Posts Tagged ‘youth baseball’

Coaches Matter

January 9, 2017
DSC_9882

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.

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Boy Over Boys, Part II: Summer’s End

January 5, 2017

2014_baseball_sunset

You can read Part I here

One of my greatest points of pride came years ago, when my big-guy was starting kid pitch.  One of my parents who worked at the same firm as my wife told her that I was the best parent coach he’s ever seen.  He complimented my ability to connect with the kids, but what impressed him most was that unless you actually knew me, there was no way you would ever know which player on my team was my child.  Both my kids knew from the very beginning to call me “Coach” when we were on the field, though I never made that express ask.

But my need to leave Gunnar behind for this, what may well have been our final game of the season, was an X-factor to which I was unprepared.  My co-coaches and I had talked about what we’d tell the other kids—whether to make it a discussion, a teachable moment, etc.  Even after that conversation, I wasn’t sure how to approach it.

I waited until the whole team had gathered for BP, resisting the inevitable early queries.  I sat them all down in a sliver of shade as a very thirsty tree fought valiantly against the record heat.  In the end, I felt that we had a game to play, and this wasn’t the time for an after school special.  So I just kept it simple:

“As you can all see, Gunnar isn’t here.  While you all know how sorry he was about his actions yesterday, there are some things that cross a line and go beyond regret.  Gunnar crossed that line.  He will not be at today’s game.  He told me to tell you that he accepts and understands this consequence.  He asked me to wish you good luck and he hopes to be back with you tomorrow.”

No questions.

Simple nods.

Bats and helmets.

Thank god…

The game itself was a wonderful distraction.  When the first pitch was thrown, CoachN clicked in, and it really felt like another game with my boys.  We played well, winning 12-6, with my shoulder-batted slugger Ford leading the way with 3 hits, 4 RBIs, and pitching two quality innings (we took him out early after getting a big lead to save his arm in case we went deep).  It was satisfying, as we staved off elimination and set up a rematch with the Alexandria Aces, a team that mercy-ruled us in our first tourney game–perhaps the worst game we had played all season–on our home field, no less.

Both my boys…and my boy…would get a shot at redemption.

Alas, there would be no storybook ending.  At least not in the traditional sense.

We played a much better game, as did Gunnar.  He worked a walk, stole second, and helped manufacture an early run.  He also bailed out Ford who despite our best plans just didn’t have much left in the tank, inheriting a bases loaded, 1-out situation in the 2nd inning and getting a comebacker and a huge strikeout to end the frame.  His clenched-fist, “Let’s GO!” was met in the dugout with a celebration more fit for a championship than an early-game jam.  As I saw them congregate and congratulate, for that one moment, I was just a Dad.  For every one of these Aces were not just rooting for the team.

They were rooting for my son.

Seeing these boys come together around my boy at that moment transcended the rest of the game, and the game itself (we lost 9-6 after a determined comeback).  All season long—and for three years running—we had preached the idea that everyone on a team depended on each other, and that picking up a player when he was down was as important as lifting him up when he succeeded.  In this moment, it was both combined as one.  These kids clearly sensed that their teammate needed lifting, and they did not need a coach’s speech or a parent prompt to come to their buddy’s aid.

And with that, our season was at an end.  We finished with our traditional pool party, me breaking into their wrinkle-fingered fun just long enough for them to suffer through another warble-voiced coach’s speech about how far they came as a team and as people.  I chatted with parents, patted players on the head, and started thinking ahead to fall ball.  They would be rising 12u players now, and this would be our last year together—the end of our journey together.

But life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

And it was time to choose boy…or boys.

Get That Bat on Your Shoulder!

December 6, 2016

bryce-harper-bat-shoulder

Anyone who has ever broiled or shivered through their child’s t-ball or coach pitch season probably has a PRSD (that’s post-repetition stress disorder) event hearing this phrase:

“Get the bat off your shoulder, [PLAYER NAME]!”

Lord knows I’ve used it plenty of times myself over the years.  The idea is that we want the hitter to have “active hands” so they can generate power and quickness, rather than simply drag the bat off their shoulder, drop their hands, and make a loopy swing toward the ball.  Those are the swings that usually ram the bat right into the tee, spilling the bucket of balls all over home plate.  You scramble and the kids giggle (okay, PRSD moment of my own there).

Indeed, “bat off the shoulder” may come in a close second to “stepping in the bucket” for the most used/overused phrases for youth coaches.  I developed the “ear bop” technique part of my Ninja Hitting program to reinforce the notion to my young hitters that their hands should start high, by their ear.  It’s the way I was taught.  It’s the way I’ve seen it taught.  And my kids looked more like your prototype big leaguer with that advice.

