Herding Cats …can the Tee-Ball experience be improved?

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Baseball?   Hmmmmmm.....yes, there are bases, and the players are hitting the ball with a bat, but really, Tee-Ball is a bunch of kids in the park playing a different version of tag.

Sports, especially baseball, are very different when played by 4-6 year olds.  The soccer folks have figured this out; baseball has been slow to figure this out.   When was the last time we saw a youth soccer game comprised of 4-6 year olds that had two sides of eleven playing against each other?  No, they are playing 4 against four on an itty-bitty field.  Many youth baseball organizations continue to have teams of 12-14 kids, with all of them playing in the field together.

How much action are those six outfielders having?  What is the experience like for this young of a human when asked to sit still for 5-10 minutes waiting for a dozen teammates take their turn to bat?  We are fighting human nature to ask a 4-6 year old to sit and watch other kids play, but not be allowed to join in.

What is the logic in mimicking the game played by mature teens and adults and having teams of a dozen or more players and stashing half the team in the outfield where few balls are hit (at least early in the season)? 

Let’s give the idea of making Tee-Ball a game of 6 v 6 a chance; played with kids at the four infield positions, pitcher and catcher. l.

These over-sized rosters create additional problems on the offensive side of the game.  When we watch the game played at higher levels the players sit patiently on the bench waiting for their turn to bat.  We take the game to the Tee-Ball level with delusional thoughts that our little tykes can do the same.  Rosters of ten, twelve or more makes the players endure what is an agonizingly long wait, for a very young child, to get a chance to bat. 

Let’s re-evaluate our antiquated approach to how Tee-Ball is structured.  Could it be that the current structure has resulted in a significant number of players leaving the game, out of boredom, long before they had an opportunity to learn what baseball is all about?  Have we been losing the opportunity to fill more rosters at the higher levels within our leagues as a result of how the Tee-Ball level is currently operated?  

 

Cut Back the Number of Kids on a Team

Tee-Ball with six kids on a side makes a lot of sense.  Teams can be organized with seven on a roster, figuring that on many days we will lose one player to the sniffles, etc.  On days where all seven show up, the extra player can be placed in center field (which is about 10 feet behind second base).  The extra player, in this scenario, would only get stuck in the outfield one time per game, assuming we rotate defensive positions each inning.  

Almost all the game action is in the infield.  When a ball does make it to the outfield, our little infielders are more than eager to run after it.  These little bundles of energy are dying to run around.  Chasing the ball into the outfield is a major bonus for them.  

With fewer kids on the field, each player has a legitimate opportunity to participate in each play.   It also makes it easier for each to learn and gain a basic understanding of the game when each is playing an actual position, rather than standing among a mass of bodies.   Having a bunch of kids spread out in ultra-shallow outfield depth waiting to accost the infielders each time the ball is put into play is not an environment for learning.

 

More Reps and Limited ‘Dugout’ Chaos

When we make the change to six against six Tee-Ball, the kids learn more, have more fun and a higher percentage will return to play again next year.  The league administrators I have talked to over the years name increased retention as a top priority, if not the #1 goal, for their league.  Let’s look at a few ideas that can improve the Tee-Ball experience for the players (and the adults too).

1  -  Start each inning with runners on first and second base.  Why not?  This is not pro baseball; it’s not high school baseball; in fact it doesn’t closely resemble the game our 11-12 year olds play.   With two kids on base and a third player batting we are  left with only three little monsters to manage in the ‘dugout’.   In addition to limiting the number of kids in the dugout, by starting each inning with two players on base we are getting more kids involved in the game.  Those on the bases are gaining valuable game experience.

2  -  Kids love to hit the ball and run.  By cutting in half the number of kids on a team, we double the number of times each player gets to bat each game.  More chances to bat means more fun, excitement and anticipation on the part of the players.  Double batting opportunities increase skill development.  Greater skill development improves the experience and increases the desire to return and play baseball the following year.

3  -  Fewer kids on defense allows each player to handle the ball more often.  Confusion is decreased by eliminated unneeded bodies running around creating chaos.  In this new environment the opportunity for the kids to gain a better understanding of the game increases exponentially.

