Posts Tagged ‘baseball outside the box’

Coaching Kids—Are We Doing it Wrong?

December 20, 2019

My Arlington Babe Ruth T-Ball Kids. To them I’m “Da Commish”

So this 50-year-old is about to try a new trick, as 2020 will mark my first year coaching high school baseball. I’ll be Head Coach of the JV team at Falls Church High School (Go Jaguars!) and hoping the old axiom, “We all rise to the level of our own incompetence,” will not apply.

I think I’m a pretty good coach. I’ve been at it a while and have gotten more compliments than critiques. But, as I noted in my last post, I’ve found in mid-life that the more I learn, the less I know. This doesn’t mean that I think learning is stupid. But having so much confidence in what you know that you’re unwilling to have it challenged—or better yet, to challenge it yourself seems at best counterproductive.

That’s why as a coach, I consider myself a “lifelong learner.” I credit my past successes, but think it’s folly to believe that just because something worked in the past that it’s the right way to do things. And baseball is a particularly dangerous game in this regard due to the conservative (small c) nature of the game. We care about tradition, and the fact that we feel we can compare players from 25, 50, or even 100 years ago and see an even competition play out among them in the diamonds of our mind.

I have a lot of tools in my coaching education toolkit. For drive time, I’m a podcast guy, though not a religious listener to any one in particular. One of my faves is Coach Caliendo’s Baseball Outside the Box. I was intrigued by a particular episode called “Decision Making in Practice” as I’m always looking for new practice tips and liked the idea of something that seemed to include the mental side of the game. For having graduated from coaching kids to teens, one thing I can tell you without question is that coaching a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old is decidedly not the same.

Now, I have coached mostly boys, so I will leave my thoughts on girls and baseball for another post (I absolutely have thoughts on that one—get ready Little League as there is a black mark on their collective soul in that regard). But there is no doubt that each and every teenage player I’ve worked with is trying to listen to me while their Hormone Monster, and Shame Wizard bark constantly in their ear. Now add the sometimes invaluable, sometimes head-smacking chatter of their parents and teammates, and that’s a whole lot of internal and external chaos all on hand while trying to play a very difficult game at a high level.

So while I was listening as always for tips on new drills, this time thinking about things that might be more advanced for h school-level players, the guest on this particular podcast, Coach Kyle Nelson of Cornerstone Coaching Academy, made two comments that got me thinking in an entirely different direction.

The first comment was a shorter aside near the end of the program when Coach Caliendo asked him about what sort of things he is trying to do now to make himself better as a coach:

COACH NELSON: One of the things I am going to do this year at our school…is go to different practices. I’m going to go and watch a volleyball practice. I’m going to watch a football practice. I’m going to go watch a soccer practice. And I’m going to figure out what they’re doing that I like. Is there something they are doing that I can learn from and incorporate into what we’re doing. Because coaching is coaching, right? The sport is just the tool you are using to do it.(my emphasis)

As I’ve made quite clear on this blog, I’m a baseball guy. But this simple statement really hit me. In my interview with the Athletic Director at FCHS, I noted that my primary goal as a coach is to give my kids the life-skills that baseball brings, focus, handling failure, problem-solving, dedication to a goal beyond just your own, and devotion to a regimen, among others.

But this quote for the first time really reversed my whole prism on why I coach. I don’t coach because I love baseball. I love baseball because at heart, I’m a coach. Baseball happens to be my particular canvas of choice because I grew up with it and see the benefits the game brings to kids. But I know plenty of people who are equally as passionate, and for very similar reasons, about their sport of choice.

Coach Nelson’s comment also reframed an earlier conversation he was having, this time about one of my favorite things—coaching mistakes. For while I love to hear coaches talk about their successes, I find it just as valuable when they talk about their shortcomings. Goodness knows I’ve made plenty, and discarded everything from standardizing pitching motions to focusing on top-hand swinging. But Nelson’s comments I found more illuminating:

COACH NELSON: Yeah, that’s one of my biggest complaints about the way I used to teach and used to coach… I could get players to get good at hitting in practice, but it didn’t always translate into a game… Or I could get players really good at fielding ground balls off of the backhand when they knew it was coming.

But with baseball, with the exception of the pitcher, almost everything we do is a reaction. To give you an example of this, the next time you’re working with a kid to catch, and you’re working blocks, throw about four or five blocks in a row…and then throw one down the middle, and watch them drop to their knees and have it hit them in the chest.

What you realize is, is that you’re working the mechanics of blocking, but one of the most important parts of blocking is recognizing the pitch that needs to be blocked and to beat it there… You’re not using that mechanism at all when you are simply blocking 10 pitches in a row. So I would say that happened about seven or either years ago when I looked at our practices and said, “We need to get more decision making into our practice before performing a skill.”

