If you are interested in running a travel team, this episode is for you. In this episode of Something Worth Catching, the ultimate youth baseball sports information podcast, former major leaguer and longtime youth coach Jack Perconte grills his partner Sam Zagorac, the owner and head instructor of the Diamond Edge Academy, about how he runs his very successful travel team. In this episode, people will learn how to run a tryout, evaluate skills, and what intangibles he may look for when picking players for his team.
Listen to the podcast here:
Tips For Running a Travel Team
I’m here with my partner, Sam Zagorac, the owner of Diamond Edge Academy. I would like to let everybody know that my latest book, Creating A Season To Remember, is for any coaches out there of any sport. I believe there’s a lot of information that will help you in all experience levels. There’s a lot of good information there in how to work with different type players and dealing with parents. Even if you’re a parent and not a coach, I would suggest getting a copy for your coach because it can only help your own kids in the long run. Over at Amazon, you can catch my book, Creating A Season To Remember and pick up a copy when you can. Our session is a little bit different because Sam has a travel team that he coaches of Youth Ball players. He can really help other coaches because Sam has many years of experience doing this and he coaches his own sons. We can get a lot of information there too. Sam, welcome.
Thank you, Jack. Thanks for the book. I can’t wait to get into it. I read as many as I can when I have some time and this can certainly be read rather quickly.
Sam, how do you run your tryouts? How do you evaluate the skills when a lot of kids are maybe the same? What are some intangibles you might look for beyond just the skills of the players?
Tryouts are run very similar to what most people would consider as a pro workout. Get our kids loose and get them stretched out. Depending on the number of kids, we’ll generally break them into two sessions or two groups. We’ll have one group in the outfield catching fly balls and working on to see what their footwork is like, their ability to catch a baseball, and then their arm strength throwing the ball from center field to third base. The other group then we will break out to see who will do infield work. We’ll line them all up at shortstop. We’ll have two ground balls each. They’ll throw it over to first base and then they’ll rotate in their group there. Once we’re done with that, the groups will rotate again so the infield will go outfield, the outfield comes in the infield. Once we finished that and everyone’s gotten plenty of reps on both sides, the outfield and the infield, we then keep the groups as they are. One group will go hit and one group will stay, and those who pitch will pitch, and those that will catch will catch.
Generally speaking at the youth level, everybody is a pitcher or thinks they’re a pitcher. All of them will pitch and we’ll have maybe three catchers at once, catching for three pitchers. We will evaluate them that way. Once they’re done, that group will stay and they’ll run. We’ll get their time from home to first. Meanwhile, the group is taking batting practice. Once that group is done, they rotate and then they’ll hit. The other group will be with me doing pitching, catching and running. We try and take into consideration all the different aspects. We try and give them a fair chance in terms of how many reps they may get, how many ground balls, how many fly balls, how many swings they get in batting practice to see a good evaluation of where their talent level lies
Are there a few things maybe you’re looking for besides just the skills?
I always tell my kids that I work with who are getting ready for high school baseball, especially the freshmen trying out for freshman baseball. There are a couple things that I always think are very important. Number one is make sure you look like a baseball player. Make sure you wear baseball pants, make sure you have a belt on, make sure your shirt is tucked in, and make sure you have a hat on. If you don’t look like a baseball player and they don’t know who you are, they’re pretty much going to quickly assume that you’re not a baseball player. Dress the part, look the part. The second one is always pick out somebody that you know that you can play catch with. The worst sound in the world is a baseball hitting the bleacher. If the ball hits the bleacher, as the coach, you look to see where that ball came from. We don’t know if it was a bad catch or a bad throw. You already made a little earmark next to your name especially when it happens multiple times. You want to make sure you pick somebody that you know who can catch and play catch with you without throwing balls all over the place. The third one is making sure that you hustle and run. A coach asks everyone to pick up balls, make sure when you’re picking up balls, don’t walk from station to station and hustle. Those are the three things that apply across the board even at the youth level. Obviously with the youth, you don’t necessarily know as many kids if you’re trying out. If you do, grab a partner that you know you can play catch with.
