Hot Or Cold, Why Practice Matters

All youth league baseball seasons have begun, even in the most northern areas of the country. In the warmer southern climates, the playoffs are just a short month away. No matter what stage of the season you’re in, you want to either get hot or stay hot as a ballplayer.

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity; that’s a quote from an ancient Roman philosopher named Seneca. What it means is that when the ball ball is pitched to you right down the middle of the plate when there are two runners on and your team is down by one in the last inning, you not only know what to do with the pitch, but you are confident that you can make something happen. That’s why practice is important.

Keep practicing. If you’re hitting the cover off the ball, you should keep hitting the ball as often as you can to stay sharp. If you haven’t been as successful as you’d like, then practice will sharpen your skills. The same with taking fly balls or ground balls. The professional shortstops that I’ve admired most are the ones that take 100 ground balls (half to their glove side, and half to their arm side) every day. And as far as throwing / pitching, as long as you’re not performing that at 100% intensity every day for all throws, you will get more accurate and stronger by throwing.

Players, parents, and coaches want more games. Games are the performance, like the school play or the concert. Imagine how many times that violinist practiced that piece and compare it to the number of concerts in which he or she gets to play it for an audience. We don’t seem to have that level of commitment or patience in sports, and maybe it doesn’t need quite that ratio. But whenever the ratio of practice to performance is higher, you get more success.

The game (or the concert) is normally more fun than practice. But no one gets better in games. You don’t get enough chances to handle the ball during the game, with the exception of the pitcher. And even the pitcher is concerned with controlling the game (and their opponent) more than working on a changeup or a different pitch. So practice.

One more thing on practice. The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” This has been co-opted by baseball coaches at all levels; I’ve heard the legendary Ripken brothers use it many times. But I submit to you that there is no such thing as a perfect practice. It’s impossible because I haven’t met any perfect coaches, never seen a perfect practice plan, and even if those existed there are no perfect ballplayers. So let’s get real.

And practice does not make permanent either. Because humans constantly change and adapt and become more or less adept at tasks over time. However, practice absolutely does make for habits and tendencies, good or bad. So practice good habits.

If You See Something, Say Something!

It is so easy to ignore potential problems when things are going well. That goes for any aspect of your life, including baseball. Why mess with that hitter’s swing if he’s smashing the ball deep into the outfield more than any other player in the league? Why suggest that a pitcher changes his motion if he’s dominating opposing batters?

The reason you would intercede is that if you have the knowledge, and admittedly that is an if, you should try to help someone from either hurting themselves or by developing a habit which will become so difficult to overcome in the future that they can’t possibly change. Like Johnny who often hits the ball into the trees, but he has a huge stride which blends in with his swing. At twelve years old, facing pretty much only fastballs and slow fastballs, he seems “fine,” and even great when compared to other kids But this bad habit won’t be exposed until high school. Then he will likely miss any pitch that has significant movement – as all other pitches do. He’ll be ill prepared to square up curveballs, changeups, sliders, two-seam fastballs, cutters – pretty much every other pitch on the planet.

What about Tommy, the 12-year-old pitcher that dominates the competition. He throws the ball past most kids, and even hurts his catcher’s hand. He’s big and mature for his age. But he moves towards the plate in one piece like a telephone pole falling, and stops his throwing arm abruptly after release, like it’s hit a brick wall. When he’s older, his ability to create velocity with his motion will top out unless he learns to separately rotate his torso from his lower half. And abruptly stopping his arm rather than giving it as much time as possible to decelerate put much more stress on the small ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow. So he’ll either feel significant elbow pain, reduce his velocity and innings pitched, or wind up needing elbow rehab or surgery. Or just give up baseball entirely.

Sometimes when a player is doing well, even if we see something that they’re doing that can hinder their growth or hurt them later, we usually don’t mention anything because, hey, they’re succeeding. How many times do you hear “If it ain’t broke, don’t ‘fix’ it”? Most coaches try not to look for problems if things are going well. Who can blame them, especially if they’re not be certain of what’s wrong. But if you are sure its a problem, ignoring it leads someone into a far bigger problem down the road.

