Posts Tagged ‘youth baseball’

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: The Backspin Tee & The Story of Your Swing

January 11, 2018

Backspin Tee

While I noted that I believe the most important off-season activity for any young baseball player is to go play another sport, there is one baseball activity that you can do year-round:

H
I
T

I haven’t found anything in all of sports so thrilling, maddening, complicated, or controversial as striking a pitched ball.  I’m convinced that it is the single most difficult thing to do in all of sports.  It is a full body activity which demands both rotation and verticality simultaneously.  It requires dynamic movement and stillness at the same time.  Minute mistakes mark the difference between a travel-caliber player and one whose knees are knocking on that 3-2 pitch desperate for that Ball Four in a house game.

What I tell my parents and players is that when it comes to hitting, there is a thousand ways to do it right, and a million ways to do it wrong.  That’s why it’s so important for anyone serious about the game to hit, hit, hit.  The journey is to discover the swing that is right for them; always knowing that swing is a living beast, needing constant care and feeding as the player grows and changes.

As I’ve noted before, I am a huge proponent of tee hitting at any age.  This is particularly important for younger players in the 7-10 age group who often resist tee hitting as “for little kids” or “too easy.”  But a swing is so complicated that it really demands time to not worry about location, speed, break or release points, but instead be able to just have a ball sit there and allow you to try different approaches.

Hitting off the tee is particularly effective in the winter for a number of reasons.  First, the player can do it by her/himself. Daylight is fleeting and the chance to get out and hit doesn’t always dovetail with spending an hour with buddies.  But you and a tee can get 15 minutes of swings in taking a break from homework (or Battlefront II).  And if you have a buddy, winter is really the time to let the arm rest up after 9 months of abuse, so trading swings off the tee still makes a lot of sense.

Another nice thing about a tee in the winter is that both because of the lack of flight, and the fact that it’s pretty easy to use anything from a baseball to a rolled-up pair of socks, the chances of getting jammed and having the sting of 1000 bees course through your hands is pretty low.  The one kind of ball I’d suggest laying off are the heavy balls, as despite the limited flight those will harden in the cold and both be potentially painful to hit and potentially cause damage to the bat.  And remember, if you are using a composite bat and it’s under 50 degrees outside, you shouldn’t be hitting anything harder than a tennis ball.

All that said, the very hardest thing I’ve found to overcome with a young player and a batting tee is that, “It’s SO boring!”  And, yes, unless you are a complete baseball rat, tee hitting is really not a thrill.

Now, yes, you can think about trying to mix things up a bit.  Come up with competitions to incent the repetitions.  Video even off a tee to take a look at the mechanics without the ball in flight, and compare it when you hit a moving target.

But the only way I’ve found any consistent success with young players getting them to enjoy hitting off a tee is by changing the tee itself.

And that’s where the Backspin Tee comes in.

I’ve been both hitting with, and coaching with this new contraption for about a year now.  And while my kids understand the need to hit off the tee, they invariably get excited when I bring out my new toy:

Here are my pros-and-cons:

The Pros

  • It Works and the Kids Dig It: This thing is almost magical—more of a contraption than a tee.  The fact that it does a good job holding the ball upside-down (and I’ve found works with tennis balls, squishy balls, whiffle balls, and regular baseballs) makes it just plain more fun to use than a regular tee.  If it does nothing else better than a standard tee, this fact alone has made it worthwhile.
  • Bottom Half Hitting: Unlike when I was in school, it’s all about launch angle these days. Having a tee designed to focus the swing on hitting the bottom half is both intriguing to kids, and is helpful, particularly for players that tend to be “chop” hitters.  I’ve had a lot of success with this tee helping to retrain swings of players who complained of grounding out too much.  If you’re looking for a great analysis of this approach, check out Antonelli Baseball’s analysis of Kris Bryant’s swing.
  • Stay Inside: Players who cast their hands and come around the ball are far more likely to clang against the pole of the tee. It acts like the Belly Button Drill (explained at the bottom of this post) in that it helps to diagnose and keep players focused on getting the barrel straight to the ball.
  • It’s Sturdy: You know those kids who cast their hands and clang on the pole?  Well at least my pro model is built to take a licking.  The same thing can happen with trying to work to the opposite field, particularly if you are working on an inside-out swing.
  • It’s a Great Diagnostic Tool: My favorite drill using this tee is actually a 2-Tee drill. Use a standard tee and put it about a foot behind the Backspin and about 6-8 inches below the hitting point of the Backspin.  This creates a “corridor” effect where the kids are learning how to create a slightly upward plane to their swing without dropping their hands.  Trying to hit line drives and fly balls with this setup can be tough, but it creates the kind of bat angle and staying “long through the zone” that we’re looking for.  A lot of the times, you’ll see kids either knock the back tee (too much uppercut) or hit weak spinners (to much downward angle, not enough time in the hitting zone).

