Today’s story at the end of this podcast has a great message for coaches of all levels and attests to the importance of positive coaching. So many coaches become cynical and take the joy out of the game for the players. This story is about one of those negative coaches. Fortunately, this coach received the necessary wake-up call in time to put the fun back in the game for the players, as fun is the number one reason kids play sports.
In this episode of Something Worth Catching with former major league player, Jack Perconte, and Sam Zagorac, the owner of the Diamond Edge Academy in Willowbrook, IL. they answer the following questions:
- What is the hardest thing to teach young ballplayers when it comes to hitting a baseball?
- Why couldn’t the Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward make the necessary alterations to his baseball swing last season to be a productive hitter?
- What suggestions do Jack and Sam have to make travel baseball better?
- What is the best advice to give parents for their son’s or daughter’s training for the up-coming season?
- What are some of the best indoor fielding tips for coaches to try?
- What are some of the keys for coaching beginners in the game of baseball
Listen to the podcast here:
Power Of Positive Coaching
Our goal with all of these podcasts is to help people learn more about the game of baseball, especially how to help their sons and daughters improve their game and have a better baseball experience for everybody. That’s what we hope to do and we hope you tell your friends about our podcast and your teams. We can help you and we encourage all questions. Sam, how are you doing?
I’m doing well, Jack. How are you?
I’m doing good. Every day we’re closer to spring training and baseball season, so it’s an exciting time of the year.
It is a great time. It’s that time where you’re happy and you’re sad. With a number of college and pro guys that I worked with, everyone has gone back to school. The pro guys have packed up and gone for a warm weather. You start to realize it’s right around the corner.
The warm weather sounds good. If you don’t have the warm weather I get in here at the academy where it’s nice and warm, you can practice your game the same way. Sam and I have questions that we don’t know who’s going to get which question. We pick one out and we fire away and then we discuss that topic. Without further ado, I’ll let Sam ask the first question and we’ll get rolling.
What indoor fielding tips do you recommend before teams can get outside?
Indoors is not a true baseball in a sense. You have to be very careful when you’re teaching indoors, the fielding part of it, because the hops are so true indoors whereas outside they’re not true. I’ve seen too often where kids can put the glove or the ball’s going to go no matter what. It looks like a great fielder indoors and the minute they go outside, balls are going through their legs, they’re not lining things up correctly. On the fielding, coaches need to work from low to high. I encourage a lot of ground balls that start very low to the ground in a sense, so gloves get down low right away. Kids get use to work in low to high because they can get fooled so much when they first get outside and they develop bad habits by working indoors.
I prefer, at the beginning, rolling balls to kids instead of hitting them off the bat where the hops are going to come up and be true. There are ways of making balls jump up on them a little bit by bouncing them the correct way. That might help. I like starting out with slow ground balls initially to get players, especially the young ones, very aggressive to the ball. A lot of times, we’d come out hitting balls hard at first, and so they get tentative and always get used to laying back where I want them aggressive, move into balls and not letting the ball play them. That’s another tip that’s important, to get kids charging balls and being aggressive and definitely work in low to high is the most important on fielding drills.
Especially being up north, we’re starting to see more and more outdoor fields go to the field turf for maintenance issues and weather issues. You’re getting kids that are playing a little bit more on the synthetic surface. From a basic level, you’ve got to understand what your feet are doing and how your feet work and how your feet get you to a ball, what your hands are doing, how your hand receives the ball. We do a lot of infield stuff and most of it is run by a former Big League player, JJ Furmaniak. Watching him do some things and trying to get guys to understand and react even like a tennis ball and how a tennis ball will bounce and come get a short hop or create a long hop, being able to do that and how your eyes and the baseball will dictate what your feet are going to do. It’s a good way to practice the fundamentals. Understand that if you don’t have good feet, you can’t be a good infielder. I don’t care how good your glove is but if your feet can’t get you there and get you moving through the ball, it’s pretty difficult to be an infielder.
You mentioned JJ Furmaniak, a great young man. He’s got a great coaching future. I worked with him many years ago and he’s a passionate young coach that is going to do well and you want involved in the game of baseball.
