in Pennsylvania.

And that was when, as that coach then said, we took them to the woodshed.

11-1 mercy rule in 5 innings.

Now, I’d like to think that amazing performance was due to my awesome pre-game visualization exercise.  I had asked my players to close their eyes and picture themselves making a big play, picture another player making a big play, and, yes, holding up a tournament trophy.  I told them it was good to picture it, to dream of it, to believe they could do it.  Then I told them to open their eyes, look across the diamond, and see the first team standing in their way.

Pretty sweet coaching stuff, eh?

But, really, when I look back on it now, I think there was something far more important that inspired us that day.

Tacos.

Yep, those crunchy Mexican sandwiches-in-a-shell.

For as the game began, so, too, did the dance I did with Tyler, one of my favorite – and most maddening – kids.  I had been coaching Ty, alternatively named over time Tippecanoe, Mr. Smooth, and Mr. Dangerous (which has now morphed into “Dangeroo”), since he was in Kindergarten.  His Dad TJ and I have coached together almost as long.

Tyler is both big and young for his age; smart as a whip, funny as hell, but very easily distracted.  Indeed, there was a time when both TJ and I thought that the more stationary nature of baseball was just not a good fit for him and he’d be leaving the game.  But the combination of his big brother’s passion and a summertime viewing of The Sandlot turned him all around.

Mr. Dangerous was certainly all that at the plate for us that season; his oversized, gangly body and less-than-classic swing was a fantastic example that while there are many ways to swing a bat incorrectly, there really is no one-size-fits-all way to do it right, either.  But while Tyler was clearly our best hitter, in the field he was like one of those St. Bernard puppies with a small body and adult-sized paws.  You could tell that there was (and still is) potential there with that big arm, but no position on the field was a good fit for him quite yet.  And while during the season I was committed to giving all players time in the field, come tournament time I clearly noted to players and parents we were going to put our team in the best position for success.

This left Tyler in the middle of the batting order, but mostly on the bench when on defense.  In the past, Tyler on the bench had been something of an issue, as his extroverted, smart, and funny ways would combine with his less-than-fully-mature focus to become a real distraction.  And when he started a full-throated chorus about how much he loved tacos, I was once again ready to pull my old “3 strike” rule from my t-ball bag of tricks, as I wanted to nip this latest diversion in the bud.

But shortly after I stared my first dagger in Ty’s direction and barked, “Focus on the game!” it happened.

Ping

A hit.  A solid single against ATB Blue’s best pitcher.

“Coach!  The Taco song!  It’s good luck!” cried Tyler.  He quickly coaxed a couple of his teammates to start singing it as well.

A walk

“See coach!  It’s working!” he screamed.

I didn’t like it.  But then I remembered one of my oldest rules, one quite hard for a control-freak like myself to accept: let the players find their own fun.

“Okay, let’s hear it, then!” I yelled back.

Tyler was over-the-moon, and the other players quickly gravitated to the ludicrous new team anthem.  The ode to that Tex-Mex wonder belted from the bench until I gave that gentle reminder to the umpire that, yes, we had just taken a 10 run lead.

The B-team and its taco tune had won the day.

To a man, the team credited the Taco Song for our victory in our postgame huddle.  And I agreed, because it turned our dugout from its usual home of schoolroom gossip and anywhere-but-here conversations into the biggest, loudest, weirdest rooting section on the field.

I was recently reminded of this tale because of the Washington Post article on the new NCAA basketball darlings – the Monmouth Hawks.  Here’s a quote from the article:

The Monmouth Bench Mob – the title the four players gave themselves – created more than a dozen intricate, choreographed group celebrations, replete with invisible props and Improv-troupe acting chops. When Monmouth toppled Notre Dame on Thanksgiving night, the result sent a ripple throughout the sport. Videos and Vines of the bench’s hilarious dances in response to three-pointers and dunks burst across the Internet and played on highlight shows. So when the Hawks visit Verizon Center on Tuesday night to face Georgetown, they arrive as a dangerous team that’s already beaten three power conference teams, yet are known primarily for four goofs on the sideline.

The only thing missing from this is the fact that, while there is no doubt that Monmouth has a talented team, much like my Aces, those four goofs and their own version of the Taco Song is also a key not only to their popularity, but their success.  Those four goofs keep the players on the court feeling loose, happy, and energized.  Those four goofs energize their fan base in a way that no fan section, no cheerleader, and no mascot could ever do.  They distract the other team without demoralizing them.  They show that the sum of a team can be more than the composition of their individual parts.  They show that every player on a team has an important role to play.

