Monthly Archives: May 2015

Herding Cats

Sometimes coaching high school kids feels akin to an attempt at wrangling a dozen cats out the backyard gate while avoiding a fully-functioning sprinkler head. In other words…utter chaos.

A team and each individual kid on that team needs direction–they need to know where they are supposed to go and some idea of how to get there. One of the knocks from I hear way too often from coaches is today’s kids don’t care, they don’t “buy” into what the coach is selling.

The truth is, today’s kids are probably brighter and sharper and have an increased problem-solving capacity than we ever did. They want to know what you are asking them to do, why you are asking them to do it, and where is it going to take them. Kids today have very well-honed bullshit meters.

They are skeptical and need to be convinced the plan and vision you present to them is the real deal. Where us grumpy, old folks used to accept what we were given and did what we were told, these kids want to know the bigger picture and see what is beyond blind acceptance. And they have the collective power of the internet and social media for information.

One of the first coaching lessons I learned from Paul Lane in football and Rex Carlson in baseball was to be upfront and be honest. These two fine coaches taught me the athletes cannot read my mind and need to be told and shown what I need them to do. Tell the kids what we are going to do, why we are going to do it, and how it will make them better as an individual and as a team.

Another knock against the kids is they just don’t get it. “They spend too much time sitting in front of their video games or have their faces glued to their phones.” You all know the attitude. The grumpy old man, stay-off-my-lawn you juvenile, drug addicted, delinquent” attitude we often have toward the habits of youth.

Kids today want a vision. They want (and desperately need) someone to recognize their potential and help them map out a path to achieve it. I’ve said this a hundred times, but everybody wants to win. Everybody wants to be a success. They just need the plan and the guidance.

That’s what the successful coach is able to do.

Dream the plan.
Devise the plan.
Sell the plan.
Implement the plan.

And then drive the individual and the team in the right direction and never let them take their eyes off the prize.

Just like successfully herding a dozen of the cutest, most well-behaved cats out of the back yard, your athletes will eventually find their goal—but you’ll always end up worn to a frazzle and sporting a few fresh scratches.

Vision.
Direction.
Communication

The keys to the kingdom.

“Cats on Beach” by haitham alfalah – haitham alfalah. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cats_on_Beach.JPG#/media/File:Cats_on_Beach.JPG

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Load. Step. Swing

The title is absolutely correct;. “Load (Period) Step (Period) Swing (Period)”

It’s not “Load, step, swing” or what I see way too much from young players, “loadstepswing”.

A good and consistent baseball swing consists of three distinct and separate parts.

  1. The load.
  2. The stride.
  3. The swing.

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Why is “Load. Step. Swing.” so important? Because it’s vital to develop solid fundamentals in young hitters so they will be fundamentally solid older hitters. Fundamentally solid older hitters are able to enjoy success against better quality pitching as they mature and enjoy playing the game longer.

Do you know why most kids quit playing the game of baseball? They say the game is not fun for them. The game is no longer fun for them because they usually struggle to hit the baseball at the advanced level. Hitting a baseball is fun. Period. Ask any kid, they’ll back me up at an almost 100% clip.

Here is the simple method I used to instruct hitters. I use this same basic philosophy to help hitters from preschool kids up to the collegiate level. It works, It’s basic. It makes hitters able to hit laser shots from the left field line to the right field line. And when one hits the ball hard, good things happen.

Get Bouncy

Athletes move on the balls of their feet, not flat-footed or with weight on the heels. Relax the body and get bouncy to be a better athlete.

Hitter’s Rhythm

Stand up. Go ahead, get off your rump and stand with feet comfortably about shoulder width apart. Now get bouncy off the balls of your feet. Feels good, right? Next, rock side to side. When one heel comes off the ground the weight shifts to the other heel on the ground. Do you know what this is? It’s your body’s natural, relaxed motion of hitting a baseball. It is hitter’s rhythm.

Hitters should naturally rock with this rhythm almost unconsciously, even when just standing around. (It’s how we find each other in the crowd…look for the guys rocking back and forth in hitter’s rhythm).

Load

When weight rocks to back foot, the hands load to the back shoulder and lock into place.  It’s like shooting a rubber band at your sister. Be honest, do you take that big, thick, Sunday morning paper rubber band and only pull it back an inch before firing it in the direction of their beloved sister? Heck no! You pull that rubber band back as far as you can so you can fire it at that beloved sibling with explosive speed and power. Same for loading up in your swing. When a hitter loads, the rubber band has been pulled and now you are ready to release that locked and loaded power onto the ball.

