Archive for the ‘FUNdamentals’ Category

The Imitation Game

December 7, 2018

Digital Camera Pics 990

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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CoachN’s Preseason Tips: Snitchball

March 22, 2018

Snitchball2

Here in Arlington, we’ve had a baseball blessing.  George Washington University has combined forces with the county to create the GW baseball team’s home park just a 15-minute drive from home.  Better yet, when the Colonials aren’t using the field, our boys get to go out and play.  This not only gives all the High School teams and the players playing house ball in Senior Babe Ruth access to a big-time ballpark, but the entire field, save the pitcher’s mound, is artificial turf.

Now, I hear all you baseball purists saying, “Turf?  What an abomination to baseball!”  Memories abound of balls bouncing and skidding off the thin green excuse for fake grass in the Astrodome, or poor Andre Dawson handing the Cubs a blank check just to get his aching knees off the carpet in Montreal.  But while it still ain’t grass, turf has come a long way in creating a reasonable baseball experience rather than something akin to playing on something between a tennis court and a trampoline.

Best of all, turf stops rainouts!  I can personally attest to this as I set up a game this past summer for the Greater Washington and Northern Virginia Maccabi teams (I coached the latter) to play on the GW field at Barcroft Park.  Even after a virtual hailstorm came down upon us, in 20 minutes, we were able to play.  I’m delighted that after a lot of lobbying, our youth players will be getting their first turf field come fall.  Even for practices, it is a huge advantage.

There is, however, one place where Turf does no favors for a ballplayer—the infield.  And it may not be for the reason you expect.  One thing I tell my youth players is that in some ways, baseball is harder for them then their heroes in the Majors.  With 50,000 screaming fans, crowd noise is just that, noise.  But with 30 or so folks watching, you can hear every individual voice loud-and-clear, be it your school buddy on the other team giving you grief, or your Mom yelling for you to stop pulling your head.

Another way is on the field.  MLB fields are almost always perfectly manicured.  Millions of dollars on premium soil, grass, and drainage make the days of lumpy red Georgia clay divots at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and playing through puddles at Shea a thing of the past.  The game is hard enough as it is to play even on the most perfect field, after all.

Of course, turf takes care of even the marginal issues on a natural field, like a ball hitting the seam between the dirt and grass.  And so, what I’ve seen in my time watching kids play at Barcroft is that those who play there too much will often struggle once they get back on a grass field.  They become a bit lazy, assuming the genuine hop instead of really looking to field the ball with soft hands and funnel it back into the middle of their body.

Funneling is one of Perry Hill’s “6F” fielding system.  “Bone” as he is known is the Miami Marlins infield coach, and was the 2017 MLB defensive coach of the year.  I didn’t know anything about Hill until I happened on the American Baseball Coach Association (ABCA) podcast Calls from the Clubhouse.  His baseline system – Feet, Field, Funnel, Footwork, Fire, Follow – had segments of much I had taught over the years, but in a form that anyone from my 11-year-old nephew to Gold Glove winner Dee Gordon could understand, with each F being a trigger to a specific skill set.

The “Funnel” F is one that I often have to teach from scratch.  Using both hands to bring the ball to the middle of your body is something that simply doesn’t come naturally for most players.  Indeed, when I did an early round of infield work a couple of weeks ago with my 11u travel kids, not a single one of them was doing it.  They were either over-charging the ball and had their hands way out front, or were trying to field the ball right between their legs.

Neither way prepares them the right way, as controlled aggression is the key to good fundamental defense.  But even with the 6F system in hand, I still felt I needed to find a way to get my kids to understand the nuance of finding that sweet spot between hard charging and soft hands.

And so while I am always looking to learn from the baseball experts on the techniques of baseball, I still tend to borrow from the world of pure imagination when it comes to creating the right mental approach.

During last week’s practice, I showed them this picture before we hit the court (indoor practice still for us):

Snitch

“Can someone tell me what this is?” I asked

Hands jabbed in the air.

“Oh, a snitch!” most responded immediately (and enthusiastically—Potter’s popularity endures).

“And why would I be showing you a snitch before we go field grounders?”

Hands fell.

They pondered, and JoJo queried, “Because they’re hard to catch?”

“Good!” I boomed.  “You’re on the right track.  But go a little farther.  Does a snitch actually want to be caught?”

“No!  It tries to get away,” replied Christian.

Exactly,” I stressed.  “Now, clearly a baseball isn’t a snitch, but it’s a lot closer than you think.  For instance, is a baseball round?”

Most nodded, but not assuredly.  They were starting to catch on to the fact that my obvious questions rarely have obvious answers.

“It may look round, but what about these?” I said, pointing to the raised red stitches.

“Yeah, I guess it’s only kind-of round,” replied Matt.

“Yep.  And how about the field?  Is it perfectly flat like, say, the basketball court we’re about to use for practice?”

“No!” Connor chimed.  “It’s got grass and dirt and all kinds of bumps!”

“And holes, and rocks, and divots in the grass” continuing Connor’s thought.  “Indeed, the fields you play on are actually harder than the ones the big leaguers play on, right?”

“Yeah!  Some are a nightmare,” Matt said, sounding more movie-critic than ballplayer.

“So while a baseball may not be alive like a snitch, it sure can act that way.  So the best way to play defense is to think of the ball as a snitch.  Once it comes off the bat, assume it doesn’t want to be caught.  Sometimes that means being aggressive and getting it before it takes a funny hop.  Sometimes it means giving ground as it tries to whiz by you.  But it always means you’ve got to focus on the ball and expect the unexpected.”

As I looked at the group, I could see the lightbulbs going off.  And I think perhaps my favorite part of coaching is coming up with a way for kids to expand the way they think about the game.  The mind controls the body, so those lightbulb moments seem to really stick and translate to the field.

But this is baseball, not Jeopardy, so making sure the concept translates physically is vital.  And I had nary a magic snitch in sight.

But I did have one of these:

Training ball

“While we’re practicing indoors,” I said, flipping the odd, yellow object in my hand, “we’re going to challenge you to expect the unexpected.  Some call this a training ball.  But I call it a snitchball.”

“I’ve seen those!” said Sam.  “Those things go crazy!”

“Yep.  And you’re going to have to work together to control the crazy if you are going to get your pull from the Bag of Crap.”

We lined them up in two lines facing each other, about 30 feet apart.  Both players would hop over the cone in front of them into ready position (that’s the “Feet” F) and one would roll the snitchball to the other.  As long as the ball stayed in front of them, it would count as a catch.  Back and forth they would go until they reached 10 in a row.

They didn’t come close.

After frustration clearly set in, I stopped them.

“Okay, okay, take a break.  Why are you having so much trouble?”

“Because it’s impossible!” Matt replied despondently.  There were multiple nods in agreement.

“Because people are throwing it too hard!” Logan added.

“Ah!  Thank you, Wolverine!” I interjected.  “Matty, this certainly isn’t impossible, and I could make it easier by just having the coaches roll the balls to you.  I know these well and how to minimize the bad hops.”

“Could you?” begged Sam.

“Nope.”

“AWWWW…yeah!” the chorus responded, correcting themselves in midstream as they belched my least favorite sound.