I am passing this article along to all my kids’ parents and asking them to share it with my players.  Because in our 10u season, my team really lost its inner Taco Song, and I truly believe that while we saw individual growth in a number of players, is why we as a team had trouble competing consistently.

Next season, I am actually going to focus a little less on skills development, and open each practice with a non-baseball team-building exercise.  For while as a coach I have (finally) figured out that I cannot write their Taco Song for them, I can do a better job providing the instruments to help them compose it.  Ultimately it will be up to them to decide the song they want to sing; the team they want to become.

I for one am rooting for enchiladas.  It’s more fun to say.

Why Utley’s Slide Matters to Youth Baseball

October 11, 2015

WinFor RubenMy older boy was playing a game last week in Fairfax County with his high school JV team.  This being his first experience with this level of baseball, it’s been quite the education for him.  For rather than play in the JV division, his team is playing other varsity teams, meaning big, strong kids with pitchers hurling well north of 80mph.

Gus has struggled a bit at the plate, as has almost every player, but he’s held his own.  And his team was holding a 3-1 lead going into the 7th inning of a well-contested battle.  Gus was catching, and our new pitcher was struggling badly.  He had already given up a run, had walked four batters, and they had the bases loaded with no one out.
When the count went to 3-2, we awaited the inevitable.  Our pitcher went into his stretch, came set, and…

THONK

…the lights went out.

10pm.  Nite-nite for this particular field.

The 7th inning ceases to exist, and we win 3-1.

As the gossamer batter threw his shadowy helmet to the ground in frustration, all of us parents looked at each other with a guilty grimace.

“That’s not a good ending for anybody,” said Joe, one of Gus’s former youth travel coaches, whose son is also on the team.

I am reminded of this given the ugly events that happened last night with Chase Utley breaking the leg of Ruben Tejada in the NLDS Game 2 between the Dodgers and my beloved Mets.  While the event wounded my not-so-inner Mets fan, it and the reaction to it hurt CoachN more.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook in an open letter to MLB:

Dear MLB.com you, and the umpires you employ, decided to show baseball-loving kids around the country that, so long as you think you can get away with it, it is okay to try and hurt a defenseless player because the play is so important.

I heard the talking heads on MLB Network talk about how catchers are now protected, so why not middle-infielders? THEY ARE PROTECTED! THERE IS A RULE! It just takes the minimal courage involved in simply doing your job.

This is made far worse by the fact that it was Chase Utley, a Hall of Fame-caliber ballplayer with a history of playing dirty. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Hard-nosed is fine, it is great. But Utley has crossed that line multiple times, and your cringing from the proper course of action is an open encouragement for hyper-competitive players and coaches to think that somehow this is acceptable because, after all, the Dodgers won in the end.

Youth baseball, particularly at the travel level, is plagued by the “Winning is the Only Thing” mentality. It is a significant reason why participation in travel baseball is down across the country, as parents are increasingly wary of putting their children in a system where their values and priorities for their kids, such as fair play, respect for teammates and opponents, and that the competition is as important as the result, are subverted by a concept of the game that prioritizes results over process or even the rules themselves.

Your umpires, and then the subsequent confused, half-hearted, finger-pointing “defense” of what happened by Joe Torre only serves to reinforce this notion.

As a Mets fan, I was okay with losing last night. Not only did we already win one, the Mets have given me a thrilling season win-or lose. What you and your umpires have done by cowering away from upholding the rules damages the game in ways well beyond this game or this series, or even the Major Leagues itself.

As a father, a youth coach, and a fan, I am disgusted by everything that has happened during and after that play. You should be ashamed. I will certainly be addressing this with my players, as hopefully at least someone can learn the right lesson from this event.

With greatly diminished respect,
Scott Nathanson
Manager/Head Coach
CoachN’s FUNdamentals

Utley has now been suspended two games for the illegal slide.  As one Twitter poster noted, “I wonder if Tejada can appeal his broken leg?”  Of course, Utley has appealed, like a true bully refusing to admit he’s done anything wrong.

For while my son’s victory came with a bit of embarrassment to his team, Utley and the reaction by his Dodger teammates and Major League Baseball has embarrassed the game.

October

October 9, 2015

I just posted this on Facebook:

No offense to my Oxy friends, but...yeah.

