Friday, September 21, 2007

Improving Numbers:  How can high school coaches recruit new players to their baseball program?
Written By:  Jerry Kreber, Omaha Central HS 2001-2006
Contributing Ideas:  Scott Hodges and Andrew Wane
Coaching Staff, Omaha Central HS 2000-2006

The landscape of American sports has changed completely in the last twenty years.  With the rise of football and basketball in the mainstream culture, many coaches have watched baseball slip into the background. Once called "America's National Pastime", baseball has been passed by football and basketball in popularity with today's athletes.  Television ratings affirm the theory of baseball's decline with the American public.  Examining T.V ratings between the NFL's Super bowl versus the MLB's World Series, there is an obvious disparity between the two sports.     
There have been many theories about baseball's decline in popularity.  First, many have complained about the game's speed.  In today's environment, the public wants to watch constant action and motion.  Baseball is a methodical game that moves gradually, requiring patience with situational strategies.  Secondly, some baseball enthusiasts blame Major League Baseball for not marketing the game better in the United States, especially to minorities and urban youth.  In contract, the NBA has done a tremendous job of capturing the attention of urban athletes by creating an excitement about playing basketball.  
Cost is another factor for baseball's slow decline.  It can run over $300.00 to fully equip a player to compete on the baseball field, not to mention league fees or travel expenses.  A young player can buy a basketball or football at the store for under $20.00.  From a financial perspective, it is easy to see why athletes have looked for other options.  With that being said, some of today's baseball coaches face the looming question of "How can I attract new players into my program?"  From 2000-2006, I coached at Nebraska's largest urban school, Omaha Central High.  As an assistant, I worked along side Andrew Wane, another long-time coach.  Both of us worked under the direction of Scott Hodges, the school's former head baseball coach.  From that experience, I got a firsthand view on the lack of depth some programs face, even with a large student body.  During my six years at Central HS, our program overcame challenges that helped launch our baseball team to new heights.     Below, I have described eight areas that helped our program become a popular sport in Nebraska's largest urban high school, competing against successful football and basketball programs.  In my opinion, by focusing on these areas, high school coaches can create a great atmosphere to draw new players into their baseball program and develop advanced skills.        
1.  Increase Playing Availability  
In the high school setting, many players choose not to play because they lack prior experience.  If a coach is going to be successful, there must be an ample chance for players to gain experience in the off-season.  Coaches must set up before/after school training sessions where players can immerse themselves in baseball, regardless of their skill or experience level.  
Many times, successful athletes do not like to put themselves in situations where they might be embarrassed due to the lack of skills.  Creating a supportive training environment will encouraged the school's best athletes to attend, not just the school's best baseball players.  Usually, at large urban school's like Omaha Central the school's best baseball players are not always the best athletes.  If that program intends to compete with top competition, they have to recruit the school's top performers.   During my coaching experience at Central, we instituted an off-season program that incorporated small skill building groups.  According to Nebraska High School Athletic guidelines, a coach can work with no more four athletes at a time in the off-season.  To stay in accordance with the rules, each day two separate groups of four players would come in and work on skill development.  Since these groups met during winter sports season, the workouts took place in the morning because of conflicts with after-school basketball practice.  Some training activities these groups completed were resistance throwing, bat speed exercise, and strength /conditioning drills.  With smaller numbers, we started to physically chart each player's progress with drills and provide them with visual evidence of their progress.  These illustrations provided excellent feedback to players and served as motivation to continue improving.  Furthermore, the process also served as healthy competition between teammates producing players who strived to outperform one another.                           
2.  Energize the Game
Young people want an entertaining game that moves at a fast pace.  In Season on the Brink by John Feinstein, Bobby Knight's basketball practices switch drills every five minutes.  Feinstein describes Knight's methods as holding players attention every minute of practice, not running drills for longer lengths of time. For years, baseball coaches have been guilty of having long, drawn out practices.  High school coaches need to find ways to practice important skills, by inventing different drills that reinforce quality play and created an up-tempo style.  By doing this, players start having fun at the game, especially if they are struggling at one certain area of practice.  With constant transition, players do not have time to "go through the motions."  Players will maintain a positive attitude about baseball if they are around coaches who keep things moving in practice.  Furthermore, constant movement and engagement allows players to gain available repetitions at underdeveloped or new baseball skills.  
