Posts Tagged ‘kids’

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: See the Ball Big When You Don’t Really See

January 25, 2018

Small Ball Machine

It was 1986, the year of Mookie, Gary, Straw, Doc, Maz, and Mex—My “Bad Guys” from Flushing who would eventually drive another dagger into the hearts of Red Sox Nation.  I was 16 and playing ball myself in a summer league in Atlanta.  Atl wasn’t yet The ATL, and also had yet to be introduced to the world of high-powered travel teams.  So this league out in Dunwoody was a mix of high school players and guys just looking to hang around the game.

That year, I was having what I would call an “Israelite” season.   I had served faithfully under the same rec ball coach since hitting The Big Field.  I started at first base as despite my skinny frame, my coach knew I could pick it and had pop beyond my size.  But he was leaving the league and I had to find a new team.

And so arose a new coach, who did not know him — to paraphrase from Exodus.  I was still working hard and having a solid season with the bat, but this new guy, a somewhat pugnacious fellow with an unkempt moustache and a penchant for those men’s short-shorts of the 80s that seemed more than a little out-of-place on the over-40 set, seemed to think I could do no right.

Given what a tightly wound ball of string I was, his skepticism became a self-fulfilling prophecy; the worst of which was when I sprinted for home on what I thought was a suicide squeeze…

…it wasn’t.

As we were getting to the end of the season, Coach Short-Shorts kept throwing me in right field and lowering me in the batting order until when I arrived that day I saw myself etched in dead last.  When I finally got up to the plate for the first time, it was already with two outs in the 3rd inning.  Their pitcher had been perfect through 2 2/3 with five Ks so far.  As I brooded from the dugout, I managed to notice that he had a solid curve that was giving our players fits.  So I went ahead and guessed on the first pitch and got what I was looking for.  I was a little out in front, but the curve landed right in that low-and-in hot zone we lefties love so much.  I hooked the ball right over the first baseman’s head and stood into second with a double.

The pitcher was clearly flustered as he gave up his first hit to the last batter.  He toed the rubber, and I noticed that he forgot to switch to the stretch—not a crazy mistake for a pitcher who hadn’t done it yet that day.  In one of the few good baserunning moves I had made that season, I took off as soon as I saw him start his wind and made it in standing on 3rd.

The only thing Coach had to say to me upon my arrival was, “No squeeze.”  The jab hardly boosted me, but the pitcher then uncorked a wild pitch and I scored our first run.

After that, the pitcher lost his cool completely, and through walks, errors, and a couple of hits, we plated three more.  He didn’t come back out for the 4th.

And that’s when we started turning it on.  Their pitchers struggled, and we surged.  My next at bat I cracked a wicked line drive up the middle.  My next time up with the bases juiced, I drove a fastball that three-hopped the wall in left-center and plated them all.

In most summer games, you’d be lucky to get a 3rd at bat—particularly at the bottom of the order.  But as both Lady Mercy and the time limit approached on our game, I was due to bat 3rd in the final inning.

One of our players had arrived late, and we already had our “Bat 10” in the order.  So, of course, Coach High Socks (did I mention that?) told me that he was going to pinch hit for me given I had three ABs already.  I simply nodded my head and wound myself a bit more taught.

But while I was not one to stand up for myself, my teammate Derrick was having none of it.

“Dude, you three-for-three, right?”

I nodded again with the same insular mannerism.

“Coach, coach, coach, coach, coach!  You cannot take him out!  He could go four-for-four!”

“He’s right, coach,” another teammate chimed in.  “You can’t lift a guy when he’s three-for-three.”

“Ain’t nobody taking me out of the game if I’m three-for-three.” Derrick added.

Coach Fishnet Tank Top (okay, that’s a lie, but I’m on a roll) turned to me and said, “So, do you want to hit?”  That emphasis clearly saying, “Just say no kid, so I can get this over with.”

I must admit that’s what I probably would have said.  I was very much a rules guy, much like my younger son is today.  Coach says…I do.

“Of course he wants to hit!” Derrick blurted before I even had a chance to unleash my patented sullen head bob.

“Coach, I’m not going to go in for him if he’s three-for-three!” said the kid who had arrived late.

That put the seal on it.

The pitcher walked the first two batters, and I strode to the plate with us up nine.  One RBI and it was over.

It was hot, late, and the game was already over.  I knew the pitcher wouldn’t want to toy around when there were Ms. Pac Man machines and cold, smooth Orange Julius at the mall just a couple of miles away.

So I sat on a fastball.

He threw me a fastball.

And for the first time ever, I saw it, right out of his hand.

The ball looked big.

Like, bigger than a softball big.

Like, it could have been 95 or had a 8-inch break and it wouldn’t have mattered big.

The ball vaulted off my bat maybe 30 feet in the air at the most.  But I hit it so hard to the right field gap that it hit the base of the wall on the fly.  I’ve hit some balls out, but I don’t think I ever hit a ball harder in my entire life.  I raced around and slid unnecessarily into third clapping my hands hard in a hitherto unprecedented public display of positive emotion.

I tell this story because players will say that they are, “seeing the ball well right now” or, “seeing it big.” And you’ve probably heard and announcer-or-six say, “The ball must look like a grapefruit to him!”  When things are really rolling, that grapefruit can even look like a beachball sometimes.

But other than that moment, I’ve never had an experience in seeing the ball big until some 30 years later, playing old man baseball this past fall.  I went four-for-six with three doubles, and each time, the ball looked absolutely huge.  It was my first game actually playing in years, so as I strutted off the field (my 13-year-old son’s team played next, so I got to gloat a bit) I tried to figure out why I was seeing the ball like that.