[Tweet “The worst sound in the world is a baseball hitting the bleacher.”]
The other part of the intangible is separating the youth from the high school. The intangibles to me are: What is their background? Do they have a good set of parents? Are their parents going to be a problem? I’d rather have twelve kids in a team that have average or slightly above average talent with twelve supporting families who are there for the right reason, versus twelve studs and I’ve got ten problems because all ten of them want their son to play shortstop. From an intangible standpoint, as a parent, you have to entrust that your son is in a good place. You had him tryout there because you are hoping and thinking that he can make the team. Let the coaches coach and you need to be a parent. That’s one of the intangibles. The other one too is trying to see from a development side. You can look and see whether the kid has some raw ability and never did receive any coaching, or is there a kid that physically is immature at this time and you look at his parents, his dad is 5’7” and his mom is 5’ 4”. There’s a very good chance that there’s not much growing left there, versus a kid who comes in and looks like a baby giraffe. His dad is 6’4” and his mom is six foot. The dad played college sports somewhere. You’re like, “This kid’s got some genes in there somewhere.”
There’s a lot more that goes into it. It is hard trying to read some of those things at the youth level. The high school side, the year between your freshman and sophomore year is the most important. Most kids will grow and mature during that year, which for me going to a program that has two freshman teams is really important. You don’t know that the player that you may cut, you don’t know where he may have been. In my years at Mt. Carmel in our first tryout, we cut a kid named Julian Gomez. As a freshman, he got cut. He came back as a sophomore and got cut. He came back as a junior and he made the team. He ended up pitching at College of St. Francis. You never know who those kids aren’t just going to take no for an answer. There are a lot of things that are going on. I don’t mind forcing the kids to compete because that’s what life’s all about.
There are so many things that go into who you’re going to choose and that kind of thing. The one other thing that I like to tell my kids is to make eye contact with the coach, and even if they’re not good at doing that, to make sure they look like they’re listening. Coaches want kids that are coachable and kids that are staring at them. You have a tendency to think, “They’re the ones listening,” and they may not be. If there is good eye contact there, I think coaches feel good about that, that it’s a coachable player. Most coaches like to think everything they say is very important. The more it looks like the kids are listening, that can give them an edge to making the team. A couple of things that are tough for you is breaking the news to a kid that maybe played for you in the past that just didn’t make your team the second time around. How do you go about dealing with that situation where a kid just doesn’t quite measure up to some of the kids that tried out that maybe weren’t on your team previously?
It’s hard because at the end of the day, it’s kids playing baseball. The travel world has grown to something that is well beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. A lot of it has gotten watered down which has affected in-house programs. There are communities that have very good in-house programs because they’ve been able to have kids in-house and be able to get them to play on a traveling team as well within the organization. Hinsdale is a byproduct of that. They just won their third consecutive State Championship with the same team. A lot of those kids will also play in-house but they also play travel. You’re giving multiple kids opportunities to play in-house where you create that neighborhood rivalry thing where you’re sitting next to a kid in class and you’re going to play with him later that day. It all stems from a lot of parental involvement. Every parent thinks their kids are the very best and if he’s not playing shortstop in that third, “I’m going to take the proverbial ball and go home,” and he is taking three kids with him. All of a sudden, you’ve got three teams made up out of one. You end up struggling trying to find kids. It’s reached the point where it may have to start coming back a little bit. There are a lot of teams out there that just simply are not very good. The reason why is because they’re not practicing right, they’re not developing right. They’re more concerned about playing games than they are of practicing. Their development plan and their mindset are a little different.
