Archive for February, 2014

To Tee, or Not to Tee?

February 28, 2014

“But Coach, I can hit a pitched ball!”

DSC_0544This is the clarion call of the t-ball player, desperate to shed that kid stuff and start playing some real baseball.  And, of course, when Mom or Dad go out in the back yard and see that little Suzie can crank one onto the roof of their house (use whiffle balls around the house folks, as let me tell you from personal experience—and expense— even tennis balls can do some damage), they are ready to kick the tee to the curb and get their little slugger into coach pitch ASAP.

And that may well be the worst decision you can make for your young one’s development as a hitter.

What I say to both my kids and parents alike is, “You know who hits off a tee more than he does off live pitching? [INSERT FAVORITE MLB PLAYER HERE] does.”  And while that might be an exaggeration in some cases, it isn’t by much.  Tee work is a cornerstone of pretty much every major league hitter out there.  Why?  Because it allows a hitter to place the ball in exactly whatever part of the hitting zone he or she wants, and focus on the approach rather than trying to make contact.

Don’t believe me?  Perhaps Dustin Pedroia might be able to convince you:

But as important as the tee is to MLB hitters, it’s even more important to the kids just starting out.  This is because a baseball swing is a very complicated piece of physical mechanics.  Every part of the body has a very specific and important role.  Teaching proper head, hands, and feet positions is very difficult in itself.  I’ll describe some of my methods on how to break a swing down piece-by-piece to make it fun for the beginner in future posts, but safe to say that a child will have a LOT of moving parts to deal with just dealing with their own body.

Now, if you try to add a moving ball to the equation, most of the time proper swing mechanics just go out the window.  Indeed, often a young player will have more initial success hitting a ball with poor swing mechanics than with good ones.  Whether it is swinging off the front foot, spinning around in a circle, or chopping at the ball like it’s a piece of wood, what comes most naturally to a child is their body mechanical wheelhouse.

lizard brainThat’s their body’s default position, so when the Lizard Brain instinct takes over in a young player as they want to do anything possible not to fail, you’ve got a recipe for more short-term success and long-term issues.  That’s because you and your kids’ coaches will be spending more time down the line helping them to unlearn the poor approach that worked well enough at the beginning.

So both in terms of practice and league placement, don’t be in too much of a rush to ditch the tee.  The tee can allow coaches to do several different hitting drills at once, and because there will be less time spent on swinging-and-missing, kids will get more strikes at the ball and less time waiting their turn.  All while the coach can focus on good form from the very beginning.

Now if I’ve convinced you on the value of a tee, let me just give you fair warning before you go rushing out to the sporting goods store.  I have spent more time than I’d care to admit gazing upon scattered shards of plastic littering the ground: a brand new tee pulverized beyond recognition after a single practice.  In my next post, I hope to help you benefit from my dubious history to find a tee that works right for your players and your wallet.

Is Competing Bad for Kids?

February 13, 2014
Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

“Coach, we have a crier!”

The voice rang out from Tommy, my first-grader, and it wasn’t the first time.  Over the first three weeks of my first ever CoachN’s FUNdamentals class, this same little boy had made the same call each week as his Kindergarten teammate had become teary-eyed.

In my rush to make sure that the class continued, the first two times it happened, I zipped right past Tommy and right to Kyle, seeking out the source of the problem.  “Are you hurt, big man?” I asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.   A sleeve swept at the wet on his face, more successfully smearing rather than cleaning.  A simple shake of the head indicated that despite his frustration, he really, really wanted to play.

On the third occasion when we divided up into 3 teams for our Gorabigator fielding competition, Tommy once again unleashed his clarion call.  This time, however, I thought ahead.  Before talking with Kyle, I went to a knee, put my hand gently on Tommy’s shoulder, and said,

It's all about being a teammate.  I'll explain the Thor hat later.

It’s all about being a teammate. I’ll explain the Thor hat later.

“Tommy, what’s the most important thing about being a baseball player?”  His big brown eyes lit with the recognition that, perhaps, I wasn’t going to give him an approving pat on the back.

“Uh, being a…uh…team…sport,” he mumbled.  Close enough to run with.

“That guy over there wearing the same hat as you?  That’s Kyle.  Remember that he has a name, and it’s not Crier.”

I knew I had his attention, but I also knew I’d have it for about 10 seconds more—and that was all I could spare to make sure I kept the drills from lapsing into chaos.  “So while I know you’re just trying to help me, do you really think that’s respecting and supporting your teammate?”  Tommy shook his head slightly but definitively.  Point made.