 

The Batter

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A common scenario at the Tee-Ball level is the game being played by three kids: The batter, the pitcher and the first baseman.  This is a result of many players’ inability to hit the ball past the pitcher.  Below are a few simple strategies to improve batting.  When our batters put the ball in play on the first swing or two and most of the balls are hit beyond the pitcher, the game moves faster, more players are involved in each play and everyone has fun and learns the game.

Swing the bat with the legs  -  The power in a batting swing comes almost entirely from the legs.  Most children only use their arms to swing the bat.  his is the most important skill to teach in Tee-Ball.  This article explains teaching kids to use their legs to power their batting swing.  The article is for kids a few years older than Tee-Ballers.  Utilize the technical and teaching points; leave out references to a 'batting workout', 'checkpoints' etc.  That stuff is over the heads, attention span and interest of Tee-Ball age players.

Distance the Batter Stands from the Ball on the Tee  We want the batter to stand one bat length away from the tee stem.  Extend a bat from the tee stem to the batter’s hip (while they stand straight and tall).  .

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Batter’s Box Design***  Make a perpendicular line on the ground across the batter’s boxes.  Use grass paint, line chalk, or anything you can come up with to make this line.  Set the batting tee so the stem is lined up directly over the top of the line.  Each batter places their front foot on the line when getting into their stance.  This creates the ideal relationship between their body and the ball at contact.  Note the relationship between the ball and the front foot in the pictures.  Cntact is generally made when the ball is even with the front foot, give or take a few inches.  (Also not that each is turning their legs to swing the bat.)

Incorporate (I will suggest mandate) the practice of utilizing this line across the batter’s box in all practices and games across your Tee-Ball program.This simple practice will make a greater impact on the quality of PLAY in your at the Tee-Ball level than any other single factor.

Positioning and Alignment of the Feet  The batter’s feet, at this stage of development, should be parallel with home plate.  Help the batter position their feet properly.  Point out to them that we want to be able to draw a straight line from the toes of their back foot to the toes of their front foot and have that line go straight out to the pitcher.  The feet need to be slightly outside than the width of the shoulders (not just ‘shoulder width apart’). 

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Tell your Tee-Ball players to stand with their feet ‘wider than your knees’.  When they look down at their knees they should not see their feet directly below their knees.  Note: you will notice that most every child will prefer to stand with their feet close together.  This is because, at this stage of physical development, the legs don’t have the strength to comfortably stand with the feet wider apart.  The kids can develop a level of comfort standing this way, but it will require you to remind them (literally) over and over every day throughout the season.  It is important to stick to this constant instruction.  When the feet are wider apart, a batter is more balanced and is better able to utilize their leg strength, which is a critical factor in an effective swing.

These final points, along with standing the appropriate distance from the tee stem (#1) and correct positioning of the front foot (#2), will give our little sluggers the best possible chance for success.  Increased success on the part of the batter equates to more activity and participation for the kids on defense.

Hand Position and Grip  Hands should be held even with, or slightly above, shoulder level.  Both elbows need to be bent to some degree.  We want the top hand/wrist and bat to create a 90 degree angle.  This will put the barrel of the bat over the back shoulder producing the ‘classic’ bat position in the stance.  The bend in the elbows and wrist set the batter up to maximize their strength and whipping action when swingingNote: kids who do not maintain the bend in the elbows and wrist as described are usually dealing with a strength issue and likely need a shorter bat.

Grip: Right handed batters have their right hand on top when holding the bat; left handed batters have left hand on top.  The hands need to be together; no gap between the hands.  As long as kids are relatively close to the prescribed grip and hand position, just let them work with hand position they come up with.I will address batting and the swing in a lot of detail as we move through the fall and winter.

 

But We Can’t Find Enough Coaches

Who coaches Tee-Ball?  Answer: regular parents from our neighborhood.  It is understood that not every parent can run a team because of conflicts with work and other prior commitments.   It is understood that there are some parents who have little interest in being involved beyond dropping their kids off and picking them up.  It is understood that some parents have multiple siblings and are juggling schedules.  However, there are parents who do have the time available to run a team.  And it should be clearly communicated to the other six sets of parents that they are invited, wanted and needed to participate in as many practices and games as possible. 

