Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Book to Add to Your Collection

Attention Coaches:

Dr. Coop DeRenne, a University of Hawaii-Manoa professor, has written a book I storngly recommend.  It is titled The Scientific Approach to Hitting.  You get a "Sneak Peak" on-line through University Press.  As many of you know, Dr. DeRenne is a pioneer in baseball research.  His opinion is universally respected throughout the baseball community.    

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Topics to Cover in March

I am trying to get back into the swing of writing articles for the blog.  In the coming weeks, here are four topics I will try to cover:

1.  The Best Baserunning Circuit

2.  Throwing the Breaking Ball:  A Work in PROGRESSION

3.  Mark Wetzel:  Omaha's Blind Hitting Instructor

4.  Making an Adjustment:  The Experience Being Around College Players

Monday, February 22, 2010

Coaching Confidential: Balancing a Family with Sports

On T.V or in the newspaper, coaching looks so glamorous. Football and basketball does the best job of displaying these sharp dressed men leading their teams on the sidelines. A majority of time, they always look in control ready to handle the situation. These guys on T.V get paid millions of dollars, have a ton of power, and never walk into a place unknown. It looks like the good life; easy street. Underneath it all, I think you would find something to the contrary.

A hint to this theory came to light in the fall with Florida’s Head Football Coach Urban Meyer. Here is a guy that looked like he had it all after leading the Gator’s to National Championships in 2006 and 2008. Inside though, he was being torn apart. When he announced in December that he was taking a leave of absence from coaching, it was reported that his daughter responded by saying,” I finally got my Dad back!” Ouch!

This is just the most recognizable example. Everyday, thousands of high school coaches go to work leaving their families behind. They are usually forgotten about because their faces are not on T.V. But these guys put in the same amount of hours, giving up the same stuff, and exerting the same energy to no fanfare, cameras, or bright lights.

Their sacrifices are not reported, like Coach Meyer’s, but still very real. What Coach Meyer’s daughter said about her father probably resonates with every coach at every level. People cannot be two places at once, no matter how hard they try. Being pulled in two directions is a tough and takes a toll on relationships. There is no other way around it.

Being a high school football and baseball coach, I understand the mixed emotions coaches struggle with internally. With a couple babies at home; it was a little easier to leave. With a lot of naps and limited mobility, kids were low maintenance. During that time, my wife at least got some time to herself. Now with three mobile children at home, it is a lot harder to leave. With every practice or game at school, leaves a missed moment at home.

I think baseball coaches have it worse compared to the other sports. Football, on the high school level, has only a nine week regular season. Obviously, there is preseason, daily practices, and off-season work, but nothing like baseball. Basketball is a little worse with 20-25 games, but what really goes on in the winter anyways. No baseball takes the prime dates away from people in the spring and summer. With at least 40-50 games to set-up and tear down, the time commitment is unbelievable.

How can coaches manage to pull this off without seeming like a deadbeat husband and father? Over the years, I have made many mistakes on this front. I have given far too much time to other people’s children beside my own. Recently, I have gotten a lot better with managing time. This are some key changes I made to help me keep a personal and professional balance.

- Morning Workouts

What does your family have going on at 6AM? I don’t know about you, but my family is fast asleep. You want to stop feeling guilty about practice, start having it in the morning. These are a great way to have the afternoon free to pick up the kids. Obviously, this won’t work during the regular season. But in the off-season, it is a nice alternative to coming in during the prime evening hours.

Moreover, kids learn the value of waking up. Having to get started early, they must learn to prioritize things like homework, part-time jobs, and friends. Players must be organized, so they are not late for the workout. Furthermore, by getting their workout done before school it energizes them as they walk into first period.

-  When It’s Over; It’s Over

A major problem for me is having practices that last forever. Because of the teams I coached there was always just,” One more…” We had to do everything extra from hitting to baserunning to defense. After that, then it was pitching; an entire practice itself. By the time I got home, dinner was put away and the kids had their pajama’s on. Something had to change.

The first thing I started to do was stick to the schedule. If a certain drill was scheduled for five minutes, that’s how long it lasted. There were no exceptions. At first, it was a little weird but it really helped the tempo of practice. The entire team’s focused sharpened as well. I think, just by taking this little step, our development improved because we stopped drilling everything to death.

Also, I moved from predominately individual drills to a more team centered practice. Groups of outfielder and infielders were mixed up, often practicing sequenced events with multiple throws. In the past, our teams usually split up between outfielders/infielders. It was easier, but didn’t make us any better. By changing the groups, the kids got to practice a lot more situations that required several positions making plays.

