Musings on Coaching

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I've been coaching baseball now for 22 years, with a year of coaching little kids in tee-ball before that. That's probably more coaching experience than most people will ever get in a lifetime and something I take more and more pride in as the years go by. It has resulted in some interesting experiences and lessons that I'm always happy to share with whoever asks. And now, I'm gonna share a few thoughts with you.

Kids are changing. Used to be that you could motivate a kid by the systematic use of both positive and negative feedback. Compliment the kid (or kids) on a good play or good effort, but bawl them out or bench them when they do something stupid or don't hustle. Kids now have typically been so molly coddled to protect their precious “self-esteem” that they wilt or completely implode at the mere hint that they aren't the most precious flower in the bunch. I'm not exactly Mr. Stomp My Feet and Yell, so I have historically had to be really, really upset to let the team have it, but I have had to completely put the brakes on those blow-ups for the last few years because most of the players simply can't handle it. The big, bad world is gonna destroy these kids - they have no coping skills whatsoever. It's really quite sad.

When I started coaching, baseball was one of the games that most kids played at least a little bit, partly because it was fairly cost effective. In this city, at least, the nature of the game has changed quite a bit over the years, with skyrocketing diamond rental costs (The City of Calgary, in its wisdom, doubled the cost of field rentals two years ago. Just because. Our field conditions since then, and the amount of maintenance done to them, has never been worse), and ridiculously expensive equipment ($500 for a bat?!? Seriously?). The net result is that most of our registrants these days are children of fairly affluent parents (plenty of them, of course, in a city whose economy is driven by oil companies) and poorer kids simply don't get the opportunity to play ball at a high level because they're priced right out of the market.

Part of the pampering these kids get nowadays is the tools and facilities at our disposal. Our league has two pretty good diamonds, both with batting cages, and we also spend a fair bit of time indoors at the local baseball training facility during spring training working on stuff. Nice facilities, with nice equipment. The problem is that the players, and to some extent other coaching staffs, start to grow blinders as to the possibilities for practicing elsewhere. Back in the day, if our team could find a shitty grade-school soccer filed with a backstop haphazardly built in one corner, we had a practice field. You built your practice plan around drills that didn't require a pitching machine or a perfectly groomed infield - you did running drills and worked on short hops and bad hops (which you got plenty of in a place like that), you did soft toss drills into the screen or bunting drills. You worked on setting up the cut-off man. The possibilities are pretty endless, frankly. But now, if you can't practice where you play, teams throw up their hands and exclaim that their kids have no opportunity to improve themselves between games. Well, hey! Guess what? Every night that you're not playing is a night that you could go find some free space to do some stuff and that's a simple fact. You don't need a fully equipped ball park to have a practice; you need 1000 square feet of flatish ground.

And finally, a free lesson: Let me start by saying that Johnny Damon is likely the best natural hitter the game has ever seen - Ty Cobb good. Babe Ruth good. It is the only way to explain how that clown has been able to be as good a hitter as he has been throughout his long career with mechanics that piss poor. His top hand is awful and I am constantly baffled at how he can get any leverage whatsoever when he hits everything one-handed. Now, for us mere mortals, involving both your hands in the swing is absolutely critical. Your bottom hand (the one at the bottom of the bat) pulls the bat, knob first, to the contact point. Your top hand pushes the barrel through the hitting zone in a quick, explosive motion. Take away either of those pieces of your swing and you will fail miserably, due to lack of strength and lack of bat speed (unless you're Johnny Damon). Almost without exception, people are naturally bottom hand hitters, that is, they let the bottom hand do all the work and just have the top hand along for the ride, or they go Damon-style and release the top hand before the point of contact. This type of swing is great if you're looking to make a solid backhand on the tennis court, but you'll never, ever drive the ball effectively and to your fullest potential without getting that top hand involved. Here's the most common top hand drill: Set up a standard soft-toss drill, with one player feeding balls to the other from a few feet away, and the batter hitting into a screen. The batter assumes his normal hitting position, but instead of gripping his bat normally, he turns his top hand over, such that his thumbs are together on the bat. From this awkward position, the batter will take his normal swings, but with each swing he will push the bat with the top hand as hard as he can and let the top hand fly off the bat after contact. To really isolate the move, try the first few swings with the top hand open, fingers not touching the bat, and just pushing with the open palm. This really helps get a hitter comfortable with the feeling of pushing the top hand through the zone. After doing that a few dozen times, the batter can go back to swinging normally, with the idea of involving that top hand hopefully locked in. Most kids struggle for a bit after learning this new skill because their hand speed is so improved that it messes up their timing for a while. Once they realize they can now wait a little longer for the pitch, which gives them a better look at the ball - in addition to being able to drive the ball longer and harder - they're usually convinced.

See you at the yard!