Posts Tagged ‘baseball training’

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?

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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.

 

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!

Coaches Matter

January 9, 2017
DSC_9882

courtesy T.J. Arrowsmith

There were times last year as 4-year-olds battered me with pool noodles that I pulled a “Murtaugh.”  You might remember his as Danny Glover’s curmudgeonly cop in the Lethal Weapon movies of the 90’s.

His signature line?

I’m getting too old for this shit.

Particularly in my “solo” classes, where it was I alone acting as the ringmaster of the preschool circus, at class’ end, I would feel more than weathered, I’d feel withered.  Coaching for me has always had a tinge of fear.  I walk in with a game plan, but am always terribly afraid that it will be a disaster.  The kids will leave having learned nothing, and the nutty coach will have turned them off to baseball forever because it’s as stupid and boring as he is.

That fear has been compounded by a sense of the frivolity of my endeavor.  I put aside my writing to invest in being a coach.  Writing was why I left my very worthwhile job at the Union of Concerned Scientists—a job I believe I was good at, and helped to make a difference.  And now, I’m a 47-year-old man running around with an orange hand puppet and telling kids to run through the bag a first.

What the hell am I doing?

And so I decided this year to scale back.  I’d do some private coaching, but turn back to my writing, something that I believe can make an impact, and perhaps is a bit more age and career appropriate for a middle-aged, Middle East history major.  And I’d save a load of cash not re-upping my insurance, to boot.

And then over the weekend, I received this message:

Coach N,

I’ve emailed you a couple of times since our son took your class in 2013 or 2014, but I just wanted to thank you again and let you know what an impact your enrichment continues to have on him.  My husband and I were just talking about it today, how your class helped him learn how to throw and catch, and gave him the confidence to play with other kids that extended to general self esteem.  We have since discovered that he has some learning disabilities that make tasks that may be intuitive to others, very difficult for him. He needs to be instructed on things that come easily to most kids, and playing catch is one example.  You broke throwing and catching down into easy steps in a manner that he could understand.  I can’t tell you enough how much of a positive impact your enrichment had on him.  He now has no problem jumping in to any game of catch, whereas prior to your class a game of catch would typically result in tears and self-deprecating comments. 

In an area that has so many high-achieving kids and parents, it can be really discouraging for parents of a child with learning differences when it feels like everyone else’s kid is on travel everything.  Thank you so much for providing a fun, supportive, non-competitive opportunity for kids to learn how to be like other kids.  Your impact as a coach will stay with him and our family forever.

Maybe I am not solving global warming.  And my books haven’t hit the shelves just yet.  But this message reminded an old coach of young children just what a simple game of catch can mean to a kid, and to a family.  How while we rightly focus on the way we educate our kids in school, there is a real and enduring value in finding the right ways to teach our kids to play.

I just paid for my insurance today.  Come spring, a dozen preschoolers will be pelting me with their Super Hero throws.  I may indeed be too old for this shit, but I am a coach.

And coaches matter.

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.

The Giving Tee

March 6, 2014

Baseballs go from soft foam to hard leather.  Kids outgrow their gloves and helmets and bats.  But even as our kids change and the game changes along with it, there’s one piece of equipment that can go from first swing to game 1 of the World Series—the batting tee.  A tee can be a piece of living memory for coaches and kids alike, not dissimilar to Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree.

Hello, old friend

Hello, old friend

Behold my Giving Tee—one I’ve had since my 12-year-old graduated from BlastBall.  It squeaks when I carry it around as the handle has rusted a bit from forgotten nights out in the rain.  It’s black plastic body hides a multitude of scars as numerous closed-eyed, spinning swings have taken their toll.  And the tee itself isn’t even the same one that originally came with it.  That heavy-duty, spiral rubber top managed to survive about seven seasons, but was ultimately overwhelmed by the power-sans-control of my 10-year-old Grays.  But I brought it back to live using the tee tube of one of my numerous other victims, using a carrot peeler to slim the tube down enough so it could move up and down and still be secured in the shaft.

I love this tee.  And when I see it sitting there, holding my boys’ bats, waiting anxiously for another season in the sun, I feel like it loves me right back.  This tee makes me especially excited to be going back to coaching t-ball, as it gets the chance to start over with yet another group of kids playing, laughing, and learning.

Okay, yes, I cried at the end of Toy Story 3.

But whether you’re a nerd like me turning a tee into a family heirloom, or perhaps because I’ve convinced you (or you already knew) that tee work is important at every level of baseball, I hope you’re going out and adding a batting tee to your baseball equipment must list.

