Posts Tagged ‘sports psychology’

CoachN’s Preseason Tips: Snitchball

March 22, 2018

Snitchball2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snitch

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

Hands jabbed in the air.

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

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

Hands fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I did have one of these:

Training ball

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

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

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

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

They didn’t come close.

After frustration clearly set in, I stopped them.

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

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

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

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

“Could you?” begged Sam.

“Nope.”

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

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

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

And they didn’t win.

But they did get better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: Let Your Walkup Song Choose You

February 14, 2018

Devil Dogs on Deck

Let me get this out of the way up front—I am not a “music person.”  I’ve been to concerts here-and-there, but would rarely go out of my way to see even my favorite artists live.  I enjoy a number of different kinds of music, from rap to pop to hardcore to Ska to klezmer, but if you ask me my favorite artist for any of those, I’d struggle to tell you.  So you’re not going to get a definitive list of greatest hits here…sorry.

What you will get is a particular piece of wisdom about music that have been attributed to many, but certainly stuck with me over the course of time:

You don’t choose the music.  The music chooses you.

More than food, more than art, more than great literature, I think.  Sound speaks to us in ways that are so personal, so primal that it makes it less of a choice, and more of an instinct.  It can be metaphor.  It can be mood.  But it chooses us, it hits immediately and deeply in a way little else does.

The importance of feeling cannot be overestimated in baseball.  The game is a unique blend of a team game where players feed off each other, and a very individual game where in that moment, be it on the mound or at the plate, the game is entirely in your hands.  Rather than tweaking swing mechanics or a pitcher’s arm slot, one of the greatest gifts a coach can give to both an individual player and a team as a whole is crossing the line with the right frame of mind.

In our preseason hitting classes, our lead instructor Dan Pototsky has spent more time than I think I’ve ever heard before about the mental side of hitting.  “Relaxed”  “Aggressive” “Do Damage” are key words rather than “Keep your head in” or “Don’t drop your hands.”  It’s an interesting shift, and one that I think is becoming more-and-more common at all levels in baseball.  Because as coaches, we’ve all seen it.  That kid struggling on the mound and you come out and say something funny.  They laugh, you head back, and it’s like a totally different player out there.

So I asked myself, “How can we find a way to teach this lesson to kids in a way that is personal, fun, and engaging?”  And that’s when it came to me–the one thing in any professional baseball game that meets all these criteria:

The walkup song.

Whether it’s the crowd roaring 80’s pop lyrics (notably Michael Morse’s hilarious choice of A-HA’s “Take on Me”) or the call of the wild (thinking Yoenis Cespedes’s “Lion King” so popular at Citi Field), the walkup song has evolved into a signature part of the game experience both for players and for fans.  So if the big boys can do it, why not the kids?

I asked each of my 11u players to choose the music that they would want as the tunes they’d stride to the plate with.  Here’s what they gave me:

  • Jacob — Thunderstruck-AC/DC
  • Grant — Welcome to the Jungle-GunsNRoses
  • Logan — 2 Legit 2 Quit-MC Hammer
  • Matt — DNA – Kendrick Lamar (clean version!)
  • Sam — Marquee Moon – Television
  • London — Believer-Imagine Dragons
  • Christian Lam — Thunder–Imagine Dragons
  • JoJo — Believer-Imagine Dragons
  • Gabriel — All Star — Smash Mouth
  • Frankie — We Will Rock You – Queen
  • Connor — Thunderstruck-AC/DC

When we met the week after the list was completed for our winter indoor hitting session, as each player marched up into the loft above the hitting area, I popped their song on.  “This your tune?” I’d ask.  Without fail, a wry grin would spread across faces.  Heads would start to bob with the beat.  And as quickly as they started to move with the rhythm, they would dance their way around me to peek at what songs their teammates had chosen.

When the last tune had played, I quieted my phone to a collective, “Awwww!”

That brought out the patent-pending CoachN fish-eye.  I had already told them that the one sound in the world I could not abide was, “Awwww!”

“Awwww…yeah!” JoJo smartly added.  I had told them how my previous team had learned to game that particular peeve of mine.

“So,” I began. “Two of the songs on our list were chosen by multiple players.  Why am I not asking those folks to choose a different song?  I mean, shouldn’t every player have their own unique walkup tune?”

The guys went silent for a moment, and then London raised his hand.  “Oh, because it was the song that guy wanted?” he said in a query.

Exactly!  We don’t choose the music.  The music chooses us.  This isn’t about finding your unique song.  It’s about finding what makes you feel like you can go conquer the world.  Some guys want to be pumped up.  Some guys want to be calmed down.  I remember a major leaguer who had ‘Call Me Maybe’ as his walkup song.  Do you know why he chose that one?”

“He, uh, liked it?” Grant ventured.

“Nope.  He said he hated the song.”

No raised hands this time ‘round.

“It was because it was his daughter’s favorite song.  So the music helped him remember that there were more important things then the at bat he was about to take.  He needed that to stay relaxed and centered.  That was the song that chose him—and he didn’t even like it!”

“Can we listen to our songs while we hit today?” Frankie asked.  Excited agreement followed.

“Well, we don’t want to bother the other hitters today, so this may not be the right place to do it.”

“Awww…yeah!” the chorus replied.