He’s one of those guys that I point a lot of kids to. He was Division II player, mid-twenty something round pick. I don’t think anyone gave him a chance. He worked extremely hard. He was not a very big guy but he’s one of the very few that played in the Big League game and wore a Big League uniform. I’m very happy to have him here. He’s really good at what he does. He’s very passionate. He’s great with the kids.
What are some of the key things for teaching baseball to beginners like five and six-year-old kids?
Getting them to understand how their hand is an extension into their glove. I’ve done some youth camps before where you put the glove on a kid’s hand and they want to catch everything with their palm up to the sky. Then you hit a little tennis ball or racquetball and you toss it to them without the glove, all of a sudden their fingers are pointing up and they catch it the right way. What the glove does and how the glove changes their position with their hands is quite interesting. It may be weight-involved, I’m not sure, but number one is trying to get them to not be scared of the ball and trying to get them to have some success immediately. Some of the kids have a hard time throwing. Trying to get them into a position where when they leave here they’re better than they were when they came here, and they’re excited about coming back.
I would go the same route because right away, you went to the glove. To me, teaching a kid to catch a ball the correct way is the thing I want out of a beginner. Learn to catch. Most parents and coaches, the first thing they’re going to mention is, “Grab a bat and let’s start hitting.” It’s not the most important thing at that age. Catching the ball is first. Throwing is as important, to throw correct and catch correct. Hitting is probably third on the list of teaching kids, even though that’s what most parents are going to do with their kids at three years old, get them a Wiffle bat and let them swing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you can’t neglect the catch and throw at a young age for their enjoyment later. If you can catch and throw, you got the rest of your career to correct on your hitting too. Those are the most important things for beginners, learn to catch and throw the ball correctly.
We’re coming up on the high school tryout season. I tell those kids who are going to freshmen tryouts a couple of things. One, I always tell them to show up at tryouts looking like a baseball player. Make sure you have baseball pants on, a hat and a belt and you look like a player. Number two is to make sure you partner up with someone who can catch and throw as well. As a former high school coach, the worst sound in the world is a baseball off the bleachers. If you’re playing catch with someone who can’t catch the ball, he’s going to make you look bad. The last part is if you can catch and you can throw, you have a very good chance to make the team because you’re a little more versatile. You can play different positions. You can maybe pitch. Whereas if you can’t throw and you can’t catch, and all you can do is hit, it’s pretty difficult because there’s only one DH.
I will have to add though, I always tell my high school kids trying out, if you’re going to be offline with your throw, throw it over to the guy’s head as opposed to below their feet because a coach is going to be impressed by stronger arm, so if you’re going to miss, miss over it. “It looks like your arm’s strong, you’re just not that accurate.” You have to show off a strong arm there.
As kids begin to train for baseball, what advice do you give the parents about their training?
This gets back to some of the things we’ve discussed over the course of our podcast. Kids have to have a game plan for the whole season and not just going into things blindly. They need to have a focus on where they need to improve and how to go about improving that. If they can get that from their team coach, a coach that can find out their strengths, weaknesses and to have a game plan for improving those, then that’s great. For coaches that are not that adept at teaching the finer points of the game to where their kid can improve, then I recommend parents start out the season by giving their son a lesson or two where a qualified coach can give that player direction and a good start to the season knowing their strengths and their weaknesses. That’s so important on improving is knowing how to improve. It’s hard to know it if you don’t know your strengths and weaknesses. I always tell players, especially hitters, “Work on your weaknesses but play to your strength.” That’s important. If kids never learn or don’t know what their strengths and weaknesses are, then it’s hard to improve. Parents need to help their kids to find those strengths and weaknesses from the beginning so they have a plan for the whole season.
[Tweet “Teaching a kid to catch a ball the correct way is the thing I want out of a beginner.”]
