Posts Tagged ‘little league’

Make New Mistakes

November 8, 2017

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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.

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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!

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:

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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

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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.

Ping Pong, Baseball, and the Art of (Non) Competition

February 8, 2016

Ping Pong

“My recommendation.  Lift weights.  Heavy weights.  A lot.”

That’s what my older son’s coach told him at the post-season dinner that ended his first season playing high-school level ball.  He didn’t make the JV team as an 8th Grader, but was invited to play fall ball; an unofficial version the area high school teams playing in the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League.  The coaches are not the high school staff, as they are not allowed to coach during the fall.  Instead, a group of former players in their teens and twenties volunteer to lead the squad.

These young guys all still love to lift, and lift big, and that’s been the gospel in baseball for a while now.  I remember in my injury-interrupted efforts to play college ball, the first thing my coach told me to do when I hit campus was to hit the weight room.  Indeed, strength training has now become a standard element of elite ball, as despite the fact that baseball has a more ecumenical reputation for focusing on performance rather than size, first impressions still matter.

And big guys get the benefit of the doubt.

So it was something of a revelation when Gus’s former travel coach, a seasoned veteran who has been helping kids in the area develop for the better part of two decades now, threw a wrinkle into the traditional off-season grunt fest: he recommended the kids play Ping-Pong.

I had never thought about it before, but the second I read those two words, it was a light-bulb moment.  Both for offense and defense, quick hands, anticipation, and tracking the ball are crucial to a developing baseball player’s skill-set.  And while I agree that getting stronger is important, neither strength nor speed are truly the foundational skill for quality baseball players – it’s quickness.

We asked our boys if they’d be interested in a Ping-Pong table as their combined gift for the holidays, and I was surprised that they both almost instantaneously agreed.  So I found a good deal on a nice table at Costco that fit in what was until December our indoor baseball/football/wrestling/light saber fight space.

Ping-Pong was huge at my high school, and I’m a fair tennis player, so I’ve always been pretty good.  And my skills have held up I garnered family bragging rights as I not only cooked our Thanksgiving dinner solo, but also managed to bag the trophy at the first annual Table Turkey Tourney over Thanksgiving.

And this brought me to a bit of a conundrum.  At the moment, I’m still better than my boys at the game.  Both my fellas have a competitive streak; certainly not a bad thing in itself.  And while I would sometimes let up a bit, I refuse to simply lose on purpose – they won’t get any better or learn any lessons from it (okay, maybe with a little drop of ego mixed in).

But at first what I found was that even after close matches and my noting that they were getting better (and they were), they really didn’t want to play me anymore.  When I coaxed them to the table, they would either get frustrated and either play angry (slamming the ball at my head) or just not take it seriously (slamming the ball at my head).  While they would play each other on occasion, our grand experiment (and investment) looked like nothing more than a holiday fad.

Determined to stem the tide of ambivalence, I thought I had found a fun “power with” way to bridge the competition gap.  I had suggested to my little guy that instead of playing against each other, we see how long we could hold a rally.  He was into it, and we had a nice 10 minutes trying to best our top number.  But as I dreamed of what a wonderful blog post I would be writing about “power-with Ping-Pong,” I found in fairly short order that that there was a downside.

For as we improved at playing together, our efforts to push each other with angles and pace diminished.  We held back, hit more softly, and aimed as much as we could for the middle of the table.  While it was fun, it was clear that the developmental end of the game was being thwarted by the cooperative one.

Once again stymied by, the answer I was searching for presented itself through that wondrous instrument of education: television.  My little guy, not normally huge tennis fan, does love the idea of sports greatness.  And after Serena Williams’s run at the Grand Slam last year, he was very interested in watching her begin a new quest.  So as Gunnar sat on the sofa and watched the Australian Open, my big fella toyed with the Ping Pong paddle; the tennis serving as a Pavlovian call to action.  I asked him if he wanted to play, and a deep throated, “Sure” warbled forth in lukewarm agreement.

But when he started to rally, it wasn’t with any seriousness.  Rather, he began to grunt like a tennis player every time he swung.  I started to become peevish immediately as the balls flew straight past the table (and at my head).

But this time, instead of going into “Coach Mode,” I caught myself.  One of the things I sometimes forget as kids – my kids included – is that getting a little silly is important at any age.  Any game, at the end of the day, needs to be a game.  We want our players to work hard and get better, but what’s the point if it’s not fun?

