Ahead in the Count

Put. The gun. Down.

posted by Ted Sullivan

Now back away from the gun.

I hate radar guns. Not because I like driving fast, but because I have always pitched slowly.

I recently attended a January “pre-draft” tryout for players aged 8 to 12 years old in New York City. My guess is that 90% of the players hadn’t picked up a baseball since August. Every player had to go through each of three stations — fielding, hitting and pitching. At the pitching station, each kid, one at a time, was asked to stand on a plastic mound and throw about 10 pitches to a catcher 40 feet away without any warmups, stretching or coaching. Behind the mound was a volunteer in a folding chair holding a radar gun to clock the speed of each pitch. The results were inevitable and summarized as follows: very few strikes, horrible mechanics, consistent questions to the gun holder to inquire “how fast was that?” and many, young players walking away from the pitching station massaging their shoulders and elbows. I hate radar guns.

Vote for gun control.

Vote for gun control.

I admit that I’m biased. I’ve never thrown a baseball 90 miles per hour and never will. During my pitching career in the ACC and the low minor leagues, I would occasionally (and stupidly) glance behind the backstop and would see a scout (or several) with a JUGS radar gun pointed directly at me. I would have preferred to be in the crosshairs of a real gun. Despite disciplined thinking and self-talking, I would inevitably put a little more “umph” on my next pitch, almost always resulting in less than my best velocity, no movement, poor location and sometimes a little twinge in my elbow or shoulder.

Radar guns are a necessary tool for evaluating and scouting pitchers with college and professional aspirations. They should never be near a little league field because they lead to bad habits and injuries.

All hail the changeup.

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February 25, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, written by Ted Sullivan | 3 Comments

Another Blog Worth Reading

posted by Ted Sullivan

Since starting this blog just a few months ago I’ve spent some time searching the net for others who are writing on the same general topic of youth sports / coaching / etc. Mark Hyman’s blog, Youth Sports Parents is one worth checking out. Mark wrote Confessions of a Baseball Purist about Jon Miller, former Baltimore Orioles radio announcer (and now ESPN bigwig) whose voice will forever represent the sound of baseball for me. Mark is also working on a new book about youth sports to be published this spring. Looking forward to checking that out.

Mark’s blog has also encouraged me to create a list on this page of other blogs and columnists worth reading. Let me know if you have any to add to the list.

February 23, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by Ted Sullivan | 1 Comment

Positive Coaching: A Matter of Life and Death

posted by Tal Alter

Prior to coming to South Africa to work for PeacePlayers, I spent six years with another non-profit organization called Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA).  The premise of PCA’s mission is that there is no better vehicle than sport to teach life lessons to youth. I think all of us who write for “Ahead in the Count” agree with that premise, and that is in part why Ted created a forum for this dialogue.

Unfortunately, we also agree that countless opportunities for these life lessons are lost every day. Why is this the case? At least in the U.S., the fact is that many coaches and parents either harbor win-at-all-cost attitudes or simply don’t have the skills to use the power of sport to its fullest potential. The result is that children oftentimes lose the joy in playing and, in the worst-case scenario, the desire necessary to continue participating.

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Coach Innocent and his Grade 7 team from Umlazi Township

PCA’s solution is the enlistment of an army of “Trainers,” made up of coaches, teachers, and sports psychologists from across the country (including Brendan Sullivan).  These trainers present dozens of workshops every day to coaches, parents, administrators, and athletes alike, in an effort to create a common culture around youth sports.

This past weekend, I was reminded of the power of the PCA philosophy, which talks principally about three major themes: i) Honoring the Game, ii) Redefining what it means to be a “Winner,” and iii) the power of Filling people’s Emotional Tanks. I was presenting to 40 PeacePlayers coaches, each of whom is between the ages of 18 and 30 (and coaching children between the ages of 10 and 18) and many of whom are coaching for the first time.

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PPI coaches are proud of their role in "bridging divides, developing leaders, and changing perceptions"

I did not present a full PCA workshop but touched on each of the principle themes, and I was struck by the hunger that our coaches had for this information. They realize what’s at stake. If they don’t do what they can to keep kids participating in our basketball program, they will also miss out on our life skills program, which focuses on preventing the spread of HIV through discussions about safe sex, drugs and alcohol, gender roles, sexual abuse, peer pressure, and teenage pregnancy, among other topics.