But a good coach isn’t just always teaching.  A good coach is always learning.

I remember hearing a story a couple of years back that Mike Matheny, now the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals told about his mentor, Tony LaRussa.  They were sitting in the dugout together, and LaRussa turned to him and asked, “Mike, about what percentage of the game to you think you know?”  Matheny thought about it for a moment.  He’d played the game all his life, and enjoyed a long Major League career as a catcher, one of the most physically and mentally demanding positions on the field.  He retired and went immediately into coaching, and now was on track to become LaRussa’s successor as a MLB manager of one of the most storied franchises in the sport.

“I’d say about 80 percent,” Matheny responded, as while he was a baseball lifer, he knew that there was always something new to learn.

LaRussa nodded his head silently.

“How about you?” Matheny replied.

LaRussa, considered one of the games great masterminds and a lock for the Hall of Fame, simply replied:

“Oh, about 35 percent.”

Despite his 2006 Cardinals upsetting my Mets in the NLCS, it is a story I still love to tell, and remind myself of.    And this year, that lesson really hit home with the ole’ “Bat off your shoulder” axiom.

It started this spring, as I was chatting with the Dad of Ford, one of my Aces.  As it happens, Ford’s Dad is another “Coach Scott” as he had been coaching his younger boy’s travel team, so we both spoke from a place of knowledge.  I asked how Ford was doing in the house season, and he said that he was making contact, but not really hitting with any power.  This was something we had seen with Ford in the previous travel season and had trouble figuring out.  My Nationals were going to play his Red Sox, so I told Other Coach Scott that I’d give Ford’s swing a look and see if I saw anything new.

Ford’s stance looked perfect.  Nice high hands, wrists waggling ever-so-slightly to keep those quick-twitch muscles from getting stiff.  A solid and early stride to the ball, good hip rotation, and….a grounder to second.  He squared it up, so what went wrong?

So I really looked closely his next time up, and, finally, it was the “Ah-Ha!” moment.  As he began his swing, those nice high hands dropped down to his shoulder, where the bat rested for just a split second.  He then pushed the bat off his shoulder and into the hitting zone.

For Ford, my “ear bop” advice was not the solution to his hitting issues.

It was the problem.

How could this be?  I’m CoachN, dammit!  I’m supposed to be right about this stuff.

That next day, I did something I hadn’t done in a while—I hit.  I went into the backyard, just me and the tee.  I pictured Ford’s swing in my mind’s eye and attempted to emulate it.  So, for the first time, I not only saw the issue, I felt it.  With his hands that high, there was no place for them to go but down.  And with his early step, the bat would naturally find a resting place on his shoulder as he approached the ball.

A couple of days later, a bunch of the Aces were watching a High School game, and I sat down with Ford.  I explained what I saw, and something came out of my mouth that made the T-Ball coach in me squirm.  I told him that maybe he should actually try to start with the bat ON his shoulder, and as he loaded for his swing, make sure his hands were moving up and then out to the ball.  “We want up-and-out,” I told him, “not down-and-around.”

Now, Ford is a hard-working, strong, smart, and just really good kid.  So perhaps I am taking a bit more credit than I deserve, but, boy, did that correction really seem to work for him.  He was a line-drive machine not just for the rest of the house season, but was one of the most consistent hitters on the Aces all summer (when he wasn’t getting run over by his coach, but that’s another story).  And it took was getting the bat on his shoulder.

As I dive deeper into middle age, I find one old axiom to be true: the more I learn, the more I realize just how much I don’t know.  I think that’s what Tony LaRussa was imparting to Matheny.  As a coach, or a teacher, or a doctor, or a president, it can be very easy to simply sit back and rely on the safety of assumed expertise.  Knowledge can make us powerful, but it can also make us lazy.

So with this one swing, I learned a lot of lessons about myself as a coach (and maybe a few about myself as…myself):

