The Imitation Game

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We’ve all done it.  Picked up a pool noodle, started some heavy breathing that in any other case might seem a little pervy, and thundered those immortal (if slightly incorrect) words, “Luke, I am your father.”  Or perhaps you caught yourself with a hairbrush and a mirror, belting out your favorite tune as if you were preening in front of thousands of fawning fans.

Imitating our idols, heroes, and even that occasional iconic villain is a universal part of the human experience.  Putting on Daddy’s over-sized coat or Mom’s heels is our entry portal into the world of your imagination.  And triggering that imagination, in all its forms, is a vital part of making things fun.

Sometimes, fun is something that I think coaches forget about too quickly.  I know that I have often gotten myself caught in the, “We need to get all these boring reps in and when we’re done we’ll scrimmage” work/reward trap.  As alternative, we lean on making the repetition into competition.  Turning bunting drills into a contest for best balls or rewarding the win to the group with the most cutoff men hit.

While I deeply believe that increasing competition orientation in drill work is a crucial element in keeping young players focused, motivated, and engaged, it doesn’t take advantage of that even more fundamental part of the human experience—creativity.  That’s where imitation comes in.

Indeed, over the years, I’ve seen boys step up to the plate and do their best to waggle, stride, and swing just like their Major League icons.  Here in the D.C. area, the Bryce Harper is iconic and almost universal (for now).  My older boy used to love to figure out how Travis d’Arnaud could be on time with the bat head pointed straight at the pitcher.  Indeed, I used to do the same trying to figure out Gary Sheffield.

But when it comes to teaching, we coaches will often use video to show kids how the big guys do it, but we’ll often shy away from actually telling our kids to actually try to imitate the pros.  As we know, everyone’s swing is different, and while the MLB players are great examples, they can do things that your average 11-year-old can’t.

This fall, I decided to do something different.  I decided that each week, we’d go out and actually imitate a particular player.  I let my kids make suggestions, then I went and watched video and decided on the player that might teach a particular lesson well.  My kids loved to debate with each other, try to one-up their teammate with an arcane suggestion, or, of course, as one of my kids did, suggest Max Scherzer every week just to get under this Mets fan’s skin.

Now, I know every parent/coach or coach/parent out there is already thinking about the unmitigated disaster of having nine kids all trying to ape a big leaguer’s swing.  I mean, every swing is different, and if you have kids trying to do everything different, all you’ll do is give them brand new bad habits to worry about.

So here’s the wrinkle.  Rather than focus on the entire swing, we picked out one particular component of that player’s swing to work on.  This allowed us to break down the swing into component parts, and push them out of their comfort zone in digestible bits.

In case you’re interested, due to lots of rain, we ended up with 6 sessions.  Here’s how they broke down:

  • Ben Zobrist: Hand position and load
  • Chris Carpenter: Shoulder rotation
  • Daniel Murphy: Front foot movement
  • Mookie Betts: Core engagement
  • JD Martinez: Arm movement
  • Tony Gwynn: Body momentum and balanced landing

In each case, for some guys it was an easy transition.  If a player happened to be a “tight hands” hitter like Zobrist is, there wasn’t much transition.  But for my “hand casters” – of which I have many – it was really, really different.

When we worked Zobrist off the tee, holding our hands tight against our body and keeping them there throughout the swing the complaints were legion.

“This feels funny!”

“It doesn’t feel right!”

“I can’t do it!”

“You’re killing my swing, coach!”

And I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t killing their swing.  But as they swung and struggled, I saw them working at it, laughing at each other (and themselves) when they messed up, and getting psyched when they “Zobristed one up.”  I think the fact that they were not using “their own swing” but instead imagining themselves as someone else allowed them to push out of their comfort zone, try something totally new, fail, and be okay with that.  Another plus of getting the kids out of their own skin.

At the end of the tee period, I told all the kids to “go back to their normal swing.”  In the Zobrist case, I moved the tee to the extreme inside corner.  And what I saw excited me.  Most of my casters took one or two “normal” swings and jammed themselves.  Then, on their own, I saw them move their hands in do the “shake-and-rake” prep move, and THWACK, manage to barrel one up.

As coaches, I think we sometimes get caught up in a little too much self-love for our own expertise.  We know each player’s swing is different and has different needs.  But we sometimes forget that young players’ swings are still evolving, and tweaking what’s there may not be as productive for them long term as opening them up to different options and let them find something new that clicks with them.

To borrow form old angler wisdom:

Coach a kid’s swing, he’ll hit better for a season.

Teach a kid to coach his own swing, and he’ll hit better for a career.

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2 Responses to “The Imitation Game”

  1. Libby Harris Says:

    Beautifully thought out and beautifully written. Gotta love a coach that thinks strategically and creatively.

  2. doctorlindanl Says:

    You break down the complexity of the swing into such clear pieces (who knew). How lucky are the boys who work with you. I hope lots of other coaches are reading your excellent pieces.

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