In the beginning of most tryouts, it’s important for coaches to gather the parents and the kids together, and explain exactly what you’re looking for and how you’re going to make your evaluations. Then inform people that this isn’t personal at all, I just can go by what I see and what I know, that they don’t think that it’s personal. People get offended if they don’t make the team. You can just tell them that you’re going to be as honest as you can in your evaluations, that you’re going to be honest when you give them feedback, and also telling kids that there’s always next year if they don’t make the team. “I’d like you to keep working hard and work on certain things so that maybe the following year, I’d love for you to try out once again.”Things change. Kids hop teams all the time. We’re always going to be looking for good players. If your skill is just a little short at this point, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be later. Size can be everything at the youth level. Kids grow a little bit. They should never give up on themselves, the players or the parents, if they really like the game of baseball, they stay at it and keep playing and things change.
When I was growing up, we played a lot of ball by ourselves. I lived in the city. I lived in a corner. We used the four corners as the bases and we played lob Wiffle ball or we played fast-pitch Wiffle ball against the house, or we go to the school which is a block away and we get rubber balls and play fast-pitch. We were always playing. You improve your skills because you were just playing, and by playing you’re practicing. That’s not happening today. You don’t have kids outside playing catch or kids outside playing running bases. You don’t have kids out there playing lob Wiffle ball and having games. That has hurt a little bit. There are great facilities out there that are trying to teach the kids, but if you’re only getting lesson once a week, the truth be told, there’s a lot of families who can’t afford that consistent base of level of training. If they’re not doing it at home, their skill set is not going improve.
Sam, what about assistant coaches, is there anything you look for in an assistant coach besides his son being a great player and you take him on as an assistant? What do you like to have in an assistant coach?
[Tweet “The coaches need to be coachable and the coaches need to be able to coach.”]
Any assistant at any level, whether it’s an assistant in baseball or whether it’s an assistant in work, you have to make sure that that assistant is 100%supportive of your message and your philosophy. I don’t necessarily want a yes man. I’m open to discussion, I’m open to ideas. There are things that he may see that I don’t. At the end of the day, if we make a decision or I make a decision, we’re looking to be supportive of that. The other part is making sure that it’s somebody that I can trust to run a drill for me with a set of kids the way I want it to be run. The coaches need to be coachable and the coaches need to be able to coach. That’s an important trait for them. The other part of that is making sure they’re not selfish people. Some people coach for the main purpose of their kids. I’ve been very fortunate that hasn’t happened with me. You see that more times than not where you get the butting heads of coaches because one says one and one thinks the other and lose the respect for the authority. Your head coach, you’ve got to respect that that’s his decision and he is writing up the lineup card and where the kids are going in. It’s important that there are two ways of communicating and making sure that I’m open to any suggestions they may have.
Trust is so important. I’m a low key-type coach. I’ve always worked best when I have an assistant that maybe is a little more forceful and we have both sides working. I tell the coaches, “It’s not a bad idea if you want your coach to have the same philosophy as you. If they have a different personality, that can be good too.” You have the rah-rah coach and then the little more laid-back coach. That works really well with teams and with kids. That’s another thing that you can benefit from in having a coach with enthusiasm. You just can’t beat that. No matter their personality, if they’re enthusiastic, you can never go wrong with having a coach in that vein.
It’s going to be a fun positive atmosphere.
What about missed practices for non-health reasons or non-family or important reasons, how do you deal with your missed practices as far as game play? Do you adjust anything if they miss practices?
Not in the early part of the year. I’m a big proponent of playing multiple sports. If we do start our practices, let’s say, the first week of January. For instance, my son plays travel basketball. There are a couple kids who play hockey, a couple of kids who play basketball. I do my best before setting my practice schedule to find out what days are most convenient for everybody. I know that in January and February, it’s basketball season. Your commitment should be to basketball and your basketball team. I’ll never hold that against a player. The other part of that is I’ve been very adamant about getting a schedule done as soon as I can. In the past, I’ve gotten tournament scheduled, game scheduled, and I can give the parents a good idea mid-March of what our commitments are going to be. That may help them plan a vacation or a getaway.