At the end of practice, our team use to meet to gain a sense of closure for the game. Sometimes, these meetings would take a while as I would drone on about the practice and upcoming games. No one was getting anything out of these “talks”. It dawned on me when I heard a quote from Bobby Knight, the Hall of Fame college basketball coach, who said,” The Gettysburg address lasted three minutes; I have nothing to say more important than that!” That quote helped me put a lot of things in perspective.

- Being Honest about Time

I don’t know about you, but I always struggled with getting home when I told my wife. If practiced lasted until six; I would often be home at 7:30. I found myself flying through intersections to try and beat the clock. It just never worked.

My wife would get frustrated because I was always late. Evaluating the situation, it occurred with me that I wasn’t being honest with her. If I told her, “Home at six” but my practice scheduled ended at six it was going to be tough to make it. I knew it sounded better than,” Home at seven” even though I knew I couldn’t make the six deadline.

After several years, this process drove my wife crazy. So I decided to be more honest. If we needed time at practice; I told her. That way, she could plan for it. The only rule was if I told her a time; I had to stick with it. It was only fair. The method alleviated a lot of the tension my tardiness caused. Plus, the guilt I felt about being late was lifted as well.

- Let’s Sleep on It

When I first started coaching, problems always had to be decided NOW! There was no tomorrow. Arguments, punishments, and disagreements were all to be solved and administrated immediately. Looking back, I was really stupid. Not only did this arrangement cause me to react emotionally but also didn’t allow me to attack things intelligently.

Many times, I wish I could go back and change the way I handled certain things. That seems to be a pretty common thing in coaching. These rash decisions, not only impacted the team, but my family at home. Countless nights I would spend on the phone talking with parents explaining a stupid situation that could have been avoided. Though, after awhile, I began to wise up.

Taking time “sleep on it” allowed me to think things through. It took all the emotion out of the response. Also, it stopped the “Coach screamed at me” nonsense that the players went home telling their parents. Furthermore, it also allowed me to give them a sense of future consequences for their actions. The phone calls stopped and night time was a little more peaceful.

- Leave it at the Field

When I first got into the profession, like every other coach, I lived it 24 hours a day. I thought it, dreamed it, and talked it all day long. Sometimes, after practice, my assistant coaches would call me at home to talk about it so more. It was never ending. My family got sick of it. Personally, I think my son almost didn’t want to play.

I had to find a way of letting go of baseball when I left the park. It was hard, especially after a close loss. No one at home cared either way. Our three children needed to be fed, changed, and put to bed no matter what the score. It was definitely a reality check; big time.

The best way to forget things, I have found, is to jump into whatever is going on at home. Participating in games, helping to cook dinner, or refereeing arguments are all things that are in my “world” at home. I am sure that is true for everyone. Most times, my kids do not even ask who won the game. That really puts things into perspective. In about ten minutes, the game is fuzzy, while life buzzes around me. The next game is only 24 hours away, let’s keep it there…..

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lonely Days: Managing a Team Solo

If you survey coaches from almost every sport, boys or girls, I would bet my lunch money on what they would say is most enjoyable about coaching. That’s easy; it is the relationships. Not just with the players, but their fellow coaches on staff. That is the “good stuff” about coaching behind the homeruns and no-hitters. These relationships often grow through the off-season and many times a long-standing friendship develops.

Making a commitment to a team, coaches spend a lot of time together in preparation, practice, and while competing in games. If it is done correctly, a strong bond should grow between the coaching staff. It is only natural. After awhile, coaches count on each other to offer guidance in making important decisions about strategy, discipline, and techniques. The solutions to these issues are always better when different perspectives are provided.

What happens when a coach has to drudge through the season alone? Who does he look to for answers? How does he organize practice? Will players still be able to develop? In 2009, I got a chance to coach a junior varsity team by myself for almost the entire spring season. In this article, I will share the lessons I learned from the experience. Also, I will offer some insight in making the most of the situation.

1. Making Decisions

When you are alone, making decisions can be tough. On a coaching staff, there are different perspectives and thoughts. These different viewpoints help to shape any of the team’s decisions. When you do not have these voices in the decision process it is hard to know if you made the right choice.

Everyone needs a sounding board, someone to talk to during the rough times. Without an assistant coach last year, I used my wife as a voice of reason. Her perspective became invaluable to helping me dealing with issues. She applied a lot of common sense that people too close to an issue cannot see.