And so I pulled out my very favorite tennis grunt in history, the high-pitched “Wha-Unh!” squeal of Monica Seles.  And we stood there at the table, paddling, grunting, and giggling over our ridiculous contest.  We didn’t keep score, but we ended up having a number of epic rallies; the non-competitive competition allowed me the space to push him without him feeling like he was being pushed.

Gunnar, fascinated by the absurdity, but always the literalist, demanded to know if I was doing an accurate Monica Seles impression.  My wife had just come in, and showed him how well I screeched by finding an old Seles-Graf match on YouTube.  After affirming my skill, he demanded to join in, and a new family tradition was born.

The boys either play each other, their friends, or me must about every day now, and rarely do we keep score.  Instead we compete without competing, focusing on the fun.  The result is that both boys can now far more easily respond to balls with more pace.  Even if they hit the ball out, just by getting to it, they are showing that their reflexes and eye-hand coordination are improving.  Even though some video games do have an element of reflex and eye-hand coordination training, they really can’t match real-world physical interactions (at least not yet—virtual reality may have something to say about that soon).

I saw the proof that this training translates just this past weekend at my 11u travel team’s winter workouts.  I was running the pitching machine and had turned up the speed higher than they had seen it all off-season.  Gunnar, a solid if unspectacular hitter on my B-Team last year, stepped in and simply out-performed about 2/3 of the guys, including about half of the A-Team players.  It was clear that his ability to judge and react was profoundly improved with a couple of months tracking and chasing Ping-Pong balls.

So whether it’s a full-sized table or just one of those portable nets you can spread across in the dining room (but watch out for that chandelier!), I highly recommend Ping-Pong as an offseason training tool.  The Seles squeal is optional, but highly recommended.

Summer Camp, Spiderman, and the Social Art of Catching

December 17, 2015

Scott Catcher

Those who know me and my lunatic ways on the baseball field are often surprised to learn about how painfully shy I was as a child.  Many introverts are shy as kids, as we do not realize until later in life that while we can be social, and, yes, even enjoy being social, that it takes a tremendous amount of energy for us to do so.

As a child, this feeling of social depletion often leads to an aversion to and anxiety about being with people.  I remember this being especially hard for me at my one sleep-away camp, Blue Star, a Jewish camp in North Carolina.  In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad camp.  I made a good friend, almost landed my first real girlfriend, and hindsight tells me it had most of the usual activities and idiocies that movies like Meatballs tell me I should expect from the experience.

But I hated it.

I have come to understand that my particularly strong negative reaction came from the fact that you are never, ever alone at sleep-away camp.  From bunks to bathrooms, there is no respite from socializing other than sleep (fleeting as it was with the usual jackass pranks and early-morning bugles).

Those of you who aren’t introverts might think that the person reading the book in a crowded restaurant has that issue solved.  Now that I’m a little more comfortable in my own skin, I can do that and feel energized.  But at the ripe old age of 12, I knew that just made me look like the weird kid.

My one redeeming moment at Blue Star was in the annual talent show (Meatballs, I’m telling ya).  At that time, I was a huge Steve Martin fan; listening to Comedy is not Pretty until the needle wore out, and tacking his “Best Fishes” photo from the album along-side my poster of U.S. Senator John Blutarski.  My counselor refused to let anyone not participate, and told me to “do something” for the Gong Show portion of the competition.

I really can’t remember the routine, as when he literally pushed me on stage, I just kind of went somewhere else.  I remember poking fun at the guy who went on before me (he used a dead frog on a stick to do a dance) and teased the counselors.

I remember laughs.  A lot of them.

And I remember after asking my counselor whether people were making fun of me when they laughed.

“No way, man!” he replied earnestly.  “You were hilarious! Who knew Scott Nathanson was funny?”

In looking back at my childhood, I realize that there were two places “in a crowd” I actually felt energized: on the stage, and behind the plate.

The one unifying factor for both?

I was Spiderman.

That nerdy kid who put on the mask and became the wise-cracking hero.

Whether it was playing King Achashverosh, the drunken regent of Persia for my 3rd Grade Purim play (back by popular demand in the 4th!), or the lout of a husband who gets his just “desserts” in my fabulous filmmaker friend Thom Harp’s Proof is in the Pudding, putting on the mask of another character felt freeing rather than draining.

