In this podcast of Something Worth catching, former major leaguer and long-time youth instructor, Jack Perconte, along with Sam Zagorac, another long-time youth coach and owner of the Diamond Edge Academy in Willowbrook IL. discuss many of the issues of youth baseball. Additionally, this podcast ends with a hilarious, true story from Jack’s playing days with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Jack Perconte has dedicated his post-major league baseball career to helping youth. He has taught baseball and softball for the past 27 years. His playing, coaching and parenting stories create better experiences for athletes and parents. Jack has written over a thousand articles on coaching baseball and youth sports. Jack is the author of “The Making of a Hitter” now $5 and “Raising an Athlete.” His third book “Creating a Season to Remember” is in the works. Jack is a featured writer for Baseball the Magazine. You can also find Jack Perconte on YouTube with over 80 fun and innovative baseball instructional videos.
Something Worth Catching Podcast EP4
Sam, it’s great to be back here with you. How are you doing?
I’m doing well, Jack. Thank you. We are in the midst of our busy time here in the off-season, and things are going well.
I know you’re a big Cubs fan. I know it’s been awhile but I do have to ask you first off. What were your feelings when the Indians tied that game seven?
The whole series was a series of emotional roller coaster. I grew up a die-hard Cubs fan. I’ve got some personal connections with the Cubs with my relationship with John Bailey. I had an opportunity to get to a couple of games, including game six in Cleveland. Game seven, when Davis hits that homerun, right away you think about the lovable losers and this isn’t our time and all that other stuff, but it’s a new team and a new direction.
You’ve got to get Jason Heyward so much credit. After the season, to have to step up like he did is just an incredible, inspirational story.
He struggled so poorly all year offensively. For him to step up and be a leader and say a few things, that just shows the type of character he has, number one. Number two is how mentally tough you have to be to play this game and being able to get your mind right and do what you need to do to get where you have to get to, and ultimately get the ring at the end of the year.
We have blind questions here. Sam and I are going to ask each other a question and discuss it for a short while. Our main goal is to help parents and ballplayers to improve their game and be ready for this upcoming season. I’ll ask Sam the first question here. What do you say to parents when they continually say in front of their child, “You have to practice more?”
I try and use the analogy of the musicians and children who take piano lessons. It’s a constant practice, especially with the younger age where you are teaching so much about basic fundamentals and the feel of what they need to do and where they need to be, which is going to give them the highest and the best chance of being successful. Confidence breeds success. For the younger kids, just putting the ball in play is a win for them, and being able to get on base. Practice is extremely important, even if it’s ten, twelve minutes a day, doing something skill-related, and even getting out and playing catch with your dad, your mom, your brother, friend, or anything. Back in the day, playing on the bases, playing fast pitch against the wall, those things seem to have gone by the wayside here in the last fifteen to twenty years. It’s important to get out and practice as much as you can.
[Tweet “Confidence breeds success “]
The one thing parents will have to be careful of is that baseball is a really hard game to just go to practice on your own. A lot of times when they say to the kids, “You need to go practice,” they think that they can just go do it by themselves. It’s not a game that you can really do that. They need to understand they either have to do it with them, or they have to set up a program or something at home, the means where kids can practice and enjoy doing it. To just go swing the bat for ten minutes on your own is about as boring as things come sometimes.
On the flip side of that, as an instructor, trying to get them to understand what their homework per se maybe, whether it’s doing some mirror work or some dry swings, and trying to incorporate some competition level to it as well helps with the youth players. Jack, number one for you. What do you do when you notice that a parent is very hard on their kid?
I have a philosophy that the harder a parent is on their child, where it just seems like they’re always on them and can’t resist giving them advice, I try to go the opposite direction. I try to kill the kid and the parent with kindness. I encourage those parents to listen in on my lessons, because I have a pretty easy-going approach where I understand how difficult this game can be. When parents can listen in and see the patience and the understanding I have with kids, that rubs off on them to where they start to realize their child is responding to me and they’re not necessarily responding to them. I hope over time that parents will come around to realize that a little more understanding approach is the best way to go.