“I won’t do that because part of this is learning how to win is how to work together.  No one is talking to each other right now.  No one told Matt he was throwing too hard.  No one gave Connor a pat on the back for a good funnel on a tough hop.  You’ve got to figure this out for yourselves.”

Now, I’d like to tell you they were a changed group, and promptly won the game.  But they were still too quiet.  Matty was just having too much fun flinging.  There was more complaining than cheering.

And they didn’t win.

But they did get better.

And that’s all I’m looking for as a coach.

When we finally got outside for our first practice the next week, I took a Ziploc out of the Bag of Crap, and carefully constructed a plastic replica of the golden snitch, wings and all.

“From here on in, every time we go out to play defense, every player must touch the snitch.”

There wasn’t a single, “why?” in the bunch.  Every player promptly went over, tapped the plastic, and headed out to the field.  Indeed, they’ve inculcated it so much that they blamed me for a tough inning because I forgot it in the car for the second game of our preseason tournament.

Baseball is such a difficult and complex sport that we coaches often get caught too caught up in building the body rather than the mind.  But finding techniques that build both is the real magic that builds ballplayers.

And you don’t even need to ride a broom.

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: Let Your Walkup Song Choose You

February 14, 2018

Devil Dogs on Deck

Let me get this out of the way up front—I am not a “music person.”  I’ve been to concerts here-and-there, but would rarely go out of my way to see even my favorite artists live.  I enjoy a number of different kinds of music, from rap to pop to hardcore to Ska to klezmer, but if you ask me my favorite artist for any of those, I’d struggle to tell you.  So you’re not going to get a definitive list of greatest hits here…sorry.

What you will get is a particular piece of wisdom about music that have been attributed to many, but certainly stuck with me over the course of time:

You don’t choose the music.  The music chooses you.

More than food, more than art, more than great literature, I think.  Sound speaks to us in ways that are so personal, so primal that it makes it less of a choice, and more of an instinct.  It can be metaphor.  It can be mood.  But it chooses us, it hits immediately and deeply in a way little else does.

The importance of feeling cannot be overestimated in baseball.  The game is a unique blend of a team game where players feed off each other, and a very individual game where in that moment, be it on the mound or at the plate, the game is entirely in your hands.  Rather than tweaking swing mechanics or a pitcher’s arm slot, one of the greatest gifts a coach can give to both an individual player and a team as a whole is crossing the line with the right frame of mind.

In our preseason hitting classes, our lead instructor Dan Pototsky has spent more time than I think I’ve ever heard before about the mental side of hitting.  “Relaxed”  “Aggressive” “Do Damage” are key words rather than “Keep your head in” or “Don’t drop your hands.”  It’s an interesting shift, and one that I think is becoming more-and-more common at all levels in baseball.  Because as coaches, we’ve all seen it.  That kid struggling on the mound and you come out and say something funny.  They laugh, you head back, and it’s like a totally different player out there.

So I asked myself, “How can we find a way to teach this lesson to kids in a way that is personal, fun, and engaging?”  And that’s when it came to me–the one thing in any professional baseball game that meets all these criteria:

The walkup song.

Whether it’s the crowd roaring 80’s pop lyrics (notably Michael Morse’s hilarious choice of A-HA’s “Take on Me”) or the call of the wild (thinking Yoenis Cespedes’s “Lion King” so popular at Citi Field), the walkup song has evolved into a signature part of the game experience both for players and for fans.  So if the big boys can do it, why not the kids?

I asked each of my 11u players to choose the music that they would want as the tunes they’d stride to the plate with.  Here’s what they gave me:

  • Jacob — Thunderstruck-AC/DC
  • Grant — Welcome to the Jungle-GunsNRoses
  • Logan — 2 Legit 2 Quit-MC Hammer
  • Matt — DNA – Kendrick Lamar (clean version!)
  • Sam — Marquee Moon – Television
  • London — Believer-Imagine Dragons
  • Christian Lam — Thunder–Imagine Dragons
  • JoJo — Believer-Imagine Dragons
  • Gabriel — All Star — Smash Mouth
  • Frankie — We Will Rock You – Queen
  • Connor — Thunderstruck-AC/DC

When we met the week after the list was completed for our winter indoor hitting session, as each player marched up into the loft above the hitting area, I popped their song on.  “This your tune?” I’d ask.  Without fail, a wry grin would spread across faces.  Heads would start to bob with the beat.  And as quickly as they started to move with the rhythm, they would dance their way around me to peek at what songs their teammates had chosen.

When the last tune had played, I quieted my phone to a collective, “Awwww!”

That brought out the patent-pending CoachN fish-eye.  I had already told them that the one sound in the world I could not abide was, “Awwww!”

“Awwww…yeah!” JoJo smartly added.  I had told them how my previous team had learned to game that particular peeve of mine.

“So,” I began. “Two of the songs on our list were chosen by multiple players.  Why am I not asking those folks to choose a different song?  I mean, shouldn’t every player have their own unique walkup tune?”

The guys went silent for a moment, and then London raised his hand.  “Oh, because it was the song that guy wanted?” he said in a query.

Exactly!  We don’t choose the music.  The music chooses us.  This isn’t about finding your unique song.  It’s about finding what makes you feel like you can go conquer the world.  Some guys want to be pumped up.  Some guys want to be calmed down.  I remember a major leaguer who had ‘Call Me Maybe’ as his walkup song.  Do you know why he chose that one?”

“He, uh, liked it?” Grant ventured.

“Nope.  He said he hated the song.”

No raised hands this time ‘round.

“It was because it was his daughter’s favorite song.  So the music helped him remember that there were more important things then the at bat he was about to take.  He needed that to stay relaxed and centered.  That was the song that chose him—and he didn’t even like it!”

“Can we listen to our songs while we hit today?” Frankie asked.  Excited agreement followed.

“Well, we don’t want to bother the other hitters today, so this may not be the right place to do it.”

“Awww…yeah!” the chorus replied.

Buuuut,” I replied, “I will do two things.  First, I want you to hum your music when it’s your turn to hit.  Start putting it in your head and develop your strut.  Don’t just walk to the plate.  Do it your way to the rhythm of your song.”

Mild nods of acknowledgement.

“And, on top of it, how about we make your music our warmup music at every practice. Rather than just run, stretch, and throw, we do it to your tunes.”

Awww…yeah!”

We tried the warmup music for the first time during a pitching workout, and I think the kids would have been fine with an hour of warmups just to get to listen to their music more.  I’m now canvassing parents to see if I can get a boom box for the season, as this looks like a tradition in the making based on my players’ reactions.

Being a good coach or player is as much training the mind as it is the body.  We get so caught up in the physical aspects of the game that we often forget the number one thing that makes us actually want to play.

Because it’s fun.

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: See the Ball Big When You Don’t Really See

January 25, 2018

Small Ball Machine

It was 1986, the year of Mookie, Gary, Straw, Doc, Maz, and Mex—My “Bad Guys” from Flushing who would eventually drive another dagger into the hearts of Red Sox Nation.  I was 16 and playing ball myself in a summer league in Atlanta.  Atl wasn’t yet The ATL, and also had yet to be introduced to the world of high-powered travel teams.  So this league out in Dunwoody was a mix of high school players and guys just looking to hang around the game.