It is important to work towards the creation of a mindset and culture at the Tee-Ball level that we are all coaches.  Ideally, each player has a parent participating in each practice resulting in a 1:1 adult to player ratio.  (Before Tee-ball practices begin in 2014, the Baseball Positive Website will provide just the right amount of information to help any parent be an effective coach or helper parent for their child’s Tee-Ball team.)  We can establish rosters of seven per team and find a coach for each; the soccer folks have shown us it can be done.

Tee-Ball players are the future of every league.  Putting in the time and energy to create a Tee-Ball program where every player has a great experience is an investment that will strengthen every league, and the game as a whole, in years to come.  The path to the greatest success for Tee-Ball is playing the game with six players to a side.

 

Assign An Experienced Board Member a Tee-Ball Director

Tee-Ball has the largest number of participants in most leagues.  These players are the future of the organization and their parents will be the coaches at the league's higher levels in the coming years.  We want the Tee-Ball program to be well organized and head-ed up by a person with experience as an administrator for the league  It can be argued that the Tee-Ball Director holds the most important position in a youth baseball and softball organization.  

 

Recap of Key Points

  1. Create teams of seven players

  2. Eliminate the outfield positions on defense

  3. Structure the batting environment for optimal success

  4. Make the Tee-Ball program a top priority of each league

  5. Every Tee-Ball parent is a coach

Will Your Child Succeed As A Hitter This Spring? …a step-by-step approach to building the swing (part 1 of 3)

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Is your ballplayer going to maximize their potential as a batter this season? What can you do to help? What does it take to get ready?

Take them to the batting cages and crank up the pitching machine or get out to the park and throw as many pitches as your arm can handle.  This is the way to get a player ready to be a hitter, as most people believe…pitch, pitch, pitch, swing, swing, swing. 

The fact is however, swinging at live pitches is the last step in getting a player ready for the season.  Developing the swing and/or getting the swing back in shape is a step-by-step process that begins with drills to develop muscle memory and working off a batting tee, working up to taking swings against live pitches. 

The information in this article, the first in a three-part series, guides a beginner or novice player in their learning and preparation, while it serves a fundamentals checklist for a more experienced batter.

 

 

Live Swings

Kids, of course, want to immediately start whacking away at live pitches. Swinging at live pitches is the ‘Icing on the Cake’ of the process.  The primary function of live swings is for a batter to get their timing down.

Prior to getting into live swings, a batter wants to establish consistency in the fundamental aspects of their swing using a tee, soft toss and short front toss drills.   This doesn’t mean we can’t let our kids have some ‘fun time’ swinging at live pitches, but we make that the last part of the batting session, with no instruction.  Again, live batting is for timing, not for teaching.  Feedback given to a batter during a live session is limited to reminders of points they have learned in the controlled environment of muscle memory drills, tee work, soft toss and front toss.  (Instruction points for live swings will be noted in the final two parts of this series.)

 

 

 

Tee Work

 

High School, College and Pro batters put in a lot of time working on their swing using a batting tee (it’s a good idea that youth players do the same).  The tee is a life-long training tool for baseball and softball players.

 

Show your young batter 30-40 seconds of this video featuring former MVP Josh Hamilton working with a tee.  This is an important education for kids; to understand that the tee is not just for Tee-Ball, but is, in-fact, a training tool used throughout one’s playing career.

 

 

 

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Two important points when working with a Batting Tee:

 

1.   Stance*** in Relationship to the Tee

  •       Front foot even with the tee stem/ball
  •       One bat length from the ball (not bat and arm length)

            

2.   Each Swing has a Purpose

Make one aspect of the swing the focus for a series of 8-10 swings.  Take a brief rest break (spend 20-30 seconds picking up balls), then switch to a different focus point.

 

 

 

The five points below establish the three foundations needed to move to more advanced drill work: Using the Legs, Head Control and Balance.  These are covered in detail in the following sections of the article.

  1. Turn Back, (Load), Turn Fast (Legs/Lower Half of the Body)
  2. "Switch Heels" - same as number one, but with a more specific focus
  3. Head in Place/Head Down
  4. Feet in Place - at the conclusion of the swing (always full speed) ...are feet still in place? or did the batter allow the momentum of the swing force them to move one or both feet to a different spot than where they were during the swing?
  5. Centered and Tall - complete the swing (always full speed), then confirm the head, torso and hips are straight up and down (tall) and centered between the feet.