  • Really see the player before you coach the player: While some skills are more one-size-fits-all than others, see a player’s natural abilities from the ground up. Don’t be too quick to put a player in a particular mold.  Find her/his strengths and build off of those.
  • Understand each player’s challenges are unique, and often contradictory: Sometimes, a player needs to start with the bat on his shoulder. Hey it’s worked for MLB players like John Olreud and Bryce Harper!  Sometimes they need those hands up high.  “Systems” are great starters but they cannot and should not be the end-all-be-all in teaching.  Be flexible and see that the challenge of your player, or the strength, may actually teach you something new as well.
  • Understand that why they are trying to do is hard: While some people are naturals, most are not—be it hitting a baseball, fixing a transmission, or completing an equation. Really acknowledging the challenge helps to keep both the player and the coach focused on the positive.  It’s also a reminder that trying hard things and even the small successes breeds a worth ethic that can last a lifetime.
  • Try it yourself: I’m reminded of the move The Doctor with William Hurt. He is a famous and narcissistic surgeon that has his life turned upside-down by throat cancer.  In his fight, he starts to see things from the patients’ perspective, and forces all his residents to be patients as a lesson in empathy.  I really couldn’t fully get Ford’s issues and suggest a solution until I picked up a bat myself.  Indeed, my current swing is now totally different than the one I used back in school as I started to incorporate everything I’ve learned in coaching to my personal approach.  Practicing what you preach help keeps your mind open, and keeps you humble.  I now work on my own game every chance I get for just that reason.
  • Don’t be afraid to get it wrong: Baseball, like life, is a game of adjustments. Indeed, numerous studies are showing that for academic assessments, learning from wrong answers actually leads to better retention of correct answers, leading to rethinking about tests more as a teaching rather than an assessment tool.  So as a coach and a player, it’s incumbent on us to be open and try new things.  Sometimes getting it wrong is the only way we’ll ever get it right.  And what’s right now may not be right later on.

So, get out there, get that bat on your shoulder (or not) and try, try again.

Boy Over Boys, Part I: Fudge

November 29, 2016

baseball-fudge

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

It was perfect.

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

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

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

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

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

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUDGE”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was heartbreaking.

Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alone.

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

Why Utley’s Slide Matters to Youth Baseball

October 11, 2015

WinFor RubenMy older boy was playing a game last week in Fairfax County with his high school JV team.  This being his first experience with this level of baseball, it’s been quite the education for him.  For rather than play in the JV division, his team is playing other varsity teams, meaning big, strong kids with pitchers hurling well north of 80mph.

Gus has struggled a bit at the plate, as has almost every player, but he’s held his own.  And his team was holding a 3-1 lead going into the 7th inning of a well-contested battle.  Gus was catching, and our new pitcher was struggling badly.  He had already given up a run, had walked four batters, and they had the bases loaded with no one out.
When the count went to 3-2, we awaited the inevitable.  Our pitcher went into his stretch, came set, and…

THONK

…the lights went out.

10pm.  Nite-nite for this particular field.

The 7th inning ceases to exist, and we win 3-1.

As the gossamer batter threw his shadowy helmet to the ground in frustration, all of us parents looked at each other with a guilty grimace.

“That’s not a good ending for anybody,” said Joe, one of Gus’s former youth travel coaches, whose son is also on the team.

I am reminded of this given the ugly events that happened last night with Chase Utley breaking the leg of Ruben Tejada in the NLDS Game 2 between the Dodgers and my beloved Mets.  While the event wounded my not-so-inner Mets fan, it and the reaction to it hurt CoachN more.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook in an open letter to MLB:

Dear MLB.com you, and the umpires you employ, decided to show baseball-loving kids around the country that, so long as you think you can get away with it, it is okay to try and hurt a defenseless player because the play is so important.

I heard the talking heads on MLB Network talk about how catchers are now protected, so why not middle-infielders? THEY ARE PROTECTED! THERE IS A RULE! It just takes the minimal courage involved in simply doing your job.

This is made far worse by the fact that it was Chase Utley, a Hall of Fame-caliber ballplayer with a history of playing dirty. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Hard-nosed is fine, it is great. But Utley has crossed that line multiple times, and your cringing from the proper course of action is an open encouragement for hyper-competitive players and coaches to think that somehow this is acceptable because, after all, the Dodgers won in the end.

Youth baseball, particularly at the travel level, is plagued by the “Winning is the Only Thing” mentality. It is a significant reason why participation in travel baseball is down across the country, as parents are increasingly wary of putting their children in a system where their values and priorities for their kids, such as fair play, respect for teammates and opponents, and that the competition is as important as the result, are subverted by a concept of the game that prioritizes results over process or even the rules themselves.

Your umpires, and then the subsequent confused, half-hearted, finger-pointing “defense” of what happened by Joe Torre only serves to reinforce this notion.

As a Mets fan, I was okay with losing last night. Not only did we already win one, the Mets have given me a thrilling season win-or lose. What you and your umpires have done by cowering away from upholding the rules damages the game in ways well beyond this game or this series, or even the Major Leagues itself.

As a father, a youth coach, and a fan, I am disgusted by everything that has happened during and after that play. You should be ashamed. I will certainly be addressing this with my players, as hopefully at least someone can learn the right lesson from this event.

