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.

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

5 Comments »

  1. Or if this doesn’t work, just juice ’em. And then deny it, or if you get caught, feign remorse and throw your teammates under the bus.

    Humans are born with an innate sense of right and wrong (*I’ll just footnote evolutionary psychology here so as not to get off topic). When the young players see the heros from their bobble-heads and chewing gum cards caught in scandal – again – it causes them to lose faith and interest.

    Why do you think Superman, Batman, and the Power Rangers have made it for so long (they are men in tights, for gawd-sake)… because these heros refuse to bend their morals, take the easy way out, or compromise in order to do what’s easy. They can resist vampy- cat clad women; and refuse to go along with the fun-guy, because they “got what it takes.”

    Maybe the kids will start showing some tenacity when they have it properly modeled for them; instead of seeing what is quick & dirty prevail.

    Or maybe kids just like the honesty of the video games; these aren’t pretending to be anything that they’re not… they are violent and fast paced, but at least that’s what they put themselves out there to be.

    Comment by Holding Out For A Hero | March 25, 2009

  2. Flik – Love the concept. Curious to know if the Hustlers Win concept distracts players while your team is batting. I imagine that some players who are intent on playing shortstop will be gathering their glove and in a sprinter’s stance by the bench when there are two outs — instead of being “on the fence” and rooting for their teammate at the plate. Thoughts?

    Comment by Ted | March 26, 2009

  3. Theo-
    There is certainly the possibility for distraction while your team is hitting. I have combatted this with heavy emphasis on the direct relationship between energy from the dugout when our team is hitting and fun had by all. Two other possible solutions are to handle the craftier, Machiavellian players on a case by case basis or to create Amendment #6, which would not allow any fielder’s gloves to be touched until the final out is recorded.

    Comment by flikkesean | March 27, 2009

  4. Ms. Rockhill-
    I agree whole-heartedly that the heroes of the video game/comic book/cartoon world have a lot more integrity than many of those on the ball diamond. And the “good guys” who are out there, playing hard and conducting themselves with honor both on and off the field, are too often overshadowed by those who choose not to.
    Thank you for reminding me of the importance of saying what I truly mean and doing what I say I will, even if no one is around to see it.

    Comment by flikkesean | March 27, 2009

  5. […] along, I found a very well-written, although seemingly abandoned compendium blog, called Ahead in the Count, that had a superb post around keeping kids interested in baseball. When I ask people of all ages […]

    Pingback by Baseball Practice Can Be Fun | Baseball Coach Hub | April 26, 2011


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