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Me First or Team First?

All four of my kids played recreational sports while also playing on club teams. That dynamic continued through high school. There were clearly pluses and minuses to both. But as youth sports trends toward more involvement in travel leagues, there is one important factor to consider.

It is likely that everyone reading this, to some degree, is involved in youth sports. And it is also likely that the lessons children acquire by participating are among the major reasons we want our kids to play. We love that they learn that hard work leads to success, that failure is temporary and can be overcome with effort and resilience. Both of these can be taught to players in recreational as well as competitive sports. So, if this is true, that the essentials of work ethic and bouncing back from adversity are learned in either environment, what difference does it make which path is chosen?

As I said, my kids played both. My daughter played rec and high school soccer, as well as club. It was the club soccer that got her a college scholarship. My three boys played Little League (with me as coach) and high school baseball, while simultaneously playing travel ball. Here was the big difference between the two: In competitive sports no one really cared about winning. In rec and high school, that is all they cared about.

I’ll start with my daughter: When her high school career came to an end with a playoff loss, she was inconsolable. Her school had never won a city girls soccer title and she wanted it more than I can describe. A championship would have been huge news to the entire school. There would be a banner hanging in the gym forever. Her regular league games against our bigger, rival school just a couple miles down the road were wars. She would have traded her best personal game ever for a team win.

Contrast that with her club team. It was a very good team which several times went to national playoffs with a chance to win a U.S. championship. And all the girls would have liked to have won. But winning was secondary. Because they all also knew that scouts from every major college were watching. Each of them would have rather scored a spectacular goal in a losing cause than play poorly and win. It was twenty individuals wearing the same jersey. And they knew that outside of themselves and their parents, no one else would know or care whether they finished as national champs or also-rans.

As I mentioned, I coached my three boys in Little League. We had a great league, and all of my sons’ friends also played. Every year the talk in the schoolyard was about who was going to win the championship. The players on the team that had won the previous season had bragging rights. It didn’t matter if you were a star or a part-time player, you wanted to be able to say, “we beat you.”

My oldest son, now a pro baseball player, has coached some travel baseball in the off-season and says he thinks travel ball is killing the sport. In his observation, none of the kids want to be out there. No one cares if they win or lose. When my second son, now also in the pro ranks, heard this he confided that he used to hate our travel ball games when he was young. He said he never would have admitted it then, but he always dreaded them. Why would this be? A Little League game on Saturday against his friends from school, the most fun he ever had. Then a club game on Sunday against guys he didn’t know, he wished he didn’t have to go. They were both baseball games. But they were different.

So my contention is this: While there are many benefits to travel sports, where it lacks is in the teaching of some of the most important lessons learned in athletics: Teamwork. Putting the good of the team ahead of yourself. And winning.

Now a cynic might say he doesn’t care about any of these things if his kid gets a scholarship to play in college. But are we shortchanging our youngsters in life by thinking short-term? Are we robbing them of valuable experience by taking them out of youth league baseball and softball in favor of travel, or by having them play Academy soccer instead of high school?

Are we raising a generation of kids who are going to learn that they should look out for themselves first and others later, if at all? Are we bringing up children who will never know what it is like to really be part of a team that is all pulling for a common goal instead of individual accomplishment? Teamwork isn’t just about sports. It’s about getting along with friends and family, about being successful in the workplace years after athletic careers are over. When will those lessons be learned if not on the youth play fields?

Years ago I read an article in the Los Angeles Times sports section about the number of kids opting for travel baseball instead of high school. There was a quote from the USC head baseball coach that I’ll paraphrase which was, ‘I like kids who play high school because they care about winning.’ Even the worst cynic who isn’t concerned about his children being taught teamwork and self sacrifice would probably want them to learn to win. Sports have always had an important place in our society, for good reason. But when team sports really just become individual sports being played by a bunch of youngsters at the same time, I wonder if what is gained isn’t outweighed by what we’ve lost.