The Cons

  • It’s Not Really Backspin: So in the ole’ days, we used to talk about creating that tight backspin that allowed the ball to carry by having a slight downward angle toward the ball. This created a slight slice that made for a tight backspin on the ball.  This tee does NOT work for that.  Instead, it rewards a slight uppercut that allows you to keep your bat in the hitting zone longer.  Having myself been a hitter/teacher of backspin, I can tell you that it can get frustrating hitting with this tee.  Guys with a more traditional backspin swing will find themselves mostly hitting little spinner flares as they strike the center of the ball rather than the bottom.  So unlike a traditional tee, this is NOT for everyone and if a player is struggling with it, a coach shouldn’t just jump to the conclusion that there’s a flaw in the swing as it’s really teaching a specific swing path.
  • It’s Complementary: Even if you are sold on what this tee is teaching (or showing), I would never use this tee as the only tee.  First, as I noted, I really like this tee as part of a two-tee drill, so you need a more standard tee right there.  Second, while the concept of seeing/aiming for the bottom of the ball is sound (indeed, this would more accurately be called the “Bottom-Up” tee if I were to name it), it really isn’t how a hitter sees the ball coming down out of the pitcher’s hand.  A traditional tee is far better for that.  In the end, I’ve found the Backspin Tee to be most effective for 20 swings before switching to a traditional tee.  It helps me get my swing path in shape, then I go “around the world” (start outside and deep, work middle on the plate, inside and out front) with a traditional tee.  I find myself and my kids hitting fewer grounders and more line drives and fly balls this way.  But I find it a struggle going from Backspin directly to a pitched ball.
  • It’s Heavy: I have an ATEC T3 tee, and it’s fantastic for porting around. Light, small, but stable.  My Backspin tee is a pain to take around.  It’s not only heavy, but the shape makes it hard to fit.  You could take it apart, but that just makes it more of a pain.  The extremely heavy base is great for stability but a chore to get to the field.  If you have a cart, it’s not too bad as you can pop your bucket of balls on top of the base and keep it stable, but this isn’t a great one for a casual trip to the park.  For kids, I’ve also found that if things are less convenient, they’re used less.  This is NOT convenient.
  • It’s Expensive: So you can get a quality, pro-level tee for $75 or so, and a decent rubber one for $40.  The basic model for this tee comes in at a whopping $200.  The pro model that I have comes in at $300.  A little do-hickey that tilts the ball to be more accurate angle for low pitches is $50 by itself.  My wife got me this for my birthday, as it was just too expensive for me to justify buying it for myself, even as a coach who does individual lessons.  For about the same price, I could buy the Jugs Small Ball Pitching Machine and 100 balls (my next review).

So there you go.  I’m not going to recommend or not recommend this toy.  It definitely has its uses, but I think any coach or player using it should know exactly what it is useful for before making the investment.  But no matter what tee you have, go put on your ski cap and snow boots, take some cuts, as the story of your swing is written year-round.  Your spring self will thank you for the chapter you scribe today.

Next, does hitting small mean big things?

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CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip-of-the-Day: Choosing a Coach (part 1)

December 24, 2017

Ciao from Rome! Team Nathanson have started our Roman holiday, but nerd that I am, I still have baseball on he brain.

Today’s tip is one I have a lot to say about, but for brevity’s sake (well, at least as brief as I can be) I thought it would be best to break this important subject into component parts.

Winter is the time that many players seek out independent coaching for the first time. By “independent coaching” I mean something other than team coaches (be it house or travel) or going to a baseball camp. This could be one-on-one coaching, small group lessons, or larger classes. And, of course, all these options will cost you something—some a LOT more than others.

Now, I mention the last point because as I have lamented before, youth baseball has over the past generation morphed into big business. Little League, Babe Ruth, and even Legion ball in many areas struggle to keep their numbers, while club and showcase baseball teams that cost big bucks explode with the promise of future glory.