Step

The step, or stride, will vary between hitters depending on where the hitter is comfortable in their stance. If the hitter likes a narrow stance and longer stride is usually more natural. If the hitter likes a wide stance, then the stride is usually short. If I see a kid having problems controlling the stride or being consistent with their stride, the I’ll put them in a wide stance and have them just pick up their front foot and post it down right where it was. The whole purpose of the step is to shift the energy from the load into the barrel during the swing.

I like to teach hitters to “stick” the ball of the front foot into the ground with the outside of the foot pointed toward the pitcher. The hitter needs to post the front leg to stop the forward body momentum shift so the hitter doesn’t slide through the front hip and waste all that loaded up power. A solid step movement should be relaxed, quiet and stick the perfect hitting position. (see Hitting Position for an explanation on the importance of starting a swing from a consistent hitting position.)

Swing

You’ve loaded, you’ve stepped, and now you are in perfect hitting position. What’s next?

Simple, it’s a swing.

Take your front hand (the bottom hand) and pull the knob toward the ball in a quick, compact, powerful swing. By developing a consistent hitting position, a hitting only needs to learn the one swing which is directed toward the pitched ball. The swing needs to start from the back shoulder and go directly to the ball, no matter where it is pitched. Inside, outside, high, low, or right down the middle. A hitter with a good fundamental swing can hit any of these pitches with power to all fields and makes for a dangerous hitter who is very difficult to pitch to and defend.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Sounds like something we all want, right?

So, repeat after me.

“Load.”

“Step.”

“Swing.”

Say these three words hundreds and hundreds of times in your head and out loud. It is the rhythm of a hitter. It is the rhythm of baseball.

Three separate words, not one.

Three separate parts, not one.

Load. Step. Swing

Hitting a baseball is one of the great things in life.

Enjoy life!

Happy Hitting!

bat_tee1

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Double Buck & Shoot the Sauce

There I sat.

In Texas Tom’s.

Late at night, almost midnight.

After one of the first Legion Post 199 doubleheaders of the summer.

Sitting there staring at the red tray holding two Buckaroo Basket orders on the white, shiny table in front of me.

Contemplating. Contemplating not only how hungry I was after a night of baseball, but contemplating the very future of this collection of baseball talent Dennis “Harpo” Hurla had put together for the summer’s Fegan’s Cafe team.

If there was ever a time I needed a clutch hit, this was it.

It was my second season playing for Harpo. I was one of only a handful returners, and, once again, the only player on this talent-laden team from Washington High School. The previous year was a conglomeration of talent from a wide variety of area high schools. This year, though, almost all the players were from Bishop Ward, all from one very successful high school programs that spring season and my school’s most hated rival, no less.

I knew many of these kids and played baseball with many of them coming up through Christ the King Catholic School. Still, I wondered how and where I would fit within the hierarchy of this baseball team. I didn’t wanted to be pushed out to the fringes of the team–I wanted to the hub this team turned around.

This may sound arrogant to you, but it’s part of being a confident athlete. My arrogance and ego as an athlete probably failed me in life 99% of the time, but on the sports field, that other 1% was MINE. That 1% was pure magic. I wanted to be dependable to my new teammates in any situation. I wanted them to rely on me.

There I sat in Texas Tom’s—a greasy, local fast food joint in the heart of Bishop Ward territory—ready to mark my place with my new teammates. I remember as a kid, driving by Texas Tom’s, with the cartoon cowboy painted on its sign, on the way to my grandparents house. We’d never stop there to eat. Never. The Ward guys talked about TT’s all the time. They even told the legend of how several big time Cyclone athletes had achieved rare air through their one-sitting consumption of a two Buckaroo Baskets.

In case you never had the pure, artery hardening experience of the Buckaroo Basket at Texas Tom’s, here’s what you got in your half-a-football sized red plastic basket lined with TT’s paper. One cheeseburger dripping in greasy goodness, one fried burrito made with the finest of synthetic protein sources, copious amounts of steaming french fries, a taco, and to top thing off properly, a handful of crisp deep fried onion rings dropped over the top. Oh, let’s not forget the spicy, red taco sauce served on the side packed in sealable white styrofoam cups due to potential negative environmental impact and ability to eat its way out of a normal paper serving cup.

Double Buckaroo Basket was twice of all the above.

