"Baseball is a Game of Movement"
(coaching youth baseball & youth softball)
Table of Contents - Articles
Bat Safety …don’t ask Ryan Braun of the Brewers
Kids Are Trying To Learn The Game ...adults making too many decisions for them
Maximize the Strength of Your League ...take care of its most valuable members
Your League is on a Budget? ...improve ball use strategy
Volunteer Liaison ...improving volunteer recruitment
Herding Cats ...improving Tee Ball
How Do We Keep Our Kids from Getting Hit By a Bat? …don’t ask Ryan Braun of the Brewers
As a parent, what is your greatest fear for your child when they are playing baseball or softball? Getting hit by a thrown ball? A line drive hitting them while pitching? Taking a ball in the teeth from a bad hop?
Each of these scenarios can potentially result in a serious injury, but are considered to be ‘part of the game’ and are not entirely avoidable. There is another situation that can also result in serious injury that is entirely preventable: getting hit by a bat swung by another player.
Below is a set of rules that Baseball Positive maintains during its camps, batting classes and team workouts and, knock on wood, bat injuries have been avoided. Implement these rules in your league’s activities and keep this from ever happening to one of your kids.
RULE: All players are required to hold the bat by the barrel when moving from place to place. The only time a player is allowed to hold a bat by the handle is when they are preparing to swing^ at a ball.
^There are only two instances players are allowed to swing a bat during a league sponsored activity:
1. When standing at a spot that is designated by a coach/adult for working on the swing i.e. whiffle ball batting, batting tee, soft toss, etc.
2. When standing at home plate during batting practice, a scrimmage or a game
3. When multiple batters are swinging a bat (whiffle ball batting, tee work, etc.), no batter is allowed to move from their designated swinging spot until all participants have set their bats down.
4. No player is allowed to toss a ball up in order to swing at it i.e., ‘pitch to themselves’, play ‘golf’ with a bat and a ball that is on the ground or any other such bat swinging activity not clearly defined by a coach/adult.
Simply laying these rules out does not guarantee the kids’ safety. The coaches and adults involved with a baseball or softball activity must take a hawkish approach to enforcing these rules all day, every day, all season. We should only see kids holding a bat by the handle when they are getting ready to hit a pitched/tossed ball or when standing at a tee. Any other time we see our kids around the ball field they either do not have a bat in their hands or a carrying it by the barrel.
The incident (shown in the video) involving of Ryan Braun and Jean Segura never should have happened. There is an on-deck circle for a reason; it is a designated safe place to take warm up swings. All players and coaches know to be careful when walking near the on-deck circle and to walk wide of the in-deck circle when passing.
In this instance Braun was the third batter scheduled to hit and Segura was scheduled second. Braun wanted to start getting loose early and chose the top stop of the dugout stairs as a spot to take a few swings. He knew he as the third batter and twenty feet from him he could see the lead-off batter in the on-deck circle. He should have been well aware that the second batter would soon be coming up the stairs onto the field.
What makes this incident worse is Braun didn’t just take two handed swings that would keep the bat relatively close to his body. He swung the bat straight back behind him, in line with the stairs, with one arm. This sent the barrel of the bat nearly six feet behind him into the dugout where he knew there his teammates and coaches were located and might possibly be close by.
No player at any level of baseball has any business standing at the entrance/exit of the dugout swinging a bat. If Braun was that anxious to loosen up he could have walked down past the end of the dugout and stood where he could see the rest of his teammates and they could see him. The rules laid out above can’t be levied on a team of Major League baseball players, but most are followed using the common sense of a professional who has been around the game their entire life. Unfortunately, in this case, a grown man failed to use common sense resulting in an incident that jeopardized the career of his teammate.
Turning back to our kids; in order for these rules to be followed and for them to stick we must put ourselves in the minds and shoes of the kids.
First, young children still see the world almost exclusively through their own eyes. They are the center of the universe and their immediate wants and desires can override common sense and rules. Second, kids see the handle as being the only option for holding a bat (and holding can quickly turn into swinging). Finally, children (and most adults) don’t immediately change their habits the first time they are told. We must be diligent in helping them establish the habit of holding the bat by the barrel whenever they are away from a designated swinging area and carrying their bat. (We adults must also establish this same habit when we have a bat in our hands; kids take their cues from us.)
How do we motivate our kids to establish the safe habit of always holding the bat by the barrel when carrying it from place to place? Let them know that is how the pros do it (and point this out to them); and the pros are cool .