Kyle was, of course, watching this from the wings.  I decided not to say anything to him at that moment other than, “Kyle, let’s go—glove to the ground.”  He slurped, sniffled, and fielded a grounder cleanly.

After the drill it was time for water break.  And I caught a break, as I had hoped that in coming to his defense, Kyle would open up a bit.  He came up to me and said, “Coach, do we have to do another game today?”

The question was a curious one to me, as I’ve found one of the key ways to keep kids interested in doing drills was to make the drills into competitions.  By splitting the kids up into two or sometimes three teams, I was able to keep them in the action while providing an incentive for the players to cheer for their teammates.  That’s what all the coaching books told me, and for years it’s been the perfect recipe.

So what gives?

“Why don’t you want another game, Kyle?”  I asked, seeing tears starting to well up once again.  He bravely kept his emotions from overwhelming him, and croaked, “I just don’t want to lose!” I responded with my standard line born from a million competitions-induced tears before:  that competition wasn’t about winning and losing, but striving to get better.  He reluctantly accepted my sage wisdom, and went onto be one of my biggest hitters of the day.  As we gave out star stickers for our hats, I have Kyle a big gold star for “comeback player of the day.”

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Problem solved, right?  Coach Scott’s great!  Give us the chocolate cake! And so forth.

But the next day, I was walking home from school drop-off with Kyle’s mother Yvonne.  “I heard that Kyle started slowly but finished strong yesterday,” she said.  I noted that I found out that Kyle was worried about losing, and talked to him about why we compete.  She sighed in that most parent-like of ways, and responded that Kyle was like this with anything that was competition oriented.  He was afraid to watch his favorite team play baseketball because he couldn’t handle seeing them lose.  He was always worried about his school work being all right because if it wasn’t, he felt like he had failed.  He even said, despite his obvious passion for baseball, that he didn’t want to play on a team because he was afraid his team might lose.

I empathized with Yvonne, my boys having had plenty of on-field meltdowns themselves over the years.  But when she was talking about Kyle, I flashed back to the competitions we were having over the past few weeks.  “What’s the score?” the kids would beg me over-and-over again.  But, no, most of the time, it was actually different than that.  It was “how much does the other team have?”  While that worry was more pronounced with Kyle, it was clearly present with all of the kids.  They were so preoccupied with what the other team was doing, so focused not on winning, but not losing,  that it took away from the team-building that I told all these kids’ parents was at the core of what I was trying to teach.

This wasn’t Kyle’s problem.  This wasn’t Tommy’s problem.  This wasn’t any of the kids’ problem.

It was mine.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game?  I have, too.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game? I have, too.

To put it in conflict partnership terms, the competitions I created became almost entirely power over focused, a “win-lose” scenario that split the kids apart rather than bringing them together.  And I realized that when kids get a little older, as I’m a bit more accustomed to with my boys being 9 and 12, they can more easily separate friendly competition with teammates from “do-or-die.” But for younger children just emerging from the cocoon of constant parental validation where first steps and first poops in the potty are fêted with World Series glee , they are really just starting to learn what competition actually is, that’s a hard distinction to make.

So, how to fix something like this?  Make sure every competition ends in a tie?  That doesn’t really take away the in-game issue, as they don’t know the game is rigged.  Remove competition entirely and go with the “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy?  I have to say that irks me as a coach.  Competition does test players, and helps them to get better.  It does teach essential cooperation and team-building lessons that help build better ballplayers, and people.  And it is simply more fun, as it brings urgency and goals to the table.  And, yes, it is a part of life kids need to learn how to deal with.

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills.  Safety first!

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills. Safety first!

The next week, I donned the Thor helmet borrowed from my son’s Halloween costume and began our “Hit Like a Hero” lesson.  As I did the week before, I broke the kids up into two groups, and gave them the arcane scoring system for mechanics and result.  I looked at Kyle, and could see the nerves already building up in his intense, earnest face.

“This week, we’re doing things differently,” I said.  These two groups are still one team.  Your goal is to get to get to 200 points.  If you do that together, everyone gets a star!”

I could see it on Kyle.  I could see it on Tommy.  I could see it on everyone.  There was no one in the room that could beat them.  Either they would win the game, or not.  They’d work hard, but not have to worry that anyone else in the room was better.  This was still competition, but it was a power with rather than power over exercise.

“Ready to play?”

“YEAH!” they bellowed.

The dynamic of the competition could not have been more different, even though the words were the same.  “How many do we have?” they queried constantly.  Then they’d run back to the other group to see how many they had.  As they approached the 200 point mark, the kids were screaming their support for each other.  And when the barrier was broken, it was a giant hurrah and high-fives all around.