This is no less true for coaching. In my area alone and just off the top of my head, I can think of seven indoor baseball training centers within a half-hour’s ride from home. The number of people willing to take your money to watch little Billy bat is astounding. And that’s coming from one of those people…

Now, there are a lot of factors that can go into choosing a coach. And those factors can change a lot depending on whether your child is just learning to throw a ball or considering college ball as a viable option. But there is an important commonality that may seem obvious, but often gets overlooked:

Allow your kid to lead, and help her/him develop reasonable, discrete, short-term goals and expectations for any private instruction.

Too often I have heard parents who have 7-year-olds with showing some athletic ability already projectśing their kid through High School. But as Arlington Babe Ruth coaching legend John Karinshak is fond of saying (and I am fond of stealing), “Players are like flowers; they bloom at different times.”

That little slugger may mash that underhand toss, but it is no guarantee no matter how much coaching she gets that she will be able to handle a hard fastball at 12. The notion of a player being “projectable” at a young age — something I myself have made the mistake of saying to parents — does everyone a disservice.

Conversely, if a child is expressing an interest in baseball, but may not be showing himself to be a world-beater, that doesn’t mean that private instruction is a waste of your time and money. For example, I recently did a number of private lessons with a 10-year-old boy who had taken a year off baseball to focus on swimming. His Mother told me that wanted to play again in the spring, but was worried that he would be behind the other kids.

When we met for the first time, I did what I always do, which is to speak directly to the young man apart from his parents to make sure that his wishes and expectations were on the same page as what I had heard from his Mom. You would be amazed at how often this is NOT the case. Whether it is a parent feeling that Susie needs those extra reps to make the travel team because you can just see how talented she is, to Bobby expecting to become Mike Trout in an hour, neither parent nor player is going to get what they are looking for out of private instruction unless they are on the same page.

In the case of my 10-year-old player, he and his Mom were indeed in sync. Quite rightly, she was letting him lead, and then reaching out looking to fulfill a realistic need pointed toward the next season. He really wanted to work on learning to slide correctly, get more confident catching pop flies, and throwing accurately in the infield. We worked some hitting and pitching as well, but it was clear that he really wanted to sure up areas that he felt weak at rather than building on strengths.

We worked together for about 7 sessions, and by the end he could slide with risking life-and-limb, was catching routine fly balls in the infield and outfield, and really improved at attacking grounders to cut down on distance and how to follow his throw to gain momentum and accuracy. And at the end, we exchanged fist bumps and bid each other adieu.

This, to me, is a textbook example, and applicable whether it is a 10-year-old looking to get back into baseball or a 17-year-old trying to find a few more MPH on his fastball to become a legitimate college prospect. Understand your child’s interest, help to shape reasonable goals, and only then are you ready to begin to get the most bang for your coaching buck. Anything else is the baseball tail wagging the dog.

So you’ve checked box and are ready to go coach shopping? Stay tuned. I’ve got a few ideas on that…

Scott Nathanson has coached youth baseball for over a decade from t-ball to 16u.  He is the Head Coach and Manager of CoachN’s FUNdamentals, a business committed to growing the game of baseball through teaching the unique athletic and life skills that America’s pastime offers to our kids.

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip of the Day: Get off the Diamond

December 21, 2017

Indoord Hitting

Happy Winter Solstice, all!

Here in Arlington, today is the last day of school before winter break.  We’re all about to take a deep breath, relax a bit (one can hope!) and get ready for what I hope will be a fabulous 2018.

This upcoming year will be a “back-to-the-future” one for me, as I’ve agreed to coach my nephew’s 11u Arlington Babe Ruth Travel team.  It’s going to be a challenge with my 16-year-old playing High School ball and having accepted a spot on a summer showcase team, as well as my 13-year-old who is playing both house ball and with the Arlington Senators travel program.

As I was thinking about how to manage this upcoming season as both a parent and a coach, I thought that my previous experiences, and future plans might be of use to others out there.  Rather than keep them to myself, I thought I’d jot down a thought-a-day with some tips on everything from swing path to equipment reviews to choosing uniforms that might help parents, coaches, players, and leagues as we all gear up for 2018.

My first tip is one many you probably already know but really bears repeating and expounding upon:

DO NOT PLAY JUST BASEBALL

I’ve heard this so many times from Cal Ripken coaches to Major League Players.  Here’s a quote form Bryce Harper:

And, in an era when travel ball is almost a requirement for a prospect, he had an earnest and refreshing take when a kid reporter asked what advice Harper would offer to kids.

“Play as many sports as you can,” he said. “Kids get so locked down in one sport nowadays. It’s not fun not being able to play all those sports.”

