Two Things To Help Our Kids Improve: Tee, Time …no we're not talking golf

A post in the archives under the 'Parents' tab, “Baseball is Like a Piano” discusses a key ingredient for our young softball or baseball player to have the best possible experience: working on their skills away from team organized activities.  Just like alearning to play the piano, a youth ballplayer needs to practice at home.

 

 

Batting Tee

Aspiring young piano aficionados have equipment at home to practice on, the young ballplayer needs equipment to for practicing at home as well.  Fortunately the equipment needed by a youth softball or baseball player doesn’t cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.  What is the key piece of equipment for our young ballplayer?  - a Batting Tee. 

 

A batting tee can be found at the local sporting goods store for around $25.  It doesn’t need to be fancy, just something that will support a ball so a kid can take a whack at it.  A ball isn’t even required; a rolled up pair of socks can serve as a baseball or softball.  I know this to be a fact because as a child I hit socks off a Tee in my bedroom (I am not sure if my mother was aware I was swinging my bat in the house).

 

Batting is said to be the most difficult action in all of sports.  This statement refers to hitting a live pitch, but as golfers know, hitting a stationary ball off a tee is not that easy either.  Why is hitting a ball (moving or stationary) so difficult to master?  Because the primary movement in swinging a bat (or club) is rotating the lower half of the body.  When was the last time we (or our kids) rotated the lower half of our body in our daily activities?  Unless we are a dance instructor it might be difficult to remember the last time.

 

Kids run, jump, skip and climb.  These and other daily activities involve the leg muscles working, more or less, in straight lines.  Then we hand them a bat and ask them to hit a ball, an activity that requires the lower body to rotate, an action they rarely or ever execute in their day to day activities, and we wonder why they struggle.  Yeah, but we tell them to ‘keep your eye on the ball’ and to ‘line your knuckles up’ and to ‘raise that back elbow’.  Unfortunately these things have little, if anything, to do with the actual swing itself.  “The legs swing the bat” and when the legs swing the bat, they rotate.

 

Making a $25 investment in a Batting Tee can do wonders in helping a child develop their batting skills

 

Video of Josh Hamilton working off a tee...most every MLB player employs the use of the tee in their daily in-season swing routine as well as part of their off season routine.  Tees aren't jsut for Tee-ball, they are a tool used throughout a successful baseball career.

 

 

 

 

Time

The second thing we can give our young ballplayer is our time.  Gosh, we brought them into the world, then signed them up to play, the least we can do is spend 10 minutes a day tossing the ball back and forth with them – just 10 minutes a day!? 

 

The most fundamental skill in softball and baseball is playing catch and many kids do not do this enough to develop a minimum level of competence in order to execute a throw or a catch in their team practices or a game.  Not only do their muscles need repetition, but also their eyes.  The more repetitions a child’s eyes get seeing a ball flying towards them the more skilled their brain will become in matching up the ball with their glove.

 

The good news is that we don’t have to travel far in order to play catch with our child.  In most cases walking a few steps out our front or back door is all it takes to find a spot to play catch.

 

One of the aspects of softball and baseball that makes these games so popular is the social component.  Conversation is a big part of the baseball and softball experience.  Players socialize in the dugout and they socialize while playing catch.  

 

Understandably, in today's busy world, it can be difficult to find time to hold an extended conversation with our kids.  Another contributor to the problem is finding a scenario where we can gain and hold our child's attention. However, many parents report that the time spent playing catch with their child is the time they have their most in depth conversations with them. 

 

While playing catch a child is ultra-focused on the person they are playing catch with – in this case its mom or dad.  How many other activities can give us our child’s undivided attention?  It is also reported by many adults that, when looking back on their childhood, some of their most vivid memories of spending time with a parent are from the time they spent playing catch.

 

There are the two things we parents can do to help our kids get the most out of their experience playing baseball or softball.  Get a Batting Tee for them, so they can work on their batting skills (they don’t need a partner to do this) and give them few minutes of our Time each day.  Get them swinging the bat more and let's start playing catch with our kids; we just might find we get to know them a little better in the process.

