Friday, September 21, 2007

Urban Baseball:  Methods to Boost Player Performance

        
"I haven't had a problem filling out a roster, but I have had a problem filling out a roster with quality players.  We're always going to get two or three players that can play with anybody, but getting a solid nine is hard for us," said Coach Jim Holified, West End High School in Decatur, Alabama.  (Decatur Daily Newspaper, July 9, 2005.)
Not every baseball player comes to high school fully prepared to compete at a high level.  Today's urban baseball coaches are aware of an alarming trend amongst players coming into their program with little or no experience.  In fact, many of these coaches have a hard time even filling up their roster.  Today, inner-city athletes have gotten away from playing baseball at all, electing to participate in football or basketball.  This has slowly led to a decline in large cities' urban baseball programs.  In 2004, former Montreal Expos manager Frank Robinson, told Sports Illustrated that "Baseball is now third, maybe fourth in the household."  This message is nothing new to Major League Baseball.  Since 1988, the MLB has funded a program called Reviving Inner-city Baseball (RBI).  The program allocates funds to urban baseball programs looking to upgrade facilities, in hopes of attracting more players.   Many inner-city programs have benefited from the funds including Harlem, New York.  In this section of New York, MLB's RBI program helped build a "Field of Dreams" for community little leaguers.  To check out Harlem's baseball field, go to www.harlemrbi.org/field.html.  You will find a beautiful facility, where baseball can be played at a high level.  Major League Baseball is not the only one contributing to the community.  Individual clubs are getting into the act as well.  
The Atlanta Braves, like other MLB clubs, even offer their own youth baseball league.  Their program serves players from the ages of 10-18 years old.  For more information, check out www.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/atl/community/atl_junior.jsp.  Another team that has tried to rejuvenate inner city baseball is the Minnesota Twins.  This year, the Twins provided over $200,000.00 toward furthering urban baseball development.       
Some pro players are jumping on board as well.  Tori Hunter, the Minnesota Twins starting centerfielder, sponsors his own youth baseball project.  Hunter's project motto is "It starts at the bottom."  Currently, Hunter's project has made some strives toward helping urban players.  His program, coupled with Little League Baseball and the RBI program, has created two new events promoting urban baseball.  The first event, piggybacking of the LL World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, allows 4 urban youth African American teams to compete in a two day exhibition during the widely know games.  The second event entitled Little League Urban Initiative Jamboree is scheduled for June of 2007.  This tournament is in conjunction with Little League's Urban Initiative program. In 2000, LLB started this program and the number of participants has increased to 268,000 players.  Again, Williamsport, PA will serve as the event's host.  To donate funds to the Hunter Project, check out www.toriihunter48.com.  
        As a coach, who has worked in an urban setting for many years, the challenge to develop high achieving players can be very cumbersome.  Over the years, there have been a few key components that have helped inexperienced players mature into effective competitors on the playing field.  Below, three developmental ideas are listed and explained.  All of them have been tested and proven effective within an urban baseball program.     
Working from the Ground Up