We had never played a tournament on the Fourth of July weekend. We don’t want to do Fourth of July weekend because maybe that’s a good break for them going into the last two weeks of the season. Let them get to a lake house of somebody or their cousins may have a lake house, or whatever the case may be. They know that they have that four-day or five-day stretch in which there is going to be no baseball. Trying to teach kids accountability and responsibility is having them let me know that they’re not going to be at practice. Communicate with me. If you’re going to miss practice for whatever reason, I understand it’s going to happen. Not calling and not letting me know, then that’s where the problem comes in. That would be the only way that I would take it out on playing time. I would never sit a player the entire game. Sometimes it’s not kids fault if he doesn’t drive yet, but you try to instill that accountability responsibility in them.
Getting it on the calendar early is huge. Set your schedule so parents know right away. These are the days that we’re planning on doing things and that helps them too and it can help you. What’s most important is to set your policy at the beginning so parents have that understanding right away. “Here’s what’s going to happen especially during the season if you miss practices or whatever.”Throw that at them once the season comes, because for whatever reason, all of a sudden that’s your policy and they didn’t know about it isn’t fair to anybody. I always tell everybody, “There’s a way of keeping an equal playing time, keeping it fair, but still having a policy of if you’re going to miss more practices then the next kid that’s making it, everyone.”I don’t think that’s necessarily bad either as long as the parents know that, “Here is our policy.”If you can make equal playing time over the whole season is important too. What about game day, do you have any rules for parents as far as game day, behavior, or anything?
The first rule for parents is getting their kids at field on time or roughly around that start time. I know sometimes difficult with multiple kids going in multiple directions, but I try and get them to understand using a carpool system. Trying to figure out getting kids from A to B is number one, first and foremost. We’ve got to get them there on time. The second part is I’ve been pretty strict about their behavior in the field. Don’t talk or chant poorly about or to the opponent. I certainly don’t want them to communicate with the umpire. Any talk or anything that needs to be brought to the umpire’s attention, it’s got to be done with me. In five years, I haven’t had any issues with that. If you play the game and you’ve establish yourself, you get that respect and that helps. A first year coach or a new coach may not necessarily give that, but it’s very important to establish that from the get-go.
There are so many things that disrupt a lot of games nowadays. The attention is brought to the stands instead of on the games. That’s another thing coaches have to be responsible for, the parent behavior. I used to tell them, “I don’t want you near the dugout unless there’s an injury or something. You shouldn’t be walking up to your kid and giving them advice during games which you see all the time.” I always like Mike Matheny‘s philosophy of silent communication or just low-key communication. Even though everybody wants to be supportive of their own kids and yell positive things, in the long run it probably isn’t helpful and just puts more pressure on or diverts their attention. The idea of a little more low-key communication from the stands is important. Definitely no getting on umpires or yelling to the other team or anything. Your focus should be only on your own team. Those are important things when dealing with a parent. Once again these things you have to establish from the start so that it doesn’t get away from you later on. What about seeing them as far as at your level, what are we talking, twelve-year-olds?
Do catchers call the pitches or do the coaches call the pitches? What do you got going now?
I have always called the pitches. None of our kids have thrown a breaking ball up until this point. We’ve gone eight through to twelve, all five years with our players just understanding how to throw a fastball for a strike and change speeds with the changeup. I have called the pitches but I make sure that there’s a dialogue between the catcher and I, trying to make sure he’s thinking what I’m thinking and why I’m doing that. Ultimately that’s a good way for the catcher to understand and learn the game, by learning how I call the 2-0 changeup before I call the 3-2 changeup. I don’t think a catcher at the twelve-year level is going to do that, just to try and move the ball in and out now. Will most pitchers hit their spots at the age of eleven or twelve? No, but it gives them a target to aim for and understands what their job is. I’m a big believer in calling them because that establishes a very good learning experience for them, both the pitcher and the catcher.
Are you calling every pitch during the game or important situations?
At what point will you hand that over? Will you do that or wait until they get to high school and let the coach there determine it?