 

Check Out the Coaching Guide

Your Kid Can’t Hit ...because their bat is Too Long!

Here’s the pitch; a swing and a miss. OK, buddy you’ll get the next pitch …pop-up, Alright, good; we made contact on that one. Pitch number three: weak ground ball to the first baseman …out again.

 

Why do many kids take looping swings under the ball, pop up or hit weak ground balls to the opposite side of the field?  There are some mechanical reasons, but a major factor for many is they use bats that are too long.

 

When the discussion of bat size comes up the primary issue discussed is weight; length isn’t given as much thought (by parents).  Regardless of weight, the longer the lever (bat), the more difficult it is to control.  The longer lever puts more stress (the feeling of weight) on the muscles in the wrists and arms. A longer bat feels heavier.

 

Why do kids want to swing such long bats? There are two reasons I am told by parents (and by some kids too):

1.    The older kids, to whom younger kids look up to, use a longer bat and little kids naturally want to be like the bigger kids (or older brother/sister).

2.  They think they need a longer bat to reach the outside part of the plate...not understanding that the sweet spot begins approximately four-plus inches from the end of the barrel.  If their reasoning was correct they would need a bat that reaches four inches, or more, beyond the outer edge of the plate (how to properly hit an outside pitch is another discussion).

 

The first step to improving kids’ success at the plate is to get a shorter bat in their hands.  Based on my experience working exclusively with the 12u age group over the past nine years I feel the longest bat a 12u player needs is 29”. 

 

There is the rare exception of the kid pushing six feet who might need to go up to 30”.  A good length for a Tee-Baller is 24” or 25”.  Most kids age 9 or 10 will do fine with a 27” bat.  Based on these two examples you can fill in the gaps based on your child’s age and size.

 

The most important factor in determining which bat is best for your child is to find one the feels good to them.  This means taking them to the store and having them hold and swing as many bats as possible until they find one that feels right. 

 

The length of the barrel, width of the handle and distribution of weight along the length of bat varies, giving each bat a unique quality of feel.  While your child doesn’t have the experience of a college star or a pro they will get to the point during your visit where they will tell you, “I like this one best”.

 

Regarding the issue of weight, it is my opinion that most (if not all) bats on the market are too light.  It will be difficult to find a bat that is too heavy if you purchase one that is a good length for your ballplayer. 

 

Bat manufacturers produce a good percentage of bats to serve the lowest common denominator (kids who swing with their arms and not their legs) resulting in them making very light bats.  We can't fault the manufacturers for doing this, however.  They are in the business of supplying a product that best serves the broadest aspect of the market.

 

If your child is receiving proper batting instruction that has them utilizing the strength of their legs to power the swing you will be hard pressed to find a new bat that is too heavy.  If finding a heavier bat is of interest, the place to shop is Goodwill or a second hand sporting goods store. 

 

My 5’ 4” 105lb, 10 year old son swings a 27”, 22 oz bat that I bought for $5 from Goodwill.   I am not a cheapskate, but that is the only place I could find a ‘good’ bat for him.  I would guess the thing is 20 years old.  I am not suggesting you take your child to Goodwill and buy them an old bat, but if you want to find a bat that is a few ounces heavier that is where you have to go.

 

So here I am suggesting you ditch your kid’s bat and get them a shorter one; who am I?  …just some dude up in Seattle where it rains all the time and kids only play the game six months a year.  In order to better support the suggestion of going with a shorter bat I will extend the conversation to a few guys who were fairly accomplished hitters…

 

Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest batters in MLB history and a grown man who weighed 220-230lbs during his playing career started out his career using a 32 1/2 inch bat and did not go longer than 33 inches. 

 

Barry Bonds (who was a great hitter regardless of what types of enhancements he might have used late in his career) swung a 33 1/2 inch bat part of his career AND choked up.

 

Babe Ruth is even quoted as saying that he would have been smarter to have used a shorter bat, which he did switch too later in his career.