Many kids want to emulate the pros and most want to look cool. When implementing this rule we do so, from an adult’s perspective, to maintain a safe environment for the kids and we do so, from a kid’s perspective, because holding the bat by the barrel is cool.
Starting today, let’s teach our kids how to be cool …and remain safe.
Batting Pros Carry the Bat by the Barrel...
See the video from: 0:15 – 1:10…
Watch how the batters hold the bat immediately following striking out. This is an example of how the pros carry their bat when they are not batting. The proper way to hold a bat, when not batting, is by the barrel.
The Kids Are Trying To Learn the Game …but can they if the adults make all the decisions for them?
A universal and very common aspect of kids’ experience during their baseball and softball games is parents in the stands telling them what to do. It is not uncommon to hear, “Throw it to Third”, “Throw it to First”, “Throw it home”, “Throw it to second”, simultaneously while the child in the field stands frozen and unsure of what to do with the ball.
These little ballplayers are relatively new to the game and determining what to do with the ball can take longer for them to process on the field than for a parent in the stands. Add to that the fact that much of the ‘helpful’ suggestions are incorrect. The kids have a coach who has been working with them in practices teaching them what to do with the ball. Given the multitude of situations that can come up, a youth softball or baseball coach is likely unable to drill their players and help them in mastering them all, especially early in the season.
Most importantly, by tossing out suggestions from the stands parents are taking away the players’ number one opportunity for learning the game …making the decision of where to throw the ball.
Are these young ballplayers going to make the correct decision all the time? Heck no. Evaluating the situation and making their own decision is part of the process of learning and developing an understanding of the game. When they don’t make the best decision, that is OK, they learn from the experience.
“But if they make a wrong decision, their team might lose the game!” Yes, that is true, but is winning one game more important than the broader goal of them learning how to play the game? And yes, the kids want to win, but they also want to be left alone to play, win or lose, on their own.
If the kids were asked, they would tell us they would much prefer that the comments from the stands be limited to encouragement, support and a well-deserved cheer. They didn’t sign up to spend the year having us looking over their shoulders and telling them what to do. They signed up to play softball or baseball against with their kid teammates against other kids.
They understand that one team loses every game; they understand that few teams win every game. Sometimes parents forget this and get caught up, understandably, in the emotion of watching their children playing the game. We want to remind parents to catch themselves when winning and losing becomes more important to them than it is to the kids. From time to time parents need the reminder that the game is for the kids, not the adults.
In my experience as a coach, instructor and observer, this one change in the culture, eliminating instructions from the stands, can makes a great improvement in the amount of enjoyment kids get out of the playing experience
So, what is the solution? What can League Leadership do?
Put up a sign at each ballpark:
“Support the kids, encourage the kids, cheer on the kids,
but NO comments on where to throw the ball
- PLEASE, Let THEM Play”
It is understood that parents mean well and just want to help, but calling out instructions from the stands impedes the learning process for the kids while undermining the hours of effort the volunteer coaches have invested during practices.
Posting signs at all your league’s fields may be difficult, if not impossible, given that many fields are run by municipalities. At the very least we can include this statement on registration forms, in our ‘Parents Code of Conduct’, post it on our league website and include it in general communications such as newsletters.
In an ideal world this ‘rule’ would extend to coaches. Coaches volunteer hundreds of hours to the kids and the leagues and, in my opinion, we need to embrace their commitments and not over legislate how they run their teams. However, a league can include this point as part of their coaching application and encourage coaches to consider the learning possibilities of allowing the kids to decide what to do with the ball during games. (Coaches can be referred to the Defensive Responsibilities page of the website in the ‘Rules’ section: “The Ball is Constantly Moving on Defense” and “Getting the Ball in to the Pitcher”. Also, the content of this page, as a whole, provides teaching and drills that help kids develop an understanding of what to do with the ball in any given situation.)
As stated above regarding parents, it can be difficult for a coach to resist directing their team from the side while their club is on defense. Their competitive juices are real, they get flowing and the sideline direction comes out. Coaches, like parents, want to see their team win, but let’s remind them that the role of the coach is to prepare the team during practices and leave it to the kids to determine their fate on game day.
The kids, based on my observations and much of the commentary in cyberspace regarding this level of play, would very much appreciate being given the opportunity to Play, on game day, with minimal adult intervention. After each inning, while they are in the dugout, that is teaching time. A coach can make time to review mistakes that were made on defense and teach, so that next time they get on the field the ballplayers will have a bit more knowledge and an increased chance of making a good decision.