That night, I got an email from Yvonne.  Kyle had decided that he wanted to supplement the team hats that I gave all the players with home-made jerseys because, she said, “it was something to show that he was a good teammate.”

The new uniforms weren’t quite done by our last session (I can’t wait to see them, but I’ll have to wait another week because of this darned snow) where we started using our “Green Arrow Throws” to start working on improving accuracy.  When I again broke up into two groups for a game, Kyle immediately came up and said, “Is this another points one where we’re together?”

“Absolutely, Kyle.  You’re working as a team.”

“Awesome!” he said, pumping his fist, “I love those!”

So do I Kyle.  So do I.

Your Child’s First Baseball Glove: When, Why, and What

February 10, 2014
And yes, they LOVE the honking base

And yes, they LOVE the honking base

I remember it well.  Gus was four, and signed up for his first year of BlastBall!, the hilarious version of America’s Pastime filled with scrums for the ball, dirt castles in the infield, and those first sparks of love for playing ball.

I wasn’t the coach yet, having agreed to assist Coach Brown’s Nationals, but unable to get over the betrayal I felt in my heart putting on the colors of one of the Mets NL East rivals, (“Sorry Dave,” I said, “it just makes me feel dirty.”)  But I distinctly remember one game when we corralled the heard of cats enough to play a team that I only remember as “The Grabbers.”

I’m sure they had some Major League team name as did we, but I will only remember them by that name because of their coach.  As we were warming up before the game, their team manager came running up to me and said, “You know, you aren’t doing those kids any favors letting them wear gloves at this age.  We have all our kids play barehanded and it is much better for them.”

So, first, let me just say to everyone out there who is or is even remotely considering being a youth coach—don’t do this.  I’ll get to some on-the-field etiquette when it comes to coaching in another post, but, unless what the other coach is doing creates some kind of unfair situation within a game, leave it alone and remember that there are many ways to be a successful coach—not just yours.

Given I was just tossing the kids a few grounders, and really had no experience coaching kids, I was a bit taken aback by the forcefulness of Manager Know-It-All J. Moose’s convictions.  “Oh, okay.  I blurted in response.  “I’ll let Coach Brown know.”  When I went back and told Dave about it, he shrugged his shoulders indifferently—the appropriate response, I do believe.

I swear they were in perfect fielding position!

I swear they were in perfect fielding position!

When the game began, it was the usual maelstrom of cute.  But one thing I did notice is that when a ball was hit near one of our fielders, they by-in-large attempted to use their glove like a spoon to scoop up the grounder; albeit our gals and guys spent more time chasing after the ball after it squirmed around or through them than they did actually making the play.  The Grabbers, however, were actually doing a actually stopping more than they booted, much to the satisfaction of Coach K-i-A.  That said, almost to a player, they would  stop the ball by squating down and grabing the ball as if they were plucking a flower.  They would then quickly apply the same skillset to the resident Dandelions.

It was at that moment that I really began to inculcate one of my baseline coaching mottos: for young players, technique is far more important than result.  For early success doing things the wrong way will lead to far more issues down the line than a few more botched BlastBall blasts.

And so if you are just getting your little one into the game, my strong recommendation is that you get your gal or guy a glove.  The strength of my recommendation is that fielding a ground ball is really the opposite of our instinct when we look to pick things up off the ground.  We are, by nature, grabbers.  When we see little Billy’s stray Lego threatening to transform into a late-night landmine, we don’t put both hands down and scoop with one hand and secure with the other.  We reach down and pick it up.  Because that’s natural, it will in the early stages of baseball clearly lead to a better early fielding percentage when those big puffy balls come tumbling forward.  But to my mind, it reinforces a habit that will not benefit them in the long run.

So that’s the when and the why of gloves—now onto the what.  Let me first start by recommending that you do not buy your four or five-year-old a nice, leather glove.  For the most part, the very small leather gloves tend to be stiff and even if they are not, they’re fairly heavy.  The key I’ve found is that you want to make sure that young kids have the sensation of the glove without it being cumbersome.  While some young kids can handle it, for beginners, it’s more like putting a giant mitten on their hand and then telling them to go do something athletic with it.

So save your money and go with the cheap stuff to start out with.  In that regard, there are three types of gloves I’ve tried out for the first-time players.  Let me give you the skinny on those:

foam gloveSoft Foam Glove: These are the gloves you’ll mostly see available at Target, Toys-R-Us, and at some sporting goods stores for youth players.  You can find them in more standard designs or in anything from Spongebob to Dora.

