Posts Tagged ‘youth sports’

New Year’s Challenge—Integrated Coaching

January 6, 2020

For a few years, I was the chair of the Social Studies Advisory Committee for Arlington Public Schools (APS). One of my passion projects as a part of that group was the idea of integrated learning. Education, to my mind, has been developed in far too stovepiped a manner. Understanding Newtonian physics could be far enriched and broadened by understanding the life-and-times of the scientist who developed those concepts. Conversely, understanding the historic value of the industrial revolution could be far enhanced by understanding the machines that ushered in that age—experimenting and understanding the steam engine, for example. Life is an integrated exercise, so why shouldn’t education?

In this effort, I will admit I had little success. I was happy that some individual English and History teachers worked to combine reading lists, that was about as far as it went. Teachers and administrators I spoke with argued, and with some merit, that the established curriculums and testing requirements were too entrenched to permit significant integration, even at the elementary level. Teachers had way too much to learn about their own subject, and too many resources were available to give them deeper expertise on what they were teaching, to have time to work on another subject.

I was thinking of this as some 7,000 baseball coaches descended on Nashville for the four-day American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) national convention starting on January 2. I’ve never been (hoping to go next year as the convention is coming to DC), but all the coaches I know who have been absolutely love not only all the great presentations, but the chance to compare notes and talk shop with so many other passionate, knowledgeable baseball coaches around the country.

One of my go-to podcasts is the ABCA Calls from the Clubhouse, and their great resources only scratch the surface of the endless incredible resources available online, conventional old-school paper books like Heads Up Baseball—not to mention just swapping stories with the great coaches I work with. It’s more than enough information for this lifelong learner to last more than a lifetime.

But as I sift through all of the new signs, drills, and philosophies in the notebook I have to learn for my new gig at Falls Church High School, that quote from Coach Kyle Nelson from Cornerstone Coaching Academy I mentioned in my last post keeps popping in my head:

COACH NELSON: One of the things I am going to do this year at our school…is go to different practices. I’m going to go and watch a volleyball practice. I’m going to watch a football practice. I’m going to go watch a soccer practice. And I’m going to figure out what they’re doing that I like. Is there something they are doing that I can learn from and incorporate into what we’re doing. Because coaching is coaching, right? The sport is just the tool you are using to do it.(my emphasis)

At APS, the Social Studies department adopted a fantastic teachers’ curriculum called History Alive! It really delves into how to use history as a vessel to teach students critical thinking skills by using the key question so many primary school Social Studies classes so assiduously (and unfortunately) ignore—Why? And while most of the teachers who took advantage of the program were, as you’d expect, history teachers, there were a minority that took the course because they saw how those skills could port toward invigorating a love-of-learning beyond just that subject matter.

Coach Nelson’s comments brought me back to a time when my younger son was playing Rec basketball in 5th Grade. Coach Jones sent all the kids home from their first practice of the season with an article from Jay Bilas from of ESPN (pdf) on “Toughness” — a subject he immersed himself in enough that he ended up writing a book on the subject. As a nosy Dad/Coach, I couldn’t help but read it over myself. Indeed, I wrote a bit about this very subject a few years back.

Immediately I saw that while some of the specific instructions were hoops-specific (“Set a good screen” “Jump to the ball” among others), many of the lessons from “Talk on defense” to “Take responsibility for your teammates” were equally instructive for baseball. And, as I thought about it, even the subjects that seemed to be basketball-only really had cross-sport value underneath; from a good screen being about thinking about how making a teammate better makes you better, to preaching an aggressive style of play that encourages “new mistakes.”

I used the Bilas piece to create a “grinder’s guide” for my house and travel players, and even created “Grinder of the Week” t-shirts I gave out to players to wear to practices based on how they embodied the spirit of the guide.

For me as a coach, I think there was real value in that. In some ways, it’s almost too easy to hear from and follow subject-specific instruction. As I’ve inculcated the great mental instruction from Heads Up Baseball into my own coaching, there’s been a lot of “plug-and-play” — using the sport-specific terminology and instruction that the authors came up with. While that’s not a bad thing, it was the Bilas article that inspired me to make my own connections, and bring my own approach and experience into play.

So while I will certainly continue to dive into baseball-specific coaching instruction (indeed, I’m just cracking open The Mental Game of Baseball), I am challenging myself to read, watch, or listen to at least one non-baseball coaching or teaching resource each week. I’d love to hear suggestions from coaches and teachers, or others that work on leadership or other “portable skills” out there about their favorite resources, and I’m happy to continue to share mine, including non-baseball materials like Bilas’ article that really helped me.

