Ahead in the Count

Hustlers Win

If you haven’t played a video game recently, I challenge you to find a youngster with a game system and strap in for a couple of hours.  Not only is it a lot more fun than you would ever admit at the company luncheon, but it also is an incredible tool for training the two hemispheres of the brain to work together on complex problem solving (Daniel Pink’s best-selling book,  A Whole New Mind, is a well-spring on this subject). 

Like many of us who coach and have strong feelings about the increasing numbers of young people who are unfit, eat poorly and facing obesity at a young age, I have spent most of the last 10 years of my coaching career bashing video games as a cause of this American epidemic.

Part of my own resentment is rooted in the belief I held that the fast-paced, action-packed, exciting nature of video game technology have helped to increase the popularity of faster moving sports like soccer, lacrosse and basketball while our beloved baseball, with all of its nuance and subtlety and, well, slower pace, has lost popularity among American youngsters.  I am not saying this thinking is right, that the rise in the number of “gamers” has caused the decrease in the number of Gamers (see also:  Eric Byrnes), but they appeared to me to be correlated in some way. 

Regardless of how they are related (if at all), I have come to accept their presence in our culture and now believe strongly that video games have a lot to teach us about teaching baseball.  When I ask people of all ages who claim not to like baseball why they don’t like it, the number one answer on the board is “boring.”  And who can blame them?  After all, how can a game that lasts 2 – 3 hours but contains only, maybe, 20 min of action captivate someone who has ‘Halo 3’ as an entertainment option, with its choose-your-own-adventure, totally-enthralling-every-moment, 12-buttons-to-manage-and-master world of infinite possibility?  I believe the key to getting and keeping kids interested in baseball is to create game and practice environments that keep them moving and engaged.  One effective coaching tool that hits this mark is a single maxim denoted by two words:  HUSTLERS WIN. 

When it’s time to take the field for a practice or a game, simply let your players know that hustlers (meaning the first one to the position) will win (meaning play that position that inning).  You won’t believe how the pace of play and the energy of the game or practice improves.  Pace, at least as much as performance, is what makes or breaks a positive experience for a youngster on the ball field.  Moreover, it can actually improve performance by keeping him/her more engaged.  I have found no better technique for speeding up play and creating excitement than implementing Hustlers Win as the basis of a team’s Constitution.  And let’s be honest, no single aspect of youth coaching creates more headaches, arguments or complaints than making a line-up. Employing this strategy, you don’t have to. 

There is a long list of advantages beyond pace of play for Hustlers Win as a management style. There are numerous advantages on the teaching side, as well.  First, since the “deciding” of positions is effort-based and objective rather than talent-based and subjective, each player has equal ownership in what happens on the field.  This keeps them more engaged. In addition, players learn to play a variety of positions much more quickly and gain a greater working knowledge of the game as a result.  Playing multiple positions is an asset for any player, especially young ones as they are learning and growing.  Most players can remember the names of the Little League stars in their area who ended up playing different positions (if at all) when they were passed up later in life by the kid who was 3’4″ tall and 18 lbs. at age 11 (note: this is the primary argument I use when questioned by parents who are having trouble with the part where their kid isn’t playing 1st base or shortstop every inning all season).  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, by speeding up play and harnessing the excitement of infinite possibility that video games offer, the kids have more fun. 

I do, however, recommend a few amendments, a kind of Bill of Rights, to the Hustlers Win Constitution to avoid problems. Here are a few suggestions:

Amendment #1) Make pitching, catching and bench (or sitting out) rotations as well as batting orders exempt from Hustlers Win.  These are better done by a coach to ensure catchers are ready with gear on between innings, pitchers have time to prepare themselves, players are sitting out in a fair and equitable manner and a batting order is observed (although I do let my players make their own order and only ask that they do not hit in the same slot two games in a row – and they are shockingly fair).  I also recommend never pitching anyone who has not proven they can pitch by throwing 6 or 7 strikes in 10 attempts with a coach watching, depending on the age.  This will set a standard to strive for and weed out those youngsters who can single-handedly create “rain delays” by walking too many hitters.  