At Central, one way we tried to energize the game was running our Purple, Silver, and Black Workout Series.  This practice sequence engaged every member of our squad, rotating through various offensive and defensive activities.  To set up the progression, our team split into one of the three colored groups.  Since our varsity and junior varsity practiced together, it supplied a perfect number of players to complete three separate teams.  Each team had a starting line up, with one player working primarily as a pitcher.  Using one practice field, the teams would separate into different drills.  For instance, the Purple team would assume their defensive positions, working on the tandem relay to third base or home plate.  While the Purple worked on that specific defensive situation, the Silver team served as their base runners.  Since there were only 9-10 players on each team, members receive an abundance of repetitions.  In the hitting tunnels, the Black team worked on honing their offensive skills through batting practice or other static offensive drills.  Usually, the duration of each station lasted 6-8 minutes, but it varied from day to day depending what skills our team needed to reinforce.  By keeping these stations moving, players become more focused and energized throughout the practice.  Furthermore, coaches were able to provide better instruction because group activity was less hectic due to smaller numbers.  
3.  Provide Positive Experiences
In my experience coaching high school baseball, consistently being positive with players is one of the biggest hurdles coaches must clear to form lasting relationships.  Today, our society has become so cynical and sarcastic; players have difficulty distinguishing these themes from genuine honesty.  Often, the majority of urban players have not experienced a lot of athletic success.  Unorganized youth teams, poor coaching, and inadequate resources have hindered the chances of these youth to compete on a level playing field with their middle and upper class counterparts.  
Many times, players come into high school with low confidence levels and a general resentment for a coach's authority.  To break this cycle of negativity, coaches must use positive encouragement and reinforcement to motivate players.  At first, incorporating positive encouragement and reinforcement may be challenging, especially if players are not receptive to feedback.  Persistence is the key to building a bridge of trust from coach to player.  
Often, since our incoming students did not play in highly structured environments, with many coached by people who were not able to control their emotions.  Not being able to predict a coach's behavior can cause players to experience anxiety and distrust.  At Central, to improve trust from coach to player we tried to practice predictable even-tempered behavior.  The baseball season in Nebraska, including off-season training, runs approximately 9-10 months.  With a season this long in duration, there are going to be many highs and lows.  Practicing positive encouragement and calm demeanor, not only will coaches help overhaul a player's confidence, but recruit new players wanting good athletic experiences as well.
To provide positive experiences, coaches must communicate clearly and honestly with players.  At Central, we ended our season with a written player/coach evaluation.  In this document, players received an in-depth description of their strengths and weaknesses.  Along with the summary, players received a comprehensive plan, detailing how improvements could be made before the following season.  Even though these documents were totally honest, I did make an effort to expand on each player's strengths.  By focusing on the positive, I wanted players to start their off-season with a positive taste in their mouths, no matter how heartbreaking the previous season ended.  That way, returning players would continue in the program and display a positive attitude for younger players to emulate.        
4.  Increase Skill Production    
Throughout my entire coaching career, I have never met one player who wanted to struggle.  If a player is unsuccessful at a skill and rarely experiences any improvement, they are likely to lose motivation to practice that movement.  Players need coaches that teach systems that work.  In today's world, people want instant gratification.  Young athletes are no different than the rest of society.  If they are going to practice something, that skill better improve or players start to lose interest.  To enhance a player's skills, high school coaches must be unafraid to break out of the traditional training methods other coaches use on their team.  Even though some teams may be inexperienced, they generally have above average athletes.  Keeping this in mind, coaches must construct ways to channel those talents into effective baseball movements.  Using weighted balls, incorporating the V-cut defensive system, and practicing proper linear hitting techniques are all baseball movements that athletic players can understand and successful apply during a contest.
In my last season at Central High, during the winter our players started to use the under/over weight training for bat speed development.  Groups of four players performed swings with heavy and light bats, applying maximum force to each swing.  At the end of each training session, players received 10 soft toss flips.  Standing approximately 30-40 feet away from the gym wall, players tried to redirect the ball in a line drive.  Players recorded how many line drives they produced each time and the results were plotted on a line graph.  By seeing the line chart results, players received immediate visual feedback.  This instant response served as an important motivator for players wanting to improve their baseball performance.  Not only did players compete against the graph, but the Line Drive Drill promoted competition between teammates as well.  Having healthy competition inside the hitting groups only intensified the workouts and helped players reach a new level of success.                        