That year, I was having what I would call an “Israelite” season.   I had served faithfully under the same rec ball coach since hitting The Big Field.  I started at first base as despite my skinny frame, my coach knew I could pick it and had pop beyond my size.  But he was leaving the league and I had to find a new team.

And so arose a new coach, who did not know him — to paraphrase from Exodus.  I was still working hard and having a solid season with the bat, but this new guy, a somewhat pugnacious fellow with an unkempt moustache and a penchant for those men’s short-shorts of the 80s that seemed more than a little out-of-place on the over-40 set, seemed to think I could do no right.

Given what a tightly wound ball of string I was, his skepticism became a self-fulfilling prophecy; the worst of which was when I sprinted for home on what I thought was a suicide squeeze…

…it wasn’t.

As we were getting to the end of the season, Coach Short-Shorts kept throwing me in right field and lowering me in the batting order until when I arrived that day I saw myself etched in dead last.  When I finally got up to the plate for the first time, it was already with two outs in the 3rd inning.  Their pitcher had been perfect through 2 2/3 with five Ks so far.  As I brooded from the dugout, I managed to notice that he had a solid curve that was giving our players fits.  So I went ahead and guessed on the first pitch and got what I was looking for.  I was a little out in front, but the curve landed right in that low-and-in hot zone we lefties love so much.  I hooked the ball right over the first baseman’s head and stood into second with a double.

The pitcher was clearly flustered as he gave up his first hit to the last batter.  He toed the rubber, and I noticed that he forgot to switch to the stretch—not a crazy mistake for a pitcher who hadn’t done it yet that day.  In one of the few good baserunning moves I had made that season, I took off as soon as I saw him start his wind and made it in standing on 3rd.

The only thing Coach had to say to me upon my arrival was, “No squeeze.”  The jab hardly boosted me, but the pitcher then uncorked a wild pitch and I scored our first run.

After that, the pitcher lost his cool completely, and through walks, errors, and a couple of hits, we plated three more.  He didn’t come back out for the 4th.

And that’s when we started turning it on.  Their pitchers struggled, and we surged.  My next at bat I cracked a wicked line drive up the middle.  My next time up with the bases juiced, I drove a fastball that three-hopped the wall in left-center and plated them all.

In most summer games, you’d be lucky to get a 3rd at bat—particularly at the bottom of the order.  But as both Lady Mercy and the time limit approached on our game, I was due to bat 3rd in the final inning.

One of our players had arrived late, and we already had our “Bat 10” in the order.  So, of course, Coach High Socks (did I mention that?) told me that he was going to pinch hit for me given I had three ABs already.  I simply nodded my head and wound myself a bit more taught.

But while I was not one to stand up for myself, my teammate Derrick was having none of it.

“Dude, you three-for-three, right?”

I nodded again with the same insular mannerism.

“Coach, coach, coach, coach, coach!  You cannot take him out!  He could go four-for-four!”

“He’s right, coach,” another teammate chimed in.  “You can’t lift a guy when he’s three-for-three.”

“Ain’t nobody taking me out of the game if I’m three-for-three.” Derrick added.

Coach Fishnet Tank Top (okay, that’s a lie, but I’m on a roll) turned to me and said, “So, do you want to hit?”  That emphasis clearly saying, “Just say no kid, so I can get this over with.”

I must admit that’s what I probably would have said.  I was very much a rules guy, much like my younger son is today.  Coach says…I do.

“Of course he wants to hit!” Derrick blurted before I even had a chance to unleash my patented sullen head bob.

“Coach, I’m not going to go in for him if he’s three-for-three!” said the kid who had arrived late.

That put the seal on it.

The pitcher walked the first two batters, and I strode to the plate with us up nine.  One RBI and it was over.

It was hot, late, and the game was already over.  I knew the pitcher wouldn’t want to toy around when there were Ms. Pac Man machines and cold, smooth Orange Julius at the mall just a couple of miles away.

So I sat on a fastball.

He threw me a fastball.

And for the first time ever, I saw it, right out of his hand.

The ball looked big.

Like, bigger than a softball big.

Like, it could have been 95 or had a 8-inch break and it wouldn’t have mattered big.

The ball vaulted off my bat maybe 30 feet in the air at the most.  But I hit it so hard to the right field gap that it hit the base of the wall on the fly.  I’ve hit some balls out, but I don’t think I ever hit a ball harder in my entire life.  I raced around and slid unnecessarily into third clapping my hands hard in a hitherto unprecedented public display of positive emotion.

I tell this story because players will say that they are, “seeing the ball well right now” or, “seeing it big.” And you’ve probably heard and announcer-or-six say, “The ball must look like a grapefruit to him!”  When things are really rolling, that grapefruit can even look like a beachball sometimes.

But other than that moment, I’ve never had an experience in seeing the ball big until some 30 years later, playing old man baseball this past fall.  I went four-for-six with three doubles, and each time, the ball looked absolutely huge.  It was my first game actually playing in years, so as I strutted off the field (my 13-year-old son’s team played next, so I got to gloat a bit) I tried to figure out why I was seeing the ball like that.

Then I realized it was because for the past year, almost every swing I took off of a moving baseball was off the Jugs Small Ball pitching machine.  I was so used to swinging at golf ball-sized objects that a baseball actually looked huge to me.

It may sound axiomatic, but seeing the ball is most important thing we do in hitting.

But the crazy thing is that we really don’t see anything.

What do I mean?  Well, enrich nine minutes of your life and listen to this TED Radio Hour Piece, “Isaac Lidsky: How Can Going Blind Give You Vision?”  If you don’t have time, here’s the operative, fascinating soundbite:

“What does it feel like to see? You open your eyes and there’s the world. Seeing is believing, sight is truth, right? Well, that’s what I thought. Then from age 12 to 25, my sight became an increasingly bizarre carnival fun house hall of mirrors and illusions. Objects appeared morphed and disappeared in my reality. It was difficult and exhausting to see. I pieced together fragmented transitory images until I saw nothing at all. I learned that what we see is not universal truth, it is not objective reality. What we see is a unique personal virtual reality that is masterfully constructed by our brain.”

We don’t see, our brain interprets stimuli for us.  It’s the same basic reason why it feels good to swing a weighted bat before going to hit.  It tricks our brain into making our regular bat seem light.  So we feel quicker and like we don’t have to put in as much effort to swing.

The Small Ball Machine accomplishes a very similar task.  It trains the eye to expect somethings smaller, so when we hit for real our brain interprets a baseball as big.

The Small Ball Machine is not the only trick in town.  Major League Catcher Paul LoDuca’s mother would throw him pinto beans (I’m guessing dried) in the back yard to help train his eye.  Now, check out this favorite drill from Carlos Pena on MLB Network—hitting popcorn kernels with a broom stick (this one getting small both ways!).

So below find my Pros/Cons for the Jugs Small Ball Machine.  But whether you are using foam balls or popcorn kernels, remember that training the brain is the most important, yet often most neglected part of the way both players and coaches prepare.