Two things that coincide with that is number one, with the amount of different travel organizations that are out there, number one is trying to find the right fit for your son and your daughter is extremely important. At the youth levels, organizations have put an emphasis on player development, teaching the game the right way, respecting the game and placing a high level of importance on practice versus the organizations that, “It’s win, win, win,” and, “We’re going to play tournaments every weekend.” Playing the games are great, but playing tournaments every weekend with nines and tens, it’s pretty difficult to do from a safety reason, for the overuse of pitching and so on and so forth. Number one is trying to find the right fit for you. Secondly, getting them involved or signed up for a pre-season camp, whether it’s a hitting camp or a pitching camp or a basic skills camp to try and give them the tools to start the year off the right way is number one. Number two is try to reinforce some of the good instruction and good skills that they already have.
It’s difficult these days because parents pay a good dollar for their kid to be on a team and then to ask them or insist they go and spend more money for instruction. It’s a tough sell but for the overall good of their child’s mindset and improvement in the game, sometimes it’s important to do those things, to get them in camps and lessons, at least a couple to give them the right direction. Jason Heyward struggled big time. Why was he not able to make the changes necessary, and not only necessary, why couldn’t he do that during the season? A lot of times they say it’s hard during the season, but why did that happen where you get such a tough year the whole season long?
Two things. There are some mechanical issues that he has that he currently is trying to fix now this off-season. For the professional player, the importance of being able to make physical adjustments to your swing during the off season is the important part. Playing every day and trying to maintain what you do during the season is important. A couple of things with him is that if he got stuck in a position where he had no lower half, his hands became very still. I do know that they were trying different things during the course of the year. They tried to lose his grip. They tried to change his hand placement, things that he was able to do in the cage on the early work before the game. It was very difficult for him to carry into the game, a lack of confidence in what he was doing in terms of the change. You’re dealing with maybe one of the best five athletes in the entire game, so there was some frustration mentally as well. He beat himself up. He signed a contract for $180 million or something. I’m very curious to see how the changes that they’ve applied this off season will work out for him. I do know he’s got nowhere else to go but up. Everything that I’ve heard about him as a person is great. You root for those guys and you hope that he has a great year for them.
I’m pretty confident he will because he sounds like the type character and the athlete is there. It is perplexing to me though when he struggled early and struggled the whole season long with the amount of technology and the coaching he has that he wasn’t able to improve over the course of the season. It is perplexing but having been there before, I know it’s not easy. I do believe with the technology nowadays that there should’ve been some improvement through the course of the season, in my mind. You saw things wrong with his swing. I thought I saw things wrong with his swing. There were ways to help him that I don’t know if they were tried, but they obviously did not come about. No indictment against anybody, but it’s surprising someone of his athletic ability wasn’t able to make some adjustments through the season to become better.
I’ve got a very good relationship with the hitting coach there, John Maley. We’ve had several discussions in regards to different changes that were made. It certainly wasn’t a lack of effort from both parties. It’s something that as a player who takes ownership of his own swing, there’s that level of comfort that you have to have when you get in the box. That’s the one thing that he could not apply. It’s funny because the year prior to last year with Addison Russell, they worked on a leg lift with him all spring. He worked on it of his early work in the cage before games. He didn’t feel comfortable with the leg lift until about June of last year or the year before, and he’s been doing leg lift ever since. It does depend individually on the player, but it was certainly not a lack of work. You see players from time to time who have terrible years. To Jason’s credit, the fact that he went out and won a Gold Glove shows you that he was able to put aside his struggles offensively and be able to do what he had to do to make the team better and help the team win and go out there and play a Gold Glove outfield.
I used him as an example to some of my parents trying to tell them a superstar like Jason Heyward couldn’t make changes during the season, “Don’t expect your kids to automatically be able to do something without his ability.” It’s not that easiest stuff.
It is a great teaching point to that. You’re going to struggle offensively. There’s going to be a time during the summer that you’re going to struggle. All players go through it. Those players who stand out are the ones that don’t let it affect you on the defensive side. They’ll go out and play well defensively and be aware of the game situation and where the ball goes and, “If the ball hit to me, what am I going to do?” They don’t let it affect you on the defensive side. Those are the players who make it. Those are the ones that gets back to the mental toughness and the preparation. Those are the ones who make it.