No offense to my Oxy friends, but…yeah.

I woke up today and my team is still going to play in the playoffs.

After a (virtual) decade after my 5-year-old was brought to tears (and driven into the arms of the Nationals) by Adam Wainwright’s filthy curve.

After seeing my boyhood baseball home closed with a second straight collapse.

After watching my captain and star player literally break his back.

After meandering through years in the desert of mediocrity.

After sitting at Nationals Park THIS YEAR watching a lineup with four batters…four…batting under .200.

My team is in the playoffs.

And he was happy.

Let’s-Go-Mets

With all respect to fans of other sports, there is nothing in the world like playoff baseball.  This is because the ebbs-and-flows, that languid summer rhythm of the game dissolves.  A game designed to be marathon suddenly becomes like sprinting a marathon; every step magnified as if that will be the very one that wins the race.

Fans standing on every two strike count.

Stadiums literally shaking in the frenzied excitement of the moment (not sure if Citi Field will shake, but lord knows Shea Certainly did).

Even nature itself lends to the theater as the sun dims to darken the theater; the air itself crisping, even ever-so-slightly in the desert air of Los Angeles, to sharpen the flavor of autumn baseball.

It is a rich and unique experience, made heart-wrenchingly, agonizingly incredible when your team makes the most exclusive dance in all of professional sports (even with the two Wild Cards).

For when Jacob DeGrom unleashes his first pitch at Dodger Stadium, I will be seven-years-old, sitting on the porch in the Bronx, my ear pressed to a transistor radio as Bob Murphy prepared for one of the few Happy Recaps of the season. I sat at my Grandmother’s feet as she watched the Yankees game on a black-and-white TV.  She was actually the biggest Mets fan of us all, but got so nervous that she couldn’t watch them, but could always root for the Yankees to lose.

I will be 16, tossing myself over my basement sofa in Atlanta in a feat of gymnastic dexterity I will never attempt again, as Vin Scully chirped, “Around comes Knight and the Mets win it!”

Shea didn't need lights, only that smile.

Shea didn’t need lights, only that smile.

I will be 30, sitting with friends and family, and the love of my life who was carrying our first child, as a portly Hawaiian named Benny sent a 13th inning home run out of Shea.  The next time I would see a glow on her face to match that moment, she would be holding Gus in her arms.

During the pregnancy, we called him Benny.

And I will be 45, breaking out the blue pinstripes just as I did on that porch in the Bronx, yearning again for another Happy Recap, another link in that mental chain that helps to bind the oddities, vagaries, and tragedies of life into something resembling cohesion.

Win if you can.

Let me down if you must.

But welcome back to October, Metropolitans.

I’ve missed you.

15 Minutes and a Big Bag of Crap

September 30, 2015

I’m extremely proud of my big fella for many reasons, but for today, let’s talk baseball (shocker, I know).

That District title t-shirt has gotten a LOT of wear

That District t-shirt has gotten a LOT of wear

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.

Sorry Nats fans (not sorry).

Sorry Nats fans (not sorry).

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.

Why is my wife the greatest woman in the world?  Exhibit A

Why is my wife the greatest woman in the world? Exhibit A

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.

Crap.

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.

A world of pure imagination.

A world of pure imagination.

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.

I hate you.  No, I love you.

I hate you. No, I love you.

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.

House Rules

September 29, 2015
Just happy they chose soccer...

Just happy they chose soccer…

While I was recently interviewed in Arlington Magazine for an article on the ups-and-downs of travel sports, my feeling is that some of the greatest lessons for kids of any talent level can come from being a part of a house team.

Indeed, it is why I find it a shame when parents of elite-level youth players tap their fingers and roll their eyes during the house ball season, impatiently awaiting the end of league play so their child can go play “real baseball.”  Some go a step farther, pulling their kids out of league ball and shelling out the big bucks to go exclusively with club teams all year long.

What the “club kids” miss out on is truly precious.  For in hockey, basketball, soccer, and even football, one star can dominate the show.  But particularly due to the pitching restrictions put on teams in league ball, the big fish is still small compared to the whole pond.

There is no “rover” or “center” that can patrol the whole field.  There is no opportunity to take the shot every time.  It’s the kid with the runny nose and thick glasses—the kid who dreams just like the jock of someday feeling the soft rustle of major league grass underfoot—that may have the ball hit to him (or her) in that crucial moment.