Jugs Small Ball Pitching Machine

The Pros

  • Hit Small: See above.
  • Self-Feeding: No one to hit with?  This loads about 24 balls and pitches them in 5-7 second intervals.  Great for hitting alone.
  • Soft Balls: The golf-sized balls are made out of foam and would not be a threat to a window unless hit extremely hard from a very close distance. They can still sting if you get pelted by one (which is why feeders are instructed to stand behind a net) but so long as the neighbors are okay with a few (or more) balls in their yard, it’s a great backyard hitting tool.  Likely even better yet for those with unfinished basements provided you have 25-30 feet of space.
  • Variable Speeds: There is both regular and advanced speeds.  It’s not a dial, just two to choose from, but the slower is around 50mph and the faster is mid-80s from 20 feet away.  You can, of course, adjust the speed by moving the machine closer or farther from the plate.
  • Curve Balls!: Also at regular and advanced, the machine has a nice little bender.  Not huge break, but enough to practice tracking a ball that is moving both toward you and down.  I mostly hit off of advanced curveball.  By moving the machine a bit farther away, you get more break (and of course less speed).
  • Consistency: I find a lot of foam ball pitching machines to be highly variable in terms of putting the ball where you want it.  Every machine will have some variability, but I find this one to be amazingly consistent in keeping the ball in the general zone once you have it set up.  Not a lot of time waiting for balls to finally come into the zone.  This also helps if you are trying to do a drill working a specific spot in the zone.
  • Great for Catching, Too: My 16-year-old will use the machine for barehanded receiving drills and for blocking.
  • Price: Pitching machines in general are expensive. At $240.00, this machine is a bargain for what it delivers.  However, see my note about the price of the balls below.
  • Durability: Over a year in, lots of use, kept out in our shed, and chugging along without an issue.

The Cons

  • Ball Price/Loss: The machine is inexpensive under the circumstances, but balls go in buckets of 48 for about $1/ball. That’s a bit pricey for what amounts to be a foam golf ball.  The balls are durable but if you’re using this outside, be prepared to lose and replace.  I’ve bought about 300 balls so far, and have very patient neigbors.
  • No Warning on Self-Feed: The self-feeder is pretty consistent in timing, but it’s hard to prep and be counting the seconds in your head. So that notion of “Spider Sense” anticipation is difficult to replicate as the ball will just pop out at you without warning.  This can be okay particularly when practicing a two-strike hitting approach, but you can definitely get a better rhythm having someone feed the ball to you.
  • Need Nets: Not sure this is a con, but you will need two hitting nets to use this machine. One to protect the feeder, and one to catch balls.  So there’s an added expense to cost in.
  • Portable Battery: I plug my machine in, but if you want to take this out to the field with you, the portable battery is pricey (pretty much same as the machine), heavy, and has a bit of a spotty record on holding its charge.

Really that’s about all I have on the downside.  Highly recommended if you can find the right space for it.

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: The Backspin Tee & The Story of Your Swing

January 11, 2018

Backspin Tee

While I noted that I believe the most important off-season activity for any young baseball player is to go play another sport, there is one baseball activity that you can do year-round:

H
I
T

I haven’t found anything in all of sports so thrilling, maddening, complicated, or controversial as striking a pitched ball.  I’m convinced that it is the single most difficult thing to do in all of sports.  It is a full body activity which demands both rotation and verticality simultaneously.  It requires dynamic movement and stillness at the same time.  Minute mistakes mark the difference between a travel-caliber player and one whose knees are knocking on that 3-2 pitch desperate for that Ball Four in a house game.

What I tell my parents and players is that when it comes to hitting, there is a thousand ways to do it right, and a million ways to do it wrong.  That’s why it’s so important for anyone serious about the game to hit, hit, hit.  The journey is to discover the swing that is right for them; always knowing that swing is a living beast, needing constant care and feeding as the player grows and changes.

As I’ve noted before, I am a huge proponent of tee hitting at any age.  This is particularly important for younger players in the 7-10 age group who often resist tee hitting as “for little kids” or “too easy.”  But a swing is so complicated that it really demands time to not worry about location, speed, break or release points, but instead be able to just have a ball sit there and allow you to try different approaches.

Hitting off the tee is particularly effective in the winter for a number of reasons.  First, the player can do it by her/himself. Daylight is fleeting and the chance to get out and hit doesn’t always dovetail with spending an hour with buddies.  But you and a tee can get 15 minutes of swings in taking a break from homework (or Battlefront II).  And if you have a buddy, winter is really the time to let the arm rest up after 9 months of abuse, so trading swings off the tee still makes a lot of sense.

Another nice thing about a tee in the winter is that both because of the lack of flight, and the fact that it’s pretty easy to use anything from a baseball to a rolled-up pair of socks, the chances of getting jammed and having the sting of 1000 bees course through your hands is pretty low.  The one kind of ball I’d suggest laying off are the heavy balls, as despite the limited flight those will harden in the cold and both be potentially painful to hit and potentially cause damage to the bat.  And remember, if you are using a composite bat and it’s under 50 degrees outside, you shouldn’t be hitting anything harder than a tennis ball.

All that said, the very hardest thing I’ve found to overcome with a young player and a batting tee is that, “It’s SO boring!”  And, yes, unless you are a complete baseball rat, tee hitting is really not a thrill.

Now, yes, you can think about trying to mix things up a bit.  Come up with competitions to incent the repetitions.  Video even off a tee to take a look at the mechanics without the ball in flight, and compare it when you hit a moving target.

But the only way I’ve found any consistent success with young players getting them to enjoy hitting off a tee is by changing the tee itself.

And that’s where the Backspin Tee comes in.

I’ve been both hitting with, and coaching with this new contraption for about a year now.  And while my kids understand the need to hit off the tee, they invariably get excited when I bring out my new toy:

Here are my pros-and-cons:

The Pros

  • It Works and the Kids Dig It: This thing is almost magical—more of a contraption than a tee.  The fact that it does a good job holding the ball upside-down (and I’ve found works with tennis balls, squishy balls, whiffle balls, and regular baseballs) makes it just plain more fun to use than a regular tee.  If it does nothing else better than a standard tee, this fact alone has made it worthwhile.
  • Bottom Half Hitting: Unlike when I was in school, it’s all about launch angle these days. Having a tee designed to focus the swing on hitting the bottom half is both intriguing to kids, and is helpful, particularly for players that tend to be “chop” hitters.  I’ve had a lot of success with this tee helping to retrain swings of players who complained of grounding out too much.  If you’re looking for a great analysis of this approach, check out Antonelli Baseball’s analysis of Kris Bryant’s swing.
  • Stay Inside: Players who cast their hands and come around the ball are far more likely to clang against the pole of the tee. It acts like the Belly Button Drill (explained at the bottom of this post) in that it helps to diagnose and keep players focused on getting the barrel straight to the ball.
  • It’s Sturdy: You know those kids who cast their hands and clang on the pole?  Well at least my pro model is built to take a licking.  The same thing can happen with trying to work to the opposite field, particularly if you are working on an inside-out swing.
  • It’s a Great Diagnostic Tool: My favorite drill using this tee is actually a 2-Tee drill. Use a standard tee and put it about a foot behind the Backspin and about 6-8 inches below the hitting point of the Backspin.  This creates a “corridor” effect where the kids are learning how to create a slightly upward plane to their swing without dropping their hands.  Trying to hit line drives and fly balls with this setup can be tough, but it creates the kind of bat angle and staying “long through the zone” that we’re looking for.  A lot of the times, you’ll see kids either knock the back tee (too much uppercut) or hit weak spinners (to much downward angle, not enough time in the hitting zone).