Amendment #2) No player may play the same position two innings in a row and, unless otherwise specified, infielders and outfielders must switch each inning.  Obviously, one extra infielder will get lucky each inning and stay, but make sure your craftiest “hustlers” aren’t exploiting this loophole. This amendment prevents the fastest player on the field from playing shortstop each inning and ensures everyone gets a fair opportunity to play the “glamour” positions.  When players grumble about playing the outfield, I remind them that 7 of the 10 greatest players of all-time (arguably) are outfielders (a fun argument, at that).  If you are coaching an extremely competitive team, you can narrow down the choices each player has so that a player would choose between the 2 or 3 positions that are more well-suited for his/her skills.  

Amendment #3) Any player who is not deemed ready for a pitch automatically forfeits his/her position on the next pitch.  This is particularly useful on the infield.  When you see an infielder go into the 2000-yard stare,  just tell them to switch positions with one of the outfielders and remind them that the pitcher deserves someone who is down and ready on every pitch.  When the position is forfeited, they must wait wait another inning before returning. 

Amendment #4) If two players sprint to the same position and arrive at roughly the same time, the issue is settled with an automatic 2-out-of-3 rock-paper-scissors match-up.  This eliminates whining and arguments (and is often hilarious). 

Amendment #5)  Be ready to for the first pitch in 90 seconds or less EVERY INNING.  This means warm-ups, catcher throw down and ready for action.  This pace will add so much by way of focus and energy to your club, and has been proven to drive down the likelihood that the other team’s lead-off hitter reaches first base.  

The resistances to a Hustlers Win Constitution will, no doubt, be numerous.  Change is terrifying.  But try it for a week or two and see what happens.  You may like it.  Your players and their families – after a little groaning – may grow to love it.

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March 23, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, Uncategorized, written by Sean Flikke | 5 Comments

Advice For Tryouts

Advice for Tryouts

I think that everyone who contributes to this blog would agree that youth sports have become too hyper-focused on winning, and that what the scoreboard says is actually one of the least important measures of success on the field for young athletes. One of the most unfortunate byproducts of the win-at-all costs attitude permeating our culture is the unnecessary pressure that many young players feel during practices and games. Competition is healthy and there is nothing wrong with wanting to win ballgames, but often when the desire to win becomes too great, it overwhelms other measures of success such as teamwork, effort, attitude, and hustle. As a result, many young ball players feel pressure to be perfect on the field and not only can they not reach their full potential under these circumstances, but the game becomes much less enjoyable for them.

Most years, there is no more pressure-packed day than little league tryouts. Not only is it most player’s first day on the diamond each year, but they must field ground balls, catch fly balls, pitch, and hit while being evaluated by dozens of coaches, a grandstand full of parents, and all of their peers. There is no doubt that all ballplayers, young and old, perform better and have more fun on the field when they are relaxed, confident, and comfortable. So what can we do to help create an environment that allows our kids to get maximum joy out of the game while simultaneously developing as a ballplayer and a human?

First, as parents and coaches we must remind our players that we love and support them regardless of their performance on the field. This will give them the confidence to play the game free from worrying that our support of them is dependant on results. All kids want to make their parents and coaches proud, but we cross into dangerous territory when they begin to think that our relationship with them is conditional on performance. By redefining success on the field to include honoring the game, acting like a good sport, giving maximum effort at all times, and supporting teammates, even on days when they go 0-4 and make 3 errors in the field, there is still a sense of accomplishment to be proud of. Baseball is a game of statistical failures (name one other sport where “succeeding” 3 out of 10 times guarantees you a spot in the Hall of Fame), so if we only define success in terms of winning and losing, hits and outs, strikeouts and walks, most little leaguers will leave the field each day dejected. By creating a culture that rewards the concepts listed above in addition to wins, losses, and stats, players will be more relaxed on the field, and more often than not, they will begin to perform better as well.

Second, we need to remind our players that game is supposed to be fun. Every time I return from the Dominican I am struck by how much joy the kids down there play the game with. They are constantly laughing, smiling, and joking with each other and no matter how they are performing as individuals or as a team, they thoroughly enjoy and value every single minute they are on the field. We need to encourage our players to play with the same attitude. Our goal as coaches and parents should be to create an atmosphere on the field that kids can look back fondly on years from now.