“You’re never going to win at everything,” says Arlington Babe Ruth baseball coach Scott Nathanson, who’s been coaching for more than 20 years. “I try to equate baseball with joy and bring the life lessons that baseball teaches to the fore, rather than focusing on winning or losing.” — From Arlington Magazine.  Couldn’t have said it any better myself.  Oh, wait…

Indeed, in what was unquestionably my Aces’—the “B” travel team I coach—best game of the season, I had the opportunity to actually show some strategic smarts (not my specialty area, admittedly) and prove that very thing.

Two years ago, my big fella’s B Team, the Arlington Cardinals, headed to a great little tournament up in Frederick and upset the host team in the first round.  We were probably about evenly matched, save the coach’s son, who was an absolute monster.  That was a huge day for my own fella, as he both started, and much to the protest of the players on Frederick, came back in the game to get his own save.  I remember it well because my wife almost had a heart attack when we brought him back in.

My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades

My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades

Flash forward to this summer, and my Aces are playing a Frederick team much the same, this time with a kid we called “Fish” because his last name was some type of gilled animal, though precisely which one now eludes me.  This young man looked like he could swallow my skinny fella whole, and yet was faster than anyone on my team.  I was told by one of my players that he was a friendly sort, coming up to our dugout during our 2nd round game and saying, “Hi, I’m [Fish].  I’m the best player on my team.”

And, of course, the most humble.

Come the semi-final, we were locked in a 1-1 game in the 3rd, and my pitcher who was dealing but clearly running out of steam had just induced a groundout with runners at 1st and 2nd got get that second out.  Now, with two runners in scoring position, the big Fish swam to the plate, his shadow encompassing the entirety of the left-handed batter’s box.

I looked out to my guy, a wiry young thing named Tony, and you could see the look in his eye.  I call him “La Tigre” not just for the Frosted Flakes connotation, but because he’s a kid who loves a challenge.  But you could tell that he was running on fumes, and Fish was ready to reel him in.

I sat there on my bucket, wondering what pitch to call that might do the least damage, then something in the recesses of my brain crammed somewhere between Tickle Monster Base Races and Fuzzy Flies from Outer Space decided to spark.

“Tony, step off!” I yelled to my hurler.  He looked at me blankly, finally complying on my third request.  I called time, and jogged to the edge of the backstop where the tournament officials were scoring the game, and huddled with them and the umpire.

“What are the rules on intentional walks?” I asked.  “Do I need to throw four balls, or can I just put him on?”

The tournament orchestrator seemed taken aback a bit by the question.  “Well, uh, whatever the rules say…”

“I believe we’re playing by Cal Ripken rules,” I quickly interjected, given that was something I actually knew.  “At this level, I can just put him on.”

“He’s right,” the umpire said.  “That’s the standard 46/60 rule.”

“Allright then, do what you want,” said the official with a courtesy masking just a hint of frustration.

“Okay big fella, head on over to first,” I said, giving the umpire the point of the finger.  “That’s my tip of the cap to you.”

We were all grinning after the big win.

We were all grinning after the big win.

The grin on La Tigre’s face stretched like the Cheshire Cat.  He nodded, and it was like I had gone to the mound and given him a B-12 shot.  Fish was on first just long enough to watch Tony strike the next batter out on 3 pitches.  We ended up winning that game 3-2 in 8 crazy innings (inclusive of the boys spontaneously starting to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in our 7th inning huddle, an amazing memory in itself).  It was perhaps the best youth game I’ve ever been a part of, win or lose.

And that’s it.  No matter how good you are, baseball is designed to be a truly team game, by being a definitively individual one.  That’s what makes it such a great teaching tool.

That, “It’s not always about you” life lesson, and the feeling of self-enlightened empathy is even more heightened in house baseball, when you have travel-quality players mixed with those who struggle just to put the ball in play.

For while the “Fish” moment was fantastic, to me, and even more cinema-worthy scene came in our final spring house league game, a consolation affair after a tough, rain-shortened playoff loss.

My Blue Wahoos were locked in a good battle with the Hot Rods, one of the better teams in the league who also got upset in the first round.  We had lost to them earlier in the season in a game where we were defeated before we played, as the chatter of “they have five travel players on their team!” got squarely into my kids’ heads.

In the rematch, we were playing our game, and we were winning.  A tight contest was coming down to the Hot Rods final at bat.  And the game would come down to a kid we called, “Mr. Clutch.”

Yep, felt just like that.

Yep, felt just like that.

