Saturday, March 28, 2009

Repetition: The Key To Baseball Development

PREFACE: Let me start by saying this post is intended for parents of players who are interested in learning more about travel or club baseball teams. Not all children are interested in playing on these types of teams and there's nothing wrong with that. Baseball is a game for anyone who wants to play it. Rec or town baseball is a great way for kids to enjoy the game.

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The landscape of youth baseball leagues has changed considerably over the last decade. It use to be that kids only played in their town's recreation league and the all stars went on to play in the regional Little League tournament. There were also a few AAU teams where players had to try out and win a position. These were made up of highly skilled players in each age group who had to prove they belonged on these teams.

Then the invention of "travel baseball" came onto the scene (a trend created by youth soccer I believe) where "all star" players from the town's recreation league would be placed onto age appropriate teams and travel to neighboring towns to play in competitive tournaments. The higher ranked of teams also competed in Cal Ripken and Little League district, state and regional play. Normally there is a try out process that kids must go through to make a town travel team.

About 10 years ago a new baseball team was invented... the club team. These private teams, funded by parents where usually coached by parents or by hiring a "professional" coach. These teams are also sometimes referred to as AAU teams although many of them have no affiliation with AAU. Some founders of club teams feel they need to give their teams validity by using the term "AAU". Some of these teams have a formal tryout process and others recruit kids based on other criteria, some objective, some subjective. Key here is that generally club teams operate by rules which have been definded by the founders.

There are a number of differences between town travel and club teams. One key difference is town travel teams usually have guidelines for minimum playing time, especially at the younger ages. This provides some protection for players and ensures they will get time on the field. While some club teams may have playing time guidelines, many are managed by a parent coach who instills his or her own ideas of who should be playing where and how often. If your child is interested in playing on a club team 13U and under you should find out up front how much playing time he/she will get. Question to ask... Does your team have guidelines for minimum playing time? Good answer: Yes, we make sure that all kids play at least 50% of the innings by the end of the season. Bad Answer: Well that's going to depend on how well he plays, our objective is to win games.

Not that all town travel teams are perfect either. You may have some programs or coaches who believe more in winning then they do in development. Some coaches may "pigeon hole" a kid in to playing a position they really don't like or aren't suited for. Some may not give kids ample playing time because of a desire to win. If your child is playing on a travel or club team have a discussion with the coach before he signs up. You want to be sure that your placing your child in an environment that's appropriate.

So why is it important to know all this? Like most sports, baseball skill development comes through repetition. Adults often place too high of an importance on what team their child is playing on... or what level the team is playing at. Honestly, I use to think the same way, but I've seen the light. Yes good competition is part of baseball growth but the most important thing is for a player to get lots and lots of time at the position they like to play. It doesn't matter if it's rec ball, travel ball or sand lot ball... the more innings they have playing a position the more comfortable and confident they will be playing it.

Yes, the custom team apparel, bat bags, matching cleats of a club team are cool and they give your child (and some parents) the feeling they play for a profesional team... but you need to ask yourself if it's the right environment for your child, what is she really gaining? Is my child getting enough experience or is she limited because she's not getting a fair amount of time on the field. Would my child be better off on a team where I know she will get alot of playing time even though that team plays in a "less competitive" league? I would answer a big YES to that question.

Now I will argue that it's important for more serious players to face more difficult pitching. At any level, hitting confidence comes from knowing you have he ability to hit anyone in your league. This is developed in both game play and practice. If you feel your child needs to work on hitting more difficult pitching I suggest going to the cage on a regular basis and cranking up the pitching machine.

I have a friend who's son is 14. This kid started playing baseball at age 6. At age 9 he expressed interest primarily in catching and pitcher. Over the next few years he learned and practiced the skills for both positions, along with hitting of course. He was lucky to have good coaches, mentors and instructors along the way. He played rec ball, fall ball, travel ball to the tune of about 50 games a year, or 250 games over 5 years. He caught in nearly all of those games and pitched his share as well. This gave him the playing time he needed to develop important skills and confidence in his ability to perform them. He's now a solid player in both positions. You could apply this story to many successful ball players. The lesson is a simple one...

Repetition in a position builds baseball skills and the confidence to perform them. When your 11 year old is playing 3rd base it doesn't matter if the grounder is hit to him by a kid playing in an elite club team league or a kid playing in a town rec league. It's his confidence in fielding the ball, making the play and the fun he has doing it that matters. That all comes through repetition in the right environment.

Coach Bob

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Wooden Bat Design Could Change Youth Baseball

As the debate over youth and adult bat safety rages on, one small company in New Jersey has come up with what seems to be a revolutionary idea... a wooden bat that doesn't shatter. The company, Radial Bats, is so sure of this claim that they back their bats with a one year warranty. Check out this video:

What makes Radial Bats unique is the way they are constructed. A conventional wood baseball bat is cut from one piece of wood. The Radial Bat is created by milling 12 solid wood wedges that are brought together to form a stronger bat with a larger sweet spot (the optimum hitting surface on a bat). Because of this contruction the batter doesn't have to worry about how they hold the bat.

The company seems to be targeting problems at the professional level of bats shattering and breaking on a somewhat continuous basis. However, this design and their abilitity to produce bats at various sizes and weights may also prove promising at the youth level.

The price of these bats are inline with other custom bat companies ($120) but they are designed to last a whole lot longer than traditional one piece wooden bats. The bats are available in adult and youth sizes with weight drops to meet most player requirements.