So here’s to a new year of Integrated Coaching. Looking forward to getting better with all of you.

Coaching Kids—Are We Doing it Wrong?

December 20, 2019

My Arlington Babe Ruth T-Ball Kids. To them I’m “Da Commish”

So this 50-year-old is about to try a new trick, as 2020 will mark my first year coaching high school baseball. I’ll be Head Coach of the JV team at Falls Church High School (Go Jaguars!) and hoping the old axiom, “We all rise to the level of our own incompetence,” will not apply.

I think I’m a pretty good coach. I’ve been at it a while and have gotten more compliments than critiques. But, as I noted in my last post, I’ve found in mid-life that the more I learn, the less I know. This doesn’t mean that I think learning is stupid. But having so much confidence in what you know that you’re unwilling to have it challenged—or better yet, to challenge it yourself seems at best counterproductive.

That’s why as a coach, I consider myself a “lifelong learner.” I credit my past successes, but think it’s folly to believe that just because something worked in the past that it’s the right way to do things. And baseball is a particularly dangerous game in this regard due to the conservative (small c) nature of the game. We care about tradition, and the fact that we feel we can compare players from 25, 50, or even 100 years ago and see an even competition play out among them in the diamonds of our mind.

I have a lot of tools in my coaching education toolkit. For drive time, I’m a podcast guy, though not a religious listener to any one in particular. One of my faves is Coach Caliendo’s Baseball Outside the Box. I was intrigued by a particular episode called “Decision Making in Practice” as I’m always looking for new practice tips and liked the idea of something that seemed to include the mental side of the game. For having graduated from coaching kids to teens, one thing I can tell you without question is that coaching a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old is decidedly not the same.

Now, I have coached mostly boys, so I will leave my thoughts on girls and baseball for another post (I absolutely have thoughts on that one—get ready Little League as there is a black mark on their collective soul in that regard). But there is no doubt that each and every teenage player I’ve worked with is trying to listen to me while their Hormone Monster, and Shame Wizard bark constantly in their ear. Now add the sometimes invaluable, sometimes head-smacking chatter of their parents and teammates, and that’s a whole lot of internal and external chaos all on hand while trying to play a very difficult game at a high level.

So while I was listening as always for tips on new drills, this time thinking about things that might be more advanced for h school-level players, the guest on this particular podcast, Coach Kyle Nelson of Cornerstone Coaching Academy, made two comments that got me thinking in an entirely different direction.

The first comment was a shorter aside near the end of the program when Coach Caliendo asked him about what sort of things he is trying to do now to make himself better as a coach:

COACH NELSON: One of the things I am going to do this year at our school…is go to different practices. I’m going to go and watch a volleyball practice. I’m going to watch a football practice. I’m going to go watch a soccer practice. And I’m going to figure out what they’re doing that I like. Is there something they are doing that I can learn from and incorporate into what we’re doing. Because coaching is coaching, right? The sport is just the tool you are using to do it.(my emphasis)

As I’ve made quite clear on this blog, I’m a baseball guy. But this simple statement really hit me. In my interview with the Athletic Director at FCHS, I noted that my primary goal as a coach is to give my kids the life-skills that baseball brings, focus, handling failure, problem-solving, dedication to a goal beyond just your own, and devotion to a regimen, among others.

But this quote for the first time really reversed my whole prism on why I coach. I don’t coach because I love baseball. I love baseball because at heart, I’m a coach. Baseball happens to be my particular canvas of choice because I grew up with it and see the benefits the game brings to kids. But I know plenty of people who are equally as passionate, and for very similar reasons, about their sport of choice.

Coach Nelson’s comment also reframed an earlier conversation he was having, this time about one of my favorite things—coaching mistakes. For while I love to hear coaches talk about their successes, I find it just as valuable when they talk about their shortcomings. Goodness knows I’ve made plenty, and discarded everything from standardizing pitching motions to focusing on top-hand swinging. But Nelson’s comments I found more illuminating:

COACH NELSON: Yeah, that’s one of my biggest complaints about the way I used to teach and used to coach… I could get players to get good at hitting in practice, but it didn’t always translate into a game… Or I could get players really good at fielding ground balls off of the backhand when they knew it was coming.