 

The first two points are physical actions the batter addressing in their swing.  They are pretty much the same.  The difference is, #1 is a general focus of the entire lower half; #2 is a specific action that creates the leg/hip turn.

The other three are ‘checkpoints’ after the swing.  These three points are characteristic of any fundamentally sound swing.  Many swings made by young players are missing one or more of these three elements.  The simple act of correcting these points can significantly improve a batter’s swing (over the course of a few workouts) with no technical instruction given.  At the completion of each swing, the batter checks to see if they executed the focus point.  If not, they make a more determined effort in their next swing. 

To accomplish any of these points, the batter is forced to execute a better swing.  The adjustments are not made because of a deep understanding of the swing or a conscious technical change.    By consciously working to achieve one of this points at the conclusion of the swing, the body will naturally produce a better swing.  In some cases the swing will improve after just a few repetitions. In other cases, improvement will be seen after 2-3 workouts.

 

Two final points

  1. The batter and instructor evaluate only the quality of achieving the objective, the single focus point.  The result of how well the ball was hit (if it is hit at all) is not something we evaluate at this point.
  2. Do not discuss other flaws in the  swing; likely there will be many.  Remember, developing the swing (or shaking off the rust) is a step-by-step process.   

 

The adjustments are not based on instruction or thinking.  The batter simply attempts to fulfill the single objective.  The value in this is the batter is improving their swing without thinking through the swing based on the verbal instruction from the coach/adult.....which often leads to confusion and/or frustration.

This 50-swing workout is plenty for one day.  After the tee work, reward them with live pitches, but I suggest we make this part of the activity ‘fun time’ with no instruction.

If our player struggles during the live session, that sets us up for selling the value of the tee work, “Hey, its early, we’ll keep working on the tee and soon you’ll be hitting the ball better”.

 

 

***Grip and The Back Elbow

These two aspects of the batting stance are misunderstood and often viewed as ‘fixes’ for a batter who is struggling.

The most important thing in the grip is to have the hands together.  Right hand batters have their right hand on top; left handers, left hand on top.  The popular myth is that a batter lines up their middle knuckles.  For some batters this works well.  Other batters line up their middle knuckles with the first knuckles (where the fingers meet the hand).  Most batters’ knuckle alignment is somewhere in between.  Somewhere between knockers and box

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“Keep Your Back Elbow Up” is often heard from helpful parents and coaches.  Elbow placement in the stance varies from batter to batter.  There is no magic in having the back elbow up in the stance.  The idea of a batter wanting to keep their ‘elbow up’ originates, as I understand, from the fact that this position makes it easier for a young child to support the weight of the bat when holding it prior to starting the swing.

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Fundamental Focus Points to Begin With

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1.   Lower Half Turn (“Turn Back, Turn Fast”) …see ‘Batting is Like Jumping', six posts below

 

The legs initiate the swing action and provide the energy and momentum for the swing itself.  Many kids do not

realize the legs are part of the swing; not to mention their importance. An action to focus on during Tee Work (soft

and front toss as well) is the "Switch Heels" action.

 

 

Before working on this action during Tee Work, first we want to train the muscles to perform this action by doing

the no-bat Switch Heels Drill (to develop muscle memory in the legs):

 

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  1. Get in a batting stance (a good stance has the feet set a few inches outside the hips)
  2. Place hands on hips (all muscles in the chest, neck shoulders and arms remain relaxed during this drill).
  3. Have an object, which is even with the batters front foot and in the center of the strike zone, for the batter to look at throughout the action (keeping the head in place during the drill is very important, though difficult at first for most kids).
  4. The batter slightly turns their front knee back, resulting in their front heel coming off the ground. (Many batters have some inward turn of the upper body as a result of this action).  Head remains fixed on the object referred to in #3.
  5. The batter then quickly drives their front heel down and back (the front foot finishes at approx. 45 degrees…there will be some variance from person to person)

 

...while executing this action with the front heel, the back heel turns up (in an actual swing, involving a bat, many

batters finish entirely up on the toe of their back foot)

 

This drill is simple to execute and repeat.  A batter can repeat this action 10-15x in a minute.  If practiced daily – yes

a minute is a big time commitment ;) - in just a few days, a young batter begins to  FEEL their legs to powering the

swing action.   This drill is also done prior to a batting practice session..