Our coaches know what is likely to happen if our kids don’t engage in these discussions because they come from the same cities, towns and villages as their players. They don’t need to read the research to see the impact HIV/AIDS is having on their community. They know the HIV infection rate in the KwaZulu-Natal Province, where we work, is a mind-blowing 40%. They see from experience that children who come from poor backgrounds in Durban and do not have exposure to a program like PeacePlayers are not likely to form the personality traits necessary to break this cycle. The results are all too clear to them, and it is unfortunately getting worse: the prevalence rate has increased every year since the early 1990s, and less than half of all 15-year old children living in South Africa today are expected to reach 60-years of age.

So, for our coaches, being positive is literally a matter of life and death, and that is what I felt when I was talking to them about the tools for coaching. Yes, they all want to win, or at the very least want their teams to compete well. But, at the end of the day, they want to impart some sort of wisdom that will help their players think twice before making a bad decision or encourage them to disregard the strong cultural stigmas that exist in their community when confronted with peer pressure. While the stakes may not be as high for all youth coaches in the U.S. or other parts of the world, it is my hope that those working with kids in sport, no matter where they are, recognize the opportunity they have. Just simply by making the game fun, they can keep them coming back for more. And when they keep coming back, anything is possible.

February 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Some Magical Ability to Win”

posted by Ted Sullivan

Shane Battier, the "No-Stats All-Star"

Shane Battier, the "No-Stats All-Star"

A few weeks back I wrote a post titled “Flaws in Collected Wisdom” about Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and it’s application within youth sports.  I’ve been fascinated by the “moneyball” philosophy — not because I’m a stat-rat or even a die hard sports fan really (ok, with one exception), but because I love its broader relevance of using data to dispel conventional wisdom and create business opportunities. Lewis wrote a terrific piece for the NY Times last weekend which detailed how the Houston Rockets are taking these “moneyball” concepts to the NBA. He profiled Shane Battier, the “No-Stats All-Star.” It’s absolutely worth a read — even if you aren’t a Duke basketball fan (my aforementioned exception) who thinks that Shane Battier is one of the great athletic role models of the last decade. I know everyone loves to hate Duke hoops but if you’re looking for a super-intelligent-team-before-me-leave-it-all-on-the-floor pro athlete to root for, look no further than Shane Battier.

Needless to say, my writing skills are over-matched by Lewis’ so instead of summarizing, I’ll post a few lines from the article about Battier (I can’t help myself), several of which are quotes from Rockets GM Daryl Morey:

First, from Basketball writer Dan Wetzel: “I’d covered high-school basketball for eight years and talked to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds

Battier and Coach K

Battier and Coach K

of kids — really every single prominent high-school basketball player in the country,” Wetzel says. “There’s this public perception that they’re all thugs. But they aren’t. A lot of them are really good guys, and some of them are very, very bright. Kobe’s very bright. LeBron’s very bright. But there’s absolutely never been anything like Shane Battier.”

“This year,” Morey says, “we have been a championship team with him and a bubble playoff team without him.” Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.

Morey says, “When he’s on the court, all the pieces start to fit together. And everything that leads to winning that you can get to through intellect instead of innate ability, Shane excels in. I’ll bet he’s in the hundredth percentile of every category.”

Last season when the Rockets played the San Antonio Spurs, Battier was assigned to guard their most dangerous scorer, Manu Ginóbili. Ginóbili comes off the bench, however, and his minutes are not in sync with the minutes of a starter like Battier. Battier privately went to Coach Rick Adelman and told him to bench him and bring him in when Ginóbili entered the game. “No one in the N.B.A. does that,” Morey says. “No one says put me on the bench so I can guard their best scorer all the time.”



February 19, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by Ted Sullivan | Leave a comment

Refreshing Article on Youth Sports………

Team’s gesture supports grieving opponent

Updated: February 17, 2009, 7:46 PM

Two missed free throws, ordinarily the cause of a coach’s headache, became the symbol of sportsmanship in a Milwaukee boys basketball game earlier this month.
Milwaukee Madison senior Johntell Franklin, who lost his mother, Carlitha, to cancer on Saturday, Feb. 7, decided he wanted to play in that night’s game against DeKalb (Ill.) High School after previously indicating he would sit out.
He arrived at the gym in the second quarter, but Franklin’s name was not in the scorebook because his coach, Aaron Womack Jr., didn’t expect him to be there.
Rules dictated Womack would have to be assessed a technical, but he was prepared to put Franklin in the game anyway. DeKalb coach Dave Rohlman and his players knew of the situation, and told the referees they did not want the call.