I have not tried one of these bats yet but I would like to try one out and let you know about it. More to come on this...

Coach Bob

Monday, March 23, 2009

Building A Relationship With Your Child's Coach

Here is a re-post of an article I posted about a year ago. Very helpfull info for parents with kids of all ages and timely considering most leagues are starting spring baseball soon...

Youth baseball leagues cannot survive without volunteerism. It takes the time and effort of many dedicated people to deliver a great experience for its players. This includes managers and coaches who tend to offer many hours on and off the field. As parents we have an obligation to the team as well. Here are a few ways you can help the coach and your kid during the baseball season.

1. Communicate With Coach And Arrive On Time.

Whether through email or via phone make sure the coach knows your kids availability for games and practices. If your child is going to be late give an accurate time as to when he/she will arrive. Games require prep work and coaches generally figure out where kids are going to play prior to game time (a rotation). This can take a long time to put together and if a kid doesn’t show up on time, it creates a lot of extra work for the coach. Also, make sure your kid is well prepared for the game with the proper equipment.

2. Get Involved.

Coaches generally welcome parent who volunteer to help. Tell the coach at the beginning of the year that you are willing to help. Let him know what you can offer the kids.

3. Pick Up A Rake.

Most leagues have requirements to prep fields before or after games. Parent can help out by taking over this responsibility for the team leaving time for coaches to warm up before a game or have post game discussions with the team. These are both important parts of the baseball experience and parents should pave the way for this to take place.

4. Cheer For All Players.

Baseball is a team sport. Parents should cheer for all players on the team. It’s even OK to cheer for kids on the opposing team. Give the kids a smile and cheer for all of them.

5. Have One-On-Ones With Coaches After Games.

From time to time you may need to speak with your kids coach privately about issues. The best time to do this is after games or practices. The best way to go about this is to ask the coach a few days in advance if they will have some time to speak with you. Give them an understanding of what it is you want to talk about. Most importantly have this discussion without the kids around to listen.

6. Be Constructive.

Not destructive! Nothing is worse that negative energy on a baseball team. It can drive teams with great talent to the brink of destruction. It’s important for parents to keep things positive. Don’t give into discussions with others about what the coaches are doing wrong… focus on what they are doing right. If you have an idea, observation or suggestion… result to item #5. Keep things positive. In most cases all involved are there to make the experience a great one… help that cause, don’t fight it.

Always remember that we are all doing this for the kids. At the end of the day what’s important is that the kids are playing baseball, participating in a positive activity, getting exercise, making friends, learning to be a teammate. I hope these few ideas will help you develop great relationships with your child coach and make your child’s baseball experience a better one.

Coach Bob

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Parent Involvement.. Let Kids Earn It On Their Own

Spring is nearly here. Youth baseball teams are practicing (indoors and outdoors depending on your climate) and preparing for the season's first games which are soon to come. The kids are anxious to hit, field, run and throw. The coaches are anxious to teach and orchestrate the game. Parents are looking forward to watching their kids have fun and learn great lessons like good sportsmanship, team work, etc. Life is good!

OK so far this is a fairly utopic picture I'm painting... right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. While we hope the thoughts and experiences described above do happen (and many do), it's not all roses and sunshine in youth baseball or youth sports overall for that matter. Today let's address one issue in particular... Parent Involvement or "PI".

PI can be a good thing... parents who help coaches with games & practices, keeping order on the bench, cheering for every player on the team or help with raking a field. Parents who help the league by volunteering to assist with improvements or working in the snack bar. Youth leagues welcome "givers" like this. Actually, they can't survive without them. These parent are naturally concerned with the well being of their own children, like all of us. The difference is they also care about the community as a whole and see the value in what youth sports programs bring to kids.

But unfortunately PI can also be a bad thing... parents who are only concerned about their own child's advancement and treatment. They try to influence coaches to favor their child at the behest of other kids. They seek preferential treatment of their child because they feel their kid is "advanced" or the next coming of Derek Jeter. They have little consideration for other players or coaches in the league and will even go as far as to put another kid down in order to give their own child an advantage. These "takers" are the scourge of youth sports. These misguided, delusional souls undermine all that is good with youth sports programs. While small in numbers they put a tremendous strain on kids (including their own), coaches, league officials and other parents.

What's most important about youth baseball is that kids get a chance to learn lessons that will help them throughout their entire life's journey. Being a good teammate, working with others, dedication, focus, commitment, good sportsmanship and achieving something on their own. These are the jewels that kids can take from youth sports.

Today's so-called "helicopter parents", constantly hovering over their child (literally and figuratively), are always clearing the path for their kids. Making sure that they get exactly what they want, every time, without fail. Well, wake up! Life isn't like that. There are ups and downs. Baseball, a game of failure, can be an effective way for kids to learn how to cope with adversity.

The kids who are given the chance to make their own way like earning a starting spot on a team or hitting his/her way to the top of the lineup... those are the kids who will more than likely take something special away from youth sports. An ability to achieve what they want in life on their own.

Conversely, the kids who's parents game the system or influence coaches on their kids behalf with the goal of constantly paving the way for the children, may have a harder time making it on their own as teenagers or adults. The slap in the face for these parents may be when their 25 year old is still living at home, without a job, because he/she is reliant on Mom and Dad doing everthing for them.

It's simple really... Help your child prepare so they can earn what they want on their own. Practice with them, teach them game strategy, help them with the mental side of the game. These things will help the become better players. It will also be the best thing for them in the "long run".

Coach Bob