5.  Create a Family Atmosphere
High school students are continually looking for nurturing situations that help provide opportunities to increase their self-esteem.  If students are surrounded by constant negative or critical remarks by coaches or peers, there will be little enjoyment in participation.  Since baseball is a game of constant failure, players need to know their coaches and teammates are going to provide an element of support, not ridicule.  
To establish trust within our team, each season our players attend a dinner at one of the coach's houses.  At the dinner, the team might play basketball, ping pong, or watch a movie.  During the night, each player would stand and give a brief speech about the team.  Often, players would talk about how they felt the team could reach great achievements throughout the year.  Sometimes, there would be a speaking theme.  In the summer of 2006, our players spoke about why our team would make the Nebraska State Tournament for the first time.  Looking back, I believe these verbalizations helped our team accomplish their goal.  Coaches spoke at the dinner as well, expressing their ideas about the team's strengths and what needed to be addressed in order to reach a high level of success.         
6. Network Across Athletic Programs
A high school baseball coach's best friend should be the school's football coach.  Being exposed to large numbers, a football coach can be a great asset with recruiting players to try baseball.  In Nebraska, track and baseball compete during the same season.  Even though football players tend to participate in track, there are some that are just not interested.  Baseball would be a nice alternative for these players, especially if they are top-notch athletes.  Examining Omaha high school sports, the schools with strong football program tend to lead the baseball scene as well.  In fact, analyzing the Omaha World Herald's 2006 final poll three teams out of the top five were identical in the football and baseball rankings.  These overlapping teams should come as no surprise to coaches.  If a baseball program has an increase in athletes playing football, their chance for success will likely increase.  Moreover, if circumstances allow, baseball coaches should try and help out with the football program in some way.  Being on the football coaching staff, regardless of the level, helps the baseball coach promote their program by establishing positive relationships with athletes during the fall sport season.  Then, when spring arrives players will be more inclined to give baseball a chance.     
7.  Make it Popular  
High school students tend to pay attention to what their peers are doing.  If baseball is perceived to be fashionable, many students will want to participate.  The sport of basketball has done a great job of promoting their sport through sporty clothing and apparel.  High school students love wearing attire that separates them from the group.  Showing off attractive apparel gives athletes a sense of belonging and allows them to have positive self-esteem.  
At Central, we tried to provide athletes with many different clothing items to display their involvement in our program.  Every student that participated in our off-season program received some "gear", not just the players that made the team.  Prospective players might receive a tee shirt, sweatshirt, or athletic shorts.  This way, students could display our program's logo even if they did not participate in the competitive contests.  For players that made the squad, they collected additional items such as a coat, pullover, or warm up suit that could be worn around school or in the dugout.  
8.  Winning
The last area coaches can improve to promote their program and increase player interest is establishing a winning product.  As most coaches know, this is easier said than done.  Players do not want to be involved in an athletic program that struggles every year.  If they do, participants often receive criticism from their peers.  Coaches can take precautions to creating a winning program by organizing effective practices and off-season training programs.  One way coaches can maximize development is arranging extra workouts during the season.  
During the American Legion season, our summer team practiced Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday even on game day.  Usually, the practice lasted approximately 50-55 minutes.  Scheduled early in the day, players had enough time to get proper rest for the later contest.  These practice sessions allow players to sharpen their skills and apply them directly in the game.  
These practices not only improved individual skills, but team concepts as well.  During these sessions, our team perfected defensive specialties like pick offs, tandem relays, and bunt defenses.  These areas usually get neglected during the season.  By routinely practicing specific defensive situations, coaches prevent their team from losing games due to poor execution.
In conclusion, today's baseball coaches must be proactive when it comes to player recruitment.  With all of the current distractions athletes face, coaches cannot assume players are going to select baseball as their sport of choice.  If coaches are going to attract fresh faces to their program, they must reach out and try to identify with a new student population.  At Central High School, each year our program tried to evaluate how it could continually recruit the best possible student/athlete to compete on the playing field.  By assessing the program annually, our team used a variety of strategies to improve roster depth and playing performance.

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