Posts Tagged ‘babe ruth baseball’

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.

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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: 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.

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!

First Catch With Your Kid? Drop the Glove

May 4, 2017

One of the hardest things for entry players to learn is how to catch a thrown ball.  That “Lizard Brain” that I’ve talked about in the past always crops up as worried kids shy away from the ball.  The glove is also often too small, or too stiff, or the ball that is being used is too large, soft, or bouncy to get the ball to stick.

But even if little Jane or John make that first catch and the crowd (being the coach and/or parents) goes wild, odds are that s(he) is catching the ball with poor technique.  That’s nice at the moment, but that technique will need to be “unlearned” which, even in young players is a harder thing to do than you think once it becomes wired in.

The natural instinct for young players is to want to see the ball go in the glove, which means they are trying to catch the ball more like a football receiver.

I love Snoopy, but he’s doing it wrong!  It is important to get them off of that notion as once the ball is thrown harder and the ball IS harder, a “receiver catch” usually means a ball ticking off the glove and in the nose.  While that may be cute and funny if you’re using a soft ball, if your kid is still catching this way instinctively by the time (s)he is 8 or 9, it becomes a real safety risk.

There is also the “sideways catch” where the player is bending the elbow and turning the glove sideways:

Image result for playing catch baseball

While this can be effective at early ages (and is actually the proper receiving style for catchers), this is another way we want to work our way out of.  The “sideways catch” as it makes it very difficult for a player to catch a ball to her/his glove side as their glove is already crooked down and away toward their throwing hand.

That’s why we really focus from the very beginning on catching any ball above the belly button with a  “fingers up” style, like this:

Image result for playing catch baseball

There’s only one problem with the proper catching technique with young players–it’s hard.  I’ve found over the years that about five percent of players catch this way instinctively.  That’s great and for those who get it quickly you can start them on backhands diving catches, and robbing home runs.

For that other 95 percent, a coach needs to work on developing that instinct.  And about the worst way to do it from my experience is with a glove on.  That’s because kids (rightly) don’t trust their dexterity with the glove, and lose sight of the ball as it approaches.  That invites the Lizard Brain to come out and play, and the grown up trying to teach inevitably starts pulling hair out and saying things to little Suzy they probably shouldn’t as she keeps turning the glove in the wrong direction.

In order to teach anything correctly, it’s important for a coach (or teacher) to figure out exactly what you want the player to learn.  “Learn to catch” is way too broad and is highly unlikely to teach proper fundamentals.

In this case, we are trying to teach a player that to catch a ball correctly, we want to have our “fingers up” on any throw above their belly button , and “fingers down” on low throws, kind of like this:

Image result for catch baseball low

This tends to be more natural for players given the similarity to fielding grounders.  Also notice that this young man has his glove foot out on the catch–that’s something we’d like to emulate.  This player is in position to catch this ball whether it gets to him in the air or on the ground.

So recently I had a class with slightly older players (K-2nd Grade) and we got through the basic techniques fast than in year’s past, and so I was able to do a session on catching thrown balls.  I had a variety of different skill levels, including one kid who was already fully there.  So I needed to find something that would work for different skill levels and allow me to clearly see whether the player was using the correct technique.

What I came up with worked like a charm:

Inline image 1

The beauty of these “magic catch” Velcro paddles is that they take away all the issues with the glove and creates a far easier way to focus on core form.  The straps on the back allow hands of any size to fit securely (though watch you don’t unthread the straps as threading them back in is a pain).  And the catching surface-to-ball ratio is much, much larger than with a traditional child’s glove.

Another nice thing about the pad rather than the glove is that because kids know they stick, but if they reach out and try to grab the ball, the force of it will make the ball bounce off, they tend to stay back and “receive” the ball rather than snatch at it.  That’s the habit we want to instill in players as well.  This is also why I like the pad even more for catching than the entry level Velcro gloves (though the softer balls included with those gloves work nicely with the pads).

Of course, I wanted to create a Baseball Nerd twist to make the skills I was teaching simple and memorable (and fun).  And so I donned my Captain America mask and we played a game of “Shield Ball.”  In our games, we either caught the ball “Shield Up” or “Shield Down” to indicate the finger position.  And of course, the balls were bombs planted by Red Skull that might explode if they hit the ground.

We started with some coach throw practice, then divided the kids up and had them throwing to each other.  By using the “shields” rather than a traditional glove, it was both easier for the players to maintain good hand positioning and easier for us coaches to see whether a player was using proper technique.  I’ve now purchased enough of these for all the T-Ball teams in my league to use this weekend, so it will be Shield Ball for All on Saturday (provided it doesn’t rain–fingers crossed)!