Hindsight is always 20/20. It’s easy for me to say now about something of concern that I noticed in Stephen Strassberg’s or Matt Harvey’s delivery. So let me first say that I admire the Cardinals and their long history of success. One of my best friends, Brent Strom, has worked for them over the last six years as their Minor League Pitching Coordinator. Despite the fact that he has become the number-two starter as a rookie and is the kid that everyone is raving about, I am concerned that Michael Wacha will hurt his arm sooner rather than later.

I see Wacha locking out his elbow early in his delivery and keeping it that way for some time. He also uses the hypermobility in his throwing shoulder to create more whip from his whole arm, rather than bending and using his elbow during the beginning and end of his arm movement. This creates a pretty long lever that he uses for a number of advantages, including making his fastball and changeup look very similar. Nonetheless, he puts more stress on both the front and back of his shoulder, and may create bone chips in his elbow. His body obviously tolerates these stresses better than most of us, but if I were his pitching coach, I’d say something. So Michael Wacha, don’t let anyone say they didn’t tell you to watch out.

 

Getting Young Arms in Shape for the Season

A big issue for coaches in all levels of baseball through the high school level is the time available to get your pitcher’s arms in shape for the season.  Combine that with the cold weather that plagues many locations in the early spring and you have a recipe for sore arms and potential arm injuries.

Given that those two items are things we don’t have any control over, let’s talk about what we can try to control to protect young arms.  

Communicate and Have a System

First we need to make sure we talk to our young pitchers (and parents) and make sure they understand how to get prepared for the season.  Many young players will go out on that first day of spring practice and throw the ball as hard as they can.  They feel good and really don’t understand the danger of not building up their throwing arm.

Rather than just telling kids once that it’s important to build their arms up over time, I try to put a system in place that I can use each practice.  I apply it to all players in an attempt to keep all arms healthy before the season starts.  

So for example, let’s say we have 2 practices a week for 3 weeks before the start of the season.  The first practice I’ll tell the kids that we are only going to throw at 3/4 speed at any time, no matter what we’re working on.  If you have kids on the side working on pitching then the fastest speed they should throw is 75% of their maximum speed.  For younger players I will hand out a catch card for playing catch at home.  Make sure you put the maximum percentage that they should throw on the card, in this case 3/4 speed for the first week. 

The second week will move the team up to 85% and 90% (Practices 3 and 4).  Modify the catch card to have that new level of effort.  

The third week have the kids throw 100% during practice.  If you have your pitchers throw, let them only throw at 100% for a few pitches.  So let’s say you have a pitcher throw 30 pitches, have the first 10 at 90%, the next 10 at 100%, and the last 10 at 90%.  For the catch card at home, keep the maximum at 90% and tell the kids that you don’t want them throwing hard on those days.

This is not a specific routine, but rather a guideline to help you try and make sure kids build up their arm strength over time. The other thing to be aware of is that it puts more stress on the arm to throw off a mound then it does to throw off flat ground.  So don’t rush kids to the mound to work on pitching and when they do work off a mound have them throw less than 100% to take off some of that stress.

Have a Plan for the Games

Little League and other leagues have introduced pitch count rule for pitchers.  The problem I have with these rules is that often they treat a cold game in March the same as a hot day in June.  I’ve had 12 year old pitchers that could easily go over 85 pitches in June after a season of playing ball.  I would never think of having those same kids throw 85 pitches early in the season.

So as you work to build up their arms early in the season, be aware of the weather and how many games you have played as you determine how long to let a pitcher throw early in the season.  Always error on the side of caution and make sure you have someone tracking the number of pitches a pitcher has thrown.  

