Anyone who has ever broiled or shivered through their child’s t-ball or coach pitch season probably has a PRSD (that’s post-repetition stress disorder) event hearing this phrase:
“Get the bat off your shoulder, [PLAYER NAME]!”
Lord knows I’ve used it plenty of times myself over the years. The idea is that we want the hitter to have “active hands” so they can generate power and quickness, rather than simply drag the bat off their shoulder, drop their hands, and make a loopy swing toward the ball. Those are the swings that usually ram the bat right into the tee, spilling the bucket of balls all over home plate. You scramble and the kids giggle (okay, PRSD moment of my own there).
Indeed, “bat off the shoulder” may come in a close second to “stepping in the bucket” for the most used/overused phrases for youth coaches. I developed the “ear bop” technique part of my Ninja Hitting program to reinforce the notion to my young hitters that their hands should start high, by their ear. It’s the way I was taught. It’s the way I’ve seen it taught. And my kids looked more like your prototype big leaguer with that advice.
But a good coach isn’t just always teaching. A good coach is always learning.
I remember hearing a story a couple of years back that Mike Matheny, now the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals told about his mentor, Tony LaRussa. They were sitting in the dugout together, and LaRussa turned to him and asked, “Mike, about what percentage of the game to you think you know?” Matheny thought about it for a moment. He’d played the game all his life, and enjoyed a long Major League career as a catcher, one of the most physically and mentally demanding positions on the field. He retired and went immediately into coaching, and now was on track to become LaRussa’s successor as a MLB manager of one of the most storied franchises in the sport.
“I’d say about 80 percent,” Matheny responded, as while he was a baseball lifer, he knew that there was always something new to learn.
LaRussa nodded his head silently.
“How about you?” Matheny replied.
LaRussa, considered one of the games great masterminds and a lock for the Hall of Fame, simply replied:
“Oh, about 35 percent.”
Despite his 2006 Cardinals upsetting my Mets in the NLCS, it is a story I still love to tell, and remind myself of. And this year, that lesson really hit home with the ole’ “Bat off your shoulder” axiom.
It started this spring, as I was chatting with the Dad of Ford, one of my Aces. As it happens, Ford’s Dad is another “Coach Scott” as he had been coaching his younger boy’s travel team, so we both spoke from a place of knowledge. I asked how Ford was doing in the house season, and he said that he was making contact, but not really hitting with any power. This was something we had seen with Ford in the previous travel season and had trouble figuring out. My Nationals were going to play his Red Sox, so I told Other Coach Scott that I’d give Ford’s swing a look and see if I saw anything new.
Ford’s stance looked perfect. Nice high hands, wrists waggling ever-so-slightly to keep those quick-twitch muscles from getting stiff. A solid and early stride to the ball, good hip rotation, and….a grounder to second. He squared it up, so what went wrong?
So I really looked closely his next time up, and, finally, it was the “Ah-Ha!” moment. As he began his swing, those nice high hands dropped down to his shoulder, where the bat rested for just a split second. He then pushed the bat off his shoulder and into the hitting zone.
For Ford, my “ear bop” advice was not the solution to his hitting issues.
It was the problem.
How could this be? I’m CoachN, dammit! I’m supposed to be right about this stuff.
That next day, I did something I hadn’t done in a while—I hit. I went into the backyard, just me and the tee. I pictured Ford’s swing in my mind’s eye and attempted to emulate it. So, for the first time, I not only saw the issue, I felt it. With his hands that high, there was no place for them to go but down. And with his early step, the bat would naturally find a resting place on his shoulder as he approached the ball.
A couple of days later, a bunch of the Aces were watching a High School game, and I sat down with Ford. I explained what I saw, and something came out of my mouth that made the T-Ball coach in me squirm. I told him that maybe he should actually try to start with the bat ON his shoulder, and as he loaded for his swing, make sure his hands were moving up and then out to the ball. “We want up-and-out,” I told him, “not down-and-around.”
Now, Ford is a hard-working, strong, smart, and just really good kid. So perhaps I am taking a bit more credit than I deserve, but, boy, did that correction really seem to work for him. He was a line-drive machine not just for the rest of the house season, but was one of the most consistent hitters on the Aces all summer (when he wasn’t getting run over by his coach, but that’s another story). And it took was getting the bat on his shoulder.
As I dive deeper into middle age, I find one old axiom to be true: the more I learn, the more I realize just how much I don’t know. I think that’s what Tony LaRussa was imparting to Matheny. As a coach, or a teacher, or a doctor, or a president, it can be very easy to simply sit back and rely on the safety of assumed expertise. Knowledge can make us powerful, but it can also make us lazy.
So with this one swing, I learned a lot of lessons about myself as a coach (and maybe a few about myself as…myself):
- Really see the player before you coach the player: While some skills are more one-size-fits-all than others, see a player’s natural abilities from the ground up. Don’t be too quick to put a player in a particular mold. Find her/his strengths and build off of those.
- Understand each player’s challenges are unique, and often contradictory: Sometimes, a player needs to start with the bat on his shoulder. Hey it’s worked for MLB players like John Olreud and Bryce Harper! Sometimes they need those hands up high. “Systems” are great starters but they cannot and should not be the end-all-be-all in teaching. Be flexible and see that the challenge of your player, or the strength, may actually teach you something new as well.
- Understand that why they are trying to do is hard: While some people are naturals, most are not—be it hitting a baseball, fixing a transmission, or completing an equation. Really acknowledging the challenge helps to keep both the player and the coach focused on the positive. It’s also a reminder that trying hard things and even the small successes breeds a worth ethic that can last a lifetime.
- Try it yourself: I’m reminded of the move The Doctor with William Hurt. He is a famous and narcissistic surgeon that has his life turned upside-down by throat cancer. In his fight, he starts to see things from the patients’ perspective, and forces all his residents to be patients as a lesson in empathy. I really couldn’t fully get Ford’s issues and suggest a solution until I picked up a bat myself. Indeed, my current swing is now totally different than the one I used back in school as I started to incorporate everything I’ve learned in coaching to my personal approach. Practicing what you preach help keeps your mind open, and keeps you humble. I now work on my own game every chance I get for just that reason.
- Don’t be afraid to get it wrong: Baseball, like life, is a game of adjustments. Indeed, numerous studies are showing that for academic assessments, learning from wrong answers actually leads to better retention of correct answers, leading to rethinking about tests more as a teaching rather than an assessment tool. So as a coach and a player, it’s incumbent on us to be open and try new things. Sometimes getting it wrong is the only way we’ll ever get it right. And what’s right now may not be right later on.
So, get out there, get that bat on your shoulder (or not) and try, try again.