Then I realized it was because for the past year, almost every swing I took off of a moving baseball was off the Jugs Small Ball pitching machine.  I was so used to swinging at golf ball-sized objects that a baseball actually looked huge to me.

It may sound axiomatic, but seeing the ball is most important thing we do in hitting.

But the crazy thing is that we really don’t see anything.

What do I mean?  Well, enrich nine minutes of your life and listen to this TED Radio Hour Piece, “Isaac Lidsky: How Can Going Blind Give You Vision?”  If you don’t have time, here’s the operative, fascinating soundbite:

“What does it feel like to see? You open your eyes and there’s the world. Seeing is believing, sight is truth, right? Well, that’s what I thought. Then from age 12 to 25, my sight became an increasingly bizarre carnival fun house hall of mirrors and illusions. Objects appeared morphed and disappeared in my reality. It was difficult and exhausting to see. I pieced together fragmented transitory images until I saw nothing at all. I learned that what we see is not universal truth, it is not objective reality. What we see is a unique personal virtual reality that is masterfully constructed by our brain.”

We don’t see, our brain interprets stimuli for us.  It’s the same basic reason why it feels good to swing a weighted bat before going to hit.  It tricks our brain into making our regular bat seem light.  So we feel quicker and like we don’t have to put in as much effort to swing.

The Small Ball Machine accomplishes a very similar task.  It trains the eye to expect somethings smaller, so when we hit for real our brain interprets a baseball as big.

The Small Ball Machine is not the only trick in town.  Major League Catcher Paul LoDuca’s mother would throw him pinto beans (I’m guessing dried) in the back yard to help train his eye.  Now, check out this favorite drill from Carlos Pena on MLB Network—hitting popcorn kernels with a broom stick (this one getting small both ways!).

So below find my Pros/Cons for the Jugs Small Ball Machine.  But whether you are using foam balls or popcorn kernels, remember that training the brain is the most important, yet often most neglected part of the way both players and coaches prepare.

Jugs Small Ball Pitching Machine

The Pros

  • Hit Small: See above.
  • Self-Feeding: No one to hit with?  This loads about 24 balls and pitches them in 5-7 second intervals.  Great for hitting alone.
  • Soft Balls: The golf-sized balls are made out of foam and would not be a threat to a window unless hit extremely hard from a very close distance. They can still sting if you get pelted by one (which is why feeders are instructed to stand behind a net) but so long as the neighbors are okay with a few (or more) balls in their yard, it’s a great backyard hitting tool.  Likely even better yet for those with unfinished basements provided you have 25-30 feet of space.
  • Variable Speeds: There is both regular and advanced speeds.  It’s not a dial, just two to choose from, but the slower is around 50mph and the faster is mid-80s from 20 feet away.  You can, of course, adjust the speed by moving the machine closer or farther from the plate.
  • Curve Balls!: Also at regular and advanced, the machine has a nice little bender.  Not huge break, but enough to practice tracking a ball that is moving both toward you and down.  I mostly hit off of advanced curveball.  By moving the machine a bit farther away, you get more break (and of course less speed).
  • Consistency: I find a lot of foam ball pitching machines to be highly variable in terms of putting the ball where you want it.  Every machine will have some variability, but I find this one to be amazingly consistent in keeping the ball in the general zone once you have it set up.  Not a lot of time waiting for balls to finally come into the zone.  This also helps if you are trying to do a drill working a specific spot in the zone.
  • Great for Catching, Too: My 16-year-old will use the machine for barehanded receiving drills and for blocking.
  • Price: Pitching machines in general are expensive. At $240.00, this machine is a bargain for what it delivers.  However, see my note about the price of the balls below.
  • Durability: Over a year in, lots of use, kept out in our shed, and chugging along without an issue.

The Cons

  • Ball Price/Loss: The machine is inexpensive under the circumstances, but balls go in buckets of 48 for about $1/ball. That’s a bit pricey for what amounts to be a foam golf ball.  The balls are durable but if you’re using this outside, be prepared to lose and replace.  I’ve bought about 300 balls so far, and have very patient neigbors.
  • No Warning on Self-Feed: The self-feeder is pretty consistent in timing, but it’s hard to prep and be counting the seconds in your head. So that notion of “Spider Sense” anticipation is difficult to replicate as the ball will just pop out at you without warning.  This can be okay particularly when practicing a two-strike hitting approach, but you can definitely get a better rhythm having someone feed the ball to you.
  • Need Nets: Not sure this is a con, but you will need two hitting nets to use this machine. One to protect the feeder, and one to catch balls.  So there’s an added expense to cost in.
  • Portable Battery: I plug my machine in, but if you want to take this out to the field with you, the portable battery is pricey (pretty much same as the machine), heavy, and has a bit of a spotty record on holding its charge.

Really that’s about all I have on the downside.  Highly recommended if you can find the right space for it.

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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.

Night at the Museum

December 2, 2016

night-at-the-museum

I’ve run some pretty spectacular birthday parties in my time, but Indiana Jones and the Museum of Mystery was my opus.  I turned the National Museum of Natural History into a giant scavenger hunt for my boy and his mini-Indy-hatted bunch, completed with a weathered-bag hung from a totem pole in the foyer containing a 10-pound anatomically correct Belgian chocolate skull.

It was an amazing experience.

And in all the time I’ve gone to museums or to the zoo, that’s the way I’ve always come out, thinking about the “experience.”  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  Museums are places to spectacle at our past, and our culture, and who we are as humans in this seemingly infinite multiverse of space, time, and emotion (which I would argue is a universe unto itself).