This little second-sacker, younger than most, smaller than most, loves baseball with an undying passion.  He earned his moniker by being able to tap the occasional grounder at the big moment and running it out for a hit, and I got all Mr. Miyagi-like when earlier in the season he lined one up the middle off a pitcher on the 9u “A” travel team.  “You just got a hit off a Storm pitcher!” I said after the inning.  “How does that feel?” I asked as he beamed.

On the defensive side, M.C. worked his keester off to make himself a solid defensive player.  But popups were still his bug-a-boo.  Indeed his Dad told me during the season that Clutch would demand they go into the yard and do nothing but practice popups, dropping them time-and-time again.

In that moment—two outs and the tying run on base—a high pop fly floated over his head.  No one else had even a remote shot at the ball—it was his or it wasn’t.  And in that moment, every Wahoo was invested in him and him alone; knowing that the smallest guy on the team was the only one who could come up big.

Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team.  His Dad says even in a different uniform, he's still doing things the "Wahoo Way."

Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team. His Dad says even in a different uniform, he’s still doing things the “Wahoo Way.”

Had anyone else made that play, it would have been sweet, but the explosion of joy that erupted from the entire team when that ball rattled and stuck in Mr. Clutch’s glove turned that memory into something so much more than that both for him, and for us.  Indeed, both the Hot Rods and Wahoos among my Aces, and they still talk about that catch.

Now I do understand the pull of high-level competitive youth baseball.  Talented players should have the opportunity of playing with and against other talented players to help them learn to play at a higher level.  My concern is, however, that Club Teams are the pricey siren song that allows talented players to shed core experiences that make baseball something bigger than the game itself.

So if you have a talented kid who is simply just better than the rest, think twice before pulling the plug on house ball.  I’ll also add that it’s equally important to disabuse those kids of the notion that house league play is just practice until “real” baseball starts in the summer.  Kids who do this disrespect the importance and efforts of those kids whose only season is the house season might are missing out on what the game is really all about.

So to all you are-or-would-be travel parents, do remember that your young star isn’t likely on a path to the big leagues.  It is the memories he makes and the lessons she takes from “Mr. Clutch” moments may well be more important in the long run than anything that happens in that summer travel tournament.

Becoming a Ballplayer

February 26, 2015

 

Not sure what lesson I'm teaching here, but this little fellas still playing ball!

Not sure what lesson I’m teaching here, but this little fellas still playing ball!

It is quite fascinating as a coach to toggle between my preschool classes and my work with older kids.

For my very little ones, my job as a coach is to teach them to love the game of baseball.  Find ways to make the basic skills of throwing, fielding, and hitting into something relatable and memorable, so that when the game of baseball gets “real” they will have both the fundamental skills to develop, and the attachment to the game that is enduring.

Once the kids graduate from tickle monster base races and Ninja Hitting, a coach’s job evolves as well.  At first, we just want the kids to love the game.  But when outs start to count, and not everyone gets a trophy at the end, we need to start teaching them to respect the game that they have, hopefully, come to love.

Most youth coaches will tell you that, given the relative attention spans of your average elementary schooler, when teaching a lesson, the key is to KISS (that’s Keep It Simple, Stupid).  For those of you who have read my posts before, you might know that’s something of a challenge for me.  But with the help of my fantastic co-coaches and borrowing liberally from others, a couple of years ago I put together our first set of player guidelines.  Being the Blue Wahoos, we called it “The Wahoo Way.”

The Wahoo Way is a set simple principles were what we expected from our players, and this list was the first thing up hanging in the dugout before every game.  We coaches constantly reinforced that while others may do things differently, we do things The Wahoo Way.  It became a great shorthand both for praise and criticism.

Finding a "Way"

Finding a “Way”

Last summer, I built on the shorthand of our Wahoo Way for my summer Aces 9u travel team.  I did so in two ways.  First, in our “Way of the Ace” instead of giving very simple principles, I instead used the acronym to give buzz words – Attitude, Competition, Effort, Sportsmanship.  And as you can see here, rather than simple sentences, we got more descriptive as to what those expectations were.

After all my players read this, we all, coaches and players alike, signed it.  One of my co-coaches from years past suggested this to me, but last year was the first time I actually used the idea of a signed pledge.  I would highly recommend it to every coach, and I really found that taking the time to discuss the pledge as a team, and then signing as a team brought a sense of accountability and commitment that was a fantastic way to start a season.  Just like The Wahoo Way, our signed pledge was up next to our lineup sheet on the dugout fence every single game as reminder that everyone “bought in” to the way we were doing things.