Finally, we should make our little leaguers aware that at no other time in their life will physical size and strength be such an advantage or disadvantage (depending on whether or not they’ve hit their growth spurt). Ted wrote an excellent blog on radar guns a few weeks back and it got me thinking about the correlation between size and success in little league. Is the kid who throws the ball the hardest the most talented player on the field? Usually not – he just happens to have grown up a little faster than his peers and his size and strength is often misinterpreted as talent. Is the kid who can hit the ball the furthest the best hitter in the league? Usually not, he just happens to be stronger than everyone else. This is not to take anything away from “big” little leaguers. The point is that, by nature, kids compare themselves to their peers and especially in little league; this can be unfair to the pre-growth spurt group.

Commonly, I get questions from my students and parents like, “Why can’t my son hit it to the fence like so-and-so” or “Why can’t my son throw as hard as so-and-so.” More often than not the answer to the question is simply a matter of size and strength – a variable that is completely out of our control – not a result of effort or ability.

Once ballplayers reach 13 or 14 and everyone has started to turn into young men, the playing field levels again, but until then, the little leaguers who grow earlier will always have the advantage.

Instead of solely focusing on results at tryouts (M.P.H., number of homeruns, running speed, etc), I’d love to see our little leagues emphasize hustle, attitude, and desire as well. When the physical aspects of the game begin to even out in around age 13 or 14, it will be the players who learned the correct fundamentals while simultaneously learning how to support their teammates, respect the game, hustle, and have an undying desire to improve who will come out ahead in the end.

March 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Peace Players: Belfast

All:

Check out this great piece from The Today Show on Peace Players International: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/29737385#29737385

Tal, I speak for all of us when I say how special and important your organization’s work is.   Keep up the great work, and we’re excited to have you back stateside very soon.

JB

March 18, 2009 Posted by | Sports Around the World, written by John Bramlette | Leave a comment

Spring. Finally.

It’s been a long winter.  With the arrival of spring training, decent weather here in DC (until Friday at least)March Madness, the World Baseball Classic, and collegiate baseball – we can finally leave behind a winter of news about contract disputes and performance-enhancing drugs.  During this time of year, most of us find ourselves looking forward to what’s on the horizon for the coming spring and summer.  To indulge my own exuberance at the beginning of the college baseball season, I decided to follow my Alma Mater down to Atlanta, Georgia, where the Haverford played the Emory University Eagles in their season opener.  Not only was I treated to one of the best college baseball games I’ve ever seen, I was not-so-subtly reminded of why we do what we do.

The weather was perfect; the grass was short; the facility at Emory was beautiful; and Emory beat Haverford 3-2… in sixteen innings.  This four-hour plus affair featured numerous close calls, tag plays at home plate and great defense (only two total errors by both teams) by two well-coached Division III teams getting after it.  Needless to say, all of the 100 or so folks in attendance left the field with a feeling that they had watched a great game and that both teams have reasons to feel good about the coming season.  For me, however, I was able to take a lot of pride in fact that nearly forty percent of the players in uniform had once attended Headfirst Honor Roll Camp.

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Headfirst Honor Roll Camp is a national baseball showcase for true “student-athletes.”  At Honor Roll Camp, we as a staff have one mission: providing a forum for highly motivated student-athletes and college coaches to interact and get to know one another as players and coaches.  To their credit, the coaches from Emory and Haverford (among many others) have been part of a nucleus that regularly attend Honor Roll Camp – a fact reflected by their rosters.  For me, it was exciting to see so many familiar faces living their dream of playing college ball at great schools. 

After the game, I had the opportunity to catch up with some former Headfirst Gamers and spoke briefly with the coaches from both teams.  After congratulating everyone on a great game, I told coaches from both staffs that we were looking forward to seeing them in June at this year’s first Honor Roll Camp in Dallas, Texas.  Walking off the field, I knew that spring was finally here – with summer and Honor Roll Camps soon to follow, where I hope to see each of this blog’s co-authors at one of the 2009 Honor Roll Camps (Springer?  Flikke?).  More than anything else about the coming summer, I look forward to being back on the field with hundreds of players who are intent on making the most of the vast opportunities in front of them. 