Indeed, I never saw a thing inherently wrong with all the times that I took my boys on the school trips to the Smithsonian.  Be it preschool trips to Natural History (indeed, that’s what inspired the party) to the annual elementary trips to the National Zoo, I found them a lovely way to take advantage of our proximity to the Nation’s Capital and give the kids a chance to get out of the classroom for a while.  On the bus ride back to school, I would always throw out some of the interesting facts we learned with the kids in my group.  I’ll admit there was a little of the CoachN in me, as I just can’t help trying to make pretty much anything into a learning experience.  Just ask my kids after we go to the movies: I’m insufferable…

A couple of weeks ago, my wife Kirsten and I did something that radically altered my perception of the museum “experience” and its place in our children’s lives.  We are contributors to the Smithsonian and often get (and dismiss) invitations to special events.  Busy people, busy lives and all.  But before summarily tossing another invite into recycling, Kir noticed that this invitation was to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  A special dinner event after normal museum hours.

My wife passes by the new museum every weekday on her way to the office, and even as early as 7am she has seen lines crawling around this gorgeous addition to the Mall as people seek the very limited number of same-day tickets.  The waiting list for advanced tickets now stretches into the summer.

And so we leaped at this opportunity.  Ole’ CoachN managed to dust-off and fit into a suit, and we headed for an evening on the town.  After a lovely meal of African American-inspired dished prepared by celeb chef Carla Hall, we snuck away from the speaker as we wanted to maximize our time touring.  As we headed down the elevator, Kir and I were chatting with the operator.  “You’re really in for something.” He said, his voice almost bursting with pride.  “Just remember that you’ve only got a couple of hours.  It’ll be easy to get lost and never make it out of the first couple of rooms if you’re not careful.”

“You mean we can’t get it all in tonight?” I said half-jokingly.

“No,” he deadpanned.

He could not have been more spot on.

The very design of the museum helps to tell the story.  Starting down below, we begin in narrow, dark corridors speaking to the origin of the slave trade.  I was spellbound by a particularly dark enclave with remnants of an actual slave ship, interspersed with both art and writing of the time of the misery and depravity of the trade both from the perceptions of the slavers and the enslaved.

The upward arcing story moves through emancipation and civil rights up until this very day, the swathes of artifacts, hand-written letters, films, music, and dynamic interactive features (the “lunch counter” computerized feature was particularly fascinating—a “choose your own ending” on topics such as bus boycotts and the Black Power movement that compared your answers with others attending) so rich that each small corner felt like its own separate lesson.

And that’s when it hit me.  Instead of thinking about a museum as experiential, what if we instead thought of it primarily as an educational device?  Yes, I do recognize that the two are wrapped up together, but from my time in museums and zoos, while the students might come away learning something, we think about how it was as a whole.  The learning is secondary.  Indeed in our rush to “cram it all in,” I believe we deprive younger students of true immersive learning.

Right now, the Arlington County Public School system is engaged in thinking about “re-imagining the classroom.”  Trying to think out-of-the-box about what education should look like.  My time in the African American History museum tore through that box and even the brick-and-mortar of the school itself.  Even more, it belied the growing obsession with “personalized learning” – a good concept based in the fact that students have different needs, but a danger in looking toward an increased reliance on technology in the classroom as its primary solution.

While I am in no way against iPads and laptops, I believe that technology further removes the student from the tangibly real.  That simply compounds the initial problem that a classroom is in itself a prism that instructs on reality of the world around us, but it is walled off from it as well.  Technology enables a more organized, diverse, personalized, and deeper box, but it’s still a box inside a box.

Museums are by their nature interactive.  At the very least, they require people to move from piece-to-piece, rather than having the pieces paraded before them in pages or on a screen.  They are three dimensional.  They are tangible.  They are real.  So instead of simply having a “day the museum” what if schools actually integrated topical segments into their established curriculum?  So, for instance, instead of trying to work through the entire Museum of African American History, the students spend time only on slavery.  All the students could go through a specific tour, or students could be broken up into groups and come back and report to the rest of the class on what they learned.  Then perhaps lunch and an hour to tour the rest of the facility as they’d like.  In-depth education with a little experiential on the side—essentially flipping the usual usage model on its head.

In this increasingly screen-centered world, we need to keep making tangible connections so that our kids might not only learn about our world, but to be reminded that our world truly exists.  Those connections are increasingly crucial as our online universe stovepipes information to an extent that facts and truth become disturbingly relative.

So what, Scott, are we going to bus kids to the museum every day?  That sounds ridiculously expensive, unrealistic, and only beneficial to children close to them.  What kind of pie-in-the-sky, lefty liberal solution is that?

Well, I have an answer for all of that, but involves something that has long been a struggle for the education system in America—integrated learning.

Next on this thread, a modest proposal.

15 Minutes and a Big Bag of Crap

September 30, 2015

I’m extremely proud of my big fella for many reasons, but for today, let’s talk baseball (shocker, I know).

That District title t-shirt has gotten a LOT of wear

That District t-shirt has gotten a LOT of wear

He’s used his experiences of just missing making the team not as excuse, but as motivation to make himself a better ballplayer.  This culminated in his making his first “district team” outright over the past summer and having a bang-up season with the bat, behind the plate, and on the mound.

Okay, that was just a little parental chest-puffing, as it’s what happened this fall that really got my attention.

As 9th Grade began, he was again selected to be on the “A” squad for the 14u travel team.  He’s made it—he’s where he has always wanted to be.  But then another opportunity presented itself, as his high-school team has a fall squad as well.  Very few kids who weren’t on the spring JV or Varsity squads ever play on this team.  Indeed, the coach of the team when he invited Gus to work out with them was very careful to state that there was likely not going to be room for him.

Given the amount of baseball rejection endured over the years, including not making the JV team when he tried out last spring, Gus could have easily—and justifiably—just said that he’s going to play plenty of baseball with his other team, and that with adjusting to being in High School, he’d just stand content on where he is.  Indeed, as a concerned parent not wanting him to overwhelm himself, I myself was leaning in that direction.