But with baseball, with the exception of the pitcher, almost everything we do is a reaction. To give you an example of this, the next time you’re working with a kid to catch, and you’re working blocks, throw about four or five blocks in a row…and then throw one down the middle, and watch them drop to their knees and have it hit them in the chest.

What you realize is, is that you’re working the mechanics of blocking, but one of the most important parts of blocking is recognizing the pitch that needs to be blocked and to beat it there… You’re not using that mechanism at all when you are simply blocking 10 pitches in a row. So I would say that happened about seven or either years ago when I looked at our practices and said, “We need to get more decision making into our practice before performing a skill.”

We need to have them make a decision when they’re hitting. They’re not just going to come in the cage and swing at the first eight pitches that we throw. We throw balls in batting practice on purpose. We throw bad pitches on purpose, because if they don’t work on pitch selection in practice, when are they ever going to work on pitch selection? Well, that will be in the game, and if they’re not very good at it, and coaches are going to get upset with them swinging at pitches above their hands, or swinging at balls outside… But if you allow them to get away with that in practice, you’ve really fed the problem.

For infielders, we’ll work “Here’s ground balls at you, here’s ground balls to your forehand, here’s ground balls to your backhand.” They don’t need to read the ball and make a decision on what kind of a movement they need to make.

That to me was seven or eight years ago. I really made that change because I felt like I wasn’t preparing guys for what they actually were going to see. I was preparing them to be really good in practice, but not really good in the game.

COACH COLLANGELO: You know what? Makes 100% sense. And I’ve got to believe that coaches in the U.S. and around the world at all levels, especially at the younger levels, because I’ve said on the show many times we’ve got to make sure that our coaches working with the younger levels, some of them happen to be volunteers, some are not because there are now travel teams running young teams so they’re professionals in the game. A lot of them are guys who study the game. I’m hoping more and more they are taking this philosophy because it’s the only way I see the game getting better.

Kids get a lot better and have more fun because they get to make decisions… Practice is a lot more fun. They get better…

While this is great advice on its surface, including more game-like decision making in practices to get them more prepared for game action, this led me a step further. If, “coaching is coaching,” then why practice, why play games, if we’re not using them to instill the life lessons the game allows us to bring to the players? Are we so invested in the granularity of our particular sport that we as coaches miss opportunities to bring something more valuable to our kids?

I now think so.

After happening by this ESPN piece on how Evan Langoria went from an unrecruited high school player to a Major League star by focusing on his mental approach to the game, I became really intrigued with the “coachability” of the mental side of the game. I bought and read Heads Up Baseball 2.0 written by Tom Hanson and the late Ken Ravizza, both noted gurus of the mental game (Ravizza is prominently featured in the Langoria piece).

I’ll give a full review of this book in my next post (short review—it’s tremendous, all baseball coaches should have one and I think it has value for all sports coaches and, I think educations and parents as well), but the one major ding I had on it—at least at first—was the fact that it is very redundant. Their method, RAMP-C (Responsibility, Awareness, Mission, Preparation—Compete!) is repeated over-and-over in both name and image, and the specific instruction they have for offense, defense, and pitching is so similar that by the end I felt it almost felt like filler.

But then it struck me—the book is written with the same repetition that the authors are asking of the players and coaches; developing a muscle memory with the material that would make it routine. And as I worked with my teen players on the RAMP-C method, I did note that sometimes players would chafe at the repetitive nature of this approach. They understood the value, but it was clear their Hormone Monster was also saying, “Shut the hell up and let me go play, Coach Jackass!”

But while teens might chafe at redundancy, young children eat it up. As this Psychology Today article so perfectly puts it, young children want and need repetition to learn. What might be excruciatingly annoying to an adult (see my personal version of hell listening to The Wiggles “Fruit Salad” song for the 500th time), it is not only desired, but required for a kid.

And yet, while the mental side of the game is really the portable skill that 99% of player will take with them into their adult life, and the vast majority of youth players will never play high school ball (not to mention about 0.5% of all high schoolers will ever play pro ball), I now realize we are waiting too long to focus on the mental skills with our children. Given the rising tide of childhood and teen anxiety and depression, it makes that much more sense that we reimagine sports as a classroom teaching support skills for mental health and strength.