Hear the book is excellent as well.

Hear the book is excellent as well.

This winter, my 10-year-old’s basketball coach gave each player a copy of an article called Toughness by ESPN’s Jay Bilas.  Despite the fact it was more geared toward high-level high-school and college players, he asked them to read it for discussion at the next practice.

Both the piece itself, and Coach Jones’ request for them to read it were a huge eye-opener for me.  The article spoke brilliantly to what real basketball toughness meant, getting away from the chest-bumping and instead showing all the small ways, physical and mental, that turned a player into someone who really understood, appreciated and played the game right.

But what really struck me is the fact that Coach Jones didn’t simply keep it simple, but challenged the kids to read something more sophisticated, but meaningful about the game.  For there comes a point when if you want to teach kids truly lasting lessons in sports, you need to challenge their mind as much as their body.

After thanking Coach Jones for the great article, I said that I hoped there was something like it out there for baseball.  He responded that if there wasn’t, I should write something given my knowledge of the youth side of baseball.  I thought about it, fiddled with the idea, ran it by my coaches, and finally came up with something that I felt might be valuable and approachable to a youth baseball player as he (or she, no women on my team this year, unfortunately) starts to think about the upcoming season.

A few weeks ago, I challenged all my players to make an offseason fitness commitment.  I asked them to do as many pushups as they could, as many reverse crunches as they could, and sit in a catcher’s squat as long as they could.  Their goal is to be able to do 5 more pushups, 10 more crunches, and sit in the squat 15 more seconds at our first practice than they could when they first did them.

While I thought that was important, it was really the setup for what came next.  For after challenging their body, we sent them this letter and our new “Grinder’s Guide” to challenge their minds  Our central message–it’s time for them to think about the difference between playing ball and being a ballplayer.

We urged parents to read it together with their kids and discuss it, and be prepared to talk about it at our first practice coming up in a couple of weeks. And while I’m sure not every player will understand it all—heck, some may not even read more than what’s in bold—I believe that by not always keeping it simple, but bringing the brain into the game, you give players the opportunity to grow in way transcend the game itself.  To me, that’s really what coaching is all about.

Say it Ain’t So, Chicago

February 15, 2015
My first year--still dreaming of glory.

My first year–still dreaming of glory.

After my seventh grade season was over, my coach came up to me and said, “Scotty, what are you doing this summer?”  Well, I did the same thing every summer; jetting up to New York to be with my father.  Coach pursed his lips and said, “Oh, that’s too bad.  I was going to name you to the All-Star team, but I can only name two players and you need to be available the whole summer.  Why don’t you talk to your Mom about it.”

The All-Star team.

The words reverberated through my very soul.  I had heard about it for years.  A couple of past coaches had said that I had been among their top choices because I always hustled and was good defensively, but there always seemed to be a slugger and pitcher ahead of my curve.

Being a painfully shy, introverted kid, I was not one to even consider rocking the boat.  My parents were divorced and summer was my one big chunk of time with my Dad.  The mere notion of not going to New York in the summer—missing out on my trips to Shea Stadium or being stuffed until overflowing with edible love by my grandparents—those just seemed out of the question.  And so I turned down the offer—as it turns out my only offer—to play summer travel baseball.

baseball-little-league-world-series-west-region-vs-great-lakes-region-850x560I bring up this story because of the difference between what happened to me back then, and what is happening now in the system that produced the summer triumph and winter pain of Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League World Series team.

When the accusations came down about Jackie Robinson West coaches conspiring with state and regional Little League officials to knowingly falsify the borders of their league so that they could bring in those few extra players to help get them “over the top,”, Rex Huppke, columnist of the Chicago Tribune, said what many people were feeling:

There’s a sickness in youth sports in America, lurking just under the surface.  It’s a pathetic need among some adults to live vicariously through the success of children, and that need gets fed no matter what the cost.

The problem with that reaction, one I shared at first blush, is that it speaks to the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself.

Eight_men_bannedIndeed, it is akin to another Chicago baseball scandal of some renown.  For while Major League Baseball immediately addressed the surface issue of gambling and baseball, suspending the 1919 White Sox involved despite their escaping criminal conviction, it would take the game another half century to address the fundamental inequity of the Reserve Clause that gave owners almost slave-like control of their players fates.  It was this that allowed owner Charles Comiskey to treat his players like chattel; creating desperation and resentment that led Joe Jackson and his seven co-conspirators into the arms of the mob.