Sorry Nats fans (not sorry).

Sorry Nats fans (not sorry).

Not only did he accept the invitation to work out with the High School team, but he chose to miss the Mets-Nationals Labor Day game (you know, back when the Nationals were in a pennant race?  LET’S GO METS! Sorry can’t help myself) in order not to miss a single practice, even though he was told that just making one of the three would be sufficient.

In the end, he was indeed invited to play with the team, and is working his keester off to balance his academic demands while playing baseball six days a week.

And the point of all this is?

Gus sucks at catching pop flies.

[Insert sound of record scratching here]

I know, after heaping on all that praise, why am I focusing on what he struggles at?  Am I that kind of coach and father that is simply never satisfied and always picks on the weaknesses?

I really hope not.

But, ever since having his finger sliced open by the stitches of a ball on a pop fly back in 4th Grade (I know!  What are the chances? He needed four stitches), Gus has struggled with infield fly balls.  And whether it’s learning how to lay off a high fastball, stay in front of a sharply hit grounder, or, yes, get the right break on a pop fly, every single ballplayer, no matter how accomplished, has weaknesses in their game.  And practice is the time to focus in on those weaknesses.

But what kind of practice?

Indeed, after Gus had a fantastic game with his “A” squad a couple of Saturdays back, going 3-3 and having a great defensive day behind the plate, he still missed a foul pop fly at first base.  His coach complemented his overall game, and noted that his struggles with popups made him “look like a bad player” even though it is clear he is a very good one.

That’s when his coach sent him this video, one I think every player and parent should watch:

This video speaks to an essential truth, it is very difficult to become a better ballplayer just practicing those couple of days a week that even most travel teams do.  For my 11u team, it is especially difficult, as we’re limited to only one practice per week in the fall.

But this shouldn’t apply to my big boy, right?  I mean, he’s practicing or playing five or six days a week.  So he should be covered, right?

Again I say, not practice, but what kind of practice?

The one issue that video didn’t cover, and I think a crucial one, is that when teams come together to practice, it is so they can get better as a team.  In 90 minutes with a dozen or more kids, you simply don’t have the time to break down swings, do detailed mechanical analysis on fielding, or correct every single player’s release point on the mound.  Getting leads, hitting cutoff men, defending the bunt, situational hitting—all those and many more take priority over the individual—they have to, because it is a team sport.

So while a player will get some individual instruction during a practice, the only way to really work on getting better is to find time outside of the team practice to focus on the areas in need of improvement.

Now you might be saying, “But my kid spends every waking moment in the back yard practicing.  It’s getting him to crack a book that’s the problem!”

Again I’ll say…

What kind of practice?

Players of all stripes, but I’ve found this to be true especially of the talented players, tend to shy from working on the areas where they are weak.  It’s natural to want to improve on strengths, so good hitters love to swing and good fielders love to play catch.  To my big boy’s credit we were out last week for a full hour taking popup after popup, and he’s yet to miss one in a game after that.

Why is my wife the greatest woman in the world?  Exhibit A

Why is my wife the greatest woman in the world? Exhibit A

But for others, the myriad responsibilities and opportunities of modern youth call them away from the diamond or even back yard.  Other sports, homework, and, of course, those rectangular black holes of time and space often win out for right or for wrong.

While I agree to a certain extent with Coach Antonelli’s lament regarding the rigid overscheduling that often besets modern kids, these are the times in which we live.  So rather than fight the tide, I am trying a new system where I am giving my players a discrete, 15 minute task every day we’re away from the field.

To me, doing practice outside the team is about trying to build a routine—something that can help kids gain self-discipline and organization skills.  Yes, it helps them become better ballplayers, but it really plays into my mantra as a coach to try and make youth baseball about something that transcends the game itself.

Here is my Arlington Aces Fall 2015 Practice Chart.  It focuses each day on a different aspect of the game; including the mental and physical conditioning they’ll need to step up even more during the winter.  While I have no doubt that many coaches may have different—and perhaps better—ideas for their players, I believe this to be a solid template of drills designed to keep kids motivated but not overwhelmed.

Now, as to that motivation, I know that kids are also, well, kids, and I know that even the baseball-loving guy or gal might submit to the siren song of the boob tube.  But there’s another thing I know kids like.

Crap.

They like to say the word because it’s rude without being profane.  And despite all those electronics, a piece of candy or a little squirt gun is still a huge draw.

A world of pure imagination.

A world of pure imagination.

And so I have created CoachN’s Big Bag of Crap (patent pending), filled with candy, chips, and cheap little toys I get on clearance.  In order to earn a pull from the magic bag, they need to do one of three things:

1) Turn in their weekly practice sheets with each day signed off by their parents;

2) Win our weekly “Grinder of the Week” t-shirt—an award given to four players who showed exemplary grit and determination irrespective of statistics;

3) Have a perfect team warmup.  We have a relay play they must do 10 times perfectly.

I have had some issues with kids focused more on the BoC rather than the practice, it is easy to turn the conversation back to the matter at hand by simply saying, “If you’re talking about the bag, you’re not getting anything from the bag.”  And the resounding “BAG-OF-CRAP” chants that delight the kids and make parents ever-so-slightly uncomfortable is worth the fairly insubstantial investment to stock it.

I hate you.  No, I love you.

I hate you. No, I love you.

So whether it is for love of the game, or love of crap, finding the ways to get kids thinking about practice as more than just showing up to a field will help them mature both as players, and as people.

And, yes, I do filch a treat now and again.

Stupid delicious Swedish Fish.