With greatly diminished respect,
Scott Nathanson
Manager/Head Coach
CoachN’s FUNdamentals

Utley has now been suspended two games for the illegal slide.  As one Twitter poster noted, “I wonder if Tejada can appeal his broken leg?”  Of course, Utley has appealed, like a true bully refusing to admit he’s done anything wrong.

For while my son’s victory came with a bit of embarrassment to his team, Utley and the reaction by his Dodger teammates and Major League Baseball has embarrassed the game.

House Rules

September 29, 2015
Just happy they chose soccer...

Just happy they chose soccer…

While I was recently interviewed in Arlington Magazine for an article on the ups-and-downs of travel sports, my feeling is that some of the greatest lessons for kids of any talent level can come from being a part of a house team.

Indeed, it is why I find it a shame when parents of elite-level youth players tap their fingers and roll their eyes during the house ball season, impatiently awaiting the end of league play so their child can go play “real baseball.”  Some go a step farther, pulling their kids out of league ball and shelling out the big bucks to go exclusively with club teams all year long.

What the “club kids” miss out on is truly precious.  For in hockey, basketball, soccer, and even football, one star can dominate the show.  But particularly due to the pitching restrictions put on teams in league ball, the big fish is still small compared to the whole pond.

There is no “rover” or “center” that can patrol the whole field.  There is no opportunity to take the shot every time.  It’s the kid with the runny nose and thick glasses—the kid who dreams just like the jock of someday feeling the soft rustle of major league grass underfoot—that may have the ball hit to him (or her) in that crucial moment.

“You’re never going to win at everything,” says Arlington Babe Ruth baseball coach Scott Nathanson, who’s been coaching for more than 20 years. “I try to equate baseball with joy and bring the life lessons that baseball teaches to the fore, rather than focusing on winning or losing.” — From Arlington Magazine.  Couldn’t have said it any better myself.  Oh, wait…

Indeed, in what was unquestionably my Aces’—the “B” travel team I coach—best game of the season, I had the opportunity to actually show some strategic smarts (not my specialty area, admittedly) and prove that very thing.

Two years ago, my big fella’s B Team, the Arlington Cardinals, headed to a great little tournament up in Frederick and upset the host team in the first round.  We were probably about evenly matched, save the coach’s son, who was an absolute monster.  That was a huge day for my own fella, as he both started, and much to the protest of the players on Frederick, came back in the game to get his own save.  I remember it well because my wife almost had a heart attack when we brought him back in.

My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades

My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades

Flash forward to this summer, and my Aces are playing a Frederick team much the same, this time with a kid we called “Fish” because his last name was some type of gilled animal, though precisely which one now eludes me.  This young man looked like he could swallow my skinny fella whole, and yet was faster than anyone on my team.  I was told by one of my players that he was a friendly sort, coming up to our dugout during our 2nd round game and saying, “Hi, I’m [Fish].  I’m the best player on my team.”

And, of course, the most humble.

Come the semi-final, we were locked in a 1-1 game in the 3rd, and my pitcher who was dealing but clearly running out of steam had just induced a groundout with runners at 1st and 2nd got get that second out.  Now, with two runners in scoring position, the big Fish swam to the plate, his shadow encompassing the entirety of the left-handed batter’s box.

I looked out to my guy, a wiry young thing named Tony, and you could see the look in his eye.  I call him “La Tigre” not just for the Frosted Flakes connotation, but because he’s a kid who loves a challenge.  But you could tell that he was running on fumes, and Fish was ready to reel him in.

I sat there on my bucket, wondering what pitch to call that might do the least damage, then something in the recesses of my brain crammed somewhere between Tickle Monster Base Races and Fuzzy Flies from Outer Space decided to spark.

“Tony, step off!” I yelled to my hurler.  He looked at me blankly, finally complying on my third request.  I called time, and jogged to the edge of the backstop where the tournament officials were scoring the game, and huddled with them and the umpire.

“What are the rules on intentional walks?” I asked.  “Do I need to throw four balls, or can I just put him on?”

The tournament orchestrator seemed taken aback a bit by the question.  “Well, uh, whatever the rules say…”

“I believe we’re playing by Cal Ripken rules,” I quickly interjected, given that was something I actually knew.  “At this level, I can just put him on.”

“He’s right,” the umpire said.  “That’s the standard 46/60 rule.”

“Allright then, do what you want,” said the official with a courtesy masking just a hint of frustration.

“Okay big fella, head on over to first,” I said, giving the umpire the point of the finger.  “That’s my tip of the cap to you.”

We were all grinning after the big win.