And, much like the suspending of those eight “Black Sox” was a Band-Aid to address the immediate offense, so too is Little League’s decision to punish the immediate wrongdoing—in this case creating collateral damage in the young men who did nothing but play their hearts out and represent the game of baseball in a way that paid tribute to the legendary name that their league adopted.

If you look more closely, however, youth baseball has a Reserve Clause-like issue of our own.  Huppke’s oversimplification of the problem with youth sports being “those grown-ups” actually does a disservice to a needed discussion, as it implies an, “It will always be this way…sigh.” kind of resignation.

I believe the more fundamental issue here is not jerk parents or jerk coaches.  Instead, it is the structure of youth baseball itself.

When spring rolls around and your local league opens its doors, the expectations are very different from what we are seeing with the Jackie Robinson West saga. Why?  Because everyone who signs up gets a chance to play ball.  That is what youth baseball is supposed to be all about—allowing kids a chance to start a lifelong relationship with our game.

What this often means as a practical matter is that players who might still close their eyes before they swing the bat are paired with kids that will one day play high school, college, or even pro ball.  Indeed, both leagues where I live, Arlington Babe Ruth and Arlington Little League, are constantly looking to tweak their systems to find the right blend between allowing kids to play with their buddies, and making sure that the teams are as competitively balanced as possible.

Many of these kids aren't playing baseball anymore, but I don't know one of them who is not still a fan.  THAT is youth baseball at its best.

Many of these kids aren’t playing baseball anymore, but I don’t know one of them who is not still a fan. THAT is youth baseball at its best.

This creates a special dynamic for youth baseball.  Unlike from what I have seen from youth basketball, soccer, football, or hockey, it is very difficult for a single player to simply “take over” a game.  The star player can’t bat every time to the plate; he or she usually gets up once out of every 11 or 12 times.  Most local leagues place strict innings limits so the star pitcher can’t be on the mound for maybe half of a game, if that.  Mandatory innings played rules ensure that no matter what skill level, players don’t sit the bench for more than one inning at a time.

The result is something that makes youth baseball an incredible experience.  Kids at every skill level learn that they must depend on each other.  They can see right before them that denigrating the weaker players on their team has a negative result that impacts them directly.  At its best, youth baseball teaches empathy, and the value of contributing to the best of your abilities.  It is teambuilding in the very best sense of the word.

Is that always how it happens in practice?  Of course not.  But that is the expectation.  A coach or a parent or a player has to work to make the experience ugly.  It certainly happens—I’d guess anyone who has played or had a child play a youth sport has seen it happen—but that really does tend to be the exception rather than the rule.  In many respects, this part of youth baseball remains very much unchanged from when I was a skinny little kid getting his one all-star invite some three decades (or maybe a bit more) ago.

In the spring, all the kids on that Jackie Robinson West squad played on a local league team, too—you have to in order to be eligible to play in Williamsport.  But when the local season ends, the baseball travel season begins.  And that is an entirely different animal.

Travel baseball flips the whole youth sports paradigm on its head.  No more “everyone can play.”  Instead the concept is that you are taking the best players in an area (or, as in the case of Jackie Robinson West, maybe a little more than an area…) and pitting them against other areas’ best kids. This concept creates an inherently different vibe.  For while the attentive coaches and parents can work to keep the focus on player development, teamwork, and friendly competition, the fundamental premise of travel sports elevates winning to a primary level.

Without a shadow of a doubt, I have seen more poor behavior among coaches and parents in one season of coaching travel ball as I have in all my seasons in local leagues combined.  Coaches that kick their 10-year-old kid off the pitching mound for crying (really, that happened).  Parents threatening to “go get their gun” when an umpire misses a call (really, that actually happened).  Coaches using a typo in our team’s lineup card to take a big hit away from one of our kids, and strutting off the field like they are some modern day John McGraw (I still can’t believe that one happened).

But the issues with travel baseball run deeper than just swinging open the door for hyper-competitive behavior among parents, coaches, and players.  I have also seen what travel baseball has done to undermine the value of local leagues.

When I was growing up, each local league coach selected the two top players on their team for the league all-star team.  This put real value on not only your skill, but impressing your coach enough to make him want to choose you.  This reinforced that “team first” attitude no matter what your skill level, as a talented but selfish ballplayer could get passed-over (and I saw that a couple of times when I was playing).