The answer to that is your level of comfort with the catcher. Does the catcher have an understanding? Is he truly a leader or is he is just very good at what he does and then you tell him what to do? Personality has certainly something to do with that. There are a lot of high schools that will still call pitches and there are some high schools that don’t. There are some college programs that call pitches. There are some college programs that don’t. It’s a personal preference. A lot of that has to do with your comfort level with the catcher.
Even at the Big League level, they don’t trust a lot of catchers sometimes. It’s not an easy thing nowadays with all the numbers involved and the stats that they have. They go by the books and they think that they probably know more than the catcher on how to get hitters out. I like at some point see the catchers give it a try too and then ask him after, “What were you thinking in this situation?”There are many ways to go about that also. Joe Maddon has the Respect 90,running down the baseline and batted balls. You see a lot of kids moping in and out off the field. What’s your philosophy there and is there anything you’ll do to change that?
Sprinting out of the box and trying to get to second base out of the box, you’re just respecting the game. That’s the way the game should be played. I agree immensely with Joe Maddon’s philosophy. Running off the field or on the field, for me, depending on what dugout we’re in, it ends up being a contest to the farthest positions. If the right fielder is beating somebody in the dugout, then there’s a problem, or vice versa. For the first base dugout, that left fielder better not beat anybody in the dugout. The same thing with getting on the field. I want to be on the field before the other team gets off, especially if they’re lazy. You have some teams that just will walk off. I want as many guys out on the field in their position as soon as possible. One, it keeps the game moving. That’s a whole different subject in terms of what they’re trying to do at the Big League level, on the pro side of speeding the game up. It comes down to respecting the game. I make sure that my players understand that. I’ve said from the very first day that I started this was that, “The game has given me a lot. I’m just trying to give it back to what was given to me.”
To me it’s a sign of a good coach, seeing players hustling in and out. Also it just shows kids want to be there. That’s important to keep them moving, hustling, and how many times did they bat in a game? There’s no reason they can’t run hard three or four times. There’s always that level there’s no guarantee the plays are going to be made. There’s certainly no reason if you hit the ball not to be running when the ball’s hit. Sam, I have one more question here and this one maybe can be most helpful for coaches. You’ve had a successful travel team and you’re in many tournaments. What is your philosophy and how do you go about getting to that championship game and winning a tournament? I know it’s not always about winning the early games necessarily of a tournament, but it’s having the right plan to win the whole tournament. Are there any tips you can give coaches on how to go about winning a tournament?
[Tweet “Let the kids be in positions to be successful and not try and do anything outside the box.”]
There are probably a lot of coaches that are going to not agree with my philosophy here. Because of the age level that we’re in, I’ve always stressed the process and playing the game the right way. If you accomplish that and your players understand that and you put your players in a position to be successful all the time, all of the other stuff takes care of itself. When you look at a bracket and see who you’re playing, if it’s a much lesser opponent, I’ll move some pitching around and things like that. I’ll never jeopardize the team’s success because I want to get to the next game. You teach your kids, “Do what’s in front of you and you play the game.”The game’s hard enough as it is, let alone the opponent. We’ve been very successful by just playing the game that way. Let the kids be in positions to be successful and not try and do anything outside the box. We don’t overthrow anybody. We’re very, very strict about that. Sometimes you get to a championship game and I’ve got to throw a kid who doesn’t pitch very much. To me that’s more important than winning a trophy, if I’ve got to come back and throw a child additional innings and additional pitches. My son’s a pitcher, I would certainly do it to him and I would certainly do it to anybody else. That’s how I feel. If I wouldn’t do it to my son, I wouldn’t do it to yours.
Just go out and play every game as if it’s the last game in a sense. That’s a way of teaching kids that you play hard every game no matter your opponent. I don’t know how many times I remember coaching, when you start to coach seventeen and eighteen-year olds, they’ll play down their competition every time when they feel like they have an easy game. Then they end up having a tough game because they think it’s going to be easy. If you have that philosophy, “We go out, we play hard every game, and you pitch a guy you’re supposed to pitch,” then things work out the best in the long run. That’s a great philosophy and I don’t see a lot of coaches that do that. They might try to gear everything up for that first game after they pull a play, the next thing you know they get bounced out because the kids went from not playing very hard and all of a sudden they got to turn it on. It’s not always that easy. Sam, I appreciate having you here and answering the questions on a travel program and how we go about that. A lot of coaches can learn from this. What’s going on at the Diamond Edge Academy?