 

 

2.   Switch Heels Drill

Take a set of swings with this action as the focus point.

 

Watch these videos of Albert Pujols (:00, :40, 1:35) and Mike Zunino (:03-0:18, 0:31) crushing Home Runs.  The action of "Switching Heels" is very clear.

 

 

3.   Head in Place / Head Down  

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Head facing the ball on the tee prior to the swing.  Complete swing (always full speed) while keeping head looking at contact point (top of the tee) after the ball has been hit.

Movement of the head is a common flaw for kids when swinging the bat. A player can get top notch instruction and have a great mechanics, but if their head is moving the value of everything else is out the window. The body follows the head, when the head moves it throws off the whole swing.

Mastering the ability of power generation and completing a full swing, while at the same time keeping the 'Head in Place' takes some time, but a youth baseball player or softball player can accomplish this...and many can achieve a good level of mastery in a couple of weeks.

There second element in the foundation of a good swing, along with the Legs, is The Head.  Before anything else, to build a fundamentally sound swing, a batter needs to 

  1. Generate energy and power with their legs
  2. Keep their head in place

 

When “Head in Place” is the focus during Tee Work, the batter has their Head Down, facing the ball, in their stance.  After hitting the ball the batter wants to then be looking at the top of the tee.  Its simple for the batter to check if their head moved …either they are looking at the top of the Tee following their swing or they are not.

(Note: Keeping the head down until the conclusion of the swing is a ‘drill/focus point’ for a set of 8-10 swings.  This is not something a batter does during a swing in normal circumstances.  When executing a quality swing, the momentum of bat extension takes the back shoulder past the head forcing the head off contact point.  However, a high level batter has their head down at contact an for a few brief moments after the ball leaves the bat.)

 

 

4.   Feet in Place 

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A lack of leg strength is a reality for most youth baseball and softball players – and kids in general.  Often when completing a swing, young players lose balance and reposition their feet (this is not to be confused with ‘stepping in the bucket’ prior to the swing). This repositioning of the feet to regain balance, following the swing, is generally a result of one, or both, of these factors:

  1. Using the upper body (primarily the shoulders) to initiate the swing action
  2. The momentum of the bat in the final stages of the swing

When a batter feels off balance at the end of their swing, we ask them to keep their “Feet in Place” and make every effort to re-balance themselves without repositioning their feet.  When this adjustment is made it sends a message to the muscles that balance is the goal.  Through repetition, the muscles learn to be more balanced and effective during the swing.

While each point discussed here is are a high priority, it can be argued that “Feet in Place” is most important.  When doing this, a batter maximizes the power in their legs and minimizes unnecessary body movement during the swing.  A batter who executes a swing with the combination of:

  1. Legs Turn Fast
  2. Head in Place
  3. Feet in Place

…will find it difficult to have a poor swing.

(Note: in each swing the batter wants to turn their legs/lower half at full speed and swing the bat full speed (most of the swing effort is made with the legs and hands/wrists).  The faster the swing action, the more accurate the swing – this will be addressed in the next two parts of this series.)

 

 

5.   Centered and Tall 

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When in their stance, a good batter’s head is pretty much centered between their feet. At the end of their swing, their head is still centered between their feet.  In addition to their head, a batter’s torso is also centered, while their posture is ‘tall’ (head, torso and hips aligned, vertically, with the back knee, at the conclusion of their swing. 

Many young batters are bent over at the waist during, and following, their swing. Others allow their torso to ‘sway’ forward during the swing.  The torso of accomplished batters  is centered, straight and tall at the conclusion of their swing (some stronger batters may have slight tilt back at the conclusion of their swing).

 

 

 

Practice Session

  • Switch Heels Drill 15-20x
  • Take 10 swings each, following the five focus points above - for a total of 50 swings
  • Live swings (just for fun)

 

 

 

The Next Step

The path of hands is added to our workouts once the batter has gained some level of proficiency in using their legs and establishes some consistency in the focus points mentioned in the article.  

Since there is more to learn and practice, the swing will have some flaws.  In the next two articles in this series hand path is covered along with utilizing Soft Toss, Front Toss and Swings Against Live Pitching.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

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