I encourage all my parents to sit in on the lessons for two things. One is to try and be the reinforcing voice of what we’re doing during our lesson until it will be carried on. Number two is I’m also teaching them, the parent as well as the child or the player, to make sure that they’re not encouraging bad habits. The difficulty of it, it’s hard to explain that to younger parents, because when they’re young, they just hit the ball and they get on base, so everyone thinks that their kid is an 800. Every year you get older, your batting average gets a little lower, and you understand that the game is very difficult. Hitting the wrong ball with the wrong bat is certainly not easy, but positive reinforcement from the instructor and your coach is extremely important.
With a child and a young hitter, they tend to get down on themselves really quick when their parents are rough on them. It’s a constant process as a coach to keep them up and don’t let them get too down on themselves, and just tell them their hard work will pay off in time and that their parent means well. Sometimes it gets to the point where you just have to say, “Your mom or dad, they’re investing in you and they want you to do well. Just hang in there and good things will happen in time.”
I always tell people that there’s no perfect swing. There are so many variables that go on with an at-bat.
Coaches often get accused of having the cookie-cutter approach when it comes to hitting. What are your thoughts about that?
The coaches who have the cookie-cutter approach just don’t know enough. I don’t know if they’ve had the experience or they’ve done the research or they’ve done their study. The difficulty with the cookie-cutter approach is that not every kid is the same. If not every kid is the same, how could you teach them the same thing? There’s genetics involved, there’s functional ability versus functional inability, one’s athleticism. There are so many things that go into play. Whether the kid is a twelve-year-old who’s 5’11” versus a twelve-year-old who is 5’3”, there are some strength issues there as well. You have to teach in the individual. I do believe that there are absolutes and styles. Absolutes are present in all hitters. Styles are what they want you to get to certain points in the swing. The cookie-cutter approach is for coaches that mean well, but just don’t have enough of the background and understanding to teach outside of the box.
That’s the advantage of private lessons and group lessons. In a private lesson you can really work with the individual player and work with their style and form them the way that they need to hit, whereas with a group, sometimes you have to teach everybody the basic things. Sometimes that means they look the same. It’s a tough thing sometimes with groups because you can’t give each individual the attention they need to shape them exactly right.
When we do our group sessions or team sessions, we incorporate a lot of video work. The video work will clean up that cookie-cutter style and be able to allow guys, whether it’s a knee lift, a knee tuck, a toe tap, or whatever their negative move maybe, to try and work with that, and teach around that and teach the absolutes. In a group setting, it’s a little difficult because you don’t get as much time to spend with an individual.
You hit it on the head with the absolutes. There are certain things that all hitters have to do at a certain point, and you just can’t get around that. There are some absolute that if they’re not done, you’re just not going to be a good hitter. If that’s what people mean by a cookie cutter, that’s good. If you’re trying to get every hitter to look exactly the same, it’s just not going to happen.
Who are the one or two Major League pitchers you like to watch pitch?
Being from Chicago, they just see these pitchers so much more. You got to love Kyle Hendricks. He’s such a throwback to the day when guys didn’t throw 95 to 100 miles an hour. You just got to admire how he goes about his business, how he figures out ways to get guys out mentally and with his stuff. You have to push him with kids that don’t throw super-fast, and say, “It can be done without throwing over 90 miles an hour.”I like John Lester in the regard that I admire how he does not have to throw to first base, because he basically can’t. It doesn’t really affect his game and it doesn’t affect the team’s game. When other teams say, “We’re going to run, run, run on them,” and yet he’s so quick to home that it’s not that easy. I admire John Lester that he’s able to get by something that mentally is a handicap to him. He’s figured out a way to move on and not dwell on it, and still win and be a great pitcher.