I felt the same way when I put on a catcher’s mask.  While normally my coaches had issues prying a single sentence out of me, when I caught, it was hard to shut me up.  I talked to my pitcher non-stop.  I urged.  I coaxed.  I may have even taunted the batters just a little, tiny bit at times.  I distinctly remember a few hitters telling me to, “Shut the hell up.”  I would merely shrug, and continue to yammer away.

And despite being born with a terminal case of “Catcher’s Disease”—I’m left handed—I was pretty darned good.  I remember getting validation early on.  I was nine, and our ace Pitcher Wes Winterstein was on the mound.  I was late to the game and arrived in the 2nd to find that we were already down to the Phillies 6-0.  To make matters worse, they had runners on first and second with no one out.  I remember the coach saying, “Thank god you’re here,” and taking out the boy catching in the middle of the inning as soon as I was suited up (not something I would do today as a coach, mind you).

The change in Wes was immediate.  I remember to this day yelling at him, “I’m back, let’s go!”  He stared in, and buzzed a strike down the middle.

The Phillies wouldn’t score again.

It’s funny how in the scramble to help kids find their own path, we coaches – and I think teachers and parents as well – will sometimes shy away from our own stories.  We don’t want to do the, “Back in my day…” thing; feeling rightly that each child and each generation has unique characteristics and qualities.  And as the mercury pushed up past 70 degrees this past Saturday, I organized a special catcher’s clinic for my 11-year-olds.  My main goal was to start working on how to frame pitches and the mechanical skills it takes to move (or not move) the glove.  And I had been watching a lot of videos on technique and found new approaches to framing I had never learned as a player.

But as I brought the boys to the backstop, all those old memories began to flood back.  And so we spent as much time talking about who you need to be as a catcher than what you need to do.  Both are important, but I realized just then that I had been remiss with my catchers in instruction on the former.  I think it’s because that, ironically for an introvert, that was the one part of this very difficult game (and an even more difficult position) that actually came naturally to me.

And so, I have committed myself to working more with my catchers in general, but go beyond just framing, throwing, and blocking.  Those skills make for getting better at playing baseball, but they don’t make for better ballplayers.  In addition, the social art of catching transcends the game itself, teaching empathy, leadership, partnership, along with verbal and non-verbal communications skills that can help a player mature as a person.

Now there are a million great catching videos out there (I’m quite partial to the Touch ‘Em All series, and this GameChanger blog has a nice compilation) that go into the mechanics of the position.  But for those interested, here are my tips that look at the skills you need behind the mask.