 

Babe Ruth Preferred a Shorter Bat (click)

 

“…I should have known all along, that I could do better with a shorter bat. ...going to the shorter bat was one of my best moves, and I have wondered many times since why any player would bother with swinging a stick an inch or two longer than was absolutely necessary.”

 

 

Tony Gwynn used a Shorter Bat (click)

“…first 12 years of his career, he used a 32½-inch bat…”

 

 

 

How much should I pay for a bat?

Unless you are sure you have a child that is going to be a core member of the 11 or 12 year old All-Star team, I see no reason to spend more than $60 on a bat.

 

There are many quality, name brand bats on the market for $40. There are more bats available the go well into the three digit range that have the space age trampoline technology that may perform a bit better.  Your family budget might make that an option to explore.

 

However, when it comes down to it, the person swinging the bat contributes the lion’s share to success.

 

A couple of years ago I worked with a kid and had him try a 28”, 22oz bat from the batch I picked up from Goodwill.  He ended up using it for his 12 year old season. 

 

Many coaches considered him the best batter in the league and he was using an old thing that cost $5.

 

Check Out the Coaching Guide

 

 

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Instructional Scrimmage …a win-win activity for every practice

 

You are coaching a youth baseball or softball team and wrap up another game with more mistakes than expected.  You’ve done a good job getting your team ready and practices have run well, but the team’s efforts are not translating to games.  What could be missing in your preparation?

Many youth baseball and softball coaches run solid practices, do a great job teaching skills and taking their kids through drills, but don’t see that effort in practice translate to game success.  One aspect of practice that many coaches leave out is practicing playing the game.

Failing to include a Scrimmage as part of a practice plan may be the missing link in a team’s formula for success in games.

The first reaction to the idea of including a scrimmage in practice is that it is not a productive use of time; ‘the kids are just playing around and not getting better’.   That can be true if the scrimmage does not have a clear objective and is not structured properly.  On the other hand, if a scrimmage is structured and managed as a teaching tool, it can be the activity that ties everything together.

 


Three Benefits of Ending Each Practice with a Scrimmage

1.         Kids don’t sign up to practice baseball and softball; they sign up to PLAY. 

Kids understand the need to practice, but we can’t lose site of the fact that playing is what they really want to do.

There is much talk of the need to make drills fun and competitive to keep kids engaged.  However, in many cases, trying to instill these elements into drills detracts from their true objective, which is to get the kids the reps they need to develop their skills.  Ending each practice with a scrimmage provides fun and competition.

Knowing that practice will conclude with a scrimmage helps with discipline in drills and other practice activities.  Players are more motivated to follow directions and move quickly between drills when they know doing otherwise scrimmage time.


2.         Players learn to translate skills to the variations speed of a game during scrimmage

Actual game situations can vary quite a bit from a structured drill environment.  The combination of the placement of the ball off the bat and the speed and location of the runners is unique for most every play.  Kids can master drills and skills in practice, but if they are not experienced in applying those to the unique situations and pace of a game they are not as prepared as they could be.


3.         Learning to coordinate as a unit on defense

Drills, as they should, break the game down into smaller segments.  Scrimmage creates an environment where all nine players must participate to ensure the defense functions properly regardless of what comes up over the course of a play.

At the youth level broken plays occur often.  When these circumstances come up in a scrimmage players learn to regroup on the fly and bring the play under control.  Early in the season players will be slow to cover a base, be in position to back up throws and get into position to execute a relay.  Through scrimmage they quickly recognize how each player contributes to defensive play.

In the scrimmage format outlined below, we maintain a fast pace that engages all nine defensive players throughout the activity.  On each play there will be mistakes; corrections are made and learning within the context of the game takes place. 

Our feedback during scrimmage is not limited to correcting and teaching.  On each play we also have the opportunity to acknowledge the kids doing things well.  When we point out what our kids are doing right, no matter how basic, we build their confidence. 