We were all grinning after the big win.

The grin on La Tigre’s face stretched like the Cheshire Cat.  He nodded, and it was like I had gone to the mound and given him a B-12 shot.  Fish was on first just long enough to watch Tony strike the next batter out on 3 pitches.  We ended up winning that game 3-2 in 8 crazy innings (inclusive of the boys spontaneously starting to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in our 7th inning huddle, an amazing memory in itself).  It was perhaps the best youth game I’ve ever been a part of, win or lose.

And that’s it.  No matter how good you are, baseball is designed to be a truly team game, by being a definitively individual one.  That’s what makes it such a great teaching tool.

That, “It’s not always about you” life lesson, and the feeling of self-enlightened empathy is even more heightened in house baseball, when you have travel-quality players mixed with those who struggle just to put the ball in play.

For while the “Fish” moment was fantastic, to me, and even more cinema-worthy scene came in our final spring house league game, a consolation affair after a tough, rain-shortened playoff loss.

My Blue Wahoos were locked in a good battle with the Hot Rods, one of the better teams in the league who also got upset in the first round.  We had lost to them earlier in the season in a game where we were defeated before we played, as the chatter of “they have five travel players on their team!” got squarely into my kids’ heads.

In the rematch, we were playing our game, and we were winning.  A tight contest was coming down to the Hot Rods final at bat.  And the game would come down to a kid we called, “Mr. Clutch.”

Yep, felt just like that.

Yep, felt just like that.

This little second-sacker, younger than most, smaller than most, loves baseball with an undying passion.  He earned his moniker by being able to tap the occasional grounder at the big moment and running it out for a hit, and I got all Mr. Miyagi-like when earlier in the season he lined one up the middle off a pitcher on the 9u “A” travel team.  “You just got a hit off a Storm pitcher!” I said after the inning.  “How does that feel?” I asked as he beamed.

On the defensive side, M.C. worked his keester off to make himself a solid defensive player.  But popups were still his bug-a-boo.  Indeed his Dad told me during the season that Clutch would demand they go into the yard and do nothing but practice popups, dropping them time-and-time again.

In that moment—two outs and the tying run on base—a high pop fly floated over his head.  No one else had even a remote shot at the ball—it was his or it wasn’t.  And in that moment, every Wahoo was invested in him and him alone; knowing that the smallest guy on the team was the only one who could come up big.

Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team.  His Dad says even in a different uniform, he's still doing things the "Wahoo Way."

Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team. His Dad says even in a different uniform, he’s still doing things the “Wahoo Way.”

Had anyone else made that play, it would have been sweet, but the explosion of joy that erupted from the entire team when that ball rattled and stuck in Mr. Clutch’s glove turned that memory into something so much more than that both for him, and for us.  Indeed, both the Hot Rods and Wahoos among my Aces, and they still talk about that catch.

Now I do understand the pull of high-level competitive youth baseball.  Talented players should have the opportunity of playing with and against other talented players to help them learn to play at a higher level.  My concern is, however, that Club Teams are the pricey siren song that allows talented players to shed core experiences that make baseball something bigger than the game itself.

So if you have a talented kid who is simply just better than the rest, think twice before pulling the plug on house ball.  I’ll also add that it’s equally important to disabuse those kids of the notion that house league play is just practice until “real” baseball starts in the summer.  Kids who do this disrespect the importance and efforts of those kids whose only season is the house season might are missing out on what the game is really all about.

So to all you are-or-would-be travel parents, do remember that your young star isn’t likely on a path to the big leagues.  It is the memories he makes and the lessons she takes from “Mr. Clutch” moments may well be more important in the long run than anything that happens in that summer travel tournament.

Hit Like a Ninja

December 5, 2014

This is my method to get kids to understand and get the feel for the complexities of the “load” part of a baseball swing.  I’ve used this a number of times now in classes with great success.  Here’s a story about how I integrated it into practice.

NINJA HITTING
 
STANCE
Inline image 1
Begin by holding the bat like this.  For right-handed hitters, right hand goes on top of the left, hands always touching (reverse for Lefties).  Notice how the elbows are up rather than drooping by the sides.  While eventually the front elbow will (and should) drop, this allows them to approach the plate in a balanced position (and makes them feel all ninja).