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

How to Field a Routine Ground Ball

By Doug Bernier

Whether you’re starting from scratch or fine-tuning your approach, this article will teach you how to field a routine ground ball like a Major League baseball player.

First Things

A routine ground ball is hit right at you, your first move is to…

  1. …see what kind of ball is it. Is it a chopper, a ground hugger, or in between?
  2. …how hard is it coming?

The purpose of all this is to compute in your head how you are going to get the ball: Are you going to charge or stay back?

What’s Next

With those two important pieces established, it is time to talk about how to use your feet and properly field ground balls. Remember, these articles are written from the perspective of a right-handed infielder. If you are left handed, you should do it the opposite way.

How to Field a Ground Ball

1. Stay Low.

As you approach the ball, stay low.  This allows you a better view of the hops taken by the baseball.

Also, staying low keeps you in a more athletic position.  It’s easier to come up to meet the baseball than to drop down and get it.

2. Gain ground.

Gain ground on the baseball until the hop makes you stop.  It’s at this moment that you will pick out which hop you want to field the ball.  In other words, decide if you going to get it on the long hop or the short hop.

It is also important during this stage to create the best angle as you advance on the ball.  A “V” shape angle is my preferred approach.  This takes some planning ahead, with the goal being to get yourself in a good position to make the throw after you field the baseball.

Taking a “V” angle to the ball will automatically get you to the right side of the baseball.  Being slightly to the side of the path of the oncoming baseball means you will see it better than if you are directly straight on.  You’ll field the ball in front of your body but slightly to your left – i.e. the left side of your chest is squared up to the baseball (more on this below).

Finally, the “V” angle puts you in a good position to make the throw to first base.

Pro Tip: First Step Quickness

In practice, try to get in front of as many baseballs as possible.  This will (1) improve your range, (2) condition your feet not to be lazy, and (3) best of all, it creates the perception that you have more range than the next guy.

3. Right, Left, Field.

That is, Right foot, Left foot, Field the ball.  This is the rhythm you want to have as you field the baseball.  It will keep you squared up to the ball, and its the same rhythm you’ll use for forehand and backhand plays as well.

4. Small Strides.

If you miss everything else in this article, pay attention to this piece of advice.  Keeping your strides small allows you to make quick adjustments to change direction, accelerate, and decelerate.

The longer your stride, the longer your foot is in the air.  If you are in the air, you can’t make any adjustments until you land.

Next time you’re watching a game on TV, pay attention.  You’ll notice that this is something that all the best infielders do.  If the ball takes a funny hop, they can make a quick adjustment and still make the play.

5. Work through the Baseball.

Your glove should stay in the “zone” as long as possible.  This means keeping a straight wrist and using your arm to move it through the baseball.  (This is especially true if you are backhanding the baseball).

6. Stay Relaxed.

Hands and feet that are relaxed work better.

7. Funnel the Ball to your Chest.

Once you field the ground ball, funnel it to your chest (see image).   In this position, you are balanced and free to move.  Now that your center of gravity is over your feet,  your hands are in a good position to throw and you can shuffle your feet as needed.

8. Don’t Rush.

Most mistakes happen because we try to rush.  You can speed up if needed, but stay in control.  If you are dealing with a fast runner and you feel like you need to be faster, your adjustments should be made in other ways.  You can take a step closer to the batter when getting into your ready position, or even choose to charge the ball rather than wait for it.  These adjustments will buy you more time without making you rush your throw.

Tips from a Pro

I hear many high school and college infield coaches say that they want an infielder to either have their feet squared to the ball or their left foot slightly in front, so they will have momentum and their feet lined up correctly when throwing to first base.
I like to do things a little differently.

  • Glove Position.

