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The latest issues of our OnDeck Newsletter for baseball/softball and soccer are now online. Both contain articles and offers that will be of interest to anyone involved in youth sports.

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Make sure to read the April OnDeck Newsletter tomorrow

The April 2013 issue of our popular OnDeck Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Sign up to receive it in your inbox and read previous editions here.

Teemu Selanne’s healing powers

Here is a great article by L.A. Times’ hockey writer Helene Elliott that put everything into perspective.

Inappropriate Coach-Player Contact

We recommend watching this brief video from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Keeping Children Safe in Sports series. This episode dramatizes the issues of inappropriate contact between coaches and players. Watch video

Criticizing Teammates

As a parent, if one of your children was constantly yelling at and demeaning a sibling every time they made a mistake, wouldn’t you put a stop to it? Why then do coaches allow players to chastise or put down teammates for errors on the field? This behavior is not only detrimental to team chemistry but will have an adverse effect on the player being criticized, as well as the one doing it.

There is probably nothing that bothers me more than coaching against teams of young players who have not had this issue addressed. And I see it all the time in baseball and soccer. The youngster at shortstop, who looks as if he could be the team’s most talented player, makes a great pickup of a ground ball and throws to the second baseman covering the bag for the force. He drops it. Everybody’s safe. The shortstop stomps his foot and yells at the poor second baseman, “Come on!” loudly enough that all the players and parents on both teams hear. And the coach of the hot-shot shortstop, (often his dad), says nothing. Or, in soccer, after a player makes a pass that is intercepted by the other side, a teammate yells out something obvious, but not helpful, such as, “Keep the ball!” or “Don’t give it away!”

If a player on my team ever did this, they’d get the minimum of a strong talking-to, and, depending on the severity of the case, may find themselves sitting next to me on the bench. In early season practices I make sure that my players know that bashing another teammate is the quickest way to get pulled out of the game. It’s not just that it’s cruel to embarrass teammates right after a mistake they already feel badly about, it’s bad for the team as well. My philosophy has always been that you may very well need that player on the next play. So do you want them hanging their head and feeling horrible, or do you want them fired up instead, wanting to atone for that mistake? Plus, when you yell at your teammates in a non-constructive manner it creates an atmosphere of tension that isn’t good for anyone. If the rest of the team is playing in fear because they know someone is going to come down on them any time they mess up, there is no way to relax and play with confidence.

What if, in the two examples above, the criticizers immediately called out, “That’s all right!” instead? Imagine how much more of a team you’d be building. The kids who lost the ball would feel a sense of loyalty towards their teammate and would likely try much harder to reward that encouragement the rest of the game. And, players should understand how much better they will look to observers by being positive in the face of adversity instead of negative. For example, often when college soccer coaches are scouting high-level club players to potentially recruit, they know all the kids have tremendous skills. In addition to great players, they are looking for great teammates who will lift others up, not bring them down.

Teach your players to be positive towards their teammates – especially after mistakes – and you’ll be on your way to building a real team, not just 12 individuals wearing the same uniforms.

Conquering the Curveball (Part 1 of 3)

By Dave Hudgens, New York Mets Hitting Coach

All Major League hitters can hit a fastball, but only the best have a solid plan to hit the curveball. No one can hit the great curveball – the curveball low and away, the hall of fame pitcher’s pitch. Even the best hitters don’t swing at that pitch until they get two strikes. So why then would anyone provide instruction on how to hit a pitch that no one can hit? Because even the best pitchers cannot consistently throw their off-speed pitch in a great location for a strike. Therefore, you don’t have to hit the un-hittable curveball. Your job is to be prepared and to be in a good position to hit the pitcher’s mistakes and take advantage of his weaknesses.

With all of that in mind it may surprise you to find out that the easiest pitch to hit in baseball is a hanging curveball, or an off-speed pitch up in the strike zone. This is true however only if you are in the right position to hit it. Thus the secrets to conquering the curveball are:

· Preparation & studying the pitcher’s habits

· Knowing the proper keys to hitting the off-speed pitch

· Practicing curveball drills

It is that simple. You will never be able to hit the un-hittable curveball, but don’t worry, no one can. You will however be able to hit the hittable curveball consistently if you do your homework and practice your techniques. A word of caution – if you find yourself out front, off balance, and not recognizing the pitch, you will consistently have problems with the breaking ball. Without a solid foundation, you will not have success with this pitch or any other pitch for that matter. From the viewpoint of either a parent or a coach, there are two key points you want to look for as you view your hitter:

1. If your player pushes forward, or is slightly out front, it is important that his front knee does not go over his front foot. If he is in this position, he is too far forward to hit the breaking ball. He’s lunged forward and now he’s in a poor position to hit that pitch.

2. Check to see if the hitter is consistently swinging at breaking balls out of the strike zone. Many hitters swing at pitches out of the strike zone because they have committed their weight transfer too soon. Once again, this is the reason pitchers throw off-speed pitches to begin with – their goal is to disrupt the balance of the hitter.