March 11, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, written by John Bramlette | 1 Comment

2nd Game of Two…1st Inning…Catchers Get On The Plate

So, enough about me!!! As I am now in the top of the 1st inning, of the next phase of my life, owning an indoor baseball facility, All-StarPerformance, and helping run a youth team baseball program, the St Louis Gamers, I am observing a plethora of youth baseball, and some things that catch my eye are alarming!!

Being a pitcher, I know and understand how important a catcher can be to our successes, or lack of. As I observe many High School and youth baseball games, I routinely see catchers being asked by coaches to split the corners of the plate with their body. That may be sound advice for the guy who is catching Chris Carpenter, Tom Glavine or any other Major League pitcher who makes his living by throwing 90 mph heaters, and being able to hit gnat in the

A_ _ with them. For High School pitchers, even the most accomplished of them, it is at best unnecessary, and worst a recipe for disaster. By allowing, or asking, catchers to sit on the corners to High School hitters, you are asking for a multitude of 1-0, 2-0 counts, extremely high pitch counts (more to come in a later blog!), and infielders who are on their heels with excitement. If a pitcher has any movement at all, and the catcher is on the corner early in the count, there is a very good chance the movement will be lost, as it will end up off the plate, and result in ball ONE. Repeat this scenario on 1-0, and now you are in a definite hitters count. Sitting at 2-0, you are forced to throw a fastball, and groove it. It is a given, that throughout baseball, hitters averages go down between 50 and 100 points, the further they fall behind in the count. Conversely, the averages rise by these same point totals the further ahead they are in the count. Why not have your catcher set up on halves of the plate early in the count (0-0, 0-1,1-0, 1-1,), and teach your pitchers to pitch to contact. Let the natural movement they have work to the corners, instead of off the corner. You will keep your pitchers pitch counts down, keep your fielders on their toes, and in the game, and force the opposing team to get 3 hits to score a run, as opposed to having 2 walks, an error by a previously bored infielder, and a blooper that turns into a 3 run inning. If it is important on a fastball, then it becomes doubly important on a breaking ball. I do not see many High School hitters who handle a breaking ball very well. Not a hanging breaking ball, but a ball that changes directions and planes. So if the hitters are not going to hurt you with the pitch, why try to throw it to the corners and take a risk of falling behind. Get your catchers on the plate, and ask your pitchers to start the ball at the arm side ( pitchers throwing arm side) ear of the catcher, look to have the ball stay on the plate, and be received by your catcher near his opposite knee. 0-2 you ask??? Same thing!!!! Now you want your pitcher to start his breaking ball at the catchers (pitchers arm side) knee, and expect it to finish around the catchers opposite foot. You will have many more hitters offer at, and miss that pitch, than the ball that starts off the plate, and ends up in the batters box. A realistic approach to pitching at the highest levels ( College and Professional) is to get a hitter out, or on, in three pitches or less. That shouldn’t change at the lower levels of baseball. It should be encouraged, and tracked. Getting your catchers on the plate will give your pitching staff a shot at achieving this, while keeping down their pitch counts and keeping your position players in the game.

Side Note: The same coaches who are asking their catchers to set up on the corners early in the count, are the coaches complaining that their pitcher is “nibbling” at the corners. Pick your Poison!!!

March 4, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, Sports Around the World, Uncategorized, written by Matt Whiteside | 2 Comments

Great profile of Brendan on MLB.com

posted by Ted Sullivan

Brendan at an Honor Roll Camp

Brendan at an Honor Roll Camp

Lisa Winston wrote a glowing profile of Brendan and Headfirst on MLB.com. It’s a good read for any baseball fan, entrepreneur or parent with a ballplayer who is putting off law school while insisting on riding buses and living off meal money just to play the game the game that he loves.

It also references the Headfirst Honor Roll Camps… unquestionably the top college baseball showcase camps in the country (I’m admittedly biased, but it’s true). In 2009 The Honor Roll Camp is coming to Dallas, Sacramento, Richmond and Jupiter, Fl.

March 4, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by Ted Sullivan | Leave a comment