    I like to field the ball on the left side of my chest. I am still keeping the ball in front of me but instead of fielding it in the middle of my chest I field it off my left nipple. I do this because this is where my shoulder is and I don’t want to feel that I am reaching in front of my body to field the ball. I would like to field the ball directly underneath my left shoulder. This allows my glove hand to work freely and flow smoothly because I am not fighting my body. Let the glove work from this position.

  • Foot Positioning.

    Ideally I’d like to have my left foot slightly behind my right foot. I like this because I feel that since my glove is on the left side of my body it makes my glove work a lot easier and I don’t have to worry about my left leg getting in the way. I feel I have a lot more room for error I don’t have to be quite so perfect in reading the hops. It makes you work harder to get your feet in the right position to throw to first base, but you have to field it before you can throw it.

  • Making the Throw.

    To make the throw from this position you have two options:

    1. Take your right foot and place it in front of your left foot. Do this instead of placing it behind because when you place it in front your momentum is going towards first instead of falling away slightly. Take a mini hop or a shuffle step (whichever is more comfortable) and make your throw.
    2. Take your right foot and swing it around so your right foot shuffles into your left foot. Make sure you shuffle one more time so your momentum can be in a straight line towards first base. Then make your throw.

Doug Bernier, founder of Pro Baseball Insider.com, debuted in the Major Leagues in 2008 with the Colorado Rockies, and has played professional baseball for 5 organizations (CO Rockies, NY Yankees, Pirates, MN Twins, & TX Rangers) over the past 16 years. He has Major League time at every infield position, and has played every position on the field professionally except for catcher. Where is he now? After a 17-year pro career, Doug has officially retired from playing and is now a scout with the Colorado Rockies. You should click to watch this great defensive play by Bernier

Coach Communication Part 4

By Craig Sigl

9) Listen to your players at a deeper level. Let’s put on the table a few human communication tendencies that will be beneficial for you to be aware of for the purpose of improved performance through better communication as a coach.

A. Understand and accept this….most people, in general, are not very good communicators. They say things they don’t mean and they use words that don’t accurately describe what they want to get across. They often speak in line with how they feel AT THE MOMENT which is in direct odds with their greater or longer term goals. They can actually hold a completely different meaning of a word than the person hearing it.
B. The male of our species tends to hear and process words from others much more literally than females (but females do this too).
C. Young people learn quickly, through their past embarrassing experiences with their peers, to not speak up whenever there is a hint of that embarrassment happening again. Without going into it, can you see the potential for all sorts of problems in communication that can occur from just these typical human communication errors? There’s lots more I haven’t even mentioned. All of them have the potential to create long-term destructive beliefs in your players (mostly along the lines of fear of failure and rejection) that trigger nervousness, tension, freezing, timidity etc. at the wrong time and wrong place in their competition, that destroys their performance.

Performance = Potential – Interference

Now that I’ve scared you with all of that, let me give you a secret weapon that can help you navigate all of this like a ph.d. communications expert.

In any communication with your players, or their parents for that matter, you want to hold in your mind this central idea while you are listening to what they have to say:

“What is it that this person REALLY wants and is trying to say?”

In other words, we sometimes call this “reading between the lines.” I could write a book on this but let me give you a typical example:

When you hear a kid say: “It’s just not fun anymore” it’s highly likely that what they are REALLY saying is that I am tired of the pressure and the conflicts.” As a mental toughness trainer having worked with hundreds of kids in person and practicing the skill of listening at a deeper level, I know this is true for most kids. But, even if you didn’t know that, you could ask yourself the key question above and logically conclude that since the sport itself hasn’t changed, that something ELSE has changed to make the experience “Not Fun.”

…and you go from there asking follow up and more probing questions like:

“What do you mean ‘it’s not fun anymore’?”
“When did it start not being fun anymore?”’

In order to go a level deeper into listening to your player or parent to get to the root of the issue.

In simple terms to sum up this tip, have a general rule in mind to NOT take what people say literally unless you are 100% sure. Have your radar up for any time someone communicates something to you in any kind of emotion to trigger you to ask yourself that question:

“What is it that this person REALLY wants and is trying to say?”