The Cons

  • It’s Not Really Backspin: So in the ole’ days, we used to talk about creating that tight backspin that allowed the ball to carry by having a slight downward angle toward the ball. This created a slight slice that made for a tight backspin on the ball.  This tee does NOT work for that.  Instead, it rewards a slight uppercut that allows you to keep your bat in the hitting zone longer.  Having myself been a hitter/teacher of backspin, I can tell you that it can get frustrating hitting with this tee.  Guys with a more traditional backspin swing will find themselves mostly hitting little spinner flares as they strike the center of the ball rather than the bottom.  So unlike a traditional tee, this is NOT for everyone and if a player is struggling with it, a coach shouldn’t just jump to the conclusion that there’s a flaw in the swing as it’s really teaching a specific swing path.
  • It’s Complementary: Even if you are sold on what this tee is teaching (or showing), I would never use this tee as the only tee.  First, as I noted, I really like this tee as part of a two-tee drill, so you need a more standard tee right there.  Second, while the concept of seeing/aiming for the bottom of the ball is sound (indeed, this would more accurately be called the “Bottom-Up” tee if I were to name it), it really isn’t how a hitter sees the ball coming down out of the pitcher’s hand.  A traditional tee is far better for that.  In the end, I’ve found the Backspin Tee to be most effective for 20 swings before switching to a traditional tee.  It helps me get my swing path in shape, then I go “around the world” (start outside and deep, work middle on the plate, inside and out front) with a traditional tee.  I find myself and my kids hitting fewer grounders and more line drives and fly balls this way.  But I find it a struggle going from Backspin directly to a pitched ball.
  • It’s Heavy: I have an ATEC T3 tee, and it’s fantastic for porting around. Light, small, but stable.  My Backspin tee is a pain to take around.  It’s not only heavy, but the shape makes it hard to fit.  You could take it apart, but that just makes it more of a pain.  The extremely heavy base is great for stability but a chore to get to the field.  If you have a cart, it’s not too bad as you can pop your bucket of balls on top of the base and keep it stable, but this isn’t a great one for a casual trip to the park.  For kids, I’ve also found that if things are less convenient, they’re used less.  This is NOT convenient.
  • It’s Expensive: So you can get a quality, pro-level tee for $75 or so, and a decent rubber one for $40.  The basic model for this tee comes in at a whopping $200.  The pro model that I have comes in at $300.  A little do-hickey that tilts the ball to be more accurate angle for low pitches is $50 by itself.  My wife got me this for my birthday, as it was just too expensive for me to justify buying it for myself, even as a coach who does individual lessons.  For about the same price, I could buy the Jugs Small Ball Pitching Machine and 100 balls (my next review).

So there you go.  I’m not going to recommend or not recommend this toy.  It definitely has its uses, but I think any coach or player using it should know exactly what it is useful for before making the investment.  But no matter what tee you have, go put on your ski cap and snow boots, take some cuts, as the story of your swing is written year-round.  Your spring self will thank you for the chapter you scribe today.

Next, does hitting small mean big things?

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip-of-the-Day: Choosing a Coach (part 1)

December 24, 2017

Ciao from Rome! Team Nathanson have started our Roman holiday, but nerd that I am, I still have baseball on he brain.

Today’s tip is one I have a lot to say about, but for brevity’s sake (well, at least as brief as I can be) I thought it would be best to break this important subject into component parts.

Winter is the time that many players seek out independent coaching for the first time. By “independent coaching” I mean something other than team coaches (be it house or travel) or going to a baseball camp. This could be one-on-one coaching, small group lessons, or larger classes. And, of course, all these options will cost you something—some a LOT more than others.

Now, I mention the last point because as I have lamented before, youth baseball has over the past generation morphed into big business. Little League, Babe Ruth, and even Legion ball in many areas struggle to keep their numbers, while club and showcase baseball teams that cost big bucks explode with the promise of future glory.

This is no less true for coaching. In my area alone and just off the top of my head, I can think of seven indoor baseball training centers within a half-hour’s ride from home. The number of people willing to take your money to watch little Billy bat is astounding. And that’s coming from one of those people…

Now, there are a lot of factors that can go into choosing a coach. And those factors can change a lot depending on whether your child is just learning to throw a ball or considering college ball as a viable option. But there is an important commonality that may seem obvious, but often gets overlooked:

Allow your kid to lead, and help her/him develop reasonable, discrete, short-term goals and expectations for any private instruction.

Too often I have heard parents who have 7-year-olds with showing some athletic ability already projectśing their kid through High School. But as Arlington Babe Ruth coaching legend John Karinshak is fond of saying (and I am fond of stealing), “Players are like flowers; they bloom at different times.”

That little slugger may mash that underhand toss, but it is no guarantee no matter how much coaching she gets that she will be able to handle a hard fastball at 12. The notion of a player being “projectable” at a young age — something I myself have made the mistake of saying to parents — does everyone a disservice.

Conversely, if a child is expressing an interest in baseball, but may not be showing himself to be a world-beater, that doesn’t mean that private instruction is a waste of your time and money. For example, I recently did a number of private lessons with a 10-year-old boy who had taken a year off baseball to focus on swimming. His Mother told me that wanted to play again in the spring, but was worried that he would be behind the other kids.

When we met for the first time, I did what I always do, which is to speak directly to the young man apart from his parents to make sure that his wishes and expectations were on the same page as what I had heard from his Mom. You would be amazed at how often this is NOT the case. Whether it is a parent feeling that Susie needs those extra reps to make the travel team because you can just see how talented she is, to Bobby expecting to become Mike Trout in an hour, neither parent nor player is going to get what they are looking for out of private instruction unless they are on the same page.

In the case of my 10-year-old player, he and his Mom were indeed in sync. Quite rightly, she was letting him lead, and then reaching out looking to fulfill a realistic need pointed toward the next season. He really wanted to work on learning to slide correctly, get more confident catching pop flies, and throwing accurately in the infield. We worked some hitting and pitching as well, but it was clear that he really wanted to sure up areas that he felt weak at rather than building on strengths.

We worked together for about 7 sessions, and by the end he could slide with risking life-and-limb, was catching routine fly balls in the infield and outfield, and really improved at attacking grounders to cut down on distance and how to follow his throw to gain momentum and accuracy. And at the end, we exchanged fist bumps and bid each other adieu.

This, to me, is a textbook example, and applicable whether it is a 10-year-old looking to get back into baseball or a 17-year-old trying to find a few more MPH on his fastball to become a legitimate college prospect. Understand your child’s interest, help to shape reasonable goals, and only then are you ready to begin to get the most bang for your coaching buck. Anything else is the baseball tail wagging the dog.