Timing is important. If Jason Heyward did that as a rookie, that type of season, he’s down to the Minor Leagues and may never ever get a chance again back at the Big Leagues. He is established enough to where he’s going to get the chances he deserves. He’s earned that right to stay up there and keep working it out.
Jack, what things would you suggest to make things better for youth baseball, especially in regards to travel baseball?
You have more experience with this than me at this point. The big thing is maybe adding a player or two. They have enough players too. That’s difficult with Travel Ball because you want to make sure everybody gets enough playing time. I often think there are not enough players on a travel ball team sometimes to handle kids that can’t show up. You end up shorthanded as you’re playing long tournaments, so you’re running the pitchers down too easily because you don’t have enough pitching. I like to see where teens were required to carry an extra player more than they have so they can handle kids not being there without taxing everybody else and wearing kids down. They have to play and you get these hot summer days and you only have ten guys at the game. You play three or four days in a row and two games a day. It is too much for kids and it can lead to burnout. Just off hand, having more players and working with parents about how we’re going to make sure everybody gets equal playing time might mean that your kid hits a little bit, but that’s okay over the course of the season.
I’m in the middle of it now with both of my boys. One thing that would help is trying to limit the number of games. Playing somewhere in the 40 to 50 number is plenty. You get some organizations and some teams that are playing 70 to 80 games. That’s more than short season plays and they’re playing every day. That would be number one, where you take away some of the games or limit the games and then add in practices. It’s harder to replace game experience, but if you don’t pin up game experience and practice follow-up together, it’s hard to learn from that experience. As a coach, for me, I try and make as many notes on a card in my back pocket during the game as I can. As a reminder, at the next practice we can go over those things. If you’re always playing and you’re not practicing, it’s very difficult to be able to cover those things and go over them properly. On the other side too is that you’re getting coaches that are trying to win at all costs. Winning is important. You have to teach them how to win and you teach them to compete in order to win. We’ve had experiences last year where we had and eleven-year-old kid throw 80 pitches. That’s absurd to me. There’s no level of protection for the player either. Trying to limit the games and increase the number of practices would be a good start.
We’re still working out that balance between the number of games and practices. The other balance we have to find in this sport is getting away from the basically season long practicing for one sport. One coach does it and then the next coach thinks, “I have to compete with them so we better start doing it.” Before you know it, you have all your sports play in nine to ten months a year. It gets to be a little too much for kids. That’s a balance that youth sport has to find too in youth baseball where we cannot overload kids with too many months of the game.
The other one too is trying to put in pitch limits instead of inning limits. Some coach will have kids eat up innings and they’ve thrown 50 pitches in inning and they’ll go out there because they have three innings left. There has to be two more accountability in regards to how some of these coaches are treating their players as well.
What aspect of hitting do you find to be the hardest thing to teach to young hitters?
Dealing with the younger players is trying to get them to understand body control, the importance of balance and staying on center. The youth players can do some things out of sequence. The issue of them not maintaining balance or over-striding or under-striding even to that point, and figuring out what the right amount of space is between their feet, it’s hard to give an answer to the one thing. To me, it would be trying to get kids to understand where they’re at in space, the spatial awareness, where their body’s at. That’s the biggest thing. That’s all sports related. You get kids who are trying to jump for basketball but they can’t get up off the ground because their knees aren’t bent and they’re not exploding off the ground. There are so many different things, but for me, it’s trying to get kids understand the lower half. I’m a lower half guy. The lower half is a very important part of the swing and swing start. Trying to get kids understand getting in the ground and having some balance and some proper spaces is first thing first.
The balance and the sequence of the swing are crucial. Hitting position and all those things are crucial and they’re the first thing. Getting maybe a little beyond the youth for the younger hitters, the one thing I always felt was one of the hardest things to teach was the rhythm and load, the idea of loading the bat with a rhythm with the pitcher. Some kids have a natural rhythm where they can load and get prepared, and other kids don’t have that. Kids that don’t have a natural feeling for getting the bat ready, it is a constant process of trying to get them to figure out not only to load the back correctly, but when to load it with a rhythm where they’re not breaking up their sequence and starting and stopping and looking very mechanical. The load, I always thought, was a very tough thing to teach, especially the young hitters. What we talked about with Jason Heyward a little bit, trying to get a rhythm and getting a bat to the correct spot on time and all that is not that easy for some hitters.