Coach’s Corner: The Post-Game Chat

October 30, 2013

Grays HuddleIt’s not only players that need to learn from their swings-and-misses, but the coaches, too.  So I wanted to note an experience from this past season that started off pretty poorly, but evolved into something I think really helped reinforce one of the core life-lessons that sports can teach kids: teamwork.

Over seasons past, if there’s one thing I’ve learned is that when the game is over, parents really want to get their kids out of there.  I get it, lots to do—homework, shower, food, bed, other sports, sleepovers, or maybe the parent actually has something she/he would like to do that doesn’t involve their children (gasp!).  My parents have been insanely patient for years as I do my “On The Line!” routine after most games, and I wouldn’t want to press my luck any longer.

So I save our talk about the game we played for the next practice.  After warmups, we all gather, take a baseball knee, and take stock of our previous effort.  I’ve played on teams where this conversation was all one-sided, as the coaches went-on-and-on about either what we did right, or more often, what we did wrong.  Frankly I never felt particularly inspired after those conversations.

So instead, this season, I’ve tried to turn the conversation over more to the players.  And so both for my 9-year-olds and my 12-year-olds, I asked them to each tell me one thing we could improve on, and one thing we did really well.  I thought it was the perfect way to get the kids really thinking about the game, and feel like they are having a conversation, not just being spoken at by grownups.

Well, in both first attempts, these conversations were spectacular failures.  As I went around, players were reluctant to say anything bad at all, and when they said something good, it was something generic like “Uh, I thought we hit pretty well.”  The sound of crickets chirping (which were often audible during the many awkward silences) was probably more inspiring than what was being said.  It also just took WAY too long to get through and the boys were itching to just stop talking and play baseball.

With that titanic whiff, I knew that I needed to adjust my swing.  So at the next practice for my little guys, we all took a knee and I said, “Let’s just talk about the good things.  Everyone tell me what we did well.”  This time, there was more conversation, “I got that great hit!”  “I threw a no-hit inning!”  “I made that out at shortstop!”  Without exception, each and every statement was self-referential.  Certainly not surprising, but it started to lapse into something closer to a competition for who did the most to help the team.  Not where I was looking to go.  So a little more contact this time, but definitely a foul ball.

When the practice for my big fellas came ‘round and we started our talk, I adjusted again.  “I want everyone to tell me one good thing you saw another player do in our last game,” I asked.  At first, I could see the look of shock on their face, as if I had sat them down on a baseball field and asked them a trigonometry question.  The hypnotic song of the cricket was just gaining steam when one of my players peeped:

“Uh, I thought we hit pretty well.”

It looked like Strike Three for CoachN, but right after that, another player noted the really great double that Kevin hit.  Then a comment about a shutout inning for Evan, and another about Ian’s big play at 3rd.  The conversation finally started to flow, and, by the end, we had spent 15 minutes going over just about every big play in the game.  And with each positive comment, you could see not only see the look of satisfaction of the player getting called out, but how good the player that was making the compliment felt about doing it.  Suddenly, everyone wanted to say something nice about another guy, because it made them feel good, too.

I was curious to see whether this would translate to my younger players, and, sure enough, the same thing happened.  And the next week, when they were really in the rhythm of it, you could tell that they prided themselves on being able to remember key plays others made.  So when someone made the more general platitude, “I think we all really played good defense,” it meant so much more given the context of our conversation than it did when it was just “Good Thing/Bad Thing.”

The only other adjustments I’ve made to the post-game chat now is that I call for the “5 Top Things” as sometimes the boys get so into it that it bleeds into our practice time.  I’ve also put my coaches in “Devil’s Advocate” position, as we point out during the cavalcade of positivity some of the things that we can do to get even more awesome than we were the game before.  And, of course, after everyone talks, if a kid who made an play we didn’t talk about is just dying to mention it, well, sometimes you just gotta strut…

In sports, competition is so ingrained that I often think in competitive terms even with team-building efforts.  In our warmups, we split the kids into two groups and have them compete for how many grounders with good throws they can field in a row.  Then there are foul-ball hitting contests (something I’ll talk about in another post) where additional points are awarded to the team who hit the most foul balls with two strikes on them.  But here, in this case, this is a team exercise which is really an “everyone wins” experience where the win comes from making someone else feel good.

As any coach will tell you, it’s worth all those whiffs when you walk into that one good home run.  And this one, to my mind, is a no-doubter.

Coach’s Corner: Teaching Your Players to Whiff

October 24, 2013

“A great hitter makes an out 70% of the time.”

That’s the old cliché that supposedly “says it all” about baseball.  And there is a lot of value in it.  It shows the difficulty of the game (I still contend that the single hardest thing to do in all of sports is to strike a pitched baseball), and the value in learning to deal with failure—or more accurately to help redefine what success is.

Will never forget his "Taming the Monster" in Game 3

Will never forget his “Taming the Monster” in Game 3

That said, there was a wrinkle on this old piece of wisdom that helped me look a bit differently not only at helping kids hit, but on my personal style as coach.  For those that know me, it will come as no surprise that this sage advice came from the mouth of a New York Met.  Bobby Ojeda (aka Bobby O), a 1986 hero and current analyst for the Mets’ SNY network, was examining the approach of Lucas Duda, a burly power hitter mired in yet another slump.  He felt that Duda was losing his aggressiveness and was spending too much time trying to work the count.

That kind of “Baseball 101” commentary isn’t going to win any Emmys, but what he said next was somewhat revelatory for me.  “He needs to swing-and-miss more,” Ojeda said.  “Because a swing-and-a-miss is not a bad thing.  A batter learns from it. He gets a sense of what the pitcher is trying to do to him, and where his timing is.  Indeed, the worst thing a batter can do for his timing is sit and look at a bunch of pitches.