With Hendricks, it’s truly remarkable in terms of how he goes about his game and how prepared he is, He pitches backwards a lot. He’ll double up and triple up on some things. It’s pretty impressive. He’s definitely one of them. I’m adding two more in there. Number one is Scherzer. I just love watching him pitch from the bulldog mentality of, “Just give me the ball, I’m staying in the game, I’m not coming out, I’m going to win this game for my team, or I’m going to keep the team right here and give us a chance to win.” He’s certainly one of them. The other one, he no longer pitches but he was one of my favorite guys to watch. It was Trevor Hoffman. He just recently got four or five votes short in the Hall of Fame. You knew he was throwing the change up. He located it and he spotted it, and you still couldn’t do anything with it. He had the mentality of, “I’m going to get you out and you don’t have a choice.” Those two are two of the guys I really enjoyed along with Hendricks.
A great changeup, you can know it’s coming and it’s still hard to hit because that arm speed fools the heck out of you. I faced pitchers in the past, like Mario Soto, that you could know it’s coming, you can look for it, and you’re still not going to square it up and hit it well. It’s just so tough. A lot of parents, they’re like, “My boy can’t hit a changeup.” I say, “If it’s a great changeup on a good location, no one can.”
[Tweet “You have to be able to adjust and hit a mistake or you have to be able to hit the fastball. “]
I tell guys all the time, especially at the higher levels, “There are only two pitches you can hit, a fast ball and a mistake. If you’re not hitting a good breaking ball then you’re not going to hit a good changeup.”You have to be able to adjust and hit a mistake or you have to be able to hit the fastball.
What do you do about players who miss practice for non-health or non-emergency reasons?
Growing up, for me playing on a team was getting on your bike and take your bike three blocks to the park, and that’s where you’re playing and that’s where you’re practicing. There’s a lot more moving parts nowadays than there were previously. You got multiple children in the house, one’s playing hockey, one daughter’s doing gymnastics, and the other son is playing baseball, and both parents are working. There are issues that you accept, and there are other issues that you have to have conversations with parents and kids as to what their level of commitment is. I understand that with the travel ball they are paying for it, so you do your best to try and juggle those schedules. From a development standpoint, it ultimately ends up hurting the child as much as anybody else. Team-wise, you’ve got players that are there, they’re getting better, and they’ve committed themselves to that. At the end of the day, the kid doesn’t drive yet. If he drives, then that’s a whole different conversation. You try and find some happy medium, but the practices are more important to the games to me at the yearly age.
From a coaching standpoint, it gets back to a fairness issue that you have to discuss with the parents at the beginning of the season. If you have a boy that’s showing a pattern of missing practices because he’s playing another sport or something, and the commitment maybe isn’t the same, does he deserve to start every game even though he may be better than someone else, but that other player shows up every game? That’s where the fairness issue is something that needs to be addressed. Maybe it’s the level of play that determines whether a kid has to sit out a little bit or extra. Kids that show the commitment, show up all the time, deserve more than maybe someone that’s better than them at a position but doesn’t show the same commitment.
I encourage younger players to play multiple sports. It’s important to do that and be active and learn multiple sports. It’s just during baseball season, baseball should have the priority over a hockey practice, let’s say. If it’s during basketball season or hockey season, and you have a baseball workout, I would respect and understand that it’s hockey season and that’s where your priority is. It’s important to play multiple sports, but it’s also important to commit to the one during that time.
The further question is seeing how you do coach a twelve-year-old team, if a kid shows a pattern that he is going to miss a practice a week or he barely ever shows up, do you ever sit him the next game for a few innings for that reason or you wouldn’t?
I track an instant that our players play. We set the defensive patterns and positions in innings prior to the game. It’s on an Excel sheet that’s up on the clipboard in the dug-out so everyone knows where they’re going each and every inning. There are players that if they’re missing a practice or two during the week, we do practice during the week, then he may have to sit an extra inning than somebody else. Sometimes again, it’s having to determine is the issue parental-related, not being able to get them there, or is it that he’d made the decision to go somewhere else outside of practice. That weighs in a little differently as well.
That’s a tough issue for coaches. At the beginning of the season, it’s worth discussing with parents your plan so that they don’t get blindsided later. Fairness is fairness, and you have to figure that out for each team.
