Posts Tagged ‘baseball’

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.

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

December 21, 2017

Indoord Hitting

Happy Winter Solstice, all!

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

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

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

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

DO NOT PLAY JUST BASEBALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

Because it’s fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Make New Mistakes

November 8, 2017

IMG_1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded, I threw, he swung late.

“Were you late or early?” I asked.

“Late,” he replied instantly.

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

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

“Late or early?”

He hesitated.

“Early?”

“YES!  Way early, way to go!”

He smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feet Stuck in Cement? Try Balloon or Bubble Ball!

May 16, 2017

Baseball Balloons

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

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

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

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

You don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have FUN out there!

Home Run on the Edge of Forever

May 11, 2017

Displaying IMG_2532.JPG

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

I’m voting for Big Fish as of now.

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

And Gus went deep.

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

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

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

The left fielder slowed down, and turned to watch.

Did that really just happen?

It did.

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

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

The Chocolate Donutz-eating t-ball team;

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

The B-Team catcher starting to find his form;

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

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

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

Working his keester off and moving up to A;

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

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

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

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

Feeling his way back after missing two weeks; and

BOOM

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

Wait, no, that’s quite not it.

Oh.

Oh my lord.

I was my Dad.

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

And then…PING!

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

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

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

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

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

And I remember that it always will be.

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).

Coaches Matter

January 9, 2017
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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.

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.

Boy Over Boys, Part I: Fudge

November 29, 2016

baseball-fudge

It was a little Texas Leaguer over the third baseman’s head.

It was perfect.

My younger son doesn’t quite have the brawn of my big boy.  Okay, that’s an understatement.

You remember what Steve Rogers looked like with his shirt off before he became Captain America?  That guy looks like a body-builder compared to my twiggy little fella.

But like that pre-serum Steve, Gunnar has a competitive fire that outstrips his two-dimensional frame.  He’s become an accomplished bunter, and we’ve worked together to compliment his blips with bloops; drawing the 3rd baseman in with the bunt attempt and then slapping one by him.

I was watching from my perch as 3rd base coach, already thinking that with a good bounce he might get a double out of the dunk.  And, out of nowhere, the shortstop hurtled in the air and made a spectacular catch; his little body sprawled right on the cutout between the infield dirt and outfield grass.

Shortly thereafter, a single word hurtled in the air from down the first base line:

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUDGE”

Only he didn’t say “Fudge.” He said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word.

It was the 3rd out of the inning, which was about the only thing that saved Gunnar’s bacon.  For the mix of players changing sides allowed a bit of distraction from his latest episode.

“Did you hear what he said?” The young base umpire, a college kid collecting a summer paycheck, seemed a bit bewildered by the language he likely heard about every 0.25 seconds in his dorm.  But timing is, of course, everything, be it comedy, tragedy, or in this case, an inextricably intertwined combination.

“Yep.  Hard to miss,” chuckled Dave, the burly veteran I’ve had behind the plate since my older one was hitting off a tee.

Dave flashed me a look as I jogged toward my flailing first-baseman, now flinging his helmet to the ground.

“Do what you need to do, Dave,” I replied.

“I think you’ve got this, Coach,” Dave said with a bemused grin.

He knew that this was my kid in full meltdown.  And he thought that it was a kindness that he pulled back on what should have been done—namely throwing my son out of the game.

It was not.  Because now we had to do the dance.

Over the past few seasons, I’ve needed to cha-cha between gentle support and tough love as Gunnar battled his competitive demons.  I myself toggled between an empathy borne from my own boyhood tennis temper tantrums and full-body rage over stolen home runs, to a frustration bred from repetition and the aforementioned familiarity with my own failings.

Of course, Gunnar was benched for the rest of the game.  Of course, he eventually felt terribly about what he did.  He told Coach Steve that he felt that there was a monster inside him that he couldn’t control.  He tearfully apologized to the entire team during our postgame talk.

It was heartbreaking.

Again.

As we prepared for the next day’s games, I knew that this time, he had crossed a line that needed to be addressed.  For the moment, I needed to put Dad aside, and put my coach’s hat on.  And so I consulted with Coaches Steve, Bill, Kevin, and of course Coach Nolet’s Dry Gin on the matter.  All were supportive and understanding (or at least helped calm me down a bit with intensely floral drinkability).  And everyone agreed—this time there needed to be consequences.

We settled on a one game suspension.  My first instinct was to bar him from the rest of the tournament, but my coaches talked me down off that ledge, reminding me how hard it’s been on Gunnar to be the “Coaches Kid.”  For while being in that role can lead to preening primadonnas when the kid is the best on the team, the role can also create intense pressure on the player who has had to work his tail off just to be middle-of-the-pack.

Gunnar had gotten that most reviled of sports taunts – “You’re only on the team because your Dad is the coach!” – on several occasions at school.  In his earnest desire to prove himself, he made each pitch, each swing, and each play in every single game into an unending death-spiral of a tryout.  Every failure reinforced the bullies’ jab, and, because this is baseball, by its very nature he failed more often than he succeeded.  The Monster, a creature he came by honestly (indeed, genetically) grew into something he could no longer control.

This Monster, however, had to be put in a cage.  And so my son…my player…my son…and I talked.  I let him know I was proud of the fact the apologized to the team after the game, and I understood this was a part of him he didn’t like.  But he had crossed a line, and both he and the team needed to know there were consequences to these actions.

And so father-and-son, player-and-coach stared at each other—eyes welling and voices cracking with guilt, love, and remorse—embraced, and accepted each other for who we were.

I then loaded the trunk and headed down to the field.

Alone.

Only now do I realize that that was the beginning of the end.