So let me give you a quick guide to purchasing, protecting, and using your tee.  Tear-jerking personification is entirely optional.

BUYING A TEE

There are four general tee categories that I have experience with.  Let me give you a rundown:

Bucket Tees: The concept of these are simple and fantastic.  The tee and the bucket are one piece, allowing you to keep your balls and tee together, which is extremely convenient.

Try throwing a few batting donuts in the bottom to help keep it from tipping

Try throwing a few batting donuts in the bottom to help keep it from tipping

I’ve either used or seen three different types of Bucket Tees.  First is the Easton Bucket Tee.  This baby will run you about $50 and has 30 whiffle balls included, which makes it a pretty darned good bargain.  The key is that this one is made almost entirely out of rigid plastic, so it’s not overly durable.  It uses an elastic band to allow the tee to collapse down into the bucket and be sealed.  This one is best suited for the foam bat set, but could be used for t-ball and early coach pitch batting practice. If the mechanism to raise and lower the tee breaks, an easy fix is just to jam a key in as a wedge.  Worked like a charm for me.

My Giving Tee is a bucket tee made by the Virginia Baseball Club.  It costs around $40 and is much more durable.  Unfortunately they don’t ship, so you’d need to be in the Northern Virginia area to score one of these (they’ll even build one for you at a discount if you bring your own bucket).  This tee isn’t the greatest for first swings, as the lowest it goes is 2 feet high.  Also, the tee cannot go into the bucket, so it does not seal up.  But it does have a weighted bottom which keeps it from tipping over.

Osborne Bucket TeeFor those who like what they see from VBC but aren’t in the area, there is the Osborne Bucket Tee, which is available for about $80.  Like the VBC tee, this one is also weighted at the bottom, but puts the tee tube in the center of the bucket, and the tube is fully removable which allows the bucket to be sealed (and used for sitting for soft toss—a nice feature .  It looks like the tubes are replacable for around $20 a pop.  It also has a 2 foot minimum height, so may be better for the 8+ set rather than for first swings.

Rubber Tees: These are the tees most folks think about.  Usually fairly thick black rubber where the tee shaft fits into a molded raised hole in the base.

Now, for about $20 you can find a perfectly good basic rubber tee like this one.  The only issue with many of these is that while they fit in the molded hole, one good whack anywhere on the tube and it comes tumbling off.

5-tool batting teeSo if you are looking for a tee like this, I’d suggest you look for one that doesn’t just insert, but actually fastens in.  The most solid one I found was this Rawlings 5-Tool Multi position batting tee for $60, which has the advantage of actually having two tees that can either be linked or separated.  The downside to tees that fasten in with a screw, however, is that the kids can beat on them enough that the hinges that hold them together actually break.  Once that happens, time to head back to the store.

If you get this particular one, I would suggest NOT using the connecting piece and just use the two tees as needed.  So when one tee is hit, the whole tee will fall over—that give will keep the screw and bolt system from bending and breaking.  Then flipping the tee back up is far faster and easier than reinserting the tube itself.  These tees and almost every basic black rubber tee start at 20’’ instead of 24 or 25, which makes this perfect for t-ball work.

Note that many of these tees have replacement tops and tubes.  So when you buy, you may want to just Google your product and see if yours have replacement parts easily available.  Especially for the more expensive items, it’s good to know that you might be able to replace parts rather than the whole tee.  For coaches, having a replacement tube or top on hand is a great way to ensure that drills can continue even if there’s a mid-practice malfunction.

One last thing I’d note is that you’ll see a whole variety of tees that have tubes that can move from location to location on the plate.  I’d suggest you don’t spend the extra money for that.  Instead, use a simple throwdown home plate for your location, and simply move the tee so the tube is at your preferred location on that plate.  It ends up being faster than moving the tube around.

And a toy surprise inside every tee.  Just break and find, kids!

And a toy surprise inside every tee. Just break and find, kids!

Cheap Plastic Crap Tees: Okay, I guess I’m giving myself away here.  Tees take a beating.  So whether you have a little one wielding foam or an all-star softball slugger with her composite bat, learn from my failures and just stay away from the “My first tee” kind of stuff.  The MLB Foam Teeball Set was great—for the foam bat.  The tee lasted about 20 swings.  Then I thought I’d get clever as I saw this anti-tip batting tee.  Well, as good as its name as it didn’t fall over, the middle of the tube snapped off after about, yep, 20 swings.  Note that both of these products carry the MLB logo.  The only think I’ve been able to surmise about this is that any youth baseball equipment with the MLB logo is roughly equivalent to a product being approved by Krusty the Clown—don’t assume quality.

