by Bryan Dunkelburger, Director of Player Development, CYBSA
Over numerous years of coaching, I have heard and said some things that in hindsight won’t make my list of great words of wisdom in the baseball world. I think back and I was repeating things I heard from other coaches and “thought” were pretty smart, when in actuality I hadn’t given them much thought at all. Here are 5 that I’d like to share with you in hopes that if you find yourself getting ready to lay one of these pearls of wisdom on your players, you’ll stop and find a more thoughtful way to teach your players.
- “Just make contact!” — Nope, you want to CRUSH the ball! Being able to hit the ball squarely with as much force as you can muster from your toes to the top of your head should be the goal. This doesn’t mean swinging incorrectly, or pulling your head are acceptable. A fundamentally sound swing is still a good thing, however driving the ball should always be the goal. The player wants to be able to control their power thru the swing and that requires practice at maximum effort resulting in maximum output. Here is what happens, a player is struggling or they have 2 strikes, you lay on them the quote, and instead of taking a good rip at the ball, they slow it up and aim at the ball. They make contact and it goes somewhere in the infield, the parents cheer, the coach cheers and regardless of if the player gets on base or not, they are being positively reinforced for taking a smaller swing. The best way to put it is. “If you decide to swing, don’t get cheated”, and that means they may strike out. It’s ok, that’s part of learning.
- “Just Throw Strikes!” Remember you are coaching young kids, they know what they are supposed to do (sometimes), they don’t however know how, and “throw strikes” doesn’t get them there. It more less comes across as if they can’t do it, and you feel obligated to point out the obvious. Coach simple mechanics “Your ball is missing high, so follow through and pull your body down, that will bring the ball down!” or “Take a deep breath, settle yourself, then start your motion, this will clear your head and give you better focus”. Avoid overly mechanical cues, and instead offer simple things that will help them deliver the next pitch with success, and build their confidence (90% of the battle!) Lastly, make sure you explain the “why or how”, what you are telling the player will help them. It’s as important to their baseball IQ to understand. Then when they have success never miss an opportunity to build their confidence and reinforce that they want to repeat it.
- “Take the first pitch, to get a look at it!” — Pitchers want to get ahead in the count at all levels, that means they are trying to throw a strike, and with most pitchers at youth levels it’s a fast ball. A good hitter is looking for the fastball, because it is the most predictable pitch to hit. If the pitcher is throwing first pitch fastballs all game, then taking the pitch means you are passing on potentially the best pitch in the count. There are situations when taking the pitch is warranted, but teaching it as a batting ritual, is starting in the hole and working out. If it’s good, let it fly!
- “Give him a big target!” This is usually said to catchers when the pitcher is having trouble, as if somehow the catcher can miraculously turn his or her glove into a size XXXL, paint it neon orange and add landing lights on the field, pointing to the obnoxiously large glowing glove. Most kids don’t even know what that means. Better advice would be to talk to the catcher about how to set up and make his pitcher better. For instance, if his pitcher is continually missing outside, and the catcher is setting up on the middle of the plate, then set up on the inside of the plate to see if that helps the pitcher. As a coach, you can even give the catcher verbal keys for where they can set up to help the pitcher. “BI” — Batter Inside, “BO” Batter outside, and so forth. Remember you are working with children, so anything you give them that feels like an edge parlays into confidence. Another positive is you are grooming catchers to be part of the pitcher’s success, which takes time and trust.
- “How many times do we have to go over…..” — This is usually said out of frustration, after a player doesn’t do something the coach has told them to do on numerous occasions (see pulling the head, not getting down on a ball, tagging up, etc.). Here is the thing, if you want to coach youth sports, you need to be prepared to say the same thing about 10,000 times over the next 4–8 years to the same kids. Why? Because they are kids. Most of the time, when things go bad, they know they made a mistake or forgot something. It’s a development issue, I promise you they weren’t thinking “How can I make the coaches head to explode!” Baseball is complicated and takes time to figure out all the moving parts. Younger players figure it out in their own time, and even when it does sink in they will have laps. Repetition is the key to learning, both physically and mentally, so reinforce them when they do it well and constructively correct them when they don’t. But if you want the question of “how many times?” answered, I can tell you if you are asking it, you still have a bunch more to go.
Remember whether you think so or not, the kids are listening to you, if you send mixed signals they get mixed signals. If you send positive signals they get that too, and they surely recognized the negative ones. They need you to break things down for them at a K — 7th grade level. Enjoy the time on the field, because let’s face it, it’s better than working!