We’re just getting ready for Fall Ball. This will be our first time we started Fall Ball. We’ve gotten a lot of questions and complaints about other programs that run. Our Fall Ball is quite different. It’s a nine-week program. Everything is within our facility and within our staff. We’re combining seven and eights, nine and tens, eleven and twelves, thirteen and fourteens. Two days a week, you’re practicing one day outside and one day inside. On Saturdays, we’re going to play games. Everything is within the group. When you’re outside on that Tuesday you’re practicing, your skill set is going to be maybe groundballs and defensive work to fly balls and base running. When you come inside, let’s say it’s Thursday, you’re going to spend an hour in a cage or doing some pitching. You’ll also spend an hour doing some speed and agility work to become more athletic.
On Saturday mornings, we’ll have some games and we’ll break those up based on the amount of kids we have and then try and make teams amongst those. That’s our number one thing we have going on here now. You can find more about that online at our website which is www.DiamondEdgeAcademy.com. We’ve got hockey in here now, Hockey Biomechanics. They’ve taken over about 4,000 square feet and they’ve got some synthetic ice. It’s a training facility similar to a baseball cage. It’s a skill set training facility. They work on passing, shooting, skating, receiving, body positioning, things that they can do in that facility. Later this month, we’ve got DR3 opening which is Rest & Recovery which is the cryotherapy units, the NormaTec Compression, sleep treatment, massage therapy and so forth. A lot going on, always busy. It’s been a good year so far.
That sounds like a great program. If they’re an individual or have a few friends or even a team, can they come in and sign up for that program you’re having?
Yeah. They can sign up as a group or they can sign up as an individual. We will separate them into teams based on the evenness of the talent. Our staff will coach. Our staff will run the practices. It truly is a developmental skill set program.
I’ve always told parents and kids, “The best time of the year to help your player improve is in the fall after the season because they’re still in baseball shape.” They’re still watching baseball on TV. They’re still interested in it. The weather is usually great. It’s a time that they can really advance their skills to have a program where they practice more than they play games. It’s just a wonderful thing in my estimation. We encourage questions and also tell your friends about us. Something Worth Catching is just that. You can reach me at www.BaseballCoachingTips.net. As always, we have a little inspirational story at the end. Go out and buy my book if you get a chance; put a coach in your life. Thanks and we’ll see you again next time.
I like to tell stories to my students because of the impact one had on me when I was young. When I was a young ballplayer, one of my favorite players was Mickey Mantle. I read a story about him, a true story that stayed with me all through my playing days and to this day, and one that I relayed to my students. When Mickey was in Minor League Baseball, he was struggling something fierce. One day, he called home to talk to his father and he said to his dad, “I think this game is just too tough for me. I can’t make it.” His dad listened for a while and then they hung up. A couple hours later in the middle of the night, Mickey’s father shows up at his door knocking at 3:00 in the morning. Mickey opens the door and said, “What’s up dad?” His dad comes in with a suitcase and starts packing all his gear. Mickey’s like, “What’s going on?” His dad said, “Apparently, this game’s too tough for you so I think it’s time for you to come back to Oklahoma with me, back to the coal mines, and you can be a coal miner like me.” It didn’t take long for Mickey to realize that was not a good solution to his hitting struggles. He had to talk his dad out of taking him back home with him. The important thing for kids to realize and ballplayers and all of us, is that the amount of sacrifice that goes into allowing kids the opportunity to play sports. Sometimes we forget the sacrifice that coaches and parents make. It’s important to be very grateful for the opportunity. That’s another reason to go out and play as hard as you can. We look forward to seeing you again to another episode of Something Worth Catching. See you next time.