The one tee of this ilk I had any success with is the SKILZ 360 tee.  The claw top was a bit more durable and the “anti-tip” base actually withstood some significant thumping.  And when the claw top came off, you could still place the ball on the tube itself, so I ended up get a solid couple of years out of this one.  The tube, however, is not adjustable, so for the money, I’d say you’re still better off going rubber.

Professonal Quality Tees: Not much to say about these.  This $80 Tanner Tee is one of the standards you’ll see and there are a number in the same price range much like them.  They are easily adjustable, the tops are well made, and they stay quite stable.  I would not recommend them for young t-ball players using metal bats, as the tubes can be bent and dented so they’re really for more advanced players.

PROTECTING YOUR TEE

How tape can save your tee (see top) and what happens when you don't use it (see everywhere else)

How tape can save your tee (see top) and what happens when you don’t use it (see everywhere else)

The most important part of any tee—Duct Tape: Why, you ask?  Because whether you’re using a foam BlastBall bat or a cryogenically frozen carbon composite big barrel $3 jillion dollar special, tees take a serious beating.  At the early levels, kids hit parts of a tee you would never expect as they chop and twirl and close their eyes.  For more advanced hitters, even a great swing is going to strike the tip of the tee as the bottom of the barrel will brush the tee as the ball is struck directly on the sweet spot.  And because the default mistake most hitters have is to drop their hands below the ball, it is more likely that the tee is going to get whacked than a harmless swing over-the-top.

So do yourself a favor and give it a good wrap in Duct Tape.  For most tees, you can get pretty low on the tube itself without lessening the ability to move it up-and-down, but really build the tape up around the hitting area from the top down about 8 inches.  I usually go around a good 5-10 times.

For bucket tees, especially with younger players, it’s a great idea to actually give the top 4 inches of the bucket itself a wrap if it doesn’t hurt the ability to place the cover back on.  The Easton bucket especially is not of the best quality (mostly because no one expects you’ll ever hit them).  So even a foam bat can take a chunk out of the bucket, and you have a potential safety hazard as well as having the bucket itself not serve a purpose anymore if the crack is large enough for balls to spill out.

MY TOP TEE DRILLS

In my last post, I noted the “Pedroia Drill” which both my boys do as often as weather and homework allow.  But there are a few other great drills I’ve learned that I think really help maximize the value of working off the tee.

Two-Tee Drill: This one is my absolute favorite, as one of the most common issues for hitters from t-ball to the Majors is dropping the hands under the ball, rather than bringing the hands directly to-and-through the ball.  Placing a second tee about two feet behind the one the ball is placed on is a great way of getting players to really feel that loop in the swing and correct it (though, be warned, it can be hell on that back tee).

Testing this drill over time, I tend to like that back tee to be an inch or two lower than the front, as a slight uppercut is not the worst thing.  Having the back tee higher tends to teach the player to chop at the ball, so I’d avoid that. But pretty much any other tee drill can be supplemented with great efficacy using the two-tee approach.

Small Bat Drill: Here’s another Major Leaguer, Todd Frazier, with an interesting approach to hitting off the tee.

I pulled out one of my boys’ old t-ball bats which worked very nicely for this drill now that they’re bigger.  But another great tool for this drill (I’ll talk more about it in a future post) is “The Spatula.”  The actual name for it is the Insider Bat, and it is a wonderful way to help teach kids the right hands-to-the-ball approach as the only way to strike the ball is with proper hand position.

Belly Button Drill: I recently learned this one and love it, as along with dropping the hands, the “long swing” – i.e. swinging around the ball rather than directly through it – is one of the most common issues young hitters need to work out.  For this drill, you can use a screen, a chair, or a second tee, but you set up a barrier just off the outside corner of the plate.  The batter places the end of his bat on his belly button, and places the end of the bat so it touches the barrier.  Now, as the batter hits off the tee, the goal is to strike the ball without hitting the barrier.  It works well with soft-toss as well, but I’ve seen very few drills that so quickly teach players to keep their hands inside the ball rather than sweeping around it.

Well, there you go.  Hopefully enough (and more than likely too much) for you to go on.  Me, I think I’ll head over to ole’ Buckety and take a few cuts.  She’s looking a little lonely…