Over the course of the year, if given the chance to determine what to do with the ball on their own and are allowed to learn through their experiences, our kids will improve in their decision making and will learn to do so quicker and quicker. And it’s pretty cool to see them ‘get it right’ on their own.
Maximize the Strength of Your League ...take care of its most valuable members
The consensus in the business world is that obtaining a new customer costs 4-6 times more than expanding a relationship with a current customer. Organizations that invest a good portion of their resources toward retaining and growing their ‘bird in the hand’ relationships stand a better chance for stability and growth than those that channel their energies elsewhere.
Which age division do have the greatest number of customers ...and potential repeat customers? In most cases it’s at the Tee-Ball level. Is this part of your organization given the attention, planning and expertise needed to create an experience that will make those customers want to return?
It makes sense to drive some of a league's best people resources to this most vital level. But is this happening? Often the best, brightest and most experienced league volunteers are involved with the higher levels of play and All-Stars. Maintaining quality in these areas is important of course, but with a little effort, planning and maybe some arm twisting, a league can channel leadership, expertise and support to this important segment of the league membership – Tee-Ball.
Tee-ballers represent the future strength of a league
These kids are potentially repeat customers for 6-7 years. Maximizing retention can increase a leagues registration income by thousands of dollars per year.
As numbers increase at the mid-levels of a league, play becomes more dynamic and competitive. These factors result in a higher level of play and stimulate increased skill development.
With greater participation in a league, over time, it becomes the 'cool' thing to do. Kids are very much influenced by their peers and gravitate to the popular activities.
These are the future All-Stars. The more kids that stay involved the more likelihood that most of the neighborhood’s best athletes will still be playing baseball or softball at age 11 and 12.
The more kids participating in a league means more parents who are prospective volunteers and possibly future board members.
Tee-ball players are new to the game and the league. In most cases their parents, the ones most involved in coaching and operations are also new. These folks come in with little or no experience and are essentially told ‘good luck’ and are left to learn on the fly.
By the end of the year some of these folks develop a good understanding how to make things work at the Tee-Ball level, but then they move up and take their knowledge and experience with them. The cycle begins anew the next year with another crop of newbies starting from scratch.
The result is the league’s most valuable customers are working with the leagues least experienced adults. As hard as they might try, these folks don’t have the skills and experience to provide the stellar experience that will result in the highest possible percentage of these most valuable customers returning.
The following are a few ideas that, if implemented using quality, experienced members of the league leading the way, are likely to increase the retention of kids following their first exposure to the game:
Alert new coaches and parents of common challenges they will be facing and provide proven effective solutions. When a person runs into a challenge they have been alerted of and are prepared for, they can work through it with greater success.
Share ideas that provided successful outcomes in the past. Simple insights for making practices more lively and fun for the kids can pay huge dividends.
Establish a mentoring program. Recruit coaches and parents that have worked at the Tee Ball level in the past to assist with a practice or two at the beginning of the year. If each new coach receives assistance from a veteran of the 'Tee-Ball wars' during their first few practices, it can make all the difference in helping them develop the confidence and basic knowledge needed for them to carry on successfully through the season.
An idea that can go a long way to building excitement at the Tee-Ball level: try to schedule multiple games in one place at the same time. Is there a space in your neighborhood large enough to hold 3-4, or more, Tee-Ball games at the same time? When kids see their peers, friends and schoolmates all playing alongside them laughing, screaming and having a great time, their take-a-way is, "Hey, this is really cool and I want to do it more!"
Let's put Tee-Ball at the top of the agenda at the next board meeting and get started on a plan to make THIS year a great one for the league’s most important members. And let's put some the most experienced and talented on the job to make it happen. What better investment can the league make?
Note: for more insight on improving the Tee-Ball experience, see “Herding Cats…” in this section of the site.
Your League Doesn’t Have an Unlimited Budget?
…maybe a new ‘Ball Use Strategy’ can help
“Hey Coach, can I have another ball? This one is super heavy.”
“When we hit these balls they don’t seem to go anywhere, coach”
“Coach, my arm has starting to hurt!”