After hearing her opinions, it dawned on me that using people outside of the baseball “bubble” is a good thing. Being teachers, coaches have an endless supply of colleagues to seek out for advice. These people bring a wealth of knowledge to the table to regards to dealing with kids.

2. Organizing Practice

Without an assistant coach, having an organized, productive practice is not easy. I struggled with it a lot during last season. Many times, kids are in areas that are not totally supervised. Therefore, a lot of responsibility falls into the hands of the players. Coaches have to make sure these players know the proper effort, concentration, and conduct required during each practice station.

Staying focused on the littlest detail is one lesson coaching alone taught me. Practice had to be set-up just right before activities started. If not, practice could get extremely off-course. Once they get out of rhythm, players had a hard time getting back in the groove. By being alone, I had to account for the time before practice to adjust materials and areas so they could be supervised from a central location.

Another good thing about practice, when coaching by alone, is the incorporation of live game situations. Without several coaches, it is hard to work on traditional position work like massive amounts of groundballs and flyballs. Instead, coaches must use multiple positions at once to run a drill. Otherwise, there is a lot of standing around by the non-used players. Therefore, each batted ball requires several positions to execute catches, tags, and throws.

3. Promoting Development

How could coaches promote development when the player to coach ratio is 15 to 1? With these circumstances it would seem like players should worsen with a lack of supervision. How could a player possibly improve in this kind of environment?

One particular instance that came to light was not having a first base coach. At first, players were very uncomfortable without a coach in the box telling them exactly what to do. Some even got pickoff on a good move by the pitcher or catching throwing from behind. Over time, players were forced to be more aware of the game’s details. Did they really need a coach to yell,” Back!” when the pitcher picked off? Or was the coach just a crutch for them not to think for themselves?

4. Discipline

With only one coach to administer discipline there is no “Good Cop, Bad Cop” roles to be played. Often a coaching staff might balance themselves out; having a few coaches on staff that kids may feel more comfortable around. With just one guy coaching the team; it isn’t like that.

It is easy to react rashly when you are by yourself, especially when a player has done something to anger you. There is no one else there to calm the situation and offer differing opinions. Coaches must be careful not to overreact to a situation without first taking a step back.

To combat acting irrational, coaches should not make any decisions for 24 hours. Giving a situation a little time helps both parties experience a period of “cool down”. After that, coaches should be able to make decisions based on merit not anger. Believe me; it is hard to resist reacting immediately to a player’s bad decisions. But, taking time to think things through is always the best practice when it comes to the team.

5. Staying Sane

This is probably most difficult of all the categories. Being around kids without any adult interaction is mentally draining. There is no one to joke with, talk to, or bounce ideas off. You can feel isolated and alone. To combat these negative feelings, coaches must open up and create some mature relationships with their players.

For some coaches, including me, this can be very scary. Over the years, it has been difficult for me to open up to players about things. During this experience, I was forced to show a different side of myself. I had to drop some of my defenses and let the kids participate with their own successes.

For one, I started to let the kids throw their own batting practice. That was a big step for me. Also, I let the players lead their own warm-ups and stretch time. In the past, I was always in the outfield keeping things moving along. With all the pre-game duties to complete, I could not be two places at once. I had to let these small things go. It was rough at first, but soon things ran smoothly. The kids, after a rocky start, got on board and did a nice job. Though the experience was always on the verge on teetering out-of-control, it definitely made me a better coach!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Using the Bare-Hand...

Being a father of a seven year old, I have found catching the baseball is the most difficult skill for players to become proficient. For some, it is down-right scary. Hitting and throwing are the easiest part of the game. That actually surprised me; I would have predicted hitting to be the hardest for a kid to master.

When you think about catching there are so many kinds of plays it may make your head spin. There is the basket-catch, palm-up catch, line drive catch, or the backhand catch. Hikes! At least hitting is straight forward: see the ball, hit the ball. It seems profoundly easy to a youngster compared to the variables of catching.

No matter how old they are or how they catch, every player needs to have hand strength. Younger kids, especially, need to have the power to get their glove closed at the point of contact. Older kids might choose to lift weights, squeeze tennis balls, or develop their forearms. All of these activities provide to a player’s strength to closing their hand.

Younger kids have a more difficult task. Weights are too heavy; they need a realistic approach to improving hand and finger strength. Having kids catch the ball with their bare “glove” hand is a good way to help develop the hand power needed to catch the ball.

Recently, I have started to experiment with this method. My son, who is very small for his age, uses a Decker Sports Training Glove. The glove is significantly smaller than a regular glove so he must squeeze his hand to make a catch. If not, the ball bounces out of the glove onto the ground. He has learned to use two hands on the catch, but some balls simply take him out of position to use both hands.