  • Pros: Most of these have a Velcro outside closure that makes adjusting and getting the glove on and off quite easy (so look for the ones with the Velcro).  The glove opens and closes more easily than with most leather gloves.
  • Cons: The foam tends to keep the glove in the open position, unlike a real glove that when broken in will fold naturally.  Not a terrible thing, but keeping the hand open does make squeezing throws and fly balls a little more difficult.  For those with sensitive fingers, the glove can be irritating.  For small hands, the glove can still feel a bit too big and clumsy.  Not available in left-handed throw.
  • Best For: Older 4-year olds to young 6-year-olds.  Very solid t-ball glove.

Easy Catch GloveEasy Catch Glove: This is the quintessential beginner’s glove that you probably remember from when you with a little one.  Again you can get this in about any color and go Spongebob to Strawberry Shortcake.

  • Pros: Very soft and malleable, this glove goes on very easily and kids can open and close the glove without issue no matter what their hand strength.  The glove is small, and I see that as an advantage at this age as while it gives the kids the sensation of having a glove on and reinforces wanting to “scoop” rather than “grab”, to secure the ball in the glove really requires two hands, which is very helpful to reinforce good overall technique.
  • Cons: While some may find it a pro, I don’t like the Velcro that is in the glove which allows the ball it comes with to stick in the glove.  I’d ditch that ball unless you’re using the glove with a toddler.  I’ve been using unpressurized kids tennis balls with my students and they have worked fine without sticking in this glove.  And, of course, if you are using a safety baseball or a BlastBall, you’ll have no problem there.  Durability is also an issue as this is definitely not made to be a keepsake.  There’s every chance you might end up needing to buy more than one over the course of a season.  No left-hand throw.
  • Best For: 3 to young 5-year-olds.  This is, to me, the best glove for the pre-T-ball set.  If you are just starting your child out at home, or starting her/him at the BlastBall or Slam Ball level, this to me is the best glove to use.
Here with my penguin tape addition

Here with my penguin tape addition

ItzaMitCatch Glove: Now, here’s one that’s a little outside-the-box.  Designed for water play, I’ve had several kids try this glove out and it is definitely something worth considering.

  • Pros: It’s reversible!  Out of all three of these options, this is the only one that will fit a lefty, the thin foam just pops the other way and it pops right on either hand.  This is especially helpful if you’re still not sure whether your child is left-handed or right-handed (which can be different for baseball than it is for other things, as my big guy is a righty all-the-way in baseball, but lefty in all other things). It’s also a good value as you get two gloves per set.  Because the fabric is so thin, it is very flexible so easy to open and close.
  • Cons: Because it’s reversible, it needs to be able to take the thumb on either side of the glove.  That makes it a bit wider than a normal glove and a bit clunkier.  Like the foam gloves, they also don’t close on their own.  Like the Easy Catch gloves, they do have a large Velcro patch in the webbing.  It’s tackier than the Easy Catch and so tennis balls will stick to it.  I solved that problem by just layering some colorful duct tape over both sides.  It is now my “penguin glove” and the kids often request it because it’s fun.  One other thing to consider is that the design of the glove leaves it with very little pocket, so the ball does not sink into the glove as readily as it does the soft foam variety.  Also comes with a hard, heavy ball that should be chucked or given to the family dog.
  • Best For: Little lefties!  Maybe a bit too unwieldy for the youngest players, a solid bet from ages 4 to 6.

Shut up and tell me about real gloves, Coach!:

9 inch gloveOkay, okay, I know a number of you really want to get your future gold glover a real glove, or perhaps your guy or gal balk at getting a glove that doesn’t look like the one their big-league icon wears.  Here are a few tips that might help you make that first glove turn out just right:

  • Size: So the soft foam gloves are 8.5 inches.  For your first glove, you don’t want to go too far beyond that.  There are a number of 9-inch youth models to choose from that range from $10 to $60.  Remember that you want to reinforce a two-hand catch and field early on, so getting a larger glove can actually lead to counter-productive habits.
  • Fit: The softer the better.  What you want more than anything is a glove that opens and closes easily.  Hand strength varies with kids, but it is not often a major asset.  While a glove breaks in over time, the more pliable it is when you buy it, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
  • Comfort: I’ve had any number of kids complain about how the glove hurts their hand, especially when putting it on and taking it off.  We’ve got busy little ones that often get scrapes and sores on their hands, which can make the process that much harder, especially because these youth leather gloves are rarely of high quality, smooth material.  There is one pretty easy solution to this problem—buy a batting glove.  If they get used to wearing a batting glove on their fielding hand, the fielding glove can slide on-and-off quite comfortably.  Lots of pros do it, so you can tell them that they’re doing it just like a big-leaguer.
  • Breaking it in: Okay, there are a gazillion ways to break in a glove, so just Google it and you’ll get plenty of ideas.  Also note that during the baseball season, a lot of sporting goods stores have their own glove steamers now and for $10 or so will break in your glove on-site to your satisfaction.  Note that I did say steamer.  Yes, water is actually your friend when it comes to breaking in a glove—don’t be afraid it.  I’m a big fan of the microwave technique; putting your glove in with a small bowl of water for a few minutes, removing it while piping hot and soft, and then using a mallet to whack at it all over, banging it closed and then slapping it in the pocket and webbing.  Lather-rinse-repeat until the glove is as broken in as you like it.  For the really cheap gloves, I would not suggest whacking it with a baseball bat to soften it (something that works well with a well-constructed glove) as the stitching might not hold up to the punishment.