OK, you live in a part of the world where it is wet (and cold) in the early part of the baseball/softball season. Playing with balls that have gotten wet or have retained moisture is pretty much accepted as ‘just the way it is’ in northern states and Canada. Balls get wet and heavy, coaches grumble and our equipment manager reluctantly hands out a few more balls. We start hearing complaints of sore arms. We keep working on teaching better throwing mechanics, but maybe it’s more than that. Maybe some of those sore arms are a result of constantly throwing water logged balls.
How many extra dozens of balls does your league go through each year because of balls exposed to wet weather and fields? Do we really have to accept using poor quality balls as the result of them being exposed to wet conditions?
Reducing arm soreness and the risk of injury is the greatest concern. Heavier balls greatly increase the risk of sore arms and more serious arm injuries. An additional ounce or two may not seem like much, but the muscles of the rotator cuff are very small and highly susceptible to injury. Young muscles, ligaments and tendons are also more sensitive to the stresses posed by wet balls. A ball that retains moisture is not only heavier, but that moisture retention can be uneven resulting in inconsistent stress factors on the arm with each throw.
Balls that are consistently exposed to moisture not only get heavier, they can lose their shape integrity as they go between being wet and ‘drying out’. Through this process their covers and seams get wonky and do not perform as well. They get to the point where they need to be replaced.
Many game days are rainy or the fields are wet. In order for the games to be played with some level of integrity, good quality balls have to be inserted into play and the wet balls removed. Over the course of the many dozens of games played in wet conditions the cost of balls grows and grows. Many leagues accept this as a ‘part of doing business, but do they have to? There are balls on the market that provide an alternative.
Determine a reasonable number of balls that a team needs for the year. Make part of the supply leather balls (approximately 40%) and part of the supply, balls with a synthetic cover (approximately 60%). When balls are distributed, alert coaches that is their supply for the year.
--> Leather Balls: These are only used when the field conditions are free of moisture (see below). If there is any doubt that the ground is not dry enough, they use synthetic cover balls only. Include in your coaching policy manual instructions on the use of balls. Coaches must check field conditions each day they arrive at the park to determine if the conditions are OK to use leather balls.
--> Synthetic Balls: There are many brands of synthetic cover baseballs that do not have cloth as part of the inside construction of the ball and do not absorb or retain water. I am not a chemist, but it seems that the common attribute in balls least likely to absorb moisture are those with ‘Poly-Bond’ cork as part of their interior make-up. Water resistant balls are discussed in detail below.
If your league has an issue with a large number of coaches not taking proper care of balls and allowing them to get wet, a strategy for ball distribution is to only give out synthetic cover balls initially. When the weather turns, then give out leather balls with the understanding that what they are given is their supply for the season.
Educate Your Coaches on How to Determine if the Field Condition is OK for the Use of Leather Balls
1 --- Any dampness in the ground means no ‘leathers’ today.
2 --- Point out that on sunny weekend mornings there is often dew on the grass. Morning dew can be absorbed into balls during warm-ups and lead to those balls becoming unsafe and unusable. It is easy, after long periods of good weather and later in the spring, to forget that early morning moisture remains an issue.
3 --- Remind your coaches of any park within your district that does not drain well or is known to hold moisture for long periods of time.
4 --- Most youth fields are not perfectly level. A field may be dry, but have a low spot with where water remains in a puddle. If stray balls find their way into that puddle and aren’t immediately removed, they can be ruined to the point where they will not perform properly or more importantly become heavier and unsafe. If these wet spots are within range of balls reaching them, the leathers don’t come out.
Games should be played with leather balls. However, there are many days (in northern states and Canada) where field conditions are less than ideal, but you still have to play. What is the cost in balls used on these types of days? How much are we putting arms at risk when we use leather balls in games played in wet conditions?
Why not use a water resistant balls exclusively for some games? …at least at the lower levels (9 and below); save money and arms. After a few games using these balls the kids get accustomed to it being ‘the way it is’; many who are new to the sport will not know anything different.
Water Resistant Balls
The first link is to the brand I have used for years. These balls have worked out very well for me (and I have saved a lot of money):
Note: It seems I get one or two ‘lemons’ a year that become lopsided. This is something to be aware of but not to be too concerned about. My theory is that these balls were damaged as a result of my high school and college age camp instructors hitting them; not from the use by the kids.
The second link takes you to a company that sells in lots of 10 dozen. It also shows a cross section photograph of a ball, so you can see the inside construction:
Note: I have never used this brand and do not know of its quality. No doubt, many other suppliers sell in bulk at a discount.
