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

Hey Swinger, Swinger!

written by Sean Flikke

My kid hits great in cages and then he/she gets in the games and struggles, sometimes just to make contact. What’s going on? How can I help them?”

This is a common scenario for coaches and families of young ballplayers, and the one I get asked about most frequently as a hitting instructor. While fear of the ball can certainly be crippling (especially for younger players), I do not think that ball fear is the biggest problem keeping young hitters from succeeding in games. It is only a symptom of a larger problem. I believe the primary problem is that young players know more and more about how to take a swing but less and less about how to compete as a hitter. The reason for this is simple: THEY DO NOT HIT COMPETITIVELY ENOUGH.

“How can this be true? I spend hours with my son/daughter/players throwing BP and working on their hitting…more than I ever got as a kid.”

This is true for most young players in the U.S. today. They have access to more resources and tools for improving their swings than any players in any era anywhere in the world – from cages and great equipment to private instructors and camp opportunities. However, what they do not have that those of us who grew up playing in prior generations did have is that dinosaur known as the neighborhood game (see also: sandlot).

These games, which usually lasted for about 12 years (with interruptions), involved playing with and against kids of different ages and ability levels. Learning how to hit in these games meant learning how to compete against bigger kids and older kids and kids who began shaving at 11 and kids who threw (GASP!) breaking balls.  These games thrust us into levels of competition that we may not have been ready for, but the advantages to reaching beyond our ability levels became obvious when our seasons would start and we would return to our own age groups.

With no swing coaches around, I learned how to shorten my hand path to the ball by swinging through Kenny Timm’s fastball 650 times one Summer when he was 10 and I was 7. I learned about balance and head discipline when neighborhood ace Keith Schmidt developed a nasty straight change to go along with his already potent hammer (see also: curveball) when he was 13 and I was 11. But more important than these swing aspects were the invaluable – and unteachable – lessons I learned about how to be an OFFENSIVE hitter.

A great hitter is an offensive threat when the chalk is on the field, a fierce competitor at the plate who finds a way to help his/her team score runs. Like the predators on a Discovery Channel show (See also: Big Cat Week or Shark Week), they have an attacking mindset that can only be developed in competitive situations. Overemphasis on hitting in non-competitive environments – like cages – with machines or coaches consistently putting the ball in the strike zone allows young players to develop a false sense of themselves as offensive players. Having not practiced enough with the “juice” of competition flowing through them and the pitcher, they get into games and look like completely different hitters – marked by quicker, jerkier movements and defensive swings (if they swing at all). In nature, there is a term for these nervous, twitchy creatures…they are called prey.

At the youth level up through high school baseball, the pitcher will be one of – if not THE – best athlete on the field. They often are selected to pitch based on arm strength and may not have great control (usually this is an inverse relationship: harder throwers = less control). So, it stands to reason that young hitters often are afraid that they are going to get hit. ALL hitters, to one degree or another, are conscious of the same possibility. It is hard-wired into our brains the same way that our tendency to move away from large snakes or spiders is…as a survival mechanism.

Great offensive players step through this fear, however, in order to compete and to help their team. Having shown themselves that they can, if necessary, get out of the way of a good fastball in competitive situations gives a young hitter the confidence to be offensive-minded. Over time, they actually learn the energetic lift that getting hit by a pitch and sprinting to first can give their team, in addition to taking away the intimidation factor that pitchers often rely upon.

“So, what’s the solution? There are no games in our neighborhoods and we’re afraid to let our kids ride their bike to a park…too many crazies out there.”

I won’t get into my feeling that the 24-hour news media has created a culture of fear in the U.S. or flaunt the fact that on a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I counted 5 sandlot games being played in a two-mile stretch of highway (author’s note: 1 in 3.5 professional baseball players in a Major League system is a Dominican). I will offer only that your players need to find a way way to hit competitively more often.

For the younger players, I recommend whiffle ball “battle royales.” Use practice time and create space for them to develop some kind of 1 on 1 game format with whiffles (tape ’em up for added velocity) where they are competing with the pitcher. Kids are very creative so allow them to develop rules – just shepherd them through the process. Then put on tournaments before or after practice where they get to umpire, score and compete. You’ll be amazed at how quickly their offensive mindsets improve.

For older players, in addition to whiffle ball battles, more competitive BP against live pitching is a great teaching tool. Utilize bullpen time for your pitchers in competitive hitting situations. It will certainly make both your pitchers and your hitters better equipped for competition. This can even be done in cages, if necessary, with pitchers behind L-screens. Develop scoring systems and/or competitive consequences. You can even simulate “pressure” by having the other players around the cages, cheering and/or jeering to get the energy flowing.

If you can help you player cultivate a predator’s mindset at the plate and couple it with a well-trained swing, then that mirage out on the mound may start to look less like a pitcher and more like an antelope on the Serengeti.

December 29, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized, written by Sean Flikke | 2 Comments