So you’ve checked box and are ready to go coach shopping? Stay tuned. I’ve got a few ideas on that…

Scott Nathanson has coached youth baseball for over a decade from t-ball to 16u.  He is the Head Coach and Manager of CoachN’s FUNdamentals, a business committed to growing the game of baseball through teaching the unique athletic and life skills that America’s pastime offers to our kids.

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip of the Day: Get off the Diamond

December 21, 2017

Indoord Hitting

Happy Winter Solstice, all!

Here in Arlington, today is the last day of school before winter break.  We’re all about to take a deep breath, relax a bit (one can hope!) and get ready for what I hope will be a fabulous 2018.

This upcoming year will be a “back-to-the-future” one for me, as I’ve agreed to coach my nephew’s 11u Arlington Babe Ruth Travel team.  It’s going to be a challenge with my 16-year-old playing High School ball and having accepted a spot on a summer showcase team, as well as my 13-year-old who is playing both house ball and with the Arlington Senators travel program.

As I was thinking about how to manage this upcoming season as both a parent and a coach, I thought that my previous experiences, and future plans might be of use to others out there.  Rather than keep them to myself, I thought I’d jot down a thought-a-day with some tips on everything from swing path to equipment reviews to choosing uniforms that might help parents, coaches, players, and leagues as we all gear up for 2018.

My first tip is one many you probably already know but really bears repeating and expounding upon:

DO NOT PLAY JUST BASEBALL

I’ve heard this so many times from Cal Ripken coaches to Major League Players.  Here’s a quote form Bryce Harper:

And, in an era when travel ball is almost a requirement for a prospect, he had an earnest and refreshing take when a kid reporter asked what advice Harper would offer to kids.

“Play as many sports as you can,” he said. “Kids get so locked down in one sport nowadays. It’s not fun not being able to play all those sports.”

I love the fact that Harper did NOT talk about the fact that different sports train different muscle groups.  He didn’t say that eye-hand coordination goes up overall with a multitude of sports.  All that and more are demonstrably true, as evidenced by this piece posted by none other than USA Baseball.

Instead, he talked about the fun of it.  As our kids get serious about a sport, it is our job both as parents and coaches to make sure it stays fun.  I believe as a coach that part of that is to have every practice get an enjoyable, competitive, team-building element to it (I’ll get to that in a separate post).  But a big part of the equation is to let kids play other sports with absolutely no thought that they have any future in it.  They just do it because they enjoy it.

In our household, we have two winter sports of this sort.  First is basketball.  Yes, my older boy is seriously looking at the prospect of college baseball, but on the court, he still dribbles like he did in 3rd Grade.  He was known on his 10th Grade team last year as “Crazy Eyes” as he’s a big, strong, intense kid who loves to get in there an bang on the boards as hard as his gorilla-touch shots bang off the irons (he comes by it honestly, I’m terrible at the game—so much so that my sister who coached basketball used me as demonstration of how not to do a pump-fake).

Unfortunately, the team he was on last year has broken up, and left him without a squad.  I asked him if he wanted to just stop this year.  After all, he’s training hard with baseball just about every day at the gym, at the indoor baseball center, or when weather allows, on the field (he and I were working on catcher popups just yesterday—another post I’ll get to soon).  But he and a buddy of his both signed up anyway, asking to be placed together on whatever team would have them.

Why?

Because he’s busy with baseball, and his buddy’s busy with band.  Because hey’re both serious students.  Because basketball is the chance for them to spend time together doing something they’ve had in common since 2nd Grade.

Because it’s fun.

And that fun can help translate not only to a happier, healthier kid, but be a prescient reminder to serious athletes that they are serious about the sport they love because it’s the sport they love.  It’s even more fun than the sport(s) they’re just goofing around with.

Our other family game came from a great tip from Dan Pototsky, a great all-around coach in the Arlington area who both my boys have worked with over the years.  A few years back now, he also preached the “other sport” gospel, and suggested ping-pong.

I played a lot in high school and we had a table when I was a kid, but with no basement, we knew we’d have to get rid of our indoor hitting area (see picture above–in retrospect…yeesh) in order to squeeze a table in.

We thought about that, and, again, felt that while it was nice to have a place for the kids to take some swings (yes, we were using whiffle balls–yes, I cannot believe we didn’t put a bat through the window), Ping Pong was something that we could do together as a family, and could find different ways to play both competitively and just for rallying.

And while my wife and I definitely avail ourselves of the table for laundry duty, our boys play on the table together at least a couple of times a week.  Mostly, they rally, not keeping score and having fun trying to fend of smashes or make tricky spin shots.  Indeed, as I’ve written about ping-pong has been an excellent teacher on the art of competitive play.

While there is no doubt that this game is fantastic for eye-hand coordination and tracking the ball (both keys to hitting, and for my big boy, for receiving behind the plate) it’s also just great to see them put the phones down for a while and play together.  It’s also something that both my wife and I can get in on, unlike their X-Box and Playstation (both of us old-timers lament the demise of the Wii).

We were able to fit in and get a good deal on a ¾ size table from Costco.  But there are sizes and prices for ping-pong for just about every house and budget.  Still a couple of shopping days until Christmas!

In sum, I’d caution all parents not to fall into the single-sport mentality.  If your travel team has optional winter workouts, make sure your kid really wants to do them.  I had one kid who wanted to be at every workout every day, and one who needed the winter to play basketball, ping-pong, and head to the back yard to hit by himself a couple of times a week.  Both were spot on with what they needed, because it was what they wanted.

And if they’re doing athletic conditioning, make sure it sounds like something fun for them that they are excited about doing, not just a, “Terry really need to get stronger this offseason” kind of decision.  Particularly if they’re young, forcing a kid to do conditioning is both counter-productive and often a waste of money.  As a great man once said in the Astrodome, “Let Them Play.”

So that’s today’s tip.  Tomorrow, let’s chat a little about what you’d want out of that off-season baseball coach if your kid has the time and interest after all that basketball and ping-pong.

Scott Nathanson has coached youth baseball for over a decade from t-ball to 16u.  He is the Head Coach and Manager of CoachN’s FUNdamentals, a business committed to growing the game of baseball through teaching the unique athletic and life skills that America’s pastime offers to our kids.

 

Make New Mistakes

November 8, 2017

IMG_1979

We all strive for joy in our lives.  Just look around at the family pictures on your wall, or scan through all those selfies on your phone.  How many of those captured moments are of you toiling away at your desk, or the moment you heard that a loved one had passed?  We strive for happiness, and bathe ourselves in those captured moments to help us through a now where the next smile, laugh, or hug is never guaranteed.

That so very human craving is highlighted to an almost unfair degree in the game of baseball.  For no other sport celebrates failure in the same way.  Hitting a pitched baseball is, to my mind, the most difficult thing to do in all of sports.  And throwing a baseball is an unnatural act by nature.  It is a start-and-stop sport that demands an attention to detail in the midst of moments where nothing appears to be happening.  Failure is the norm.  So those slivers of success have to be savored…and measured.