Scorecard KNow, I have stolen a fantastic piece of advice from one of my fellow coaches, whom I heard in a game say to a batter, “The first two strikes are free.”  He meant that a batter shouldn’t get down on himself with a swing-and-a-miss, or a taken strike on the first two.  I’ve spun his advice a bit differently, and told my batters that, “The first two belong to you.”  Same basic idea, but I feel that if the batter feels like for the first two strikes, it is he who is in control of the at bat, not the pitcher, it puts her/him in a better mental position.  And as we know from former Mets manager Yogi Berra, “Ninety percent of the game is half-mental.”

But never in my almost 40 years of baseball did it ever occur to me that swinging and missing might actually be a good thing.  But not only does this make a sense from a baseball perspective, it is a fabulous life lesson for young players.  Whether it is developing a successful swing or successful vaccine, ultimate success is grown from a “test-adjust-test again” method.  So a swing-and-a-miss is not a failure, it is an attempt at success that, while not successful that time, can be learned from, refined, and put to better use.

Yogi always looked best in the blue and orange

Yogi always looked best in the blue and orange

I’ve put this philosophy to work already with my little guys with some really good initial success, as one of our issues in this early kid-pitch phase has been watching third strikes go by.  It’s natural in our league, for when you get to ball four, instead of a walk you get the coach to come in and pitch to you, which is a comforting and usually less difficult task.  So in practice, I developed a “foul ball” drill where you were ALWAYS batting with two strikes, and the goal was to actually foul the ball off, not to put it fair.  I did my best to throw pitches inside and outside so they’d learn to swing at anything close and how to pull the ball foul on inside pitches and slap them the other way on the outside ones.  I love to the kids about how much I LOVE foul balls, as it’s the kind of counter-intuitive reasoning that makes baseball such a fantastic teaching tool.

But, sometimes, my pitches were WAY out of the zone.  And sometimes they’d swing at those, too.  But rather than say, “Ooh…don’t swing at those,” as is my instinct, I instead said, “Great, you learned something with that swing, didn’t you?  Great job, now you know.”  I’ve taken that philosophy into the games as well, cheering for “GWs” or “Good Whiffs.”  For even on a strikeout, there was something learned for the next at bat.

Now, there’s a whiff when your swinging, and a whiff when you’re coaching.  I’ve had more than a few of those.  Next I’ll give you an example and how I took this philosophy to turn an uncomfortable conversation into a home run for teamwork.

The Giving Field

May 15, 2013

As I stood out over my lunch hour looking at that cone-shaped stretch of muck, I might have just as well been looking in the mirror.

I wondered until that moment why when so many other coaches and parents cursed and/or ran from the thankless, back-rending effort of tending to a baseball field—especially when the county in its infinite wisdom has used red Georgia clay as the base on so many of our diamonds—I have leaped at the opportunity.  Indeed, I’ve dirtied the back of my formerly pristine Highlander Hybrid with such an assortment of gardening equipment that when I open the back, it puffs forth a cloud of dust Pig Pen would be proud of.

Now I understand.  It’s because the field and I are the same.

First off, we’re both introverts.  Now, when I say introvert, I know that brings immediately to mind the sullen stranger hiding at the corner at the party, wallowing in the misery of being in such proximity to actual socializing.  Introverts close the door and bury their heads in books or video games, preferring those worlds to the painful reality of human interaction.  Introverts don’t do this:

Thanks to TJ Arrowsmith

Thanks to TJ Arrowsmith

But of course they do.  For introversion or extroversion is not about what you do.  It’s about how you feel when you’re doing it.  An extrovert has a natural affinity for being around others.  Indeed, they derive energy from social interaction and seek it out.  I see it at my local school every day, watching as parents easily interact with others and seek out conversations; lingering around well after the kiddies have gotten their high-fives or hugs and scurry off to class.

We introverts can have that same conversation, the same smiles, and derive the same enjoyment out of social interactions.  The difference is that for us, it’s work.  Not “bad work” mind you, but work nonetheless.  It doesn’t come naturally for us, and therefore it drains our batteries rather than restoring them.  Being social is putting on the tux, while solitude is a sweatshirt and well-worn pair of jeans.

And that’s just where the field and I were, enjoying the mutual aloneness where we spend most of our time, but at the same time preparing ourselves for when the time comes for our children to come again and play.  All we want is to provide for them; to bring them unbridled joy in a couch of safety for a couple of hours.  Then, off they’ll go happily slurping their juice boxes.  And we’re a little more worn for the experience, but satisfied, too, because we know we were a part of bringing that delight despite the muddy footprints and aching muscles stamped upon us.

We need each other, and so I drag my oversized rake through its clotted soil, hunting for drier patches in which to fill holes and even out areas around the bases and plate made more worn by the nature of the game.  Each deeply imbedded footstep I erase feels like a bad hop avoided, like another chance for a child to play.  And when an hour-and-a-half later I look back upon the field, sweatshirt soaked and jeans caked with a plaster of orange earth, I felt as renewed as my partner looked.  Indeed, it felt almost empathic, as if I had taken its bumps and bruises into my aching, middle-aged bones to serve a greater good.

How many workouts can boast that kind of psychic benefit?  Eat your heart out, Tony Horton.

After I had taped-up a few signs around begging, “PLEASE do stay off the dirt infield and allow it to dry for games tonight,” the field and I parted ways as I went home to work, parent, cook, and get then get ready for the game.  I returned with both boys in tow.  As they munched on soy “chick’n” strips and then began to warm up in the outfield, I took out my field drag (yes, I’ve got one of those, too) and began to smooth out the surface.