If you are playing with your child at home or have your own T-Ball team, tossing the ball underhanded toward their glove side (rather than right in front of them) can help reinforce this technique.  Those “shields” are available all over the place.  I got mine at Target for $5/pair.  There are also ones that use softer balls.  They’re a bit more expensive, but are also great beginners tools.

So strap on a shield and catch like Cap!  Mask optional (though highly recommended).

Boy Over Boys, Part II: Summer’s End

January 5, 2017

2014_baseball_sunset

You can read Part I here

One of my greatest points of pride came years ago, when my big-guy was starting kid pitch.  One of my parents who worked at the same firm as my wife told her that I was the best parent coach he’s ever seen.  He complimented my ability to connect with the kids, but what impressed him most was that unless you actually knew me, there was no way you would ever know which player on my team was my child.  Both my kids knew from the very beginning to call me “Coach” when we were on the field, though I never made that express ask.

But my need to leave Gunnar behind for this, what may well have been our final game of the season, was an X-factor to which I was unprepared.  My co-coaches and I had talked about what we’d tell the other kids—whether to make it a discussion, a teachable moment, etc.  Even after that conversation, I wasn’t sure how to approach it.

I waited until the whole team had gathered for BP, resisting the inevitable early queries.  I sat them all down in a sliver of shade as a very thirsty tree fought valiantly against the record heat.  In the end, I felt that we had a game to play, and this wasn’t the time for an after school special.  So I just kept it simple:

“As you can all see, Gunnar isn’t here.  While you all know how sorry he was about his actions yesterday, there are some things that cross a line and go beyond regret.  Gunnar crossed that line.  He will not be at today’s game.  He told me to tell you that he accepts and understands this consequence.  He asked me to wish you good luck and he hopes to be back with you tomorrow.”

No questions.

Simple nods.

Bats and helmets.

Thank god…

The game itself was a wonderful distraction.  When the first pitch was thrown, CoachN clicked in, and it really felt like another game with my boys.  We played well, winning 12-6, with my shoulder-batted slugger Ford leading the way with 3 hits, 4 RBIs, and pitching two quality innings (we took him out early after getting a big lead to save his arm in case we went deep).  It was satisfying, as we staved off elimination and set up a rematch with the Alexandria Aces, a team that mercy-ruled us in our first tourney game–perhaps the worst game we had played all season–on our home field, no less.

Both my boys…and my boy…would get a shot at redemption.

Alas, there would be no storybook ending.  At least not in the traditional sense.

We played a much better game, as did Gunnar.  He worked a walk, stole second, and helped manufacture an early run.  He also bailed out Ford who despite our best plans just didn’t have much left in the tank, inheriting a bases loaded, 1-out situation in the 2nd inning and getting a comebacker and a huge strikeout to end the frame.  His clenched-fist, “Let’s GO!” was met in the dugout with a celebration more fit for a championship than an early-game jam.  As I saw them congregate and congratulate, for that one moment, I was just a Dad.  For every one of these Aces were not just rooting for the team.

They were rooting for my son.

Seeing these boys come together around my boy at that moment transcended the rest of the game, and the game itself (we lost 9-6 after a determined comeback).  All season long—and for three years running—we had preached the idea that everyone on a team depended on each other, and that picking up a player when he was down was as important as lifting him up when he succeeded.  In this moment, it was both combined as one.  These kids clearly sensed that their teammate needed lifting, and they did not need a coach’s speech or a parent prompt to come to their buddy’s aid.

And with that, our season was at an end.  We finished with our traditional pool party, me breaking into their wrinkle-fingered fun just long enough for them to suffer through another warble-voiced coach’s speech about how far they came as a team and as people.  I chatted with parents, patted players on the head, and started thinking ahead to fall ball.  They would be rising 12u players now, and this would be our last year together—the end of our journey together.

But life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

And it was time to choose boy…or boys.

Get That Bat on Your Shoulder!

December 6, 2016

bryce-harper-bat-shoulder

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.

Summer Camp, Spiderman, and the Social Art of Catching

December 17, 2015

Scott Catcher

Those who know me and my lunatic ways on the baseball field are often surprised to learn about how painfully shy I was as a child.  Many introverts are shy as kids, as we do not realize until later in life that while we can be social, and, yes, even enjoy being social, that it takes a tremendous amount of energy for us to do so.

