Posts Tagged ‘imagination play’

The Imitation Game

December 7, 2018

Digital Camera Pics 990

We’ve all done it.  Picked up a pool noodle, started some heavy breathing that in any other case might seem a little pervy, and thundered those immortal (if slightly incorrect) words, “Luke, I am your father.”  Or perhaps you caught yourself with a hairbrush and a mirror, belting out your favorite tune as if you were preening in front of thousands of fawning fans.

Imitating our idols, heroes, and even that occasional iconic villain is a universal part of the human experience.  Putting on Daddy’s over-sized coat or Mom’s heels is our entry portal into the world of your imagination.  And triggering that imagination, in all its forms, is a vital part of making things fun.

Sometimes, fun is something that I think coaches forget about too quickly.  I know that I have often gotten myself caught in the, “We need to get all these boring reps in and when we’re done we’ll scrimmage” work/reward trap.  As alternative, we lean on making the repetition into competition.  Turning bunting drills into a contest for best balls or rewarding the win to the group with the most cutoff men hit.

While I deeply believe that increasing competition orientation in drill work is a crucial element in keeping young players focused, motivated, and engaged, it doesn’t take advantage of that even more fundamental part of the human experience—creativity.  That’s where imitation comes in.

Indeed, over the years, I’ve seen boys step up to the plate and do their best to waggle, stride, and swing just like their Major League icons.  Here in the D.C. area, the Bryce Harper is iconic and almost universal (for now).  My older boy used to love to figure out how Travis d’Arnaud could be on time with the bat head pointed straight at the pitcher.  Indeed, I used to do the same trying to figure out Gary Sheffield.

But when it comes to teaching, we coaches will often use video to show kids how the big guys do it, but we’ll often shy away from actually telling our kids to actually try to imitate the pros.  As we know, everyone’s swing is different, and while the MLB players are great examples, they can do things that your average 11-year-old can’t.

This fall, I decided to do something different.  I decided that each week, we’d go out and actually imitate a particular player.  I let my kids make suggestions, then I went and watched video and decided on the player that might teach a particular lesson well.  My kids loved to debate with each other, try to one-up their teammate with an arcane suggestion, or, of course, as one of my kids did, suggest Max Scherzer every week just to get under this Mets fan’s skin.

Now, I know every parent/coach or coach/parent out there is already thinking about the unmitigated disaster of having nine kids all trying to ape a big leaguer’s swing.  I mean, every swing is different, and if you have kids trying to do everything different, all you’ll do is give them brand new bad habits to worry about.

So here’s the wrinkle.  Rather than focus on the entire swing, we picked out one particular component of that player’s swing to work on.  This allowed us to break down the swing into component parts, and push them out of their comfort zone in digestible bits.

In case you’re interested, due to lots of rain, we ended up with 6 sessions.  Here’s how they broke down:

  • Ben Zobrist: Hand position and load
  • Chris Carpenter: Shoulder rotation
  • Daniel Murphy: Front foot movement
  • Mookie Betts: Core engagement
  • JD Martinez: Arm movement
  • Tony Gwynn: Body momentum and balanced landing

In each case, for some guys it was an easy transition.  If a player happened to be a “tight hands” hitter like Zobrist is, there wasn’t much transition.  But for my “hand casters” – of which I have many – it was really, really different.

When we worked Zobrist off the tee, holding our hands tight against our body and keeping them there throughout the swing the complaints were legion.

“This feels funny!”

“It doesn’t feel right!”

“I can’t do it!”

“You’re killing my swing, coach!”

And I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t killing their swing.  But as they swung and struggled, I saw them working at it, laughing at each other (and themselves) when they messed up, and getting psyched when they “Zobristed one up.”  I think the fact that they were not using “their own swing” but instead imagining themselves as someone else allowed them to push out of their comfort zone, try something totally new, fail, and be okay with that.  Another plus of getting the kids out of their own skin.

At the end of the tee period, I told all the kids to “go back to their normal swing.”  In the Zobrist case, I moved the tee to the extreme inside corner.  And what I saw excited me.  Most of my casters took one or two “normal” swings and jammed themselves.  Then, on their own, I saw them move their hands in do the “shake-and-rake” prep move, and THWACK, manage to barrel one up.

As coaches, I think we sometimes get caught up in a little too much self-love for our own expertise.  We know each player’s swing is different and has different needs.  But we sometimes forget that young players’ swings are still evolving, and tweaking what’s there may not be as productive for them long term as opening them up to different options and let them find something new that clicks with them.

To borrow form old angler wisdom:

Coach a kid’s swing, he’ll hit better for a season.

Teach a kid to coach his own swing, and he’ll hit better for a career.

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CoachN’s Preseason Tips: Snitchball

March 22, 2018

Snitchball2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snitch

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

Hands jabbed in the air.

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

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

Hands fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I did have one of these:

Training ball

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

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

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

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

They didn’t come close.

After frustration clearly set in, I stopped them.

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

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

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

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

“Could you?” begged Sam.

“Nope.”