But our shortcomings in this regard are only natural. Most coaches in the 5-9u levels are volunteer parents, just like I was. They are good-hearted amateurs looking to teach the game “right” and focus on the fundamentals; in the case of baseball it’s hitting, throwing, fielding, and running. But what Heads Up Baseball shows is that it is just as easy, and far more valuable in the long run, to teach them how to use routine to help command focus, or how to use a cleansing or energizing breath to take control of your own emotions, among many other life lessons.

So, in my usual long-winded fashion, I have come to the realization that we’re leaving too much on the table for our kids to start focusing on the mental side of the game when they’re older. For my sport, I believe that Little League, Babe Ruth, and, yes, the proliferate of travel teams that in many cases are replacing league play (much to my dismay) need to start integrating the RAMP-C or other methods into the game at the youngest levels, when kids are most responsive to repetition and routine. There are ways to make these methods fun and age-appropriate (we actually use some in the “Game & Derby”(pdf) system I’ve developed for Arlington Babe Ruth (I’ll get to that post, too).

For if you teach a kid to swing, s/he’ll hit for a decade, maybe two. But teach a kid to compete, and s/he’ll compete for a lifetime.

CoachN’s Preseason Tips: Snitchball

March 22, 2018

Snitchball2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snitch

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

Hands jabbed in the air.

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

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

Hands fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I did have one of these:

Training ball

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

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

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

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

They didn’t come close.

After frustration clearly set in, I stopped them.

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

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

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

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

“Could you?” begged Sam.

“Nope.”

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

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

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

And they didn’t win.

But they did get better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Rooting for the Bully

November 14, 2016

roger clemens mike piazza

“Ball!” shouted the umpire.  Blue was good tonight.  He had been consistent for both sides.  And even as he called a ball for what seemed like the 20th time in a row, he maintained that slight, upward cadence that exposed neither frustration nor opinion on the pitch at hand.

The same, however, could not be said of our pitcher.  Walter, we’ll call him, was having the same sort of issues that we’ve seen since he was nine-years-old.  Back then, he was among the hardest throwers and biggest hitters in our youth league–without doubt a talent.  His father was the coach of our “A” travel team, and Walter during tryouts made sure to let all the new kids know who both he and his Dad were.  And his cabal ruled the roost, creating a social pecking order that at least in part led some players to join a competing travel system.

But now at 15-years-old, the small, warm pond of parent-coaches and prepubescent physical equanimity had both widened and cooled.  His father sat in the stands watching just as I did.  And while Walter’s arm still screamed talent, his mercurial control had become a real roadblock.

After having already walked in a run, Walter’s body language was there for the world (not to mention the umpire) to see.  Stomping, snatching the ball out of the air, eyes rolling like a slot machine.  Now, there were two errors sandwiched into his BB hoagie, but that was the classic pattern.  Pitchers set the tone for the team—for better or for worse.  And with Walter, a leadoff walk almost invariably led to a painful dance of fielders back on their heels.  Invariably, errors combined with walks would set the table for the occasional hit that would clear it off.

My boy had seen more than his share of this from behind the plate over the past few seasons as Walter’s teammate.  As I’ve noted, he wasn’t part of the club, only breaking through for a cup of coffee as an A/B player at 12.  He worked his way to the A squad at 14 when we moved to the senior league.  Now he and Walter were JV together, and my guy was stuck behind the plate.

Stuck, I say, because catching in the spring was tough, and the coaches made no bones about the fact my guy left something to be desired.  He’s an earnest kid; taking criticism to heart.  After the season was over he concluded that he really didn’t have what it took to get to that next level as a catcher, saying, “I worked as hard as I could, and I went from being a lousy catcher to being a thoroughly mediocre one!”

Having made the decision that it was time to leave the tools of ignorance behind, he delighted in the prospect of a fall season where he would be able to work on developing elsewhere.  With reps, he’s shown himself to be a solid first baseman, and has shown some potential on the mound as well.

But, alas, it was not to be.  The #1 catcher for the team plays hockey in the fall, and the main backup, a pal of his, developed a growth plate injury that ended his season early.  The only other backstop on the team struggled far more than Gus defensively with the pace of High School pitching, and also needed to develop elsewhere.  That left my guy…and only my guy…to catch for pretty much the entire fall.

This game was particularly frustrating, as rather than the usual teams, this was the annual series where the JV and varsity teams were “drafted” into two mixed squads and played each other in a best-of-three series.  I had thought this might give my guy an opportunity to get a break by being on a team with a varsity catcher.  But instead, he ended up being the only catcher on his team, while the other side ended up with three.