Specifics regarding feedback during a scrimmage are covered in detail following the next section.

 


Scrimmage Structure

1.         Nine on defense, one batter, two base runners 

Players do not sit out waiting their turn to bat.  Extra offensive players are on the bases getting base running experience.  Including base runners on each play also requires increased decision making on the part of the defense; a big factor in learning the game. 

Later, after the players get used to the flow of scrimmage and making a quick transition from the conclusion of one play to the next batter, we can utilize the option of having only one base runner and an on-deck batter, who steps in to bat as soon as the previous play is over.


2.         Players don’t pitch during scrimmage

Scrimmage is not the place for developing pitching skills.  A coach pitches from 20’-30’ away (we still have a player at the rubber fulfilling the defensive responsibilities of the pitcher).   The closer the coach-pitcher, the higher the percentage of hittable pitches.  I urge coaches to pitch from a knee (instructional video: watch 0:38 - 1:20 for Baseball; 1:20 - 2:10 for Softball). 

Keys to maximizing scrimmage time is a providing a high percentage of strikes and limiting the amount of time between the end of one play and pitching to the next batter.  At the conclusion of a play our players quickly get back to their positions, receive brief feedback and then the coach pitches to the next batter. 


3.         Positions on defense

Early in the season we give players reps at a lot of different positions during scrimmage.  My philosophy is for kids to get experience at as many positions at possible.  But as the season progresses we need to be mindful of getting players reps at the positions they’ll most likely be playing on game day.


4.         Assistant coaches spread out on the field to provide feedback following each play

Position one coach between the third baseman and left fielder and they communicate with those two positions as well as the shortstop.  A second coach stands between the first baseman and right fielder focusing on the three players closest to them.  If an additional coach is available, put them in the area behind second base where they can give feedback to players in that area. 

The coach doing the pitching (usually the head coach) focus their feedback on the pitcher, catcher and batter.  Comments to the batter should be limited to simple reminders of what has already been taught and trained ie, ‘turn fast’, ‘head in place’, ‘balance’, etc.  Scrimmage is not the place for detailed batting instruction. 

In our first few scrimmages we let many mistakes go because not much content has been taught.  As the season progresses, and the kids are exposed to more information, our feedback during scrimmage covers more aspects of the game.


5.         Use a batting tee for scrimmage (sometimes)

Because the objective of scrimmage is to get the players massive game repetitions in a short period of time, using a tee can help achieve this goal.  A tee guarantees a strike 100% of the time, which speeds up the pace of the scrimmage. 

When using a tee, we can change the relationship of the batter to the ball/contact point and have some control of where the ball is hit (pull, middle, opposite field).   

Most scrimmages have the coach pitching, but it’s important to recognize the tee as an option.  Also, when we are short coaches, using a tee with a coach at home plate instead of pitching, with their back to the defense, they can keep their eyes on all the action.


Team development needs and which point of the season you are in dictates how much time is invested in scrimmage.  Early in the year scrimmage may be only 15-20 minutes, giving each player one time to bat.  As the season progresses, scrimmage time can bump up to 30 minutes with each player batting multiple times. 

 


Making an Instructional Scrimmage a Powerful Teaching Tool

Below are guidelines for setting up and running a productive instructional scrimmage.  This is not a complete list, but the fundamental aspects of play that a youth team wants to be executing by the latter parts of their season.

Rules for Teaching

  • Only correct what has been taught and drilled in practice
  • Be on the lookout for things the kids do correctly and acknowledge their accomplishments.
  • Keep comments directed towards actions, not results


Focus Points for Teaching

  • The teaching and reinforcement points that your coaching staff is concerned with depends on the age of your kids, their level of play and the amount of content that has been taught and drilled in your practice sessions.