We use a cushioned ball when we play bare-handed catch. Since we started, he seems to have more control of his glove when we switch back. Obviously, bare-handed catch not only works strength but hand/eye coordination as well. Try it out for a few weeks and let me know if it makes a difference.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Why Every Baseball Player Should Play 1 Year of Football

1. Toughness
Ask anyone; nothing is tougher than football two-a-days. Set in the middle of August, players are asked to dedicate almost eight hours of their day to practice. Armed with ten pounds of gear, players sweat and strain twice during the day running and tackling each other at top speed. The energy a young person must extend is very taxing.

If a baseball player has prepared like this; the start of spring or summer practice should be a piece of cake. There is nothing that can compare to the start of football. Not only that, but the competitive edge over teammates without that experience should be huge!

Competing in a challenging environment that puts great physical demands on players should improve their toughness over time. Displayed in a player’s make-up, this inner-toughness should help players overcome situations that require extreme concentration and focus.

2. Pressure
One simple question,” When is the last time 9,000 people showed up for a high school baseball game? The answer might be never. Getting baseball players out for football mean they perform in front of large crowds. It almost every case, the audience will be 100 times larger than their baseball games draw. Don’t get defensive baseball coaches, it’s a good thing!

If a baseball player is used to a playing in front of a large crowd, a baseball game should be no sweat. Being comfortable in front of the crowd, is a great asset to have as a performer. Many times, crowds make people nervous especially players without a lot of experience. Being able to feel a sense of calm should help elevate a player’s performance in crunch time.

3. Weather
Football starts in August and runs through October. For the lucky teams, their season is extended through November. These months present very different types of weather. August is hot, while October can be very cold. In between these months, Mother Nature may throw some curveballs. This year, the Midwest received snow in early October before Halloween.

Rain and wind is also a problem. There are no “rain outs” in football unlike baseball. The show must go on whether there is a constant downpours or a light mist. Players must learn to handle a wet ball, planting on a slick surface, or adjusting to a ball moved by the wind.

Competing in these types of conditions may be hard but learning how to handle them has long-term benefits. When properly conditioned, players should be able to look past a little cold or rain sprinkles to get the job done. So many times, kids without different athletic experiences get so distracted by little things like weather.

Baseball players are spoiled not being forced to play in the rain or freezing weather. Their playing conditions are much better than football; it would do them good to get a taste of “football weather” experience. It also would provide some perspective on what kind of weather is considered bad.

This may seem like a small thing; but games can be won or lost if players get unnerved by less than optimal conditions. Having a football background should help baseball players adjust to these types of obstacles.

4. Playing Through an Injury
With the physical demands football places on players it is only natural for there to be injury. Like other sports, football gets its share of serious injuries like concussions and broken bones. More often though, players simply get bumped and bruised more than any other sport. Likely these are the results of numerous falls, tackles, and collusions. Players in football really do take a beating.

Being able to play through pain is vital in football, along with other sports. In baseball, it is important as well. Just because baseball lacks the consistent contact football enjoys does not mean it is less taxing. Ask any Major League after the regular season. It its own way, baseball is just as demanding physically.

For instance, some amateur players play 4-5 games a weekend. Playing a schedule of consecutive games naturally causes the body to break down. If a baseball player has been through the rigors of football; they should be able to handle this type of muscle soreness and fatigue. Not only physically, but the mental-side as well not letting the body’s nicks and scratches interfere with their will to win.

5. Intensity
Because of its physical nature, football is a game that is played with fire and attitude. If you don’t believe it, watch a kickoff team’s huddle before the game’s first play. Players have to be pumped up to bang heads for two hours. If not, they are going to get run over by the competition.

Baseball, with its slower pace, is not so externally intense. The game has a more internal focus. Instead of breaking up a pass or sacking the quarterback, players must be ready to hit a curve ball or track down a long flyball. Both of these baseball actions take the same amount of intensity as the above football plays.

Having a football background allows players to understand how intensity works in regards to output. Taking that kind of attitude into baseball should help generate a player who performs harder and is not afraid to get dirty. These kinds of attributes are hard to find in a player who hasn’t played a down of football.

6. Practice
I stand by the fact, that if done correctly, football practice is more difficult than baseball. It should be; there is no tackling in baseball. Going through a season of football should give baseball players perspective on what effort, endurance, and intensity really looks like.

Sometimes, baseball players take their sport for granted with the cushy conditions and leisurely pace. Also, starting the athletic calendar off with football, baseball players should be in a good place once baseball starts. They should be able to fall right back into the practice/game routine without any transitioning problem.