What are your thoughts on a no-strike hitting approach?
There’s a usefulness for it. The younger the player, I like it sometimes because they just can’t get over the step and swing at the same time or the idea that they don’t lunge at the ball. There’s a usefulness to it at a young age for learning it. I’ve seen it work with a two-strike approach. It’s probably not something that I would recommend the hitters in the long-term, but I see where it can be helpful sometimes. As long as players still prepare and still transfer their weight, it could be a useful thing. I tell hitters that I hit half season one year in triple-A ball with no stride approach because I just couldn’t stay back and I just hit the ball so much better the rest of the season. When I was filmed, even though I thought it was not striding, there was a little bit of a movement into the ball and it helps. In general, I liked it at times.
There’s a place for every model and style of hitting to a certain extent. On those stride you see some guys that will go into a no stride or really early stride toe touch on two strikes. The younger players understand, get on the no-stride, just trying to get down with a hitting position, understand what that is and the sequence that follows that. We had this discussion with one of the college players that was in town, I was working with him. He had two great years at junior college with a leg lift, got Division 1 offer down in Florida. They eliminated his leg lifts and told him he had to hit this way and he had a terrible fall. We’re trying to find a happy medium in there somewhere for him to go back and have an open conversation with the coach. It gets back to style and whether or not a specific player can manage their weight and manage their transfer from back to forward. Sometimes younger players just aren’t strong enough to do that, but there is a place when needed to get into that. There are some coaches that want to teach that at organizations and programs. If they do, then it’s my job to make sure that I’m teaching them the right way to do no-strike, as opposed to what they may have told. A lot of guys do a no-stride and it’s a full slide on their hip and they get no rotation, and it ends up becoming a pretty weak swing.
Getting back to the player you mentioned, confidence in what you’re doing and believing in your style is so important. Even though another style may appear to be better to another person for that player, if a player doesn’t believe in it and have that confidence, he’s really going to struggle for a while until he can get through that. It’s hard to change someone that drastically and have them believe in it, especially at that level.
I tell my college guys and pro guys all the time that I would rather take a guy with a very strong mental approach and a high level of confidence and a bad swing, versus somebody with a really good swing with a terrible mental approach. The guys who are mentally tough and are mentally prepared, those guys find a way to put the ball in play. The guys who have really pretty swings and you put them on video and it looked really good, but they have no confidence and they lack mental toughness, they’re always going to struggle. There has to be a little bit of both in those elite players.
Getting to your point, I always tell everybody I’d rather have my B-swing and swing at a good pitch than have my A-swing and swing at bad pitches, because you just have no chance. That gets back to the mental part of having the confidence to swing at the right pitches and go from there. How do you approach coaching your own sons or daughter on the ball field?
I currently have a son who I do coach. He plays on a 12Uteam. I have a younger son who plays up with an 11Uteam which I don’t coach. Our relationships with both the boys are significantly different from a baseball standpoint. My older son, being around me and on the field all the time basically from day one, understands how I communicate and my level of desire that I try to get the kids to have in terms of becoming better, and understand the game and my expectations of playing the game right and wearing the uniform right and all of those things. My older son is a little more open to my constructive criticism, whereas my younger guy just rolls it off with the things that I’m picking or whatnot. In terms of personal instruction, I will work with both of them from time to time, but I also allow them to see other guys here that I have that I trust because I want them to be able to respect another voice. I want them to be able to learn to communicate with other coaches. At the end of the day, they are my sons. Sometimes I look at them and I may treat them differently than I treat other kids, and not necessarily in a positive way but more of in a negative way, and that’s not right and that’s hard. That’s hard because he’s the coach’s son. He’s the son of a person who owns his own facility and has been doing this for 21 years, so the expectation of my boys from the outside is a little bit higher than I’d like it to be, but that’s okay. They’re getting accustomed to being in a little bit of the spotlight because of that. I enjoy it and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. If I get a chance to spend almost every day with my boys on the field at some point, then I feel that I’m lucky to do that.