It gets back to the whole balance issue and trying to get them to understand they’ve got to work between their feet.
Sam, getting back to the one thing you didn’t mention there, hitting has to be ground up and it’s so important. However, without a decent swing path, I’ve always felt like I’ve wasted my time on the lower half if the swing path wasn’t pretty good to begin with. The coordination of the swing is not going to be there even with the right lower half. A lot of times, I’m going to address that swing path first because it’s not going to coordinate when they’re able to get the legs and the body correct. Do you agree with that or not?
I do agree that you can teach swing path separately and work on swing plane and get yourself to understand the launch angles and so forth. I do think that your lower half makes it a lot easier. Science and technology has proven that the swing does start from the ground up. Being in sequence allows your bat a much better chance of staying tighter to your backside with that swing path. I do think that you can teach it separately and get kids to understand that the importance of path is an important one. I do think that lower half does initiate that.
I can get kids to do the lower half but if their swing path isn’t pretty good, it’s useless. I can sit in a chair with no lower half and hit a line drive off a tee or with a pitcher every time with no power but with the right swing path. I can do that. I can have the best hips, weight transfer and all that, but without a good swing path, I’m not going to square up hardly any balls. Don’t you think getting the swing path correct before the lower half? Not necessarily before, but without a decent swing path, the lower half is irrelevant almost.
The swing path is a separate teach. You can work on hand path and you can work on barrel path and understanding how you stay behind balls with your body and how the barrel will work up through the zone in positive attack angle. There are different components to the swing. You can have them do the lower half and you can have a bat that lays off and have a terrible path or be real steep or get down under because of the hand position. It’s a separate teach and it could be a separate teach if they step and they maintain good balance. As they’re stepping, the barrel lays away from their head in a lay off position while the chances of them getting through a ball instead of a contact are very good.
[Tweet “Work on your weaknesses but play to your strength.”]
I will teach swing path first even though I know it’s not the most important thing necessarily. Then when I go to the most important thing, their swing, it has a chance to coordinating together. It’s how I look at things. Sam, it’s been a pleasure. Once again, you can reach me at www.BaseballCoachingTips.net. We encourage your questions on anything baseball. Then you can reach Sam at Diamond Edge Academy at Sam@DiamondEdgeAcademy.com. We would like you to tell your friends about our podcast. Sam, is there anything new at the Diamond Edge since the last time we talked?
We’re in the midst of the off-season training. We’ve got some camps coming up and clinics. We certainly have got slots available for individual work. We deal with the youth beginner to the junior high kid, all the way up to the college professional players. If there’s anything that we can do in terms of helping your kid or your son or daughter, please feel free to give us a call here. It’s 630-601-7171 or visit us on our website at www.DiamondEdgeAcademy.com.
Thanks again, Sam. I will look forward to our next podcast of Something Worth Catching like a baseball.
This short story comes to me from one of my students. I asked him one day when he came in how things were going and he said, “Not so good.” He says, “The team morale is very down.” I asked him what was wrong. He said, “Our coach is very negative, never says anything positive and is never happy with anybody’s performance.” I felt bad for the young man. When I saw him a couple weeks later, I asked him how things were going. He said, “Much better.” I said, “What happened?” He said, “The coach was giving a post-game talk one day to the team, and as usual he was berating everybody and not happy with anything. When up walked his father who was at the game that day, his father, in front of everybody, just said to his son, ‘You have turned into the coach that you didn’t like playing for when you were young.’ At that point, everything seemed to stop in time. The player says ever since then, the coach has become a much better coach, is very positive, and everybody enjoys playing for him.” This story has a few messages. Number one is that never stop being a parent to anyone. It’s important that we do not turn into the person that we didn’t intend to be. It also tells us that staying positive is the best way to be with young ballplayers. Thanks for listening and we look forward to seeing you again for our next podcast of Something Worth Catching like a baseball.
- JJ Furmaniak
- Jason Heyward
- Addison Russell