As a coach, one thing I strive for is a “relentless positivity.”  This is something that I really attempted to focus on this fall.  For the first since a one-off T-ball stint a few years ago, I coached a team that didn’t have one of my sons on it.  I had helped my nephew’s spring team a few times, and was invited by their coach to take the helm in the fall.  And while I adore my nephew, it is definitely a different experience, and set of expectations, being a coach without a kid.

I know that to many on the other side of the field, my “exuberance” makes me look like a loud-mouth (and I know some parents on my side feel the same way).  But, as I’ve told them, “My coaching goes to 11.  It’s the only gear I’ve got.”  But even with all my antics, I will admit that coaching house ball can, sometimes, be an exercise in frustration.  It was important for me to find the right mindset for this group of kids, and not simply try to make the kids comport to my coaching style.  That can be tough when you have kids who are playing at a travel level on the same field with those that are still afraid of the ball.

One of my players, for example, was a fantastic kid.  Bright-eyed and soaking knowledge like a sponge.  He came to all the preseason catchers’ clinics he could and really understood what it meant to “receive” the ball rather than simple catch it.

But when he was at the plate rather than behind it, it was a painful thing to behold.  His style was to try and hit a pitched ball as if it were sitting on a tee.  He waited until the ball arrived at the plate, and attempted to step-and-swing at a ball that had already vanished behind him.  In working with him off the tee, in the cages, and in BP, it was a habit he simply couldn’t break.

He was clearly demoralized, and I was, for a time, at a loss to find what might work to make him happy in the midst of consistent failure.

The funny thing is, it wasn’t one of those smiles that surrounded me, or that championship trophy hanging over my desk that came to my rescue.  Instead, the synapse that decided to fire came from a place of profound sadness.

I was young—definitely still single digits, and with my father in New York.  The divorce was still fresh to him, and he became wistful upon my request to listen to the Beatles.  “I haven’t put this on since your mother and I broke up,” he said with a deep sigh.

As we listened, he was clearly caught in the inverse effect of the happy memory; those that bring you to a moment that proffers not the hope of happiness to come, but at happiness never to come again.

“Scotty, let me tell you something, he said with his trademark professorial tone.  “As you go through life, look at the people around you, and try to do one thing.  Make different mistakes than they did.”

He went on at some length after (I did mention he is a professor, right?), but it was that line – make different mistakes – that always stuck with me.  And when that synapse fired, I knew immediately what to do with my young, struggling, hitter.

The next time I was throwing batting practice, I gave him a new set of instructions.

“Right now you are late on the ball every time.  It’s no fun making the same mistake over and over.  So let’s make a new mistake together.  The next time I pitch, I want you to be way, way early.  Swing before the ball even comes close to home.”

He nodded, I threw, he swung late.

“Were you late or early?” I asked.

“Late,” he replied instantly.

“Great.  So you know what that feels like!  Now make a different mistake.”

I hurled again, and he started swinging almost as the ball left my hand.

“Late or early?”

He hesitated.

“Early?”

“YES!  Way early, way to go!”

He smiled.

“Now that you’ve made a new mistake, our job is to find the middle.  If you keep working, you’ll be able to do that.”

He nodded, we bumped fists, and he dashed out to the field to help shag for the next hitter, clearly proud of his swing-and-miss.

While my Federals’ mantra was, “Win Every Inning” much like my teams in the past, and we chanted, “Fun, Focus, Fire!” to begin each game, I found myself returning to, “Make New Mistakes” as a focal point this season.  In one game, my catcher threw down to third base with two outs, two strikes, and the winning run coming in to third base on a steal.  Twice before we had thrown down to third, to notice that our third baseman that inning was simply having trouble catching the ball.  Of course, the throw sailed into left and the winning run scored.

He was beating himself up after the game, but I told him, “The throws down weren’t bad, but baseball isn’t just about throwing and hitting, it’s about thinking.  A good team player knows who is on the field, and tries not to repeat mistakes.  Now you know, so go make a new mistake next time.”

Next game, new third baseman, he was a little hesitant to throw.  “Hey, way to be thinking it through,” I yelled from the bench.  That was the right mistake to make.  But now you can go for it.”  Next play, he threw out his first baserunner trying to steal.

Whether it was helping getting pitchers out of a rut, getting fielders to focus on catching before throwing by complementing them on the play even if the batter was safe, to watching teammates give the batter a high-five as he came to the bench after the right kind of swing-and-miss, this group of boys got better as individuals and as players because rather than telling them to, “just have fun,” – one of my most loathed phrases.  Failing the same way over-and-over is not fun, no matter how hard your parents cheer for you.  Instead, I was able to get them to find ways to turn failure into success, and feel like they were getting better.

It wasn’t always perfect.  Baseball, like life, never is.  But finding satisfaction in the process, even if the result doesn’t immediately say “success” not only helped my kids improve, I think it really helped reframe my own coaching mindset.  For not only did it give me more avenues to be positive, it also give me a new way to remind them if they were slipping back into old habits.

Wisdom is a strange thing.  It doesn’t always come from where you expect.  But if you open yourself up and look to find the best in each player, even the sad moments can have the grain of future happiness.  So go out and try making some new mistakes yourself, and give your kids room to do the same.

Feet Stuck in Cement? Try Balloon or Bubble Ball!

May 16, 2017

Baseball Balloons

So today I got a nice email from one of my BlastBall coaches who used the “Shield Ball” technique. Coach P’s kids had a great time, but she ran into an issue:

Thanks so much. We used the velcro paddles again yesterday – shield up, shield down and coaches were throwing. I need to find a better way to get the kids to use their feet to move towards the ball. I suppose, it’s just a certain fear that needs to be overcome with time.

Indeed, Coach P stumbled upon a key issue with young kids catching a ball in the air.  The combination of their focus on the right upper body mechanics combined with that Lizard Brain fear of that ball tends to pour cement around the kids’ feet.  Indeed if you picture just about any 3-5 year old trying to make their first catch, it is two hands outstretched with palms up, leaning over, with their feet so firmly planted on the ground you’d think there were roots growing from the bottom of those light-up sneakers.

So how do you change up this drill to get the kids using their “Crab Crawl” and shuffling their feet to the ball like we teach when they’re fielding grounders?

You don’t.

At least not at first.  As noted in the “First Catch” post, catching a ball in the air is hard, and if you’re using the ball and a Velcro pad where a pre-K kid may have maybe a second to make a reaction, you’re asking a LOT of a tot to get them moving their feet, too.

Instead of attempting to roll that particular boulder up the hill, let me suggest thinking about what kind of objects kids actually chase around that are already in the air.  Let’s skip butterflies, as those are hard to collect and a bit cruel to use.  Instead, let’s get round—balloons and bubbles.

Balloons (air filled, as it’s going to be a quick game if you use helium…) work wonderfully because as they float and move, they force kids to move their feet and track-and-catch.  And because they are light there is absolutely no fear.  Indeed, I’ve found it’s hard to get a kid not to chase after a loose balloon.

Bubbles work similarly.  Of course, there’s less of an opportunity to actually “catch” the bubble, but I have yet to meet the kid (or adult, come to think of it) who doesn’t enjoy bursting a bubble or two (metaphor sold separately).