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

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

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

And they didn’t win.

But they did get better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once Upon a Ninja…

December 5, 2014

It was an honest mistake.

Stupid, but honest.

That’s what I was thinking as 10 Kindergarten, first, and second grade students shivered on this gray, dank, 40 degree day. For in my baseball zealotry, I accepted an invitation to teach an outdoor after school class this fall. What didn’t quite compute when I signed on was the fact that there is a difference between the self-selected baseball nuts who choose to play in a fall league, and the youngsters whose parents simply sign them up for what sounds like a fun after-school enrichment activity.

Hard to hit with your arms like this.

Hard to hit with your arms like this.

And so these kids squeezed into their personalized chairs, some bundled so profoundly that I could picture them waddling along with Ralphie’s little brother from A Christmas Story. That image reinforced itself as they wobbled, tumbled, then struggled on the damp grass to extract themselves from their plastic prisons.

Moments like these are pivotal as a coach. When the natives get restless, that attitude either becomes infectious and you get an hour-long chorus of, “Are we there yet?” or you find a way to turn things around.

And my salvation lay in a recycled Halloween costume.

“Okay everyone. So who here knows what a Ninja is?” 

The grumbling stopped immediately, and rapped attention and “Ooh-ooh-ooh!” hand raises leaped into the air.

So maybe you can tell me, but what is it about the word “Ninja?”

Say “Samurai” and you may get a few nods. Say “Jedi” and you’ll get a good 50 percent return rate. But there seems to be something almost prenatal about children’s reaction when you talk about ninjas. It’s supremely cool at the molecular level.

Minion Ninja?  I think my son's head would explode.

Minion Ninja? I think my son’s head would explode.

No longer able to contain themselves, the kids formed a discordant chorus of Ninja love.

“They wear black and have swords!”

“They leap on buildings and can do flips!”

“They are super awesome fighty dudes!”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about kids, it’s that one of the very few things that trump personal discomfort is the power of their imagination. My kids will play in a snow fort until their feet fell off, if it were up to them.

“Yes, that’s all correct,” I responded. “But why in the heck am I talking about Ninjas? Aren’t we supposed to be learning how to hit?”

Oh, yeah. This was supposed to be about baseball. They came down off of their swordplay-induced high and began to shiver as the blood rushed to their brain in the effort to fuel an answer.

“Ninjas jump around?” Benji ask/answered.

“Well, yes they do, but do we hit like this?” I jumped and kicked and made swoosh noises. The kids giggled and shook their heads.

“Okay then,” I continued, “So what’s more important to a Ninja, being super strong or super quick?”

As the kids noodled the answer, the normally demure Kindergartener, Charlie, leapt out of his seat. Well, kind of, as he leaped up and the seat leaped with him like some kind of vestigial tail.

“I know, I know!” He said as he danced. “The need to be quick, and the bat is like a sword!” He made his own swoosh and swung his shadow sword with a passable resemblance to a baseball swing.

“On the nose, Chuck!” I bellowed. The response reminded me to hand him a tissue as he was dripping like a broken faucet. “While it helps to be strong, if you try and swing hard it actually slows down your swing. Swing quick like a Ninja, and it will fly!”

Each and every one of them were now swinging their own air swords—I had ‘em on the hook.

“Now, ole’ CoachN isn’t the best guy to teach you how to teach you how to hit like a Ninja.” As I said this, I began to unzip my own winter jacket, which I had on less for protection and more for performance.

“It’s time for…Coach Cobra Kai!”

Sweep the leg.

Sweep the leg.

At that, I ripped off my jacket and revealed the costume I had worn when my little guy was seven and wanted to go as the Karate Kid. I did the only thing any self-respecting father could do, and dressed as John Kreese, the immortal evil sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo.

They couldn’t contain themselves anymore, leaping out of their chairs to inspect the sweet fist in front and cobra in back. With my black shades on, I was seriously, seriously ninja.

“Now, who is ready to learn to hit like a Ninja?!?” I rasped in my best Martin Krove.

Hook, line, sinker.

We handed out their ninja swords (pool noodles I cut in half, a little thick for small hands, but spongy and safe yet firm enough to take a real swing with), marked their top hands so they remembered how to hold it properly, and played a game of “Ninja Says” where they had to follow my pattern as I intermingled the correct swing technique steps with a little silly (yes, I did the crane kick).

They were focused. They were following. There wasn’t a shiver in sight.

Once they had conquered Ninja Says, it was time for battle. My assistants and I ran around while the kids chased us, but they would only get points for bopping us with the proper technique. Then I would yell, “FREEZE!” and each of them would get a pitched ball to try and hit.

And guess what? Every kid hit the ball on their last try.

When time was up, not a single kid wanted to escape the cold, and, of course, weren’t too keen giving up their noodle swords. But they had won their battle.

And I had won mine.

If you’re interested, here is my Ninja Hitting guide. This part focuses on the swing preparation part more than the swing itself, as I’m of the “early step” school, especially for young hitters. Hope it helps your little sluggers!