TURN THE HEAD,  BOP THE EAR, STEP & PULL
 
Inline image 2
  • TURN: Righties turn their head toward their left shoulder (and, again, vice-versa for lefties).
  • BOP: Then we take our bat and bop our ears with our HANDS, not the bat.  This reminds us to keep our hands high, like our Kung-Fu hippo above.  Remind them to keep the hands high until it’s time to swing.
  • STEP: Now we make our ninja step, which is a side step, not a step forward (righties, step with left foot, lefties, right foot).   (a great tip is to put a piece of tape on the floor, and have them practice their side step by putting their toes on the tape and making their toes stay on the tape as they step rather than stepping over or away from it). Also note that a typical mistake is for the kids to move their back foot backward and think they are taking a step forward.
  • PULL:  Again like our hippo pal, notice how the hands stay high, but pull back straight behind the ear.  This Ninja Hippo is ready to slice the bad guys or beat up that baseball!  Note that you can practice the “Step” and “Pull” separately, but eventually, you’ll want the Step & Pull to happen at the same time. Also notice how the ninja sword is straight up and down.  A traditional mistake is for kids to lay the bat on their shoulder, which causes their hands to drop on the swing and come around the ball, rather than straight to it.

Once Upon a Ninja…

December 5, 2014

It was an honest mistake.

Stupid, but honest.

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

Hard to hit with your arms like this.

Hard to hit with your arms like this.

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

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

And my salvation lay in a recycled Halloween costume.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They wear black and have swords!”

“They leap on buildings and can do flips!”

“They are super awesome fighty dudes!”

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

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

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

“Ninjas jump around?” Benji ask/answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s time for…Coach Cobra Kai!”

Sweep the leg.

Sweep the leg.

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

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

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

Hook, line, sinker.

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

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

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

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

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

And I had won mine.

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

To Tee, or Not to Tee?

February 28, 2014

“But Coach, I can hit a pitched ball!”

DSC_0544This is the clarion call of the t-ball player, desperate to shed that kid stuff and start playing some real baseball.  And, of course, when Mom or Dad go out in the back yard and see that little Suzie can crank one onto the roof of their house (use whiffle balls around the house folks, as let me tell you from personal experience—and expense— even tennis balls can do some damage), they are ready to kick the tee to the curb and get their little slugger into coach pitch ASAP.

And that may well be the worst decision you can make for your young one’s development as a hitter.

What I say to both my kids and parents alike is, “You know who hits off a tee more than he does off live pitching? [INSERT FAVORITE MLB PLAYER HERE] does.”  And while that might be an exaggeration in some cases, it isn’t by much.  Tee work is a cornerstone of pretty much every major league hitter out there.  Why?  Because it allows a hitter to place the ball in exactly whatever part of the hitting zone he or she wants, and focus on the approach rather than trying to make contact.

Don’t believe me?  Perhaps Dustin Pedroia might be able to convince you:

But as important as the tee is to MLB hitters, it’s even more important to the kids just starting out.  This is because a baseball swing is a very complicated piece of physical mechanics.  Every part of the body has a very specific and important role.  Teaching proper head, hands, and feet positions is very difficult in itself.  I’ll describe some of my methods on how to break a swing down piece-by-piece to make it fun for the beginner in future posts, but safe to say that a child will have a LOT of moving parts to deal with just dealing with their own body.

Now, if you try to add a moving ball to the equation, most of the time proper swing mechanics just go out the window.  Indeed, often a young player will have more initial success hitting a ball with poor swing mechanics than with good ones.  Whether it is swinging off the front foot, spinning around in a circle, or chopping at the ball like it’s a piece of wood, what comes most naturally to a child is their body mechanical wheelhouse.

lizard brainThat’s their body’s default position, so when the Lizard Brain instinct takes over in a young player as they want to do anything possible not to fail, you’ve got a recipe for more short-term success and long-term issues.  That’s because you and your kids’ coaches will be spending more time down the line helping them to unlearn the poor approach that worked well enough at the beginning.

So both in terms of practice and league placement, don’t be in too much of a rush to ditch the tee.  The tee can allow coaches to do several different hitting drills at once, and because there will be less time spent on swinging-and-missing, kids will get more strikes at the ball and less time waiting their turn.  All while the coach can focus on good form from the very beginning.

Now if I’ve convinced you on the value of a tee, let me just give you fair warning before you go rushing out to the sporting goods store.  I have spent more time than I’d care to admit gazing upon scattered shards of plastic littering the ground: a brand new tee pulverized beyond recognition after a single practice.  In my next post, I hope to help you benefit from my dubious history to find a tee that works right for your players and your wallet.

Your Child’s First Baseball Glove: When, Why, and What

February 10, 2014
And yes, they LOVE the honking base

And yes, they LOVE the honking base

I remember it well.  Gus was four, and signed up for his first year of BlastBall!, the hilarious version of America’s Pastime filled with scrums for the ball, dirt castles in the infield, and those first sparks of love for playing ball.