I love the fact that Harper did NOT talk about the fact that different sports train different muscle groups.  He didn’t say that eye-hand coordination goes up overall with a multitude of sports.  All that and more are demonstrably true, as evidenced by this piece posted by none other than USA Baseball.

Instead, he talked about the fun of it.  As our kids get serious about a sport, it is our job both as parents and coaches to make sure it stays fun.  I believe as a coach that part of that is to have every practice get an enjoyable, competitive, team-building element to it (I’ll get to that in a separate post).  But a big part of the equation is to let kids play other sports with absolutely no thought that they have any future in it.  They just do it because they enjoy it.

In our household, we have two winter sports of this sort.  First is basketball.  Yes, my older boy is seriously looking at the prospect of college baseball, but on the court, he still dribbles like he did in 3rd Grade.  He was known on his 10th Grade team last year as “Crazy Eyes” as he’s a big, strong, intense kid who loves to get in there an bang on the boards as hard as his gorilla-touch shots bang off the irons (he comes by it honestly, I’m terrible at the game—so much so that my sister who coached basketball used me as demonstration of how not to do a pump-fake).

Unfortunately, the team he was on last year has broken up, and left him without a squad.  I asked him if he wanted to just stop this year.  After all, he’s training hard with baseball just about every day at the gym, at the indoor baseball center, or when weather allows, on the field (he and I were working on catcher popups just yesterday—another post I’ll get to soon).  But he and a buddy of his both signed up anyway, asking to be placed together on whatever team would have them.

Why?

Because he’s busy with baseball, and his buddy’s busy with band.  Because hey’re both serious students.  Because basketball is the chance for them to spend time together doing something they’ve had in common since 2nd Grade.

Because it’s fun.

And that fun can help translate not only to a happier, healthier kid, but be a prescient reminder to serious athletes that they are serious about the sport they love because it’s the sport they love.  It’s even more fun than the sport(s) they’re just goofing around with.

Our other family game came from a great tip from Dan Pototsky, a great all-around coach in the Arlington area who both my boys have worked with over the years.  A few years back now, he also preached the “other sport” gospel, and suggested ping-pong.

I played a lot in high school and we had a table when I was a kid, but with no basement, we knew we’d have to get rid of our indoor hitting area (see picture above–in retrospect…yeesh) in order to squeeze a table in.

We thought about that, and, again, felt that while it was nice to have a place for the kids to take some swings (yes, we were using whiffle balls–yes, I cannot believe we didn’t put a bat through the window), Ping Pong was something that we could do together as a family, and could find different ways to play both competitively and just for rallying.

And while my wife and I definitely avail ourselves of the table for laundry duty, our boys play on the table together at least a couple of times a week.  Mostly, they rally, not keeping score and having fun trying to fend of smashes or make tricky spin shots.  Indeed, as I’ve written about ping-pong has been an excellent teacher on the art of competitive play.

While there is no doubt that this game is fantastic for eye-hand coordination and tracking the ball (both keys to hitting, and for my big boy, for receiving behind the plate) it’s also just great to see them put the phones down for a while and play together.  It’s also something that both my wife and I can get in on, unlike their X-Box and Playstation (both of us old-timers lament the demise of the Wii).

We were able to fit in and get a good deal on a ¾ size table from Costco.  But there are sizes and prices for ping-pong for just about every house and budget.  Still a couple of shopping days until Christmas!

In sum, I’d caution all parents not to fall into the single-sport mentality.  If your travel team has optional winter workouts, make sure your kid really wants to do them.  I had one kid who wanted to be at every workout every day, and one who needed the winter to play basketball, ping-pong, and head to the back yard to hit by himself a couple of times a week.  Both were spot on with what they needed, because it was what they wanted.

And if they’re doing athletic conditioning, make sure it sounds like something fun for them that they are excited about doing, not just a, “Terry really need to get stronger this offseason” kind of decision.  Particularly if they’re young, forcing a kid to do conditioning is both counter-productive and often a waste of money.  As a great man once said in the Astrodome, “Let Them Play.”

So that’s today’s tip.  Tomorrow, let’s chat a little about what you’d want out of that off-season baseball coach if your kid has the time and interest after all that basketball and ping-pong.

Scott Nathanson has coached youth baseball for over a decade from t-ball to 16u.  He is the Head Coach and Manager of CoachN’s FUNdamentals, a business committed to growing the game of baseball through teaching the unique athletic and life skills that America’s pastime offers to our kids.

 

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.

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.