As a child, this feeling of social depletion often leads to an aversion to and anxiety about being with people.  I remember this being especially hard for me at my one sleep-away camp, Blue Star, a Jewish camp in North Carolina.  In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad camp.  I made a good friend, almost landed my first real girlfriend, and hindsight tells me it had most of the usual activities and idiocies that movies like Meatballs tell me I should expect from the experience.

But I hated it.

I have come to understand that my particularly strong negative reaction came from the fact that you are never, ever alone at sleep-away camp.  From bunks to bathrooms, there is no respite from socializing other than sleep (fleeting as it was with the usual jackass pranks and early-morning bugles).

Those of you who aren’t introverts might think that the person reading the book in a crowded restaurant has that issue solved.  Now that I’m a little more comfortable in my own skin, I can do that and feel energized.  But at the ripe old age of 12, I knew that just made me look like the weird kid.

My one redeeming moment at Blue Star was in the annual talent show (Meatballs, I’m telling ya).  At that time, I was a huge Steve Martin fan; listening to Comedy is not Pretty until the needle wore out, and tacking his “Best Fishes” photo from the album along-side my poster of U.S. Senator John Blutarski.  My counselor refused to let anyone not participate, and told me to “do something” for the Gong Show portion of the competition.

I really can’t remember the routine, as when he literally pushed me on stage, I just kind of went somewhere else.  I remember poking fun at the guy who went on before me (he used a dead frog on a stick to do a dance) and teased the counselors.

I remember laughs.  A lot of them.

And I remember after asking my counselor whether people were making fun of me when they laughed.

“No way, man!” he replied earnestly.  “You were hilarious! Who knew Scott Nathanson was funny?”

In looking back at my childhood, I realize that there were two places “in a crowd” I actually felt energized: on the stage, and behind the plate.

The one unifying factor for both?

I was Spiderman.

That nerdy kid who put on the mask and became the wise-cracking hero.

Whether it was playing King Achashverosh, the drunken regent of Persia for my 3rd Grade Purim play (back by popular demand in the 4th!), or the lout of a husband who gets his just “desserts” in my fabulous filmmaker friend Thom Harp’s Proof is in the Pudding, putting on the mask of another character felt freeing rather than draining.

I felt the same way when I put on a catcher’s mask.  While normally my coaches had issues prying a single sentence out of me, when I caught, it was hard to shut me up.  I talked to my pitcher non-stop.  I urged.  I coaxed.  I may have even taunted the batters just a little, tiny bit at times.  I distinctly remember a few hitters telling me to, “Shut the hell up.”  I would merely shrug, and continue to yammer away.

And despite being born with a terminal case of “Catcher’s Disease”—I’m left handed—I was pretty darned good.  I remember getting validation early on.  I was nine, and our ace Pitcher Wes Winterstein was on the mound.  I was late to the game and arrived in the 2nd to find that we were already down to the Phillies 6-0.  To make matters worse, they had runners on first and second with no one out.  I remember the coach saying, “Thank god you’re here,” and taking out the boy catching in the middle of the inning as soon as I was suited up (not something I would do today as a coach, mind you).

The change in Wes was immediate.  I remember to this day yelling at him, “I’m back, let’s go!”  He stared in, and buzzed a strike down the middle.

The Phillies wouldn’t score again.

It’s funny how in the scramble to help kids find their own path, we coaches – and I think teachers and parents as well – will sometimes shy away from our own stories.  We don’t want to do the, “Back in my day…” thing; feeling rightly that each child and each generation has unique characteristics and qualities.  And as the mercury pushed up past 70 degrees this past Saturday, I organized a special catcher’s clinic for my 11-year-olds.  My main goal was to start working on how to frame pitches and the mechanical skills it takes to move (or not move) the glove.  And I had been watching a lot of videos on technique and found new approaches to framing I had never learned as a player.

But as I brought the boys to the backstop, all those old memories began to flood back.  And so we spent as much time talking about who you need to be as a catcher than what you need to do.  Both are important, but I realized just then that I had been remiss with my catchers in instruction on the former.  I think it’s because that, ironically for an introvert, that was the one part of this very difficult game (and an even more difficult position) that actually came naturally to me.

And so, I have committed myself to working more with my catchers in general, but go beyond just framing, throwing, and blocking.  Those skills make for getting better at playing baseball, but they don’t make for better ballplayers.  In addition, the social art of catching transcends the game itself, teaching empathy, leadership, partnership, along with verbal and non-verbal communications skills that can help a player mature as a person.

Now there are a million great catching videos out there (I’m quite partial to the Touch ‘Em All series, and this GameChanger blog has a nice compilation) that go into the mechanics of the position.  But for those interested, here are my tips that look at the skills you need behind the mask.