10) Do not try to “Motivate” players. Instead, trigger their highest self motivation. One of the biggest problems I hear from coaches is lack of motivation from their players. It shows up in the form of not hustling in practice, lack of focus, too much horse play or joking around.

So what do most coaches do when they run into these problems? Why, they crack the whip, get tough, and enforce consequences to MAKE them do what you want them to do whether it’s in practice or competition. Now, I’m not saying to throw those tactics out, there’s definitely a time and place to use them. However, those tactics tend to be over-used, they usually get short-term compliance at best and, even worse, risk causing interference programs that hinder athletic performance.

(Notice coach how I continually tie my communication advice here back to improved performance because I know that is YOUR self motivation strategy for even reading this!)

There’s another tactic to add to your arsenal.

In my H.S. Coaches Mental Toughness Toolbox program, I teach coaches how to deliver mental toughness to their teams in 8 pre-practice meetings. Meeting #1 is ALL about this tactic here and what it entails is getting each player to specific WHY they are here on this team and what they want to get out of it. Here’s the kicker….you get the players to write this down and sign it! It’s a statement of commitment based on their self motivation! You are going to use this to the max.

You, as the coach, collect these papers and if you don’t memorize them, keep them on your clipboard and you pull them out often and everywhere and use the exact same words they wrote on their papers to help them connect THEIR desires to what is happening in the moment. And then, when appropriate, you re-communicate that connection to the player. It might be in the moment in practice or it might be a 5-minute chat after practice.

Speak in simple terms like:

“Do you remember writing down here that what you want out of this team is to give yourself the best chance at a college scholarship? Why is it that you want that scholarship? Why is that
important to you? Tell me how what I am having us do right now contributes to you getting what you wrote here? Tell me how what you were doing (not doing) is in line with what YOU WANT?”

The reason why this communication technique is so beneficial is because of the fact that kids’ brains are not fully formed until their mid 20’s. And one big part of that functioning that is lacking until then is this concept:

Delayed gratification

No surprise right? The younger the kids are, the more they want instant gratification. Us adults are here to help them bridge that gap until their brain finally forms. So, what happens
is…in the moment of you asking them what they want to get out of playing on this team, they will tell you honestly. But let’s face it, a few weeks later during a boring practice, that moment is completely disconnected in their mind and it’s busy looking for some kind of instant gratification. Our job is to keep them connected to their own longer-term self-declared motivations and the best way to do that is to get them to write them down and you bring it back to them when needed. They can always update their motivation page too which gives them a sense of empowerment that contributes to them owning their confidence. Try this, you will be shocked at how many headaches you will avoid and how much more self-
motivated your players will become, especially in practice and training.

11) Model and teach leadership
When I went to my first “leadership” training, I went in with the impression that I was going to learn how to emulate great people I admired like Bill Gates, Martin Luther King jr. and Queen
Victoria (yep, look her up). I thought I was going to learn how to magically instill a power inside people that would make them want to give up everything and follow me to the ends of the earth to create amazing world discoveries and advances. (a bit of sarcasm intended here).

Boy was I wrong about what leadership meant and that’s where we started with the training.

So what does leadership mean in the context of coaching sports? Well, think about this… as a coach, you already are in a structured position with a group of people who are highly desiring to do whatever you say, so fantasies of what people think “leadership” means are a given in your position. They have volunteered to follow you already! So that’s not what we seek.

What I believe REAL, effective leadership can do for a coach is to evoke an emotional connection to a player that results in a player tapping into a reservoir of energy and determination that would otherwise go unused. Everyone has this “extra gear” as they say and you want that going for you with as many players as you can get it from, right?

How to get it?

Start by redefining what you think leadership is all about and it’s what I learned at my training:

True leadership is turning others into leaders.