Early in the season you really need to be prepared to make pitching changes at various times.  A pitcher that is struggling to find the strike zone may only be able to pitch an inning or two.  Don’t plan your game plan around a pitcher pitching a certain number of innings.  You need to instead have it focused on how many pitches you will allow a pitcher to throw and then stick with that.  I let my kids know before the game what the pitch count is and I let them know that I’m not going to be talked into letting a pitcher stay in longer than that.  The only time a player will go over is to finish up a batter, I would prefer to have a new pitcher start with a new batter and no count.

Matheny Manifesto

Mike Matheny coached his kids after retirement from professional baseball and this is a letter to the parents on his team. He called it The Matheny Manifesto. Enjoy.

Letter from Mike Matheny…..

I always said that the only team that I would coach would be a team of orphans, and now here we are. The reason for me saying this is that I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents. I think that it is best to nip this in the bud right off the bat. I think the concept that I am asking all of you to grab is that this experience is ALL about the boys. If there is anything about it that includes you, we need to make a change of plans. My main goals are as follows:

(1) to teach these young men how to play the game of baseball the right way,

(2) to be a positive impact on them as young men, and

(3) do all of this with class.

We may not win every game, but we will be the classiest coaches, players, and parents in every game we play. The boys are going to play with a respect for their teammates, opposition, and the umpires no matter what.

With that being said, I need to let you know where I stand. I have no hidden agenda. I have no ulterior motive other than what I said about my goals. I also need all of you to know that my priorities in life will most likely be a part of how I coach, and the expectations I have for the boys. My Christian faith is the guide for my life and I have never been one for forcing my faith down someone’s throat, but I also believe it to be cowardly, and hypocritical to shy away from what I believe. You as parents need to know for yourselves and for your boys, that when the opportunity presents itself, I will be honest with what I believe. That may make some people uncomfortable, but I did that as a player, and I hope to continue it in any endeavor that I get into. I am just trying to get as many potential issues out in the open from the beginning. I believe that the biggest role of the parent is to be a silent source of encouragement. I think if you ask most boys what they would want their parents to do during the game; they would say “NOTHING”. Once again, this is ALL about the boys. I believe that a little league parent feels that they must participate with loud cheering and “Come on, let’s go, you can do it”, which just adds more pressure to the kids. I will be putting plenty of pressure on these boys to play the game the right way with class, and respect, and they will put too much pressure on themselves and each other already. You as parents need to be the silent, constant, source of support.

Let the record stand right now that we will not have good umpiring. This is a fact, and the sooner we all understand that, the better off we will be. We will have balls that bounce in the dirt that will be called strikes, and we will have balls over our heads that will be called strikes. Likewise, the opposite will happen with the strike zone while we are pitching. The boys will not be allowed at any time to show any emotion against the umpire. They will not shake their head, or pout, or say anything to the umpire. This is my job, and I will do it well. I once got paid to handle those guys, and I will let them know when they need to hear something. I am really doing all of you parents a favor that you probably don’t realize at this point. I have taken out any work at all for you except to get them there on time, and enjoy. The thing that these boys need to hear is that you enjoyed watching them and you hope that they had fun. I know that it is going to be very hard not to coach from the stands and yell encouraging things to your son, but I am confident that this works in a negative way for their development and their enjoyment. Trust me on this. I am not saying that you cannot clap for your kids when they do well. I am saying that if you hand your child over to me to coach them, then let me do that job.

A large part of how your child improves is your responsibility. The difference for kids at this level is the amount of repetition that they get. This goes with pitching, hitting and fielding. As a parent, you can help out tremendously by playing catch, throwing batting practice, hitting ground balls, or finding an instructor who will do this in your place. The more of this your kids can get, the better. This is the one constant that I have found with players that reached the major leagues….someone spent time with them away from the field.