And so my son did the Dante Hicks, taking another beating both mentally and physically behind the plate, thinking all the while, “I wasn’t even supposed to be here today!”  But he also knew he had a responsibility to the team, and I taught him from early on that the most important part of being a catcher was to help his pitcher.  If the pitcher threw a 55-foot curve ball that bounced over the catcher’s head, it’s the catcher’s job to run get it and thump his chest, saying, “my bad.”  Why should a catcher suffer such abuse?  Because it’s his job to get the most out of the pitcher possible.  As I told him, “In the scorecard, the pitcher is Number 1 and the Catcher number 2 for a reason.”

It’s not fair, but it’s baseball.  It wasn’t designed to be fair.

But when my guy threw Walter’s latest wide one back to him, we were all privy to a pure primadonna moment.  Walter caught the ball and held it in place, starting Gus down.  In baseball parlance, the message was clear—I’m not getting the pitches called because you aren’t catching them correctly.

Now, framing pitches has never been one of Gus’s strong suits.  He’s gotten better but he’s still a little too quick to move the ball and tends to “drift” with the pitch instead of getting around it and sticking it in the strike zone.

But as the inning ground on, Walter decided to make his silent protest on every ball thrown, with the exception of the not-infrequent balls to the backstop and the not-frequent strike.  It was on about the eighth held ball that my guy finally got a little relief.

Interestingly enough, it came from the umpire, who removed his mask, as well as his impartiality.

“Son, that ball was six inches outside.  There’s not a catcher on the planet that can make that look like a strike,” Blue barked at Walter.  Soon thereafter the coach came out to give Walter the hook, as everyone had reached their saturation point.  The next pitcher managed to get the final out of the inning, and my guy hobbled off the field as if he were an arthritic veteran at the close of his career.  30 minutes in a squat will do that to you.

As he gimped, a senior on the varsity team came over from first base and started talking, and continued the conversation in the dugout.  After the game, I asked my son what he said.  “He said I was a good catcher, but I should never take that kind of shit from my pitcher, ever.  He said next time he does that, I should tell him to cut that crap out or it’s going to get physical.”

My immediate instinct was to climb him down off that wall.  Indeed, that advice went against everything I had said about the importance of bucking-it-up and keeping the pitcher in his pocket.  That catching is about the pitcher (not to mention the whole non-violent conflict resolution thing).  The pitcher has control of the game, and no matter whether he is your best friend or your worst enemy, the fate of your team begins with him.

Indeed, despite Walter’s history, I found myself as a parent being consistently loud-and-vocal in rooting for him.  He has talent.  He can help the team.  And he’s not going anywhere.  And with any teen, there’s always the hope that his maturity could grow with this talent, and in the end he could be a real asset to our team on and off the field.  What was the point in doing anything other than cheer him on?

But I was forced to reconsider.  Yes, our team’s success will depend on Walter when he’s on the mound.  Yes, he’s the one with the ball.  But there is a line that must be drawn between supporting his ability to help the team and simply enabling him to continue to abuse his teammates.

There comes a point when the catcher needs to make a stand.

My guy got a break at the next game, as the coach realized the mistake he made in the draft (I might have said a little something) and put another catcher on our team.  Gus got a chance to play first and even pitch an inning.  In the stands, I was chatting with Walter’s Dad and felt I needed to make a stand of my own.  He was well aware of the fact that Gus wanted “out” from behind the plate, and I noted that Walter’s actions in the last game helped cement those feelings.

His Dad, who even in the days when he didn’t make the team was always encouraging of Gus and praised his work-ethic, immediately responded.  “I have no idea what that was,” he said, shaking his head.  “His pitches weren’t even close.  I told him to apologize to your boy in school.  He texted me and he said he did.” (I must note that independent confirmation of said apology has been hard to come by).

That next Sunday, my fella went from catcher to coach, helping me out with the 12-year-old team his brother was playing on.  It was a tough sun directly in the catcher’s eyes, and our guy was really struggling back there, much to the consternation of our pitcher.  And while I worked to temper our tempestuous hurler between innings, Coach Gus took our young catcher aside.

“You do everything you can to help the pitcher,” he said, “but you don’t take shit from him.  He needs to understand that just because he’s on the mound, that doesn’t give him the right to give you crap.  If you think he’s out of line, you let him know.”

And that, my friends, is how movements begin.  Bravery can be contagious.

Hmm.  Maybe there’s a metaphor in that.  I’ll give it some thought.