And it was perfect.  Just soft enough not to be dusty, but it had dried enough to mask my footsteps as I towed my device around the field.  As I began my second pass, I quickly checked my watch to see if I was going to have enough time to really get my geek on.  In the trunk I had a bag of chalk, my cheap but functional liner, and my own clever creation, two planks of 1 ½ x 3 foot pieces of Styrofoam I sawed out from a larger piece left in our shed by the handyman, “because who knows when you might need it?”  Light, mobile, and when you put them together, it makes half the size of an official batter’s box.

And there was a sound of thunder.

Drop.  Drop.  Drop.

Drizzle.

Rain.

Pour.

Teem.

In ten short minutes, my field was a lake.  Streams of water rand through it, crying those saddest of words:

No Game Today.

As the sun flickered forth, I looked out at my partner in exasperation, and began to thumb an email to the team telling them not to bother coming out.  But at my feet was the heavy black bucket where I kept my field measuring equipment, including a long length of heavy string.

And the field spoke to me, saying, “There’s more to a tree than just its leaves.”  I looked and saw that the outfield was wet, but not a swamp.  Instead of the “forget it” email, I instead said, “No game, but we’ll be out here for a bit if you’d like to come down.”

I grabbed that string and made a semicircular “fence” in the outfield.  Then I grabbed my plastic plate and bucket of whiffle balls and spent the next hour playing Home Run Derby with 10 eager boys.  We made the rules on the fly, the kids shagged the balls, argued about the foul line, and swung for the fences.  We high-fived, slurped juice boxes, and the kids stole my hat and made me chase them.  A sip of lemonade out of some very wet lemons.

As the rest of the gang had cleared out I began to walk over to clean things up.  I was struck that from my angle, the string had made the field smile. We had, together and alone, brought another kernel of joy to our little corner of the world.

And we were happy.

“Hi Mom!”

April 29, 2013

It was majestic.  A towering shot to dead left field that cleared the fence by a good 15 feet.  It was my big fella’s first ever over-the-fence home run, and it came at a moment that might have been even more important an nerve-wracking than in a game.  He did it at tryouts for the county all-star team (a team he had tried out for the past two years, made the first cut, but didn’t quite get all the way there).

The coach boomed “Going, Going…Gone!” as the ball sailed into the brush behind the wall.  My wife, a bit perplexed as to the social dynamics of the moment, inquired to our friends as to whether she was allowed to cheer at a tryout.  I believe one of my old co-coaches said something like “Damn straight!” as he popped off the stands to chase down the ball (which now sits proudly on Gus’s bookshelf).

Indeed, there was only one small fissure in this perfect gem of a moment.

I wasn’t there.

Thousands upon thousands of pitches thrown.  Countless hours in the yard, at the field.  I have been there for almost every single baseball moment in this boy’s life since he first toddled his way toward a plate with a big foam BlastBall! bat.  And yet here’s how this moment of triumph looked from my perspective:

Home Run Text

When I saw the text, after the flash of fatherly pride gave way to sullen selfishness, I immediately remembered that this moment had already been masterfully captured:

Well, sometimes you just gotta laugh. Hopefully it’s the first of many.

My Other Son

April 26, 2013

After birthing him from just an inkling of passion, it’s finally time to send him out into the world.

You’ve poured your soul into his development.  You remember arranging the playdates, a tinge of nervousness over whether he’d be liked, but still tucked away in the safety of your own control.  Even when he wasn’t quite right, it was always up to you to help fix it—to be his gentle guide toward completion.

IndyParty Skull Gus IIBut now you and are simultaneously so very proud and so absolutely terrified when it’s finally time to send him off, beyond the tentacles of your adoring care, into the arms of those charged with helping him become part of the larger world.  They can’t love him like you do.  See him like you do.  He’s so much a part of you that any issues, any hiccups, any failures can’t help but feel like a stain directly on your soul.

And yet, with that flutter in the belly that whisks your myriad insecurities with the intoxicating liquor of hope, you let go…

…and press the send button.

It’s funny that, even though I’ve sent more pitch letters to agents than I’d care to admit, it was only with today’s effort that I recognized the incredible emotional similarities between writing and parenting.

As checked my letter for the umpteen millionth time, the image of my doing that disgusting thing that all parents do—licking my fingers to get that smudge off my son’s face before school—darted through my mind.  As I noted the positive reaction that my “beta testing” group of 9 to 15-year-olds had to my manuscript, I was awash in memories of the G-men toddling with preschool friends while the parents passive-aggressively compared developmental statistics.

And the groaning strain in the pit of my stomach that leapt forth as soon as I clicked send?  Well, I have that same feeling just about each and every time Gus or Gunnar step to the plate.  Each ball that whirs toward them, each time they step gently forward and coil their hands in preparation to swing, the countless pitches I have thrown to them in the back yard circle around my gut like a whirlwind of abject fear and impossible optimism.

mightydoveThe biggest difference in sending AJ, the hero of The Adventures of…MightyDove!, off as compared to my other two boys (other than his non-living status, that is) is the fact that that Gus and Gunnar went off to a wonderful public school system where the experts are paid to help make the most out of their skills.  My other son doesn’t live in that socialist wonderland.  Instead, he faces the harsh reality of the marketplace.  No agent is compelled to take AJ in and help him grow up.  The boy of my brain has to earn his way into school even before trying to earn the grades to make him a success in life.

Dear Mr. Nathanson,

Thank you for your query. I’m sorry, but I have to pass on this one. While I appreciate the opportunity to consider your work, I don’t feel I connected enough with the material here to be the right agent for it. Please keep in mind that this business often comes down to personal taste, and another agent may feel differently about your project.

Again, thanks for thinking of me for this. I wish you the best of luck finding the right representation.