We need to have them make a decision when they’re hitting. They’re not just going to come in the cage and swing at the first eight pitches that we throw. We throw balls in batting practice on purpose. We throw bad pitches on purpose, because if they don’t work on pitch selection in practice, when are they ever going to work on pitch selection? Well, that will be in the game, and if they’re not very good at it, and coaches are going to get upset with them swinging at pitches above their hands, or swinging at balls outside… But if you allow them to get away with that in practice, you’ve really fed the problem.

For infielders, we’ll work “Here’s ground balls at you, here’s ground balls to your forehand, here’s ground balls to your backhand.” They don’t need to read the ball and make a decision on what kind of a movement they need to make.

That to me was seven or eight years ago. I really made that change because I felt like I wasn’t preparing guys for what they actually were going to see. I was preparing them to be really good in practice, but not really good in the game.

COACH COLLANGELO: You know what? Makes 100% sense. And I’ve got to believe that coaches in the U.S. and around the world at all levels, especially at the younger levels, because I’ve said on the show many times we’ve got to make sure that our coaches working with the younger levels, some of them happen to be volunteers, some are not because there are now travel teams running young teams so they’re professionals in the game. A lot of them are guys who study the game. I’m hoping more and more they are taking this philosophy because it’s the only way I see the game getting better.

Kids get a lot better and have more fun because they get to make decisions… Practice is a lot more fun. They get better…

While this is great advice on its surface, including more game-like decision making in practices to get them more prepared for game action, this led me a step further. If, “coaching is coaching,” then why practice, why play games, if we’re not using them to instill the life lessons the game allows us to bring to the players? Are we so invested in the granularity of our particular sport that we as coaches miss opportunities to bring something more valuable to our kids?

I now think so.

After happening by this ESPN piece on how Evan Langoria went from an unrecruited high school player to a Major League star by focusing on his mental approach to the game, I became really intrigued with the “coachability” of the mental side of the game. I bought and read Heads Up Baseball 2.0 written by Tom Hanson and the late Ken Ravizza, both noted gurus of the mental game (Ravizza is prominently featured in the Langoria piece).

I’ll give a full review of this book in my next post (short review—it’s tremendous, all baseball coaches should have one and I think it has value for all sports coaches and, I think educations and parents as well), but the one major ding I had on it—at least at first—was the fact that it is very redundant. Their method, RAMP-C (Responsibility, Awareness, Mission, Preparation—Compete!) is repeated over-and-over in both name and image, and the specific instruction they have for offense, defense, and pitching is so similar that by the end I felt it almost felt like filler.

But then it struck me—the book is written with the same repetition that the authors are asking of the players and coaches; developing a muscle memory with the material that would make it routine. And as I worked with my teen players on the RAMP-C method, I did note that sometimes players would chafe at the repetitive nature of this approach. They understood the value, but it was clear their Hormone Monster was also saying, “Shut the hell up and let me go play, Coach Jackass!”

But while teens might chafe at redundancy, young children eat it up. As this Psychology Today article so perfectly puts it, young children want and need repetition to learn. What might be excruciatingly annoying to an adult (see my personal version of hell listening to The Wiggles “Fruit Salad” song for the 500th time), it is not only desired, but required for a kid.

And yet, while the mental side of the game is really the portable skill that 99% of player will take with them into their adult life, and the vast majority of youth players will never play high school ball (not to mention about 0.5% of all high schoolers will ever play pro ball), I now realize we are waiting too long to focus on the mental skills with our children. Given the rising tide of childhood and teen anxiety and depression, it makes that much more sense that we reimagine sports as a classroom teaching support skills for mental health and strength.

But our shortcomings in this regard are only natural. Most coaches in the 5-9u levels are volunteer parents, just like I was. They are good-hearted amateurs looking to teach the game “right” and focus on the fundamentals; in the case of baseball it’s hitting, throwing, fielding, and running. But what Heads Up Baseball shows is that it is just as easy, and far more valuable in the long run, to teach them how to use routine to help command focus, or how to use a cleansing or energizing breath to take control of your own emotions, among many other life lessons.

So, in my usual long-winded fashion, I have come to the realization that we’re leaving too much on the table for our kids to start focusing on the mental side of the game when they’re older. For my sport, I believe that Little League, Babe Ruth, and, yes, the proliferate of travel teams that in many cases are replacing league play (much to my dismay) need to start integrating the RAMP-C or other methods into the game at the youngest levels, when kids are most responsive to repetition and routine. There are ways to make these methods fun and age-appropriate (we actually use some in the “Game & Derby”(pdf) system I’ve developed for Arlington Babe Ruth (I’ll get to that post, too).

For if you teach a kid to swing, s/he’ll hit for a decade, maybe two. But teach a kid to compete, and s/he’ll compete for a lifetime.