The third link takes you to a page of ‘images’. Many companies are listed (most of which can be found by Googling, “Synthetic Cover Baseballs”). There are also cross section photographs of balls with cloth centers (traditional leather covered balls) as well as more cross section pictures of synthetic cover balls.
Note: There are balls on the market that have a faux leather cover that are stamped as “All Weather” (I believe, in most cases these are characterized by blue stitching for the seams). I strongly suggest that you avoid these balls. My experience using them (in Seattle) is these do absorb and hold water much like leather balls.
Two other types of balls that can be considered as options:
"Safety 10” Balls: These have a very slight ‘squish’ if you squeeze them. Let me emphasize, VERY slight. I doubt kids age 9 and under notice the difference.
Batting Machine Balls: I would not go out of my way to obtain these, (an indoor batting facility might sell their worn down balls at a discount). Made purely from hard rubber, it is virtually impossible for them to absorb or retain water. These can be used in a downpour and will be good to go the next day …or in a few minutes if you have a towel available.
Note: I do not recommend using these with kids under the age of 10 or 11; they don’t give much on impact.
We want to give our kids the best equipment available, but let’s not forget that they are kids. They do not require top of the line equipment all the time, especially when cost and arm safety are considered. The bottom line is kids simply want to play, learn and have a good time. Incorporating a smart ball usage policy in your league can save money, keep the kids safe and still provide our young softball and baseball players a great experience each time they are on the field.
When balls are managed properly, the leather balls you collect from your coaches at the end of the season will be good for use the following year. The leather balls will not have moisture in them and the moisture resistant balls are going to be fine for years to come. I am not suggesting that in following years we give coaches a bucket of used balls. Rather, give them 50/50 new and used. This strategy could save your league a $1000 or more each year. That $1000 could be invested in other areas to improve your league, including the hiring of an expert to come in and help with coach and player development ;)
Volunteer Liaison ...the Missing Link
It’s November, rounding out board and volunteer positions is a growing priority. For many leagues this is an annual source of anxiety. There are a lot of folks willing to help. Often it’s as easy as just asking, but knowing who to ask and finding them is much easier said than done. The time required to search out prospects and ask them to help disrupts the focus on ‘higher priority’ items on the agendas of a president and board.
Year after year the recruiting effort falls on core members of the league, often those who are ‘holding it all together’. Many of these very committed people possess skills and talents to significantly strengthen the league’s operations. Pulling them away from those duties to recruit is a double negative for a league. Those members put off ‘their’ work and spend time doing something they ‘have’ to do. In other cases the recruiting effort is limited to a banner ad on the league website …and some prayer.
The solution is to create the position of Volunteer Liaison. This can be a single person or a committee.
Knows many people within the community
Outgoing personality and enjoys engaging others in conversation
Enthusiastic about the league’s value to the community
Create an initial list of prospective volunteer candidates and any parents in the neighborhood with whom the VA has a social relationship.
Develop a networking campaign engaging others to assist through word of mouth – create a ‘buzz’ and grow the prospect list.
Get the job descriptions for all unfilled positions circulating through the community
Put their outgoing personality and people engagement skills to work talking to prospects about the needs of the league.
Communicate and coordinate with other committees needing added help i.e., Coaching Coordinator, Umpire in Chief, Opening Day, etc.
Connect legitimate prospects to the designated board member(s) who closes the deals for volunteer commitments.
There should be no obligation for the Volunteer Liaison to serve in any other capacity for the league (unless they offer to do so unsolicited). This needs to be made clear right from the beginning. We want this person to be focused on their work and not feel any concern that they will get sucked into some other responsibility they hadn’t bargained for.
There are plenty of likeable, outgoing types in each neighborhood who could fill this role successfully. This is also a position for a person who cannot, for work or other reasons, commit to a longer term volunteer position during the season. Prime time for this position is October through February; getting folks lined up prior to the start of the season.
Establish the position, or committee, of Volunteer Liaison. Have that person(s) use their high level communication and social skills to do the legwork in finding good candidates to help the league operate. Using this strategy to increase the number of volunteers, will strengthen the league and allow those already involved to spend their time in areas where they can be most productive.
Herding Cats …can the Tee-Ball experience be improved?