7. Game Planning
Baseball is a game played in bunches totaling as many as 40-50 games. The high school football regular season is much shorter usually lasting a total of 9 weeks. In baseball games are played in consecutive nights; unlike football where games are played once a week.

For baseball coaches, game planning is difficult. Many times, coaches may not do anything different from game to game. Simply put, the coach does general activities to get their team ready, but does not specifically go through an opponents pitching or hitting tendencies.

That is the opposite of football. Players and coaches spend hours dissecting an opponent’s tendencies and weaknesses. They review all week on the opponent. Prepared teams may be able to identify team’s plays simply by their formations.

Having this background, baseball players benefit greatly. Even without their coach, players can study opponent’s pitchers, hitters, and defense looking for weaknesses. Also, baseball players should be more observant to certain tendencies that happen in the game with a football experience.

8. Handling Emotion
Football is a game played with great emotion. There are screams, pumped-fists, and even tears. It is drive by adrenaline where one player tries to take down another. Often, players struggle at keeping their emotions in check letting their actions spill past the whistle. Teams are effected by out-of-control emotions; getting penalized during important moments of the game.

Baseball is not played like football. Tense in football, players must be relaxed in baseball. Playing with tense emotion hinders a player’s ability to move fluidly while swinging, throwing, or fielding. It is a fine line because players cannot be emotionally dead, but they cannot be hopped-up either.

With a football experience, baseball players should be able to play relaxed but with the passion coaches love. They should be able to channel their emotions in a positive way giving them the extra energy to snag a deep flyball or perform a hook slide to avoid a tag. Their emotions should provide an enhanced awareness of the game and its details.

9. Teamwork
Football is called a “brotherhood” where players are challenged to protect each other. It is a game that bonds players together for a lifetime. These ties allow players to look past individual accomplishments and focus on the larger team goals. In football, the play is only going to be successful if all 11 men do their job.

Baseball is different. There are many individual performances during the game. Offensively, almost every play is a one-on-one opportunity where the pitcher battles the hitter. It is not 11 vs. 11 like football. With so much individual play, it is easy to lose track of the team concept especially if the game is not in question.

Participating in football, which highlights team play, is a great tool for players. First, it illustrates to them that teamwork is important. Also, it provides coping skills for players to use when their teammates struggle. They need to know how to pick people up rather than letting them toil in the dumps. Remember, teams are only as good as their weakest link.

10. Confrontation
With all the other details being equal, meeting confrontation head on is the most important skill football provides baseball players. In baseball, you have to be fearless. Think about it; standing in the batter’s box trying to hit a ball thrown sometimes close to 90 MPH at your head. That is crazy.

How do you get that courage? Are you born with it? Many people believe you are; but I think it can be developed. Here is a courage developing football situation, try looking up to catch a punt with three guys running full speed right at you. That definitely takes courage, especially since you know that those guys are going to nail you.

Performed on a regular bias, players should develop a “no-nonsense” attitude. There are other football examples. What about colliding 50-60 times a game against an offensive lineman weighing close to 300 pounds? That takes some courage. These football situations could go on and on.

The bottom line is football should help put a little “chip” on a baseball player’s shoulder. These are the players that are not afraid to call a ball, collide with a fence, or flinch at a nasty curveball.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Velocity: How Low Can You Go?

The upstairs pitch may be the hardest for the hitter to lay off, but it is the softest on the radar gun. Last night during my Velocity Training course at Omaha's Strikezone Baseball Academy (Omaha, NE), the class was getting their "Mid-Term" exam meaning the radar gun measured each player's throwing speed.

Sitting behind a protective net, I clocked pitch after pitch. Every pitch upstairs was slower than the pitches down. In my unscientific observation, I bet the difference was 3-4 MPH. I had the pitchers aim lower and their scores improved. One pitcher went from 79-83 MPH.

After the drill, I recounted a Roger Clemens book I read where he retold the story of the time he hit 100 MPH on the gun. I believe this took place in 85' or 86' well before any claims were made about steriods. He explained how his hardest pitch thrown had been a ball that skipped to the catcher.

It does make sense; after you dissect the action. If the ball is down, the pitcher did a few things correctly when talking about force production. First they delayed release letting the nature timing of the lower body happen. Next, they used all their available momentmum. Finally, they delivered the ball as close to home as possible. All three of these aspects help improve radar gun scores.

So when Leo Mazzone says the best pitch in baseball is the low and away strike; it might also be the fastest.

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