This means having in mind your intention to groom everyone on your team to potentially become a leader themselves! With that intention coming from you in all of your communications, your leadership actions and choice of words should naturally follow. You won’t even have to try to remember any specifics like:
a. Be congruent with your teaching anything. Live what you teach.
b. Encourage people to pass on knowledge/assistance to others
c. Teach them to think for themselves in situations and remove barriers to doing that
d. Master your own emotions and show players how to do it. (Leaders don’t just scream at
people to get them to do things for them under penalty of harsh consequences.)
e. Help your players understand what makes people tick so they don’t make up self-destructive
stories and WANT to help/lead others.
f. Leaders inspire and encourage others…

Starting to get the picture here? Leadership is really about teaching others how to be leaders all the way down the organizational pyramid. Even your least-talented player will develop confidence from leading someone at something (even if it’s at home and not about sports) which then translates to overall confidence bleeding into improved sports performance. (bringing it back to your self-motivation to improve performance again!)

Craig Sigl is the Mental Toughness Trainer specializing in youth sports. Visit https://MentalToughnessTrainer.com/coach for FREE tips for coaches to teach mental toughness to their athletes.

Scoring More Goals

By Bruce Brownlee

Does Your Team Play Well But Struggle In Scoring?

You get a new team and get to know them. Technically you improve, and you start to get some team shape tactically and stop giving up so many goals.  Pretty soon, you have some decent midfield play and get the ball into the wings, and your team starts to get up and down the field. You win a few games and the parents are happy.  However, after a while, there is some frustration because you don’t seem to get a break.  The lucky goal doesn’t happen and the team doesn’t get the reward it should have.

You start to realize that your team can play great out of the back, doesn’t give up too many goals, and gets up and down the field with opponent.  Despite this, your team doesn’t score enough to win your fair share.

The Diagnostic Checklist

Knowing what training to use depends on recognizing the real problems that might be holding your team back.  Compare your team’s play against this checklist of common problems to help identify the problems.  Which of these statements describes your team?

  1. Play too Slow    We play too slowly.  We are fast enough running up and down the field, but are slow at changing the point of attack.  This happens a lot when we are attacking the goal where we should be able to move the ball quickly to the feet of an open shooter or isolate an attacker 1v1 against an opposing defender.
  2. Not Getting Numbers Up    Although we get up to the final third often, we have lost our willingness to get numbers up near the ball. Instead of having 6 players in the penalty area,
    especially near the ball, we have one or two, then a few stragglers further behind.
  3. Not Taking on Defenders 1v1    Our attacker with the ball often turns away from chances to take on defenders 1v1 when the chance is there to penetrate into space behind the last defender to get a 1v1 with the keeper.  Our attackers look to be afraid of losing the ball.
  4. Play Ball Wide Instead of Through    Our team gets a lot of good counter attack chances, but, in going to goal, we often kill our chances by playing a ball to the wing, allowing the other team time to recover and build a shape as the ball followed a lengthy course out to the wing and back to the center.
  5. Not Using Enough Space in the Final Third    When we attack, our players in the opponent’s penalty area with pressure on their back make dinky little passes to our other players who then do not have enough space to strike a goal before being closed down by defenders chasing the pass.
  6. Strikers Not Working Together    Our strikers do little to help each other score. Many times one striker runs away from the ball and shows nothing but tail lights, yet demands the ball, as if there would be some way for the other striker to play a long chip over the top.  Strikers are not making runs at defenders or space behind defenders to help the first attacker.
  7. Avoiding Taking a Shot    In the box, our players do everything possible to avoid shooting.  We are getting as many as 10 passes in or nearly in the penalty area with no shot.
  8. Shooting at the Keeper    When our players find a good shooting chance, they often shoot right at the keeper, chest high.
  9. Not Shooting at the Far Post    Our players try to shoot near post when the far post was more open and a deflection might stay on the field in front of the goal for a nifty follow-up shot.
  10. Shooting High and Wide    We shoot a lot of balls over the bar or wide.  Many of our volleys and strikes on the ball are shanked off to the side.
  11. Taking Too Long to Shoot    Inside the area, we take a long slow wind-up that is often easily blocked.  We don’t seem to use a quick toe poke that would make the ball jump into the net, and we don’t use the outside of the foot.