We adults who work with youth baseball and youth softball players continue to make the same mistake each year. Our Tee-Ball programs are run like we have teen, college or pro players out there. The failure to recognize that, beyond the shape of the diamond and the use of a ball and bat, Tee-Ball is a far different activity from what goes on at those higher levels of play. Sports, especially baseball, are very different when played by 5-7 year olds. As much as I hate to admit it, the soccer folks have it figured out. When was the last time you saw a youth soccer game comprised of 5-7 year olds that had two sides of eleven playing against each other? Yeah, I haven’t seen it either. So why do we continue to have 5-7 year olds play baseball in a 9 v 9 situation? (And sometimes up to 12 v 12 or more.)
Why do we have outfielders in Tee-Ball? High School, College and Pro batters can hit the ball a long way, so the use of outfielders in their game is an obvious need. How many times is the ball driven to the outfield in a Tee-Ball game? What is the logic in mimicking the game played by mature teens and adults and have outfielders in Tee-Ball?& 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. The mistake that continues year after year is having Tee-Ball rosters with 10, 12 or even more players, and playing games with four, five or more kids banished to the outfield.
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. Then we take the game to the Tee-Ball level with delusional thoughts that our little tykes can do the same. Rosters of ten to twelve or more kids forces each to endure what is an agonizingly long wait for a 5-7 year old to get their chance to get up to the plate. If we gave it a moment’s thought we would recognize that asking kids this age to sit still for more than 10 seconds is truly an affront to nature.
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? This is the first in a series of posts focused on improving the Tee-Ball Experience. This first post discusses the question of what the optimal number of players is to have on a Tee-Ball team. Also, tips are shared that will significantly increase the number of balls that are batted beyond the pitcher (and infield), and accomplish this with fewer swings, making the games more dynamic and faster paced.
Cut Back the Number of Kids on a Team
Tee-Ball should be played with six kids on a side. Period. 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. We are all doing this, right?
The concept of no outfielders might be starting to make some sense, but what about the rare occasion when a ball does find its way to the outfield? C’mon we are talking about 5-7 year olds. The infielders are more than eager to run after the ball. These little bundles of energy are dying to run around. Chasing the ball into the outfield is a major bonus for them. There is no need to have outfielders, unless our goal is to bore our kids to death and drive them from the game – sarcasm intended.
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, understand and execute their defensive responsibilities, unencumbered by 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… OK, I admit I am exaggerating; it’s only the outfielders who are not busy searching out four leaf clovers that end up mixing with the infielders.
Can we really teach 5-7 year olds to execute basic defensive responsibilities such as covering a base, backing up a base and throwing to the correct base? The answer is a definitive, YES! I have run summer camps for six years with this age group playing 6 v 6. After 3-4 days we have the kids playing the game in an organized manner. This is not the result of a lifetime baseball hack orchestrating these groups of players. Most of my camp instructors are high school and college kids with limited training and they consistently succeed in producing organized play with this age group week after week during the summer.
More Reps and Limited ‘Dugout’ Chaos
When we make the change to 6 v 6 Tee-Ball the kids will 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 their #1 goal. 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’. Each game one parent is designated as dugout monitor; a job that is a Day at the Beach compared to the days of chasing after ten or eleven little bundles of energy futilely trying to convince them to ‘be patient’. 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 to PLAY on the part of the players. When we double the batting opportunities over the course of the season we increase skill development. Fun plus increased skill development leads to a greater number of kids having a great experience and a strong desire to return to PLAY the following year.
3 --- Fewer kids on defense allows each player to handle the ball more often. We also eliminate the confusion of having 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.
A common circumstance 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 that will result in more kids getting involved on each PLAY and everyone having more fun
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 body (while they stand straight and tall). You and the batter make a visual note of how far their toes are from the tee. After ‘measuring’ a few times in a practice setting the kids (and adults) will become familiar with the correct distance to stand from the tee. In most cases the players will develop a solid sense of their relationship to the tee by the first or second game. Note: batters often measure how far to stand from the ball/tee stem by extending their arms and the bat to the ball. This is incorrect. I will address why in a later post (and video) that discusses the swing in detaiI.
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: take a look at pictures of baseball and softball players at the moment they are contacting the ball and you will find that contact is generally made when the ball is even with the front foot, give or take a few inches.
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’).
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 swinging. Note: 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 head up the coaching of 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 head up 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.
Recap of Key Points
Create teams of seven players
Eliminate the outfield positions on defense
Structure the batting environment for optimal success
Make the Tee-Ball program a top priority of each league
Every Tee-Ball parent is a coach