As a principal, school, school district staff, and community you should all feel immense pride for the remarkable job that the coaching staff is doing in not only coaching these young men, but teaching them how to be leaders.

–Milwaukee Madison boys basketball coach Aaron Womack Jr.

The referees had no choice. But Rohlman did.
“I gathered my kids and said, ‘Who wants to take these free throws?'” Rohlman said, recounting the game to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Darius McNeal put up his hand. I said, ‘You realize you’re going to miss, right?’ He nodded his head.”
McNeal, a senior point guard, went to the line. The Milwaukee Madison players stayed by their bench, waiting for the free throws. Instead of seeing the ball go through the net, they saw the ball on the court, rolling over the end line.
“I turned around and saw the ref pick up the ball and hand it back to the player,” Womack said in the Journal Sentinel. “And then [McNeal] did the same thing again.”
Said Rohlman: “Darius set up for a regular free throw, but he only shot it two or three feet in front of him. It bounced once or twice and just rolled past the basket.”
“I did it for the guy who lost his mom,” McNeal told the newspaper. “It was the right thing to do.”
Womack, overwhelmed by DeKalb’s gesture, wrote a letter to the DeKalb Daily Chronicle, which had first reported the story.
“As a principal, school, school district staff, and community you should all feel immense pride for the remarkable job that the coaching staff is doing in not only coaching these young men, but teaching them how to be leaders,” Womack wrote.
DeKalb had traveled more than two hours for the game, and waited another two as Womack rushed from the hospital, where he had been with Franklin, to the school to gather his team.
“We were sympathetic to the circumstances and the events,” Rohlman said in the Journal Sentinel. “We even told Coach Womack that it’d be OK to call off the game, but he said we had driven 2½ hours to get here and the kids wanted to play. So we said, ‘Spend some time with your team and come out when you’re ready.'”
The two schools had met twice previously, and this one ended with a Madison victory, but as in the other games, they also a shared pizza dinner “four kids to a pizza, two Madison kids and two DeKalb kids,” Womack told the Journal Sentinel.
“That letter became a big deal in DeKalb,” Rohlman said in the paper. “We got lots of positive calls and e-mails because of it. Even though we lost the game, it was a true life lesson, and it’s not one our kids are going to forget anytime soon.”
Womack, in his letter to the DeKalb Daily Chronicle, added this at the end: “I’d like to recognize Darius who stepped up to miss the shot on purpose. He could have been selfish and cared only for his own stats [I hope Coach Rohlman doesn’t make him run for missing the free throws].”

February 18, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, On the Field, Sports Around the World | 1 Comment

Why I Didn’t Cheat

by Brendan Sullivan

While it was Selena Roberts of Sports Illustrated who last week broke the most recent cover story of baseball’s steroid epidemic, it was a different article inside the same issue that moved me to write the following letter to the editor this afternoon:

Dear S.I.:

Joe Posnanski’s article on the fall of Alex Rodriguez (PLAYERS, Feb. 16) is the best article on baseball’s Steroid Era of the hundreds I’ve read.

Juiced baseballs?

I was a part of the so-called baseball Steroid Era – a submarine relief pitcher in Double-A Mobile, AL the summer that Sammy and Big Mac, disguised as pro wrestlers, shattered the single season home run record. The following two seasons, I played in Triple-A Las Vegas, a phone call away from a Padres uniform in San Diego. Steroids were everywhere – in the big leagues, in my own clubhouse, used by the men I was competing with for promotion; even by the young kids in college and the low minors who would soon be trying to take my job. I don’t know if steroids would have gotten me into the Major Leagues. When you’re that close, however, little things – a few mph here or there – can make the difference. Despite the constant temptation, and the feeling of my career and lifelong dreams slipping away, I never used.