I wasn’t the coach yet, having agreed to assist Coach Brown’s Nationals, but unable to get over the betrayal I felt in my heart putting on the colors of one of the Mets NL East rivals, (“Sorry Dave,” I said, “it just makes me feel dirty.”)  But I distinctly remember one game when we corralled the heard of cats enough to play a team that I only remember as “The Grabbers.”

I’m sure they had some Major League team name as did we, but I will only remember them by that name because of their coach.  As we were warming up before the game, their team manager came running up to me and said, “You know, you aren’t doing those kids any favors letting them wear gloves at this age.  We have all our kids play barehanded and it is much better for them.”

So, first, let me just say to everyone out there who is or is even remotely considering being a youth coach—don’t do this.  I’ll get to some on-the-field etiquette when it comes to coaching in another post, but, unless what the other coach is doing creates some kind of unfair situation within a game, leave it alone and remember that there are many ways to be a successful coach—not just yours.

Given I was just tossing the kids a few grounders, and really had no experience coaching kids, I was a bit taken aback by the forcefulness of Manager Know-It-All J. Moose’s convictions.  “Oh, okay.  I blurted in response.  “I’ll let Coach Brown know.”  When I went back and told Dave about it, he shrugged his shoulders indifferently—the appropriate response, I do believe.

I swear they were in perfect fielding position!

I swear they were in perfect fielding position!

When the game began, it was the usual maelstrom of cute.  But one thing I did notice is that when a ball was hit near one of our fielders, they by-in-large attempted to use their glove like a spoon to scoop up the grounder; albeit our gals and guys spent more time chasing after the ball after it squirmed around or through them than they did actually making the play.  The Grabbers, however, were actually doing a actually stopping more than they booted, much to the satisfaction of Coach K-i-A.  That said, almost to a player, they would  stop the ball by squating down and grabing the ball as if they were plucking a flower.  They would then quickly apply the same skillset to the resident Dandelions.

It was at that moment that I really began to inculcate one of my baseline coaching mottos: for young players, technique is far more important than result.  For early success doing things the wrong way will lead to far more issues down the line than a few more botched BlastBall blasts.

And so if you are just getting your little one into the game, my strong recommendation is that you get your gal or guy a glove.  The strength of my recommendation is that fielding a ground ball is really the opposite of our instinct when we look to pick things up off the ground.  We are, by nature, grabbers.  When we see little Billy’s stray Lego threatening to transform into a late-night landmine, we don’t put both hands down and scoop with one hand and secure with the other.  We reach down and pick it up.  Because that’s natural, it will in the early stages of baseball clearly lead to a better early fielding percentage when those big puffy balls come tumbling forward.  But to my mind, it reinforces a habit that will not benefit them in the long run.

So that’s the when and the why of gloves—now onto the what.  Let me first start by recommending that you do not buy your four or five-year-old a nice, leather glove.  For the most part, the very small leather gloves tend to be stiff and even if they are not, they’re fairly heavy.  The key I’ve found is that you want to make sure that young kids have the sensation of the glove without it being cumbersome.  While some young kids can handle it, for beginners, it’s more like putting a giant mitten on their hand and then telling them to go do something athletic with it.

So save your money and go with the cheap stuff to start out with.  In that regard, there are three types of gloves I’ve tried out for the first-time players.  Let me give you the skinny on those:

foam gloveSoft Foam Glove: These are the gloves you’ll mostly see available at Target, Toys-R-Us, and at some sporting goods stores for youth players.  You can find them in more standard designs or in anything from Spongebob to Dora.

  • Pros: Most of these have a Velcro outside closure that makes adjusting and getting the glove on and off quite easy (so look for the ones with the Velcro).  The glove opens and closes more easily than with most leather gloves.
  • Cons: The foam tends to keep the glove in the open position, unlike a real glove that when broken in will fold naturally.  Not a terrible thing, but keeping the hand open does make squeezing throws and fly balls a little more difficult.  For those with sensitive fingers, the glove can be irritating.  For small hands, the glove can still feel a bit too big and clumsy.  Not available in left-handed throw.
  • Best For: Older 4-year olds to young 6-year-olds.  Very solid t-ball glove.

Easy Catch GloveEasy Catch Glove: This is the quintessential beginner’s glove that you probably remember from when you with a little one.  Again you can get this in about any color and go Spongebob to Strawberry Shortcake.