I am completely fine with your son getting lessons from whomever you see fit. The only problem I will have is if your instructor is telling your son not to follow the plan of the team. I will not teach a great deal of mechanics at the beginning, but I will teach mental approach, and expect the boys to comply. If I see something that your son is doing mechanically that is drastically wrong, I will talk with the instructor and clear things up. The same will hold true with pitching coaches. We will have a pitching philosophy and will teach the pitchers and catchers how to call a game, and why we choose the pitches we choose. There is no guessing. We will have a reason for the pitches that we throw. A pitching coach will be helpful for the boys to get their arms in shape and be ready to throw when spring arrives. Every boy on this team will be worked as a pitcher. We will not over use these young arms and will keep close watch on the number of innings that the boys are throwing.

I will be throwing so much info at these boys that they are going to suffer from overload for a while, but eventually they are going to get it. I am a stickler about the thought process of the game. I will be talking non-stop about situational hitting, situational pitching, and defensive preparation. The question that they are going to hear the most is “What were you thinking?” What were you thinking when you threw that pitch? What were you thinking during that at bat? What were you thinking before the pitch was thrown, were you anticipating anything? I am a firm believer that this game is more mental than physical, and the mental may be more difficult, but can be taught and can be learned by a 10 and 11 year old. If it sounds like I am going to be demanding of these boys, you are exactly right. I am definitely demanding their attention, and the other thing that I am going to require is effort. Their attitude, their concentration, and their effort are the things that they can control. If they give me these things every time they show up, they will have a great experience.

The best situation for all of us is for you to plan on handing these kids over to me and the assistant coaches when you drop them off, and plan on them being mine for the 2 or so hours that we have scheduled for a game, or the time that we have scheduled for the practice. I would like for these boys to have some responsibility for having their own water, not needing you to keep running to the concession stand, or having parents behind the dugout asking their son if they are thirsty, or hungry, or too hot, and I would appreciate if you would share this information with other invited guests…like grandparents. If there is an injury, obviously we will get you to help, but besides that, let’s pretend that they are at work for a short amount of time and that you have been granted the pleasure of watching. I will have them at games early so we can get stretched and loosened up, and I will have a meeting with just the boys after the game. After the meeting, they are all yours again. As I am writing this, I sound like the little league Nazi, but I believe that this will make things easier for everyone involved.

I truly believe that the family is the most important institution in the lives of these guys. With that being said, l think that the family events are much more important than the sports events. I just ask that you are considerate of the rest of the team and let the team manager, and myself know when you will miss, and to let us know as soon as possible. I know that there will be times when I am going to miss either for family reasons, for other commitments. If your son misses a game or a practice, it is not the end of the world, but there may be some sort of repercussion, just out of respect for the kids that put the effort into making it. The kind of repercussions could possibly be running, altered playing time, or position in the batting order.

Speaking of batting order, I would like to address that right from the top as well seeing that next to playing time this is the second most complained about issue, or actually tied for second with position on the defensive field. Once again, I need you to know that I am trying to develop each boy individually, and I will give them a chance to learn and play any position that they are interested in. I also believe that this team will be competitive and when we get into situations where we are focusing on winning; like a tournament for example; we are going to put the boys in the position that will give the team the best opportunity. I will talk with the boys individually and have them tell me what their favorite position is and what other position they would like to learn about. As this season progresses, there is a chance that your son may be playing a position that they don’t necessarily like, but I will need your support about their role on the team. I know that times have changed, but one of the greatest lessons that my father taught me was that my coach was always right…even when he was wrong. The principle is a great life lesson about how things really work. I hope that I will have enough humility to come to your son if I treated him wrong and apologize. Our culture has lost this respect for authority mostly because the kids hear the parents constantly complaining about the teachers and coaches of the child.