Like Posnanski, I don’t harbor any anger towards those who used, nor do I feel sorry for them when they get caught. This mess was created by the men who run baseball (Commissioner’s office, owners, GM’s and players union alike), not those who play it – but those who juiced knew what they were doing. I agree that the fall of A-Rod shows that the real question of this era isn’t why some players cheated but rather why others did not. I’m only one player of hundreds who played it straight while the game passed them by, but I know what motivated me. I didn’t cheat because from the moment I started playing sports as a young boy, my great coaches emphasized to me that it was the process of sports that was more important than any result. Doing things the right way was more important to them than winning – and therefore it was to me.

A-Rod, just moments before he started feeling the pressure.

A-Rod, moments before the pressure overwhelmed him

My final month as a professional baseball player was spent as a minor league free agent in spring training with Texas. It was March, 2001 – the same month that the $250 million man made his Rangers debut. For thirty consecutive mornings in Port Charlotte, FL, supplemented only by protein shakes and desire, I was the first minor league player in the weight room, hours before the day’s scheduled activities began. Each morning, I walked by A-Rod hitting off a tee by himself in the batting cage – an impressive sight regardless of what was coursing through his veins. Surely, he felt intense pressure to live up to his massive contract – but those of us whose career and dreams could die any day felt pressure too.

I’ll never know if I was good enough to be a big leaguer on a level playing field. But I sleep well at night knowing I made the right choice.

Brendan Sullivan
Washington, D.C.

February 17, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by Brendan Sullivan | 5 Comments

9th Inning…..Getting the “W”

 

 

So here I am, October 2006, 39 years young, a serious stress fracture in my forearm, 17 years of Professional Baseball, 8 organizations, and 4 foreign countries in the rear view mirror. I am looking at “What Now?”.   Throughout these writings, I have had a constant theme.  That being relationships, and opportunities that present themselves.  Over the course of my playing career, I had envisioned myself at some point instructing, or coaching, at some level.  Traveling the minor leagues on a bus again did not appeal to me.  My Triple A manager in Syracuse had mentioned a guys name to me in St Louis that had an indoor baseball facility named Dave Pregon.  After several discussions, we decided we liked each other enough to open a place together.   Going into this process, I ran the idea by my business savvy buddy, and co-writer, Brendan Sullivan.  Brendan gave me the name of a baseball enthusiast in St Louis, named Mark Gallion, who had coached area teams for quite some time.  Mark had graduated from Harvard business school, and was open to sharing thoughts about what was needed in a facility in St Louis.  In January of 2007 All-StarPerformance was opened.  All-StarPerformance is an 18,000 square foot indoor facility where we now give numerous lessons throughout the year, as well as rent cages to teams and individuals.  Over the course of the next year Mark, Dave myself, and another former Major Leaguer, Scott Cooper, who Mark knew from getting hitting instruction for his sons, started our team program, the St Louis Gamers.  We have tried to model our program after some of the top programs nation wide, including the Headfirst Gamers in Washington DC, who are not coincidentally headed up by Brendan Sullivan.  While both Gamer programs pride themselves on teaching the game of baseball at a high level, what separates both programs are the non baseball aspects that are instilled in our players.  Both programs have instructors, coaches, and mentors that played the game at high level.  These experiences give us instant credibility with the kids. Many programs have instructors with playing experience, but what we do with these opportunities is what separate’s us. Because of this credibility, we have an enormous opportunity, and obligation in our minds, to not only pass along baseball knowledge, but use teachable moments that only baseball can provide to impart life skills.  Teaching how to have poise, for example, in challenging situations, because of not only your physical preparation, but your mental preparation is a rewarding experience that we coaches might not otherwise have the opportunity to enjoy.  Watching a young athlete who is not used to failing deal with those emotions, and help him learn self control is satisfying as a coach. Helping, in small ways, to instill that character is what you are, and reputation is what others think of you, goes a long way in getting youngsters to take the high road, not necessarily the popular one.  Seeing an athlete realize that he may not be the most talented kid on the team take the initiative, through hard work, develop his skill set to be a significant contributor to the team is energizing.  So, while coaching at a Major University, or Major League organization, may be glamorous, what is truly rewarding is having the opportunity to affect young peoples lives in a significant way over the course of weeks, months, and seasons.  As I look back over my career, I realize how fortunate I was to have so many good men as mentors and coaches.  I am fortunate to be in the position to pass along wisdom pertaining to the game of baseball, but truly blessed to be in the position to help shape lives in the game of life.

February 12, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, Overview / Background, Sports Around the World, written by Matt Whiteside | Leave a comment