Last year, when I was put in charge of organizing the “B” summer travel team for my local league, I was told that I needed to have a tryout because everyone who expressed interest needed to have the opportunity, and we had almost 50 kids who were interested and we were taking only 15.  So I tried a hybrid approach in which we evaluated the kids and came up with a preliminary pool, but then consulted with the kids’ coaches to get some honest feedback.  That did make a difference, as several kids who were on the cusp of making the team were left off because of coach feedback about their hustle and sportsmanship.  It was a difficult, sometimes acrimonious process, but in all I thought it was a good one.

That, however, is not the process that my league is using this year.  Why?  Because all the other travel teams in the area were selecting their players for the summer team that previous fall.  This gives these teams a chance to play fall ball together, train over the winter, practice in the spring, and feel like a fully solidified team in the fall.

Finish Strong (and silly)!

Finish Strong (and silly)!

There is no doubt that such a system gives a group of kids a competitive advantage.  My Arlington Aces ended up on a big winning streak at the end of our summer season, and were the first B Team to make the finals of our local tournament.  But it took us the first 2/3 of the season for the coaches to really get familiar with the team, and for the team to feel like they were a team.

So now, both the A and B teams for our league are trying out in the fall as we don’t want to lose the “arms race” to the other league travel teams, not to mention the “club teams” that are independent of any league sensibilities.  For more on that point let me recommend Andrew McCutchen’s brilliant piece Left Out. Once we’ve selected these kids, we of course want to give them every advantage the other teams are getting.  That’s nice for the kids who make it, but by doing this it makes the house league seem like a superfluous requirement that the better players just have to do.

Indeed, I have heard a number of our travel players over the years scoff at the house games as “just practice.”  Having to play for the non-travel coaches and with non-travel players becomes an annoyance, and the best of what local league baseball can give to all players is diminished in the process.  At the end of the day, the players most likely to carry the lessons that house ball beyond the youth level are now, due to the structure of the game, least likely to truly inculcate them.

What those who led Jackie Robinson West did was a symptom of the larger disease that is the increasing “professionalization” of youth travel baseball.  And as one involved in that very phenomenon, this incident has caused me to take pause of what I am doing, how I will be coaching, and how my league approaches travel baseball.  For while I’m very proud that my son “made the team,” I have made sure that he knows that his pals on our Blue Wahoos team are counting on him just as much as his travel team is.

I’m not sure there is any simple solution, but perhaps by understanding the problem a bit better, we can seek paths that better enable the game of baseball to work for our kids, rather than the other way around.

Hit Like a Ninja

December 5, 2014

This is my method to get kids to understand and get the feel for the complexities of the “load” part of a baseball swing.  I’ve used this a number of times now in classes with great success.  Here’s a story about how I integrated it into practice.

NINJA HITTING
 
STANCE
Inline image 1
Begin by holding the bat like this.  For right-handed hitters, right hand goes on top of the left, hands always touching (reverse for Lefties).  Notice how the elbows are up rather than drooping by the sides.  While eventually the front elbow will (and should) drop, this allows them to approach the plate in a balanced position (and makes them feel all ninja).

TURN THE HEAD,  BOP THE EAR, STEP & PULL
 
Inline image 2
  • TURN: Righties turn their head toward their left shoulder (and, again, vice-versa for lefties).
  • BOP: Then we take our bat and bop our ears with our HANDS, not the bat.  This reminds us to keep our hands high, like our Kung-Fu hippo above.  Remind them to keep the hands high until it’s time to swing.
  • STEP: Now we make our ninja step, which is a side step, not a step forward (righties, step with left foot, lefties, right foot).   (a great tip is to put a piece of tape on the floor, and have them practice their side step by putting their toes on the tape and making their toes stay on the tape as they step rather than stepping over or away from it). Also note that a typical mistake is for the kids to move their back foot backward and think they are taking a step forward.
  • PULL:  Again like our hippo pal, notice how the hands stay high, but pull back straight behind the ear.  This Ninja Hippo is ready to slice the bad guys or beat up that baseball!  Note that you can practice the “Step” and “Pull” separately, but eventually, you’ll want the Step & Pull to happen at the same time. Also notice how the ninja sword is straight up and down.  A traditional mistake is for kids to lay the bat on their shoulder, which causes their hands to drop on the swing and come around the ball, rather than straight to it.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 68 other followers