Preparation
The first key to mastering the curveball is for you to learn how to prepare for it. You need to have a definite battle plan, your personal curveball strategy. You need to know:

Who is pitching
What type of pitches he has
What command he has over his pitches
What command he has THAT DAY over his pitches

This preparation should start before the game even begins, depending on your situation. If you have scouting reports it is an obvious advantage. However scouting reports are not always correct. You need to see what the pitcher has that day. When you go to stretch before the game begins, position yourself in a place to where you can see the opposing pitcher warming up in the bullpen. At this point you should be thinking:

Which of his pitches you would most like to hit
Which of his pitches you want to lay off
Which angle his release point is coming from
What are his best pitches
Which pitches he can and can’t control

What is your plan – are you going to hit the ball to right-center field or left-center field?

You should remind yourself:
Never swing at a pitch you haven’t seen
If you are hitting up in the order- take a pitch
If you are hitting down in the order- watch what he is throwing previous hitters that might be like you.

Since recognizing a curveball is so difficult to do, you must get into a routine to practice it. My suggestions for your routine:

When your own pitchers are throwing in the bullpen and practicing, ask if you can stand in and see how early you can recognize the ball out of the hand.
When you are taking batting practice, have the pitcher mix in some curveballs. It is not even important if these pitches are strikes, what you are trying to do here is practice recognizing pitches.
When someone else is hitting during batting practice, stand behind the cage and work on seeing the pitcher’s release point.
Before you hit in the on deck circle, work on seeing the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. If you don’t recognize the ball until it is halfway to home plate, it is too late. It is almost like telling the pitcher to pitch from 30ft instead of 60ft.

Next: The Proper Keys to Hitting the Curveball

Dave Hudgens has been involved with the best of baseball for over 30 years. He is currently the Hitting Coach for the New York Mets. Prior to that he was a longtime hitting coach in the Oakland Athletics’ organization.

Player Development versus Team Performance

By Ian Mulliner, Technical Director, Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association

Having been involved in youth soccer for the past several years at the club, state and regional levels it is becoming apparent that player development is taking a backseat to team performance, it seems that the rush to create a successful team has become more important for coaches than allowing players to improve within a team environment. We are producing teams full of role players who can perform efficiently within their present team structure but are fish out of water or worse still production line players who lack creativity and flair outside of that environment.  A common question asked by youth coaches at coaching courses is “where do I hide my weaker players?”  My answer to that is why you feel the need to “hide” them when it is our job as coaches to develop them?  If we never expose those players to situations that arise in games, how do we expect them to get better?

Why are we more concerned with team performance than player development?  Our culture is one that
thrives on winning and anything less is unacceptable and therefore if your team does not win the majority of its games it is deemed a failure in the eyes of the world and because no one likes to be associated with a failure the migratory instincts kick in and players move to the most successful team they can make or which will accept them.  This equates to teams that do not fair well becoming extinct due to lack of available numbers, which is very unhealthy for the sport as a whole.

The answer is neither easy nor very palatable as it involves communication, education and sacrifice.
Communication on the part of the coach, parents and players; beginning at the initial preseason team
meeting where goals and objectives are laid out and commitments made by all parties.  Communication is an ongoing process and the coach should be open to parent and player meetings either by appointment or predetermined times through the season.  Parents have to be sensitive to the role of the coach and should avoid confrontations at practices and games when emotions can be running hot.

Players must feel they are able to approach the coach at any time with any questions or concerns about what is required of them during games and practices.  The coach must be prepared to go through coaching education course to best serve the needs of the players in their charge. It is through these courses the coach will learn how to conduct equalization practices that provide challenges for the wide array of talent that he may encounter within his team and will help EVERY player to develop. Coaches also discover the need for a strong technical foundation and the activities required to enhance these techniques and how to create practices with a repetitious theme/topic using different activities to bring out the skill.

Finally the most difficult aspect of player development comes in the form of sacrifice.  Coaches must be prepared to accept that by giving ALL of their players an opportunity to participate that the outcome of the game will become less important than achieving the goals set out for each player during the game. The players must be prepared to accept that although they should set out to win every game, that their personal performance and overcoming the challenges of an opponent or attempting a new skill can be just as rewarding as the outcome of the game. Parents must be prepared to accept that it takes time to develop and for children it will happen much quicker than others and that the coach is doing everything they can to help their child get there.

Creating this environment of communication, education and sacrifice is much easier from the initial stages of involvement and the sooner this structure is in place the easier it is to implement and the less problems will arise as the players evolve.  To attempt to create e this for an established group of parents and players, whilst not being an easy task initially should prove fruitful in the long run.  “Sow the seeds now and reap the benefits later” has to become the credo for the youth soccer community to give the players a chance to develop and the game as a whole.

Ian Mulliner is Technical Director of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association. He previously served as the Illinois Youth Soccer Association Director of Coaching for over ten years. He holds the USSF “A” License and National Youth License, F.I.F.A Futuro III certificate, F.A. Preliminary Coaching Award as well as the Dutch KNVB Coach’s License. He can be reached at IMulliner@mayouthsoccer.org