I’ve had experience with all three of my kids years ago, coaching them. You hit it on the head there at the beginning when you said one boy is like this and one boy is like that. All my kids were a little different. One ate up everything, one was kind of neutral, and one just didn’t like me telling him what to do. Once you understand that, it’s easier to coach your own child. I always tell everybody that you have to be a good actor when you’re a parent coach, and by that I mean I try to tell coaches that on the field, coach your son just like you do every other player. If you can treat them like everybody else, they respect you for it and you don’t get caught up too much in over-expecting of your own kid.
It takes some acting because it’s so hard when it’s your own kid to not want to put that extra emotion into what you’re yelling and things like that. The best you can do is to treat your child like just one of the other players. You may have to explain that to young kids, and say, “I’m going to treat you just like everybody else.” If you can do that, relationships stay well and kids don’t go home mad from practice every day because you treated them different than everybody else.
The flip side of that is that treating them the same means that if they’re not playing well, you move them down the line, or if they are playing well you reward them for that. In today’s world with the number of travel teams that have expanded to an unfathomable number at this point, it seems like a dad gets mad at the coach because of favoritism towards the son, and then he starts a team and then he does the same thing with his son. The unfortunate part is that’s not how life is, and not every player is going to be a shortstop or bat second or bat third or bat fourth. The reality of it, too, is understanding what your son’s true ability is and treating him likewise.
I remember using a little trick with my kids when they didn’t seem to want to listen. I go tell the other assistant coach, “You go tell them this,” and then they’d listen with eyes wide open with the other coach. Whereas if I’m saying the same thing, they look away like, “Why are you talking to me?”Sometimes that worked, too. Sam, it’s been a real pleasure again, having another podcast, we’re getting this rolling and hope to be very consistent with our class here. Sam and I have over 45 years of experience in the coaching business that we feel like we can help people. We encourage your questions. You can reach me at www.BaseballCoachingTips.net. You can reach Sam at Sam@DiamondEdgeAcademy.com. I’d like Sam to just talk a little bit about what’s been going on here at his academy lately.
[Tweet “When you play with dummies, you have to think like a dummy. “]
We just passed our first year. It’s growing. Within the last six to seven weeks, we expanded into the sports performance side of it. We’ve got 59,000 square feet of total space. We’ve brought in Dr. Pathos who does the neuroscience, and we also have Dr. McKay who does the sports division side along with our new partner of Chief in Physical Therapy, Dr. Terry Smith, on the chiropractor side. Our last recent addition is Elevation Sports Performance Golf Academy with Mike Mandakas. We’ve got a lot of things going and moving, and I’m really excited. If you are looking for some individual instruction or team instruction or just cage rental, please give us a call. The number here is 630-601-7171, or you can visit us at thewebsitewww.DiamondEdgeAcademy.com.
When we have the word academy, you’re living up to it because you’re reaching kids and parents in so many different areas besides just the play and the game. That’s outstanding and we always wish you luck. We’re here to help you in any way we can. Sam, it’s been a pleasure and we’ll see you next time.
Thank you, Jack.
The following is one of those funny stories that occur over the course of a long Major League season. I was sitting on the Dodger bench one day in September, not in the game at the time, and the opposing team had runners on first and third with two outs. A routine ground ball was hit to our third baseman, Mickey Hatcher. Mickey had a couple of obvious options on this play. He could go to second base for the force, or fire across the infield, the first base, for the third out of the inning, but what does Mickey do? Mickey comes up firing the home plate. Our catcher catches the ball, applies the tag for the third out of the inning. Tommy Lasorda, our manager, jumps up and meets Mickey at the dug-out steps. “Mickey, what are you doing going home on that play?” Mickey just stared at us, shyly grins. Lasorda turns to our catcher, Joe Ferguson, “Joe, what were you doing up there ready for the throw?” “Skip, when you play with dummies, you have to think like a dummy.” True Story. Thanks for listening to this podcast. We’ll see you next time.
- Elevation Sports Performance Golf Academy