CoachN’s Social Skills Catching Drills

  • “Talk” with the umpire: A catcher is having a game-long conversation with the umpire, both verbal and non-verbal.  Remember that you want it to be a friendly conversation, not a debate.  Introduce yourself to the umpire at the beginning, and make him feel like you’ll do your best to give him the best looks at the pitches and protect him as best you can.  Then continue that conversation with every pitch you receive.
  • Your #1 job: be your pitcher’s best friend:  The best friend a catcher has on the team is whoever it is on the mound at that moment.  Your job is to make him feel comfortable and confident no matter what the situation.  Talk to him, point at him, take the blame for wild pitches if he’s having trouble even if it’s really not your fault.  Plain and simple, the pitcher is the center of the action and driving the plot, not you.  Your job is to try and get the best out of him you possibly can.  To geek-out a bit, he’s Luke, you’re Yoda.
  • Be positive: About the worst thing I have ever seen a catcher do is call time out, go up to the pitcher, and tell him that he stinks (and yes, I have seen that).  If you think that is a good move for a catcher, it’s time to find another position to play.  A catcher should be relentlessly encouraging to his pitcher, giving him fist-pumps and thumbs-ups on good strikes and close pitches, and little encouragements and the occasional pat on the keester if he’s struggling.
  • Be honest: If the coach comes out and asks you how you think the pitcher is doing, be honest with the coach.  You have the best view of the pitcher, and if you are focused on him, should be able to get perhaps an even better sense than he has as to whether he has anything left in the tank.  If you think he does, go to bat for him, as that buys you considerable cred with your pitcher and will pump him up.  The coach will make the final call, but you can definitely help him, the pitcher, and the team by being honest.
  • Speak like Spiderman: Chatty, competitive, and a little funny; just like you see the catcher in movies from The Sandlot to Bull Durham.  So talk all the time, not just when you have a conference on the mound.  While you need to feel out if this is working for your pitcher or the umpire, these are the good base traits for a catcher.  A chatty catcher will sometimes engage and sometimes annoy hitters.  Either way, they are thinking about something else other than the pitcher; that’s a good thing.  Chatty catchers help keep the umpire engaged and develop a relationship.  Getting a grin out a pitcher in a stressful moment helps to relax him.  Chatting also helps keep you focused and not falling asleep behind the plate.
  • The catcher/pitcher relationship does not end on the field:  When an inning is over, players tend to go find their buddies on the team and hang with them.  Remember, no matter what the case outside the ballpark, the pitcher is a catcher’s best buddy. Unless you’re getting ready to hit, spend the time in the dugout talking about the last inning—what was working and what wasn’t.  Go to the coach together and give suggestions (particularly if the coach is calling pitches) as to what pitches and locations seem to be working or if something is making your pitcher uncomfortable.  If it looks like a new pitcher is coming in the game, bring that pitcher together with the last one to share information.
  • Talk catcher-to-catcher: Talk to the other catchers on the team during the game.  You may not catch the whole time, but the catcher who was in the game should be giving information to whomever is coming in about the umpire, the pitcher, and anything you’ve seen in the hitters.  That information is vital and you do no favors to the next guy by having him come in cold.
  • Frame a ball, tell a lie: Umpires will know a clear ball if they see one–it’s usually anything more than 2-3 inches (that’s not much) outside the strike zone.  Any pitch you jerk from far off the plate is a lie you are telling to the umpire and your pitcher.  It makes both of them less trustful of you.  Just catch that ball and quickly throw it back to the pitcher to keep him in rhythm.
  • Move a strike, lose a strike: This is about the hardest thing to do at the same time that you are learning to stay outside the borderline pitches and catch the ball with a slight movement toward the corner of the plate.  If a strike carves the outside corner and you move it toward the middle, you are telling the umpire you think that pitch was outside.  If you catch a pitch crossing over the middle of the plate and you simply follow it as it finishes inside, you’ve turned a strike into a ball.  Same goes for a pitch at the top or the bottom of the strike zone.  For any pitch anywhere in the strike zone, the less movement, the better.  This may be a skill, but it’s also part of the conversation, as by holding a ball in place, you are telling both your pitcher and the umpire to, “check out that beautiful strike.”  Now that’s framing.

Now, you’ll note that this list does not include anything on the “field general” end, such as calling out plays and cuts and such.  I’m just starting that with my catchers, and really want them to get comfortable with the pitch-and-catch aspect of the game, as most coaches will tell you this aspect is about 75% of the job.

Until next time, True Believers!

Of Tacos and Teamwork

December 15, 2015

Aces Trophy

Perhaps the biggest upset a team that I coached ever pulled was a couple of years back with my 9u Aces.  In the first game of “The Doc” – the season-ending tournament here in Arlington – we were matched up with the rival Arlington Travel Baseball Arsenal.

This was the ATB “Blue” team—meaning their A-squad.  We were the B-team for Arlington Babe Ruth, and after struggling for most of the season, we had bounced back with a couple of big wins and were starting to feel like we could compete.  ATB, however, were feeling like the team to beat.  Indeed, I found out from their coach later that weekend that they had just come off an improbable first-place finish in an elite tournament in Pennsylvania.

And that was when, as that coach then said, we took them to the woodshed.

11-1 mercy rule in 5 innings.

Now, I’d like to think that amazing performance was due to my awesome pre-game visualization exercise.  I had asked my players to close their eyes and picture themselves making a big play, picture another player making a big play, and, yes, holding up a tournament trophy.  I told them it was good to picture it, to dream of it, to believe they could do it.  Then I told them to open their eyes, look across the diamond, and see the first team standing in their way.

Pretty sweet coaching stuff, eh?

But, really, when I look back on it now, I think there was something far more important that inspired us that day.

Tacos.

Yep, those crunchy Mexican sandwiches-in-a-shell.