        This idea applies to player's lower body movements.  In baseball, all of the important movements made by the body originate from the ground and work up.  Pitching, fielding, and hitting all operate on the same theory of the player's lower body working correctly.  Teaching players to make proper lower body movements puts them in a great position to be successful.  In pitching, players that are able to maintain balance and accelerate toward the plate certainly increase a team's chance of success.  To teach the lower body proper timing and rhythm in the delivery, we have incorporated the "Clap Drill" for inexperienced players to get used to their pitching motion.  The drill has the coach clap the steps in the pitching delivery.  At first coaches can go slow, but over time they can increase the tempo and force pitchers to really speed up their lower body.  The "Clap Drill" provides pitchers the opportunity to be guided slowly through the process and then advance with experience.  Also, the drill breaks apart a complex movement and creates a tempo players can actually take to the mound.  Tom House, founder of the National Pitching Association (NPA), has a couple lower body drills that our team incorporates.  These drills break the complex idea of pitching down and isolate lower body movements.    First, his "Cross Arm Drill" takes the upper body completely away from the pitcher and forces them to use their legs only.  Pitchers, with their arms across their chest, work through their delivery focusing on balance, while separating hip rotation from shoulder rotation.  Pitchers take a rocker step, pivot to balance, stride toward the plate, achieve foot plant, and turn their shoulders toward the target.  This can be done either on flat ground or from the pitching mound.  After completing the "Cross Arm Drill" pitchers will add a movement to the exercise that works the groin.  Going through the same movement as the "Cross Arm Drill" presents, after achieving foot plant, players push off the glove leg and pull their throwing leg forward.  The action should resemble a lunging type motion, helping players contract the groin and build lower body strength.    Fielding is another area, which the lower body dictates whether players are going to execute properly.  When fielding a groundball, inexperienced players have a tendency to attack the ball incorrectly.  To help players achieve defensive success, coaches must incorporate V-cut footwork.  The V-cut system gives players a better opportunity to react to balls hit on the ground.  Getting a better "read" on the ball helps improve a player's chance of fielding balls that take bad hops.  When looking at an object from straight on, the speed and bounce pattern is very difficult to evaluate.  Getting an angle on the ball, fielders have a better sight line to judge the velocity and spin.  Also, V-cutting to the ball puts infielders in a straight line with 1st base.  Achieving a straight line to the target allows players an opportunity to execute a more accurate throw.  Another benefit of the V-cut system is the reduction of arm stress.  The V-cut defensive systems help players create maximum momentum toward their target, thus decreasing the throwing arms workload.
The lower body has a great impact of hitting success as well.  If a player does not incorporate effective lower body movements, obtaining hits could be quite challenging for players.   For our hitters, the best trigger to gauge lower body usage is the lead leg, especially the knee.  If a hitter, starting in a balanced stance, takes the lead knee back there is a complete load placed on the back leg.  When this action occurs, the rear leg can drive forward with great force because momentum is transferred back and can spring forward with increased strength.  That is the first function of the lower body.  The second lower body purpose begins after the lead leg is taken forward and placed on the ground.  When this occurs, the hitter must have transferred their rear weight to the front side or lead leg.   The hitter should extend their weight dominated lead leg and their back leg should be lifted off the ground.  The front side extension ought to be performed with an explosive movement.                        
Practice Makes Perfect
        Repetition is the ultimate tool for making a movement or skill permanent.  Most inexperienced players have incorrect habits they must work out of their muscle memory.  The more these players can perform actions correctly, the faster their muscle systems will learn effective actions.  Coaches must incorporate a practice plan that allows these players to reinforce proper movements every day.  Time is a valuable asset during a practice session, but coaches must allot time for players to work on all their developing skills.  In fact, even if we only have 5-10 minutes left in practice, our players will always get a daily reinforcement on glove work, emphasizing defensive skills.  Also, players reinforce proper hitting fundamentals by going through the "Load, Stretch, and Fire" mode.  This drill takes the hitter through the proper hitting phases, while training each muscle to move in the proper order generating an effective swing.  Hitters, with a bat, will take their stance.  With oral cues, the coach will say," Load."  The hitter will take their lead knee back.  Instantly, the coach will say," Stretch!" The hitter will push their weight on a flexed front leg and leave their hands back, aligned with the rear foot.  By leaving their hands back, hitters create a stretch in their lead arm.  This stretch generates upper body power, so hitters can burst through arm extension.   As soon as the coach witnesses the hitter's front foot toe touch, he will say," Fire!"  The player will snap their lead leg closed, lifting the back foot and finish their swing.  Both of these drills serve as constant reinforcement of the proper techniques needed to be successful in the field or batter's box.  With a persistent approach to practice, coaches can inspire inexperienced players to improve their proficiency every day.         
Maximizing Body Weight
        To really get results in either throwing or hitting, players must be able to produce force with their entire body.  When total body force is applied to movements, players see better results.  By demonstrating improved skills, players increase self-esteem and they are more apt to continue playing.
        When using the whole body in the throwing motion, players reduce the stress on their throwing arms.  Helping player's relive throwing arm pressure allows them to throw more frequently and with maximum velocity.  As most coaches know, the throwing motion begins with the legs.  Already in this article, some drills were described on how to isolate the lower body and train the quadriceps, gluts, and groin muscles to move with explosion.  Another way players can use their body during a throw is gaining momentum toward their target.  Improved momentum toward a target allows the thrower to generate better ball speed.  One way to help players incorporate the entire body during the throw is to encourage a lower body movement called the "Step Behind."  Practicing this movement players gain momentum and distance toward the target.  So, how does a player achieve a "Step Behind?"  Opposite of a crow hop, this movement occurs when a player receives the ball, by either catching or fielding, stepping behind the glove arm before delivering the throw to a target.  When done quickly, the movement resembles a skipping motion.  Not only will this movement increase velocity, but accuracy as well.  Ball velocity should improve by the hips counter rotating during the throwing motion.  With a forward movement of the throwing leg, a player's hips should coil back creating extra core torque before release.  By creating additional torque, players should achieve faster arm speed.  Another improvement players should observe with the "Step Behind" is better throwing accuracy.  Since their front side stays closed, the player should deliver a straight line throw to the target.  An inexperienced hitter can vastly improve their skills by using their entire body during the swing.  To achieve a swing that uses all available weight, a hitter must work on loading their rear leg and driving forcefully toward the pitcher during the stride.  By attacking the pitch, hitters are not wasting any weight by leaving it on the rear leg.  If inexperienced players do not use maximum body weight, often they struggle to drive the ball.  If they can focus on driving with their rear leg, inexperienced hitters can see positive results.  Finally, urban baseball is in need of assistance all across America.  Football and basketball have taken over as the top tier sports in today's society.  As these sports grow and prosper, baseball participation continues to decline in the inner city.  In recent years, there has been some people and organizations coming forward to help the problem.  High school baseball coaches need to join in the process.  By being positive ambassadors, coaches can promote the game to youth that may have limited knowledge of the sport's benefits.  Furthermore, with valid teaching techniques coaches can implement ways of showing players success; helping baseball once again be a viable option for urban youth.              

        
  







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