Buuuut,” I replied, “I will do two things.  First, I want you to hum your music when it’s your turn to hit.  Start putting it in your head and develop your strut.  Don’t just walk to the plate.  Do it your way to the rhythm of your song.”

Mild nods of acknowledgement.

“And, on top of it, how about we make your music our warmup music at every practice. Rather than just run, stretch, and throw, we do it to your tunes.”

Awww…yeah!”

We tried the warmup music for the first time during a pitching workout, and I think the kids would have been fine with an hour of warmups just to get to listen to their music more.  I’m now canvassing parents to see if I can get a boom box for the season, as this looks like a tradition in the making based on my players’ reactions.

Being a good coach or player is as much training the mind as it is the body.  We get so caught up in the physical aspects of the game that we often forget the number one thing that makes us actually want to play.

Because it’s fun.

Becoming a Ballplayer

February 26, 2015

 

Not sure what lesson I'm teaching here, but this little fellas still playing ball!

Not sure what lesson I’m teaching here, but this little fellas still playing ball!

It is quite fascinating as a coach to toggle between my preschool classes and my work with older kids.

For my very little ones, my job as a coach is to teach them to love the game of baseball.  Find ways to make the basic skills of throwing, fielding, and hitting into something relatable and memorable, so that when the game of baseball gets “real” they will have both the fundamental skills to develop, and the attachment to the game that is enduring.

Once the kids graduate from tickle monster base races and Ninja Hitting, a coach’s job evolves as well.  At first, we just want the kids to love the game.  But when outs start to count, and not everyone gets a trophy at the end, we need to start teaching them to respect the game that they have, hopefully, come to love.

Most youth coaches will tell you that, given the relative attention spans of your average elementary schooler, when teaching a lesson, the key is to KISS (that’s Keep It Simple, Stupid).  For those of you who have read my posts before, you might know that’s something of a challenge for me.  But with the help of my fantastic co-coaches and borrowing liberally from others, a couple of years ago I put together our first set of player guidelines.  Being the Blue Wahoos, we called it “The Wahoo Way.”

The Wahoo Way is a set simple principles were what we expected from our players, and this list was the first thing up hanging in the dugout before every game.  We coaches constantly reinforced that while others may do things differently, we do things The Wahoo Way.  It became a great shorthand both for praise and criticism.

Finding a "Way"

Finding a “Way”

Last summer, I built on the shorthand of our Wahoo Way for my summer Aces 9u travel team.  I did so in two ways.  First, in our “Way of the Ace” instead of giving very simple principles, I instead used the acronym to give buzz words – Attitude, Competition, Effort, Sportsmanship.  And as you can see here, rather than simple sentences, we got more descriptive as to what those expectations were.

After all my players read this, we all, coaches and players alike, signed it.  One of my co-coaches from years past suggested this to me, but last year was the first time I actually used the idea of a signed pledge.  I would highly recommend it to every coach, and I really found that taking the time to discuss the pledge as a team, and then signing as a team brought a sense of accountability and commitment that was a fantastic way to start a season.  Just like The Wahoo Way, our signed pledge was up next to our lineup sheet on the dugout fence every single game as reminder that everyone “bought in” to the way we were doing things.

Hear the book is excellent as well.

Hear the book is excellent as well.

This winter, my 10-year-old’s basketball coach gave each player a copy of an article called Toughness by ESPN’s Jay Bilas.  Despite the fact it was more geared toward high-level high-school and college players, he asked them to read it for discussion at the next practice.

Both the piece itself, and Coach Jones’ request for them to read it were a huge eye-opener for me.  The article spoke brilliantly to what real basketball toughness meant, getting away from the chest-bumping and instead showing all the small ways, physical and mental, that turned a player into someone who really understood, appreciated and played the game right.

But what really struck me is the fact that Coach Jones didn’t simply keep it simple, but challenged the kids to read something more sophisticated, but meaningful about the game.  For there comes a point when if you want to teach kids truly lasting lessons in sports, you need to challenge their mind as much as their body.

After thanking Coach Jones for the great article, I said that I hoped there was something like it out there for baseball.  He responded that if there wasn’t, I should write something given my knowledge of the youth side of baseball.  I thought about it, fiddled with the idea, ran it by my coaches, and finally came up with something that I felt might be valuable and approachable to a youth baseball player as he (or she, no women on my team this year, unfortunately) starts to think about the upcoming season.

A few weeks ago, I challenged all my players to make an offseason fitness commitment.  I asked them to do as many pushups as they could, as many reverse crunches as they could, and sit in a catcher’s squat as long as they could.  Their goal is to be able to do 5 more pushups, 10 more crunches, and sit in the squat 15 more seconds at our first practice than they could when they first did them.

While I thought that was important, it was really the setup for what came next.  For after challenging their body, we sent them this letter and our new “Grinder’s Guide” to challenge their minds  Our central message–it’s time for them to think about the difference between playing ball and being a ballplayer.

We urged parents to read it together with their kids and discuss it, and be prepared to talk about it at our first practice coming up in a couple of weeks. And while I’m sure not every player will understand it all—heck, some may not even read more than what’s in bold—I believe that by not always keeping it simple, but bringing the brain into the game, you give players the opportunity to grow in way transcend the game itself.  To me, that’s really what coaching is all about.