  • Pros: Very soft and malleable, this glove goes on very easily and kids can open and close the glove without issue no matter what their hand strength.  The glove is small, and I see that as an advantage at this age as while it gives the kids the sensation of having a glove on and reinforces wanting to “scoop” rather than “grab”, to secure the ball in the glove really requires two hands, which is very helpful to reinforce good overall technique.
  • Cons: While some may find it a pro, I don’t like the Velcro that is in the glove which allows the ball it comes with to stick in the glove.  I’d ditch that ball unless you’re using the glove with a toddler.  I’ve been using unpressurized kids tennis balls with my students and they have worked fine without sticking in this glove.  And, of course, if you are using a safety baseball or a BlastBall, you’ll have no problem there.  Durability is also an issue as this is definitely not made to be a keepsake.  There’s every chance you might end up needing to buy more than one over the course of a season.  No left-hand throw.
  • Best For: 3 to young 5-year-olds.  This is, to me, the best glove for the pre-T-ball set.  If you are just starting your child out at home, or starting her/him at the BlastBall or Slam Ball level, this to me is the best glove to use.
Here with my penguin tape addition

Here with my penguin tape addition

ItzaMitCatch Glove: Now, here’s one that’s a little outside-the-box.  Designed for water play, I’ve had several kids try this glove out and it is definitely something worth considering.

  • Pros: It’s reversible!  Out of all three of these options, this is the only one that will fit a lefty, the thin foam just pops the other way and it pops right on either hand.  This is especially helpful if you’re still not sure whether your child is left-handed or right-handed (which can be different for baseball than it is for other things, as my big guy is a righty all-the-way in baseball, but lefty in all other things). It’s also a good value as you get two gloves per set.  Because the fabric is so thin, it is very flexible so easy to open and close.
  • Cons: Because it’s reversible, it needs to be able to take the thumb on either side of the glove.  That makes it a bit wider than a normal glove and a bit clunkier.  Like the foam gloves, they also don’t close on their own.  Like the Easy Catch gloves, they do have a large Velcro patch in the webbing.  It’s tackier than the Easy Catch and so tennis balls will stick to it.  I solved that problem by just layering some colorful duct tape over both sides.  It is now my “penguin glove” and the kids often request it because it’s fun.  One other thing to consider is that the design of the glove leaves it with very little pocket, so the ball does not sink into the glove as readily as it does the soft foam variety.  Also comes with a hard, heavy ball that should be chucked or given to the family dog.
  • Best For: Little lefties!  Maybe a bit too unwieldy for the youngest players, a solid bet from ages 4 to 6.

Shut up and tell me about real gloves, Coach!:

9 inch gloveOkay, okay, I know a number of you really want to get your future gold glover a real glove, or perhaps your guy or gal balk at getting a glove that doesn’t look like the one their big-league icon wears.  Here are a few tips that might help you make that first glove turn out just right:

  • Size: So the soft foam gloves are 8.5 inches.  For your first glove, you don’t want to go too far beyond that.  There are a number of 9-inch youth models to choose from that range from $10 to $60.  Remember that you want to reinforce a two-hand catch and field early on, so getting a larger glove can actually lead to counter-productive habits.
  • Fit: The softer the better.  What you want more than anything is a glove that opens and closes easily.  Hand strength varies with kids, but it is not often a major asset.  While a glove breaks in over time, the more pliable it is when you buy it, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
  • Comfort: I’ve had any number of kids complain about how the glove hurts their hand, especially when putting it on and taking it off.  We’ve got busy little ones that often get scrapes and sores on their hands, which can make the process that much harder, especially because these youth leather gloves are rarely of high quality, smooth material.  There is one pretty easy solution to this problem—buy a batting glove.  If they get used to wearing a batting glove on their fielding hand, the fielding glove can slide on-and-off quite comfortably.  Lots of pros do it, so you can tell them that they’re doing it just like a big-leaguer.
  • Breaking it in: Okay, there are a gazillion ways to break in a glove, so just Google it and you’ll get plenty of ideas.  Also note that during the baseball season, a lot of sporting goods stores have their own glove steamers now and for $10 or so will break in your glove on-site to your satisfaction.  Note that I did say steamer.  Yes, water is actually your friend when it comes to breaking in a glove—don’t be afraid it.  I’m a big fan of the microwave technique; putting your glove in with a small bowl of water for a few minutes, removing it while piping hot and soft, and then using a mallet to whack at it all over, banging it closed and then slapping it in the pocket and webbing.  Lather-rinse-repeat until the glove is as broken in as you like it.  For the really cheap gloves, I would not suggest whacking it with a baseball bat to soften it (something that works well with a well-constructed glove) as the stitching might not hold up to the punishment.

So there you have it.  I hope my trials-and-errors will help you find the perfect fit for your young one to help get the grab out of fielding.