So that’s the latest one.  The nice thing is that AJ seems okay with it.  His Dad, however, is a bit more put out.  But then the faint sound of metal plinking soundly upon leather reverberates in my mind.  A ball struck solidly into the outfield, my boy making his triumphant turn toward second base.  I’ve thrown a million pitches and I’ll throw a million more to Gus and Gunnar in order to hear that sound…to have that feeling…once again.

And so I take a deep breath, reach back, and ready myself for another pitch.  After all, once you put the ball in the air, you never know what might happen.

Golem: The Hero Project

March 6, 2013

You know what they say about real estate: location, location, location.

Last year's fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

Last year’s fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

I guess I should have been excited about being given one of the prime spots at my little guy’s elementary school’s Multicultural Night.  We were right at the top of the stairs, impossible to miss—Israel front-and-center.  After brushing away the urge to suddenly discover my Slovenian heritage, I began setup for my second year representing the Jewish State.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love the fact that the biggest school event of the year is one that celebrates the diverse cultural backgrounds of the school students, parents, and teachers.  The kids are given passports, and run around the school to different tables representing different countries.  When they have stopped in and participated in whatever that country has to offer, they get the requisite stamp on their passport.

I think the twist would have given me away

I think the twist might have given me away

It’s just that I was absolutely exhausted by the worry and work of tending to my big guy’s concussion recovery (he’s doing much better now, by the way).  Just putting things together and manning the table was somewhat daunting at the moment.  Now add to that a location that guaranteed the deluge of smart, inquisitive, and energetic K-5 kids and I was hitting myself for not bringing along that bottle of Plymouth to go along with the Play-Doh.

I remember being really spent after my maiden voyage at the Israel table.  Last year’s theme was holidays, and, as you might remember, we took advantage of the proximity to Purim to do Haman Hangman and teach kids about the “Hebrew Halloween.”  Trying to manage that again, but this time at the center of the storm, was positively daunting.

Great moment, but not much competition for Hansel and Gretel

This year, the theme was folklore and fairytales.  This is something that gave me and the other Israel table parents some consternation.  Israel itself is a young country, so the amount of folklore developed since 1948 is fairly small.  One could point to the bible itself as Israeli folklore (and, some might argue, fairytales), but that seemed out-of-sync with the vibe of what they were looking for.

Finally, we decided that there was such a rich folklore tradition within the Jewish diaspora experience that it was just too good to pass up.  It also gave the opportunity to teach kids about the concept of a people without a nation.  And, as a nerd, there was really only one story choice:

Golem.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s my excerpt from the activity sheet I put together.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Legend has it that in 16th-century Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Israelites were being threatened because a lie was spread that Jews were kidnapping Christian children. As a mob gathered to attack the Jews, the head Rabbi of Prague turned to a passage in the Torah that referred to an “unformed substance” or Golem (GOH-ləm).  Through a mastery of Jewish mysticism, the Rabbi formed a mound of clay into a large human-like shape.  Finally he inserted a parchment with the most sacred Jewish prayer, the Shema, and the Golem came to life.

Unharmed by human weapons, and growing larger and more powerful by drawing strength from the earth itself, Golem was a determined protector of the Children of Israel.  But Golem became so powerful that even the Jews themselves started to become fearful.  Eventually, the Rabbi would use his powers to return Golem to the earth, even though he came to treasure his life as much as any human being did.

Golem SwampThingCan you see why a geeky guy like me loves this story so much?  It’s essentially Frankenstein meets Superman.  Indeed, Golem has been featured in comic books from Swamp Thing to The Hulk, and in pop-culture hotspots from The Simpsons to the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Resistance was futile.

Given Golem was formed from a mound of clay, it leant to a great activity for the kids—Build Your Own Golem.  Armed with a rainbow of Play-Doh tubs and paper plates, the kids molded their own heroes and brought them to me for me to mark with their name and their Golem’s name in Hebrew (or the best approximation my 6th grade Hebrew School training could approximate).  As the first little girl brought me her fire-breathing butterfly, I found that I needed to kneel down to more comfortably write on her plate.  I did not get up again for two-and-a-half hours.

Location, location, location.

knee_padsAnd while my hamstrings are still recovering some two weeks later, I have to say I am so very glad I didn’t let my fatigue (and self-pity) get in the way.  I wish we had been a little less crazed, as we weren’t actually able to do the photos and videos of the kids as I had hoped.  But both their creations and their answers to my questions were absolutely fascinating.

As you might expect, there were plenty of the “boys will be boys” crowd that just wanted to talk about the cool ways that their Golem could destroy things.  When I noted the fact that those powers could be used just as easily for evil as for good, most responded, “Well they just use it to kill the bad guys!”  When I challenged them to think about one way they could use their power to do something other than to destroy, I got a lot of quizzical looks and “Can you just give me my stamp now, please?” But I also got a lot of good thinking.  Lightning bolts that could light lightbulbs and controlled storms that could spin wind turbines, to name a couple.

And then there were the “outside the box” notions of heroism.  A winged Pegasus that spread friendship with a flap.  A tree of life that provided food for the hungry.  My favorite was a little girl with a pretty pink Golem.  When I asked what powers her hero had, she shrugged her shoulders shyly.  Her Dad wrapped his muscular arm around her shoulders and urged her to answer.  “Is your Daddy your hero?” I asked.  She grinned and nodded her head, looking up at him for approval.  “And what makes him your hero?” I continued.  She pondered for a moment, and squeaked, “He loves me.”  This time, it was my turn to grin.  “Love, my grandmother always said, is the greatest power of them all.”  We named her Golem Ahav—love in Hebrew.

folding chairWhether you go with Golem or just a “build your own Super Hero” project, I cannot recommend this activity enough.  I would have loved to have done this in a classroom environment where the kids get to build, discuss, and share their designs, and more importantly, their thoughts on heroism with each other.

Just make sure you’ve got a chair.