So now that you get the general idea, here are some tips to use balloons or bubbles to get those kids moving their feet:

  • Bigger Balloons: I’ve tried a variety of sizes, and really your standard sized balloon works best, at least at first. The smaller balloons (say, like the size of a water balloon) works okay, but really doesn’t have the same length of lift or movement.  At least at first, you want the kids to have the time to see it, move their feet, track, and let it come down.  The smaller balloons can be helpful when kids have gotten the hang of it a bit more, and are a “fear-free” way to get kids catching once they’re moving their feet.
  • Bigger Bubbles: I’ve tried this a number of ways and I highly recommend the “bubble wands” where you can create a single, large bubble rather than the machines that let the bubbles fly free.  It is very difficult for young kids to focus on their footwork when there are a zillion bubbles darting around.  They want to run and pop ‘em all!  But the wands that make the big bubbles give you control.  You can make one big one, or a few at a time.  Not only are big bubbles super cool, you can keep them trained on a single target (which is what they’re supposed to be doing once a real ball comes into play) and make sure they are not just moving, but moving correctly.
  • Four-Way Footwork: Let’s talk movement. Like with ground balls, the most important movement we’re focused in on is that lateral shuffling of the feet (as mentioned earlier, I call it the “Crab Crawl”).  We don’t want them turning and running side-to-side and taking their eye off the ball.  Because of that, at the entry level I teach my kids to shuffle in every direction.  At higher levels of play, we replace a backwards shuffle with a “drop-step” back but I feel that’s WAY too advanced.  If they can shuffle their feet to the ball/bubble/balloon in any direction rather than just running after it, that’s a win.
  • High Flies vs. Low Throws: When using balloons (and to a lesser extent bubbles) you can control how high the object goes into the air.  For the high-flies, I’m a big fan of having the kids dispense with a glove, and even their hands.  Instead, their goal should be to allow the balloon to bop them in the nose.  This helps them track the ball longer and get the muscle memory to see the ball all the way in.  You can then progress to soft balls that combat gravity a bit less but still allow the kids to “bop” instead of catch.  With more straight-on throws, coaches can focus on the “catch-and-cover” method trying to get the player to “hug the ball.  This means putting their catching hand out like a shield (so “fingers up” or “fingers down”), but then wrapping the throwing arm around the balloon which will help them to understand how the throwing hand should help secure the ball with a regular two-handed catch.
  • Back to the Ball: Once the kids are getting the foot movement, it’s great to at least go one round at the end trying to do it with an actual ball. Even if they’re not immediately Willie Mays, it will help to reinforce the overall goal of putting the feet and the hands together.  Progressing back to the Velcro “shields” and telling them which direction the ball will be going can help stair-step their development.
  • It Works for Hitting, Too: I play a game called “Bubble Blasters” where I give the kids pool noodle bats and let them whack at bubbles, giving them extra points if they can burst one using the proper technique. You can use a soft bat for this, too, but pool noodles give you extra safety and can allow you to have multiple players giving it a go at the same time.  Balloons can work here, too, though they don’t have quite the same satisfying pop as taking a big ole’ bubble downtown.  For the more advanced players and/or on hot days, this game with water balloons can be a ton of fun (and a great game for a baseball-themed party).

So there you have it.  First catching without a glove, and now without a ball!  I’m good as long as it’s not catching without a coach…

Have FUN out there!

Home Run on the Edge of Forever

May 11, 2017

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He’s a strong kid, my big fella.  He was a contender for Varsity this year as a 10th Grader, but ended up on JV.  It was the classic dilemma for a baseball parent, not sure if being on the Big Club and mostly sitting would be better than being the Big Fish.

I’m voting for Big Fish as of now.

I sat in the stands a couple of nights back watching my boy’s team competing against a team they weren’t supposed to beat.  Indeed, this was a season they weren’t supposed to be competitive because they lost too much underclass talent to Varsity.  But Gus’s Generals came up with the W.

And Gus went deep.

My wife missed the point of contact, as her eyes were focused down on the mound of green billing papers she had brought to the field in her eternal battle to stay true to her profession and her passion.  But she didn’t need to see it, as it made that sound.  That clean, slightly high-pitched and distinctively loud PING! that means the ball has been struck just slightly better than perfect.

The home run itself is something quite unique.  The power and precision.  The ability to do something that is truly indefensible.  And to see the ball go over the wall at the High School level is something of a Unicorn.   Gus’s was just the 4th Home Run of the whole W-L season—JV and Varsity combined.  Gus was the one-and-only on his team.  Indeed it was the only one we saw from any team the entire season including from the Big, Bad, Madison team with its JV squad full of Juniors.

So as that drive rose, it took us all a little by shock.  Gus’s Mor-Mor was on hand and seemed entirely bewildered.  The confusion from everyone seated behind the plate was compounded because backstop obstructed the flight of the ball.

The left fielder slowed down, and turned to watch.

Did that really just happen?

It did.

Gravity ceased to have meaning on the field as my boy floated ‘round the bases.  He promptly crashed into a sea of navy and gray as his coach attempted to manage the balance between legitimate celebration and showing up the opposition.

In the stands, however, I can attest that gravitational laws were still in full effect, as I leaped and clamored thunderously on the bird-stained metal bleachers.  The joy of the moment was overwhelming, to be there to see my son do something he will always remember.  To think about all that went into that single swing.

The Chocolate Donutz-eating t-ball team;

The pudgy 2nd baseman with a decent bat taking the 3rd Grade house championship;

The B-Team catcher starting to find his form;

Dealing with A-Team rejection, concussion, and the monster of self-doubt;

The cup-of-coffee with the A-Team in the 12u wood bat tournament finally proving he could play with the best;

Moving to the big field and back to B-Team;

Working his keester off and moving up to A;

More rejection as an 8th Grader as he gets cut from JV;

More frustration in 9th as he struggles to catch up to High School pitching;

Determination to improve as he dives into training to become bigger, stronger, faster, and better;

Getting into a groove as a Sophomore, only to be sidelined by injury;

Feeling his way back after missing two weeks; and

BOOM

The bat sang, and a Dad swelled.  No, more just a Dad.  At that moment, I was every proud Dad.

Wait, no, that’s quite not it.

Oh.

Oh my lord.

I was my Dad.

Divorce and distance had kept him from seeing me play for the most part.  But one spring day he had made his way down from Queens to Atlanta, and sat beside my teenage sister as my Northside Youth Organization Phillies were taking on the A’s.  I had just explained to my teammate that my bat with the grip tape dangling loosely from the top of the handle, “really isn’t a home run bat.”

And then…PING!

That feeling of perfect nothingness when a ball connects just right.  And the ball sailed over the left-centerfield fence.

My memories are watching the ball leave, getting mobbed by my teammates, and the booming sound of a slightly-overweight, middle-aged guy leaping awkwardly on the aluminum bleachers.

And now that memory and this circle each other, making the past feel present, and knowing that this moment will live past me in the stories Gus will, if he is so lucky, tell to his children.  For in the words of the prophet Terrence Mann:

The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

This field, this game, this moment(s) in time was good.

And I remember that it always will be.