So there you have it.  I hope my trials-and-errors will help you find the perfect fit for your young one to help get the grab out of fielding.

MLB Players: Give Back to the Community by Using Your Head—Literally

February 4, 2014

One of my younger son’s best buddies, I always call him Big Ben, is just getting over a concussion.  The incident, like that of my own big boy’s, was more a freak accident and not sports related, but it spelled the end of his basketball season.  It’s really too bad, because despite Big Ben’s relatively small size, his natural athleticism made him a big asset to the 3rd Grade team.

IsoBlox_0128_Demo_640x360I thought of Ben when MLB made the announcement that they were going to allow new protective hats for pitchers in games for the first time this year.  After Gus’s concussion, I did some research and found The Halo, a protective insert that MLB had tried out before ultimately deciding on isoBlox, and after some struggles with size, were able to find a way to make it work to the extent that Gus was comfortable.

I just offered Ben’s parents the chance to see if they could make our Halo work for him, as the big fella’s an even better baseball player than he is a hoopster, and I know every parent who has nursed their child through a concussion wants ever protection this side of bubble wrap to help give both them and their child every reasonable protection upon reentry.

In an ESPN interview, the isoBlox CEO Bruce Foster said that pitchers that tested the new hat didn’t feel much of a difference, but, he admitted, the look will take some getting used to.  “It will look different until it doesn’t look different anymore,” he said, noting how the goalie-style catcher’s mask now seems just as normal as the traditional variety.  It does look like they have a youth version — it will weigh 5-6 ounces and cost $60 (about the same as the Halo).  Here’s hoping it won’t take a XXL hat to make it fit correctly.

I was watching the MLB Network the other night, and Al Leiter (ah, the memories of the 99-2000 Mets— our only back-to-back playoff appearance—warm the heart) and Dan Plesac were discussing what percentage of pitchers actually wear the hat.  The highest percentage estimated was 50%, but the cynic in me thinks that is rather high.  Note that about 200 of the 750 Major League players used the Rawlings S100 batting helmet when it was first made available in the single-earflap version in 2012.  Rawlings continued to refine it because of “the look” and all players began using 2013 when it was made mandatory through the agreement between the league and the players’ association.

Mets Rockies BaseballSo why did so many players resist? Vanity, I believe, first and foremost.  For while they’re not the “Great Gazoo” helmet worn by David Wright after coming back from his severe concussion, the 2012 model did ride a little higher than what we are used to seeing.  And when that oddity is for extra protection, the instinctive athlete “macho” often comes to the fore.  The “man” doesn’t want to appear weak in the face of danger.

Now, that was just for a tweak to batting helmets, something we’ve understand is a protective device.  A hat, however, has never been seen as anything else but decorative, perhaps with a smidgen of sun protection.  And that’s exactly why it is even more important for Major League pitchers to step out of their comfort zone and use the new pitcher’s cap.  For there is no place on the field a player is more vulnerable than after she or he has released a pitch.  That’s one of the reasons I personally chose the Babe Ruth system over Little League, as I want the older boys to have the extra four feet (50 rather than 46) of protection from those line drives back to the box.

So here’s the rub.  Many Major League baseball players have set up charitable foundations to help those in need.  But what has made them into role models to children in America and around the world is what they do on the field.  And so when  Clayton Kershaw tried on that new hat and said, ““I’ve actually tried one of those on. I’ve thrown with it.  You don’t look very cool, I’ll be honest… But technology is unbelievable, and it really doesn’t feel that much different once you get used to it,” perhaps it was because he looked in the mirror and saw not himself but instead kids like Ben and Gus who might be spared a significant injury because their MLB hero holstered his machismo and donned the poofy protective cap, as it opens the door to real discussion about this kind of protection at the youth level.

So from this youth baseball coach and Dad, my kudos to every single pitcher who decides to wear “the hat.”  It  may very well be the best service a baseball player can give back to his community.