CoachN’s Social Skills Catching Drills

  • “Talk” with the umpire: A catcher is having a game-long conversation with the umpire, both verbal and non-verbal.  Remember that you want it to be a friendly conversation, not a debate.  Introduce yourself to the umpire at the beginning, and make him feel like you’ll do your best to give him the best looks at the pitches and protect him as best you can.  Then continue that conversation with every pitch you receive.
  • Your #1 job: be your pitcher’s best friend:  The best friend a catcher has on the team is whoever it is on the mound at that moment.  Your job is to make him feel comfortable and confident no matter what the situation.  Talk to him, point at him, take the blame for wild pitches if he’s having trouble even if it’s really not your fault.  Plain and simple, the pitcher is the center of the action and driving the plot, not you.  Your job is to try and get the best out of him you possibly can.  To geek-out a bit, he’s Luke, you’re Yoda.
  • Be positive: About the worst thing I have ever seen a catcher do is call time out, go up to the pitcher, and tell him that he stinks (and yes, I have seen that).  If you think that is a good move for a catcher, it’s time to find another position to play.  A catcher should be relentlessly encouraging to his pitcher, giving him fist-pumps and thumbs-ups on good strikes and close pitches, and little encouragements and the occasional pat on the keester if he’s struggling.
  • Be honest: If the coach comes out and asks you how you think the pitcher is doing, be honest with the coach.  You have the best view of the pitcher, and if you are focused on him, should be able to get perhaps an even better sense than he has as to whether he has anything left in the tank.  If you think he does, go to bat for him, as that buys you considerable cred with your pitcher and will pump him up.  The coach will make the final call, but you can definitely help him, the pitcher, and the team by being honest.
  • Speak like Spiderman: Chatty, competitive, and a little funny; just like you see the catcher in movies from The Sandlot to Bull Durham.  So talk all the time, not just when you have a conference on the mound.  While you need to feel out if this is working for your pitcher or the umpire, these are the good base traits for a catcher.  A chatty catcher will sometimes engage and sometimes annoy hitters.  Either way, they are thinking about something else other than the pitcher; that’s a good thing.  Chatty catchers help keep the umpire engaged and develop a relationship.  Getting a grin out a pitcher in a stressful moment helps to relax him.  Chatting also helps keep you focused and not falling asleep behind the plate.
  • The catcher/pitcher relationship does not end on the field:  When an inning is over, players tend to go find their buddies on the team and hang with them.  Remember, no matter what the case outside the ballpark, the pitcher is a catcher’s best buddy. Unless you’re getting ready to hit, spend the time in the dugout talking about the last inning—what was working and what wasn’t.  Go to the coach together and give suggestions (particularly if the coach is calling pitches) as to what pitches and locations seem to be working or if something is making your pitcher uncomfortable.  If it looks like a new pitcher is coming in the game, bring that pitcher together with the last one to share information.
  • Talk catcher-to-catcher: Talk to the other catchers on the team during the game.  You may not catch the whole time, but the catcher who was in the game should be giving information to whomever is coming in about the umpire, the pitcher, and anything you’ve seen in the hitters.  That information is vital and you do no favors to the next guy by having him come in cold.
  • Frame a ball, tell a lie: Umpires will know a clear ball if they see one–it’s usually anything more than 2-3 inches (that’s not much) outside the strike zone.  Any pitch you jerk from far off the plate is a lie you are telling to the umpire and your pitcher.  It makes both of them less trustful of you.  Just catch that ball and quickly throw it back to the pitcher to keep him in rhythm.
  • Move a strike, lose a strike: This is about the hardest thing to do at the same time that you are learning to stay outside the borderline pitches and catch the ball with a slight movement toward the corner of the plate.  If a strike carves the outside corner and you move it toward the middle, you are telling the umpire you think that pitch was outside.  If you catch a pitch crossing over the middle of the plate and you simply follow it as it finishes inside, you’ve turned a strike into a ball.  Same goes for a pitch at the top or the bottom of the strike zone.  For any pitch anywhere in the strike zone, the less movement, the better.  This may be a skill, but it’s also part of the conversation, as by holding a ball in place, you are telling both your pitcher and the umpire to, “check out that beautiful strike.”  Now that’s framing.

Now, you’ll note that this list does not include anything on the “field general” end, such as calling out plays and cuts and such.  I’m just starting that with my catchers, and really want them to get comfortable with the pitch-and-catch aspect of the game, as most coaches will tell you this aspect is about 75% of the job.

Until next time, True Believers!