For as the game began, so, too, did the dance I did with Tyler, one of my favorite – and most maddening – kids.  I had been coaching Ty, alternatively named over time Tippecanoe, Mr. Smooth, and Mr. Dangerous (which has now morphed into “Dangeroo”), since he was in Kindergarten.  His Dad TJ and I have coached together almost as long.

Tyler is both big and young for his age; smart as a whip, funny as hell, but very easily distracted.  Indeed, there was a time when both TJ and I thought that the more stationary nature of baseball was just not a good fit for him and he’d be leaving the game.  But the combination of his big brother’s passion and a summertime viewing of The Sandlot turned him all around.

Mr. Dangerous was certainly all that at the plate for us that season; his oversized, gangly body and less-than-classic swing was a fantastic example that while there are many ways to swing a bat incorrectly, there really is no one-size-fits-all way to do it right, either.  But while Tyler was clearly our best hitter, in the field he was like one of those St. Bernard puppies with a small body and adult-sized paws.  You could tell that there was (and still is) potential there with that big arm, but no position on the field was a good fit for him quite yet.  And while during the season I was committed to giving all players time in the field, come tournament time I clearly noted to players and parents we were going to put our team in the best position for success.

This left Tyler in the middle of the batting order, but mostly on the bench when on defense.  In the past, Tyler on the bench had been something of an issue, as his extroverted, smart, and funny ways would combine with his less-than-fully-mature focus to become a real distraction.  And when he started a full-throated chorus about how much he loved tacos, I was once again ready to pull my old “3 strike” rule from my t-ball bag of tricks, as I wanted to nip this latest diversion in the bud.

But shortly after I stared my first dagger in Ty’s direction and barked, “Focus on the game!” it happened.

Ping

A hit.  A solid single against ATB Blue’s best pitcher.

“Coach!  The Taco song!  It’s good luck!” cried Tyler.  He quickly coaxed a couple of his teammates to start singing it as well.

A walk

“See coach!  It’s working!” he screamed.

I didn’t like it.  But then I remembered one of my oldest rules, one quite hard for a control-freak like myself to accept: let the players find their own fun.

“Okay, let’s hear it, then!” I yelled back.

Tyler was over-the-moon, and the other players quickly gravitated to the ludicrous new team anthem.  The ode to that Tex-Mex wonder belted from the bench until I gave that gentle reminder to the umpire that, yes, we had just taken a 10 run lead.

The B-team and its taco tune had won the day.

To a man, the team credited the Taco Song for our victory in our postgame huddle.  And I agreed, because it turned our dugout from its usual home of schoolroom gossip and anywhere-but-here conversations into the biggest, loudest, weirdest rooting section on the field.

I was recently reminded of this tale because of the Washington Post article on the new NCAA basketball darlings – the Monmouth Hawks.  Here’s a quote from the article:

The Monmouth Bench Mob – the title the four players gave themselves – created more than a dozen intricate, choreographed group celebrations, replete with invisible props and Improv-troupe acting chops. When Monmouth toppled Notre Dame on Thanksgiving night, the result sent a ripple throughout the sport. Videos and Vines of the bench’s hilarious dances in response to three-pointers and dunks burst across the Internet and played on highlight shows. So when the Hawks visit Verizon Center on Tuesday night to face Georgetown, they arrive as a dangerous team that’s already beaten three power conference teams, yet are known primarily for four goofs on the sideline.

The only thing missing from this is the fact that, while there is no doubt that Monmouth has a talented team, much like my Aces, those four goofs and their own version of the Taco Song is also a key not only to their popularity, but their success.  Those four goofs keep the players on the court feeling loose, happy, and energized.  Those four goofs energize their fan base in a way that no fan section, no cheerleader, and no mascot could ever do.  They distract the other team without demoralizing them.  They show that the sum of a team can be more than the composition of their individual parts.  They show that every player on a team has an important role to play.

I am passing this article along to all my kids’ parents and asking them to share it with my players.  Because in our 10u season, my team really lost its inner Taco Song, and I truly believe that while we saw individual growth in a number of players, is why we as a team had trouble competing consistently.

Next season, I am actually going to focus a little less on skills development, and open each practice with a non-baseball team-building exercise.  For while as a coach I have (finally) figured out that I cannot write their Taco Song for them, I can do a better job providing the instruments to help them compose it.  Ultimately it will be up to them to decide the song they want to sing; the team they want to become.

I for one am rooting for enchiladas.  It’s more fun to say.

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.