Some Ideas To Try

If you can answer “yes” to one or a few of these, than there is hope that you can train away from the problems and start scoring more goals.  Here are a few ideas that you may find helpful.

  1. Steal Training for Each Problem     Seek out, steal, design, and assemble training to deal with each one of these problems.
  2. Shoot Against Pressure in Training    From day one, start work on shooting technique in all types of situations.  At the beginning, focus on very fundamental work, but practice shooting against pressure in every practice, every day.
  3. Work 1v1 to Goal     Each day, work 1v1 to goal with keeper.  Keep score and rating players on their ability to attack and
    defend 1v1.
  4. Focus on the Final Third     Change your seasonal plan.  Spend 75% of your training time on the topics above, with most of your time spent in the final third.  Make your players confident in finishing.
  5. Make Defenders Attack     In addition to the topics above, start getting defenders into attacking roles often.  Push them up and make them responsible for joining in all attacking in practice and encourage it in matches.
  6. Use Realistic Pressure    It is never possible to have defenders pressure “50%”. Kids play 100% until they are tired.  Instead, practice attacking situations against only a keeper, then a keeper with one defender, then more defenders.  Make sure that the attacking side has numbers up for much of the way to get success, but let defenders play at full pace and full pressure.
  7. Use a Keeper    Play a lot of soccer to Coerver walls on a short field, but also play a lot of soccer related games that require shooting to a full-size goals against keepers.  Use a keeper in goal for every dinky drill that goes to full-size goals, and even many exercises that go to half-size goals.
  8. All Types of Shooting   Practice pure shooting technique in situations of all types, including free kicks and penalties.  Keep track of all penalties practiced, and this can pay off big later.  Top practice shooters are often top PK shooters in the match.
  9. Shooting Partners    Have your kids buy or borrow extra balls and team up with  partners to come out to your training facility or to any space with goals on their own to shoot extra.  Have the kids shoot in many different situations, and give them a checklist of shooting exercises.
  10. Anticipate Success    Tell your players that you are sure the team will start to score more goals.  Then before this happens, and before there was much improvement, tell the team during a game that they are starting to look good and that it is obvious are on the edge of really scoring a lot of goals.  As you start to get some success, hard work will fulfill your prophesy and your team will gain confidence and score more goals.

Bruce Brownlee coached boys soccer from 1978 to 1988 in Marietta, Georgia.  Coached girls teams from 1988 to 2003 for Tophat Soccer Club in Atlanta and AFC Lightning Soccer Club in Fayetteville, Georgia.  Served as a staff ODP recruiter and coach in 2002-2003.  Returned in 2010-2011 to help coach his granddaughter’s U11 team.  Won 4 state cup championships at Tophat.  Proud of his four children who played top-level club soccer and amateur and college soccer later. His site Soccer Coaching Notes.com is a terrific resource for club and amateur soccer coaches.

Promote PHIT America Month!

Please see below all the tools you can use to promote PHIT America Month to Get America Moving In May. Pleae push out our infographics on Tools.PHITMonth.org every 2-3 days to your contacts.  In addition, PHIT America will be in New York late this month and early May securing TV interviews with national media to promote PHIT America Month and to Get Moving.
For Ambassadors and Celebrities, if you have events in May, please make sure they are part of PHIT America Month. And, if you can make them fundraisers for our charity (less below), it is appreciated.

What Youth Sport Parents Need to Know About Muscle Cramps

From our friends at TrueSport.org:

Does your young athlete struggle with muscle cramps during exercise? New science says there’s more to cramps than dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Read this article for an up-to-date guide to the causes and best practices for preventing and treating muscle cramps.