Progression of Learning: Part 1 – The First Years

I’ve had the opportunity to coach baseball players of all ages; from kids as young as 5 to players in the professional ranks.  It’s probably obvious that what we coach and how we coach is dependent upon the ages we are coaching; but I will take aim at providing a “lessons learned” series on coaching each age group.

Over the course of the next few posts, we’ll take a look at the key coaching elements for each age group, starting with my favorite group, the 5-8 segment.

1. Make the game fun for the kids

Making the game fun does not mean that you should play ‘games’ with the kids. By games, I am talking about relay races; or who can hit the target with the throw; or you get 1 point for hitting a ball on the ground, two points for a line drive; etc.  To me, these are delay tactics for getting through a practice.

How do you make it fun?  EASY!  First, display an enthusiasm for the game.  Your energy is contagious.  If you move slowly, the kids will move slowly.  If you run between drills, the kids will follow.  Its that simple.  You have to show the kids you are excited to teach them.  They’ll feed off of it.  Second, get as many kids involved as possible during drills.  This could mean that you break the kids into several smaller groups or you work quickly through drills.  We’ll demonstrate how this can be done in our various practice drill videos.  If the kids are not involved, they’ll become bored or distracted.  Either way, you’ve now lost them.  Lastly, keep your drills as simple as possible so kids can see success.  Kids tend to have more fun when they are doing well at something.  Kids, or adults for that matter, seldom enjoy something if they continue to fail at it.

2. Keep your focus on SIMPLICITY

Apple is well known for many things; but one key quality of their products is their simplicity.  No user guide is needed to use an Apple product.  They’re intuitive and users quickly adapt to using their products.  With the 5-8 age group, your focus needs to be as simple as possible.  With hitting, focus on stances, strides, flat swings and hips.  No more.  Don’t talk about hitting balls to the right side; or keeping your hands inside the ball.  That will come later.  You’ll only confuse the kids.  Give them simple drills they can practice at home with mom or dad.  Without the proper foundation, they’ll never be able to learn the skills required at the next level.  Plus, you’ll only confuse them the more complicated you get.

3.  TEACH THE GAME!

One thing that I have learned with this age group is that you MUST teach them the game of baseball.  What do you do when the ball is hit to you with runners on base?  What do you do when the ball is not hit to you?  Everyone on the field has a job, and they need to know these things.  They also need to learn terminology.  At every practice, reserve 30 minutes to walk the kids through various situations.  This may seem to go against what I mention in #1 above; but you can still maintain a level of excitement here.  And ask the kids questions.  Don’t tell them what to do; ask them what they think they should do.  When you engage them, it keeps them thinking and involved.

With these three focus points, you should be able to guide this age group through some very pivotol years.  Your goal should be that, by age 8, the kids are hungry to learn more.  They should get excited about Spring ball, or Fall ball, and want to be challenged.  I truly believe that most kids will have this attitude if you focus on the three areas mentioned above.

Keep teaching the game!

Video Analysis Should be in Every Coach’s Plan

The advancements in technology over the last 10 years has been remarkable, and has given us greater, and quicker access to information.   Coaches and players from all sports have undoubtedly benefited from the various video analysis apps that have been developed.

I sometimes come across parents or players or coaches that prefer video analysis not be used in evaluation of themselves, or of their kids.  Their argument is that kids will become too analytical; or as the saying goes, they will suffer “paralysis by analysis.”  My belief is that these individuals are NUTS!  Why anyone would not want to use a tool that can slow down and isolate a player’s swing is beyond comprehension.

Video Analysis should be employed as much as possible.  But, for it to provide the desired result of improving one’s ability to hit, throw, rune, field, etc; four things must occur.

First, you need to have a coach that knows how to break down the skill.  If hitting, the coach needs to be able to isolate their focus on the various components of the swing, from stance, to timing, to hand path, to hips, to finish.  Second, the coach needs to be able to effectively communicate the found problems to the player.  What are the issues and how can they be corrected?  Third, you need a willingness from the player to do the work that is needed to improve.  And finally, you need to repeat the process over time to ensure that the issues are being corrected.

Video analysis is best done in game situations.  Filming a player during practice is not ideal, as you are most likely filming a player in an environment where you do not have the pressures of the game influencing the skill.  In essence, you are not filming the true abilities of the player.

To say that video analysis will only lead to ‘paralysis’ is absurd.  Film does NOT lie.  And slowing down the technique to a point where you can see everything frame by frame allows the player and coach the opportunity to correct any and all flaws. Video analysis allows the player the chance to see himself and his swing.  He doesn’t have to solely rely on the coach for their analysis.

Finally, coaches, most time, are not in a position during a game where they can view a hitter’s swing from all angles necessary to see possible flaws.  Using well-positioned cameras (from their open side and from directly behind home plate) allow coaches the opportunity to properly point out a hitter’s issue(s) without any guesswork.

Educate your players through the use of Video…IT JUST MAKES SENSE!

TEACH THE GAME!

It’s pretty simple.  If you never teach a kid how to properly run through first on a ground ball to the infield, they will never learn it.  If you never teach a kid playing shortstop how to flip a ball to second for a force out, they will never learn it.  I could go on and on and on.

I have a growing frustration for how our youth (ages 6-9) are being taught the game.  I have seen enough practices lately to come to the conclusion that many coaches think a practice for this age group consists of swinging…and swinging…and more swinging.  There is simply not enough (or any for that matter) teaching of the finer points of the game.  There really isn’t any teaching of the fundamentals for that matter.  I think so much time is spent on hitting because it takes so much time; and it’s a great way to make the time fly by.  One kid hits, and the rest of the team runs around chasing balls.  What a way to waste time!  And the kids don’t know any better.  They are doing what they want to do, which is to run around with their buddies.  But it’s not going to help them become better baseball players.  Actually, the lack of a well-designed practice plan will do quite the opposite…which is to send the kids on a fast-track to quitting the game.

The sooner the kids realize “how” to play the game, the more they will understand what they need to do.  The more they understand, the more they are likely to keep playing.  It doesn’t take a genius to understand that people will be less likely to stick with something if they don’t really understand how to do “it.”

Coaches, dedicate yourself to teaching the game.  Dedicate yourself to learning how to breakdown the various techniques of the game.  And then, spend more time teaching, and less time babysitting.  You’ll quickly see three results: 1) the kids really do want to learn the game, more so than running around the field aimlessly chasing balls; 2) they will get better quicker; and 3) you’ll start to have more fun as a coach.

Kids are like sponges, you’ll be surprised at how much of the game they can actually soak in.

Keep TEACHING!