I need all of you to know that we are most likely going to lose many games this year. The main reason is that we need to find out how we measure up with the local talent pool. The only way to do this is to play against some of the best teams. I am convinced that if the boys put their work in at home, and give me their best effort, that we will be able to play with just about any team. Time will tell. l also believe that there is enough local talent that we will not have to do a large amount of travel, if any. This may be disappointing for those of you who only play baseball and look forward to the out of town experiences, but I also know that this is a relief for the parents that have traveled throughout the US and Canada for hockey and soccer looking for better competition. In my experiences, we have traveled all over the Midwest and have found just as good competition right in our back yard. If this season goes well, we will entertain the idea of travel in the future.

The boys will be required to show up ready to play every time they come to the field. Shirts tucked in, hats on straight, and pants not drooping down to their knees. There is not an excuse for lack of hustle on a baseball field. From the first step outside the dugout they will hustle. They will have a fast jog to their position, to the plate, and back to the bench when they make an out. We will run out every hit harder than any team we will play, and will learn how to always back up a play to help our teammates. Every single play, every player will be required to move to a spot. Players that do not hustle and run out balls will not play. The boys will catch on to this quickly. The game of baseball becomes very boring when players are not thinking about the next play and what they possibly could do to help the team. Players on the bench will not be messing around. I will constantly be talking with them about situations and what they would be doing if they were in a specific position, or if they were the batter. There is as much to learn on the bench as there is on the field if the boys want to learn. All of this will take some time for the boys to conform to. They are boys and I am not trying to take away from that, but I do believe that they can bear down and concentrate hard for just a little while during the games and practices.

I know this works because this was how I was taught the game and how our parents acted in the stands. We started our little league team when I was 10 years old in a little suburb of Columbus, Ohio. We had a very disciplined coach that expected the same from us. We committed 8 summers to this man and we were rewarded for our efforts. I went to Michigan, one went to Duke, one to Miami of Florida, two went to North Carolina, one went to Central Florida, one went to Kent State, and most of the others played smaller division one or division two baseball. Four of us went on to play professionally. This was coming from a town where no one had ever been recruited by any colleges. I am not saying that this is what is going to happen to our boys, but what I do want you to see is that this system works. I know that right now you are asking yourself if this is what you want to get yourself into and I understand that for some of you it may not be the right fit. I also think that there is a great opportunity for these boys to grow together and learn some lessons that will go beyond their baseball experience. Let me know as soon as possible whether or not this is a commitment that you and your son want to make.

Thanks,

Mike Matheny

 

If you would like, you can download the PDF version of this letter at Mike MAtheny’s website here.

Winter Workouts

With the miserable winter weather that most of the country is experiencing, it’s a good bet that many baseball teams are having their winter workouts indoors. Practicing baseball indoors with limited amount of space can be a challenge. I’ve seen teams who do it well and teams that don’t. I invite you to email me or add a comment if you have something that has worked really well for you or your team.

One of the keys to judging any practice is how your players are reacting to the practice. Are they engaged in the activities or do they seem bored and spent too much time standing around waiting?

Limited space often gives teams an excuse that it’s okay if players are just standing around waiting for their chance in the cage. I’ve seen teams where two players are hitting in a cage and the rest of the team is standing around waiting for their turn. If for example you have two batting cages, use one cage for live hitting and then use the other cage for multiple activities to keep multiple players active. Soft toss or tee hitting can allow two players to hit in half of the second cage. Other players can use the back of the cage to field ground balls thrown by a coach. With just these 4 activities, you can keep your kids moving around and involved throughout the indoor workout.

If you have more space then the options really open up. An indoor area with a decent amount of space is a great opportunity to go over defensive and offensive situations, have the kids involved in fun competitions, and work on some specific skills. Be creative and try to come up with a plan where you are working on different skills as you move through your winter workouts. I was able to rent a local school gym one night a week and it gave us a great space to get a lot accomplished. You really can accomplish a lot inside with a little bit of planning. Competitions and keeping track of improvement can be a great way to keep kids improving and enjoying the workouts. It’s also a good way to help simulate the pressure of game type situations.