So with a half-dozen set of eyes upon me, the outsider, and the clock close to striking midnight, I snarfed down one Buckaroo Basket and then proceeded calmly to the second. The second Buckaroo Basket proved little challenge as it went down with the expert fashion as only a 17-year-old highly active, Bubba athlete can do.

I finished to smiles, congratulations and many pats on the back. I was cool in their eyes. But, to me, that wasn’t enough. I wanted to be the workhorse of this team. I wanted to be the guy they looked to get the big hit, make the big play, and be the rock the team could be built on. I wanted my new teammates to not only let an outsider into their circle, I wanted them to hook their wagons to me. And I wanted to do justice to Dennis Hurla. Harpo gave me, an unknown from Washington High School, the opportunity to play for Fegan’s Cafe and I didn’t want to let him down.

I told the guys to sit back down in their seats. They did. I reached through the trash on the tray in front of me and fished out the two sealed containers of the taco sauce. The taco sauce the Ward guys said nobody EVER eats. I popped the lids off carefully and every chair in the vicinity slid away from me a few yards. Looking into the eyes fixed upon me and the cup of red goo in my hands, I threw back one after the other and shot down the sauce.

Eyes bulged around our little group and their stomachs turned over. But, I held strong. I stood, picked up my tray and deposited the trash into the can. I turned to my paralyzed, gawking teammates.

“Boys, let’s get the hell out of here. We have another game tomorrow night.”

I had forgotten all about that night 33 years ago. For some reason, the memory popped out of my neural network the other day.

Double Buck & Shoot the Sauce.

It quickly became a team battle cry.

How can one forget something like that?

Probably brain damage from too many containers of Texas Tom’s Taco Sauce.

Buckaroo Basket

(Note: We made to the Kansas American Legion state tournament that year for the first time in many years. Once Harpo survived coaching us crazy SOB’s, he went to several regional and national Legion events before becoming head baseball coach at Bishop Ward where he has won more Kansas 4A State Baseball Championships than he has fingers. I am forever grateful of the time spent playing for Dennis. I know we, the first couple groups of kids he ever coached, are better human adults because of the experience.)

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Still Waters

One of the best teams we ever coached was a group of kids who were magnificent running down the rapids. Virtually unstoppable and an honest-to-goodness tour de force when the current flowed swiftly in their direction. But, we would lose focus and intensity when the current became easy and let up. When things should have been easy, when the game should have been packed away neatly under the “W’ column, we’d struggle to tread water and keep our heads above water.

Handling success and maturity means you must learn to navigate the still waters to keep afloat and continue to move in the desired direction. It is one thing working to succeed, but it’s a whole other thing to achieve success and then stay successful. One of the true joys of being good is the scramble, the character, and the discipline invested in order to stay good.

Tom Osborne, the legendary football coach at the University of Nebraska, said that everyone wants to win; it’s human nature. The difference between winners and losers often depends on how willing one is able to go all in and put in the work necessary. And in order to stay a winner, one has to work even harder and with greater efficiency to stay on the mountain.

One needs motivation, an edge. Some sort of carrot to dangle just out of reach in front of you that keeps your motivated. My favorite edge as a player and a coach is the “Chip on Shoulder” approach. Succeed despite the barriers you face. Suceed because there are people who don’t believe you will ever accomplish anything.

The edge. When you choose to play on the edge you have to be careful of two things.

  1. It’s easy to fall over the edge, so you must stay balanced and anchored.
  2. Key an eye on those who will push, nudge, or flat-out kick you over the edge.

The KC Royals in the first month of the season are a good example of this. They found a chip-on-the-shoulder edge which worked very well. But, when this motivator went too far, they fell over the edge and lost their composure. Fortunately, it appears they were able to step back and reboot under control to be successful. Use the edge to motivate your habits and performance, not lose emotional control. Be motivated without becoming consumed by the motivation.

Use the edge to motivate your habits and performance, not lose emotional control. Be motivated without becoming consumed by the motivation.

So you’ve turned things around. Your team and your performance proved to be successful. Pat yourself on the back, smile, and then get back to work. You have things to accomplish. The job has just begun. Find your edge and anchor yourself to your motivation.

To be a success, you need to learn to navigate the still waters. There will not always be a swift stream to move you along, so you need to be able to put your oar in the water and pull yourself forward time and time again.

Word hard.

Work focused.

Play hard.

Play focused.

Just don’t get pushed over the edge.

Still_Water_At_Dusk

Courtesy WikiCommons

 

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