Common Physical Mistakes and Addressing Those Mistakes

  • Errors and other physical mistakes are going to happen often.  Kids know when they have missed a ground ball or made a poor throw.  We want to help our players learn from their mistakes, so how do we address them?  Use action focused talk when giving feedback.  Examples:
  1.           Keep your feet moving through the fielding action and you’ll make that play next time.
  2.           Follow your head after the throw and it will be straighter next time
  3.          “Reach forward to catch” and you’ll make that play next time

 


The Primary Goal of a Scrimmage is Improving Team Defensive Play

Often in youth baseball games, when the ball is put in play, many of the players do not move.  The fact is that each player on defense has a role on every play and needs to be moving.  Scrimmage exposes kids to this fact multiple times in a short period of time. 

From the time the ball is put into play until it is returned securely to the pitcher at the play’s conclusion it is usually handled by 3 or 4 players and sometimes more.  At our level of play, managing the ball as it moves around the field is a challenge.   Base runners add to the complexity of the defensive responsibilities.  In a game (and scrimmage) there are no do-overs, so the players are pressed to make decisions quickly while executing the physical requirements as well.

The points below are few and brief, but constitute the core aspects of team play that we are working to improve in our scrimmage.

Identify the Situation

  • Number of outs
  • Location of runners
  • The bases a force out can be made


Movement

  • Three B’s: Play the Ball, Cover a Base or Back-up a Throw
  • “Cover the base with your eyes”
  • Players must move quickly and with purpose the moment the ball is put into play
  • Keep the ball moving at all times


Dealing with Base Runners

  • Conscious of all options for getting an out
  • Stop the runners by getting the ball to a point on the field where they see they are at risk if they try to advance
  • Quickly and securely get the ball back to the pitcher at the conclusion of each play

 

Communication

  • Catcher calls out what to do with the ball when it is in play
  • Infield echos to the outfield what to do with the ball
  • Fly balls between two players


Relays

  • Positioning of the cut-relay player
  • Communication between players involved in the play
  • Throws:
  1.   Outfielders always ‘hit the cut’
  2.   Cut-relay player footwork: “Move Feet to Catch”, “Move Feet to Throw”
  3.   Recognizing when to not relay the ball (runners either stop or are safe the majority of the time in relay situations)



Teaching and Feedback - Individual Skills

The primary objective of the instructional scrimmage is to keep things moving.  Given this goal, a scrimmage is not the place for detailed teaching of individual skills.  Our comments are limited to quick reminders of aspects of the skills that have already been taught and trained in drills.  It is likely we will identify aspects of skill technique that need further work.  In these cases we make a mental note and address those needs in an upcoming practice(s).

Batting

  • Lower Half Turn
  • Head in Place
  • “Let the ball get to your feet”


Base Running

  • Aggressive on balls hit to the outfield (always looking to advance two bases)
  • Proper technique running to and through first base
  • Don’t watch the ball; put attention on the base (or base coach)


Fielding Ground Balls

  • Get to the ball quickly (‘Charge the ball’, etc.)
  • Footwork
  • Reading hops
  • Hand and glove position


Fielding Fly Balls

  • Drop step
  • Beat the ball to a spot or running through the catch
  • Extend the glove arm to catch (catch the ball away from the body)


Throwing Technique

  • Move feet to power the throw
  • Keep head straight and pointed towards the target
  • Momentum to continue towards the target following the throw
  • Wrist snap for better accuracy


Proper Type of Throw for the Situation

  • Underhand toss on short distance throws (more accurate and easier to catch)
  • Was a throw necessary?
  1. Could the player fielding the ball carry it to the base before the runner arrives?
  2. When the runners stop trying to advance, a defensive player can run the ball in or run it to a point close enough where a sure throw and catch can be made

 

Missed throw

  • “Ready Position” - be prepared to “Move feet to catch”
  • “Reach forward to catch”
  • “Ball first, base second”
  • Wait until the ball is on its way and is accurate before committing to a ‘stretch position’

 

 

Developing our players’ skill and knowledge through drills and the teaching of the finer points of batting, pitching and fielding are important parts of any well planned practice.   Adding a scrimmage to the end of each practice makes the day’s learning the complete.

 

More information is found on Scrimmage page of the website.