It was an honest mistake.
Stupid, but honest.
That’s what I was thinking as 10 Kindergarten, first, and second grade students shivered on this gray, dank, 40 degree day. For in my baseball zealotry, I accepted an invitation to teach an outdoor after school class this fall. What didn’t quite compute when I signed on was the fact that there is a difference between the self-selected baseball nuts who choose to play in a fall league, and the youngsters whose parents simply sign them up for what sounds like a fun after-school enrichment activity.
Hard to hit with your arms like this.
And so these kids squeezed into their personalized chairs, some bundled so profoundly that I could picture them waddling along with Ralphie’s little brother from A Christmas Story. That image reinforced itself as they wobbled, tumbled, then struggled on the damp grass to extract themselves from their plastic prisons.
Moments like these are pivotal as a coach. When the natives get restless, that attitude either becomes infectious and you get an hour-long chorus of, “Are we there yet?” or you find a way to turn things around.
And my salvation lay in a recycled Halloween costume.
“Okay everyone. So who here knows what a Ninja is?”
The grumbling stopped immediately, and rapped attention and “Ooh-ooh-ooh!” hand raises leaped into the air.
So maybe you can tell me, but what is it about the word “Ninja?”
Say “Samurai” and you may get a few nods. Say “Jedi” and you’ll get a good 50 percent return rate. But there seems to be something almost prenatal about children’s reaction when you talk about ninjas. It’s supremely cool at the molecular level.
Minion Ninja? I think my son’s head would explode.
No longer able to contain themselves, the kids formed a discordant chorus of Ninja love.
“They wear black and have swords!”
“They leap on buildings and can do flips!”
“They are super awesome fighty dudes!”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about kids, it’s that one of the very few things that trump personal discomfort is the power of their imagination. My kids will play in a snow fort until their feet fell off, if it were up to them.
“Yes, that’s all correct,” I responded. “But why in the heck am I talking about Ninjas? Aren’t we supposed to be learning how to hit?”
Oh, yeah. This was supposed to be about baseball. They came down off of their swordplay-induced high and began to shiver as the blood rushed to their brain in the effort to fuel an answer.
“Ninjas jump around?” Benji ask/answered.
“Well, yes they do, but do we hit like this?” I jumped and kicked and made swoosh noises. The kids giggled and shook their heads.
“Okay then,” I continued, “So what’s more important to a Ninja, being super strong or super quick?”
As the kids noodled the answer, the normally demure Kindergartener, Charlie, leapt out of his seat. Well, kind of, as he leaped up and the seat leaped with him like some kind of vestigial tail.
“I know, I know!” He said as he danced. “The need to be quick, and the bat is like a sword!” He made his own swoosh and swung his shadow sword with a passable resemblance to a baseball swing.
“On the nose, Chuck!” I bellowed. The response reminded me to hand him a tissue as he was dripping like a broken faucet. “While it helps to be strong, if you try and swing hard it actually slows down your swing. Swing quick like a Ninja, and it will fly!”
Each and every one of them were now swinging their own air swords—I had ‘em on the hook.
“Now, ole’ CoachN isn’t the best guy to teach you how to teach you how to hit like a Ninja.” As I said this, I began to unzip my own winter jacket, which I had on less for protection and more for performance.
“It’s time for…Coach Cobra Kai!”
Sweep the leg.
At that, I ripped off my jacket and revealed the costume I had worn when my little guy was seven and wanted to go as the Karate Kid. I did the only thing any self-respecting father could do, and dressed as John Kreese, the immortal evil sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo.
They couldn’t contain themselves anymore, leaping out of their chairs to inspect the sweet fist in front and cobra in back. With my black shades on, I was seriously, seriously ninja.
“Now, who is ready to learn to hit like a Ninja?!?” I rasped in my best Martin Krove.
Hook, line, sinker.
We handed out their ninja swords (pool noodles I cut in half, a little thick for small hands, but spongy and safe yet firm enough to take a real swing with), marked their top hands so they remembered how to hold it properly, and played a game of “Ninja Says” where they had to follow my pattern as I intermingled the correct swing technique steps with a little silly (yes, I did the crane kick).
They were focused. They were following. There wasn’t a shiver in sight.
Once they had conquered Ninja Says, it was time for battle. My assistants and I ran around while the kids chased us, but they would only get points for bopping us with the proper technique. Then I would yell, “FREEZE!” and each of them would get a pitched ball to try and hit.
And guess what? Every kid hit the ball on their last try.
When time was up, not a single kid wanted to escape the cold, and, of course, weren’t too keen giving up their noodle swords. But they had won their battle.
And I had won mine.
If you’re interested, here is my Ninja Hitting guide. This part focuses on the swing preparation part more than the swing itself, as I’m of the “early step” school, especially for young hitters. Hope it helps your little sluggers!