One thing to be careful of is safety issues.  Bats and hard baseballs in a confined area can be a real danger!  Make sure you plan for all the activities to be performed in a safe environment and create strict rules for the players on where they can swing bats, throw balls, etc.  One thing I always do is enlist a couple of parents to watch for any safety issues.  Make sure you let the parents know what to look for and that they are not afraid to call out immediately if they see anything that could be a problem.  This will free you up to coach and not having to be watching everything that is going on.
Good luck this winter!

“Station to Station” practice

Often players run from station to station during practice where they have a few minutes to work on a certain drill. Here are a couple of tips to keep the rotation running smoothly:

    The kids should already know how to perform the drill before the rotation begins. The coaching involved at this stage should be identifying problems and helping fix those problems, not teaching the kids how to perform each drill.

    If you have parents helping you out at different stations, have them look for 1 or 2 common flaws and help the player correct that flaw. Don’t assume the parent understands what those flaws are, you may need to show them exactly what to look for.
    
    While the kids are stretching and warming up, take each parent to the station they will be helping with. Explain what they will be doing and what to look for.

    Emphasize quality over quantity by:
        Being flexible with time given to the rotation. The rotation will usually take longer than you expect. The younger the kids the more difficult it         will be to meet a time restraint.

        If your behind, don’t rush through to finish. Have kids and parents remember where everyone is and finish it off at the next practice.
        
    Don’t have stations set up where they need to perform a skill x number of times. Always have them perform the skill for the duration of the time.     They will then feel no need to rush through the drill in an attempt to complete it.
        
    Communicate with the kids that you want them to hustle to each station, but at the station they need to take their time and work hard on improving.
    
    If you can get enough help, don’t run any of the stations yourself. Oversee the rotation and help out where needed. You will then be able to evaluate the rotation as a whole instead of your one station.
    
    Get a parent on the side to keep time for you. This will allow you to help and coach without have to worry about when to yell “rotate”.
    
    Many of the drills listed in this section can be played as games. Games promote competition during the practice and give the players the opportunity to perform the skill with a bit of pressure to succeed. This will help them when it comes time for the game and helps them to focus during practice. In addition the kids love to compete and will work hard to try and win. It’s fun, which translates into a better learning environment. I often have a competition at one station, then a couple without, and then another station with a different competition. I think you will find that your players will improve much faster if they enjoy practice and enjoy the drills that you have them work on.

Roberto Alomar: Conditioning Your Glove

Finding a glove that best suits your needs is mostly based on how it feels to you, according to the Hall Of Famer Roberto Alomar. “My gloves usually last two to three years,” he said. “I always have a glove that I only use in games, and one that I use during batting practice that I break in to eventually use in games. The glove I’m using now is two years old. I started using it in spring training two years ago, and I’ve kept it since then.”

  •     I like my glove to be very flexible so I like soft leather.
  •     I do not like a glove with a deep pocket because when you are turning a double play, the ball can get lost in a deep pocket. I like a relatively flat, shallow glove, which allows you to find the ball quickly.
  •     Tying any of the laces that stick out from a glove makes it tighter and more rigid. Since I like my glove to be flexible, I just let the laces dangle. When I get the glove new, all the laces are tied up in knots but they eventually work themselves loose and then I just let them stay that way.
  •     My glove is pretty small, even for a middle infielder. Second basemen usually have the smallest gloves of all the fielders, and in most cases, shortstops will have slightly bigger gloves than second basemen.
  •     All of the guys in the clubhouse know that I also don’t like anyone putting their hand in my glove. It’s built for my hand, and if someone else puts their hand in it to try it on, I can usually tell, because it will feel looser on my hand when I put it back on.
  •     It’s hard to say exactly what makes a good baseball glove, but mostly it has to feel right to you.
  •     In cold weather, sometimes I will spray some stick-um on the inside of my glove to give my hand a better grip on the inside of the glove. I spray it on the outside of the thumb so I can rub my throwing hand on it for a better grip on the ball for throws.