Say goodbye to the NFL regular season and 2013 with this look back on the best photos of the year from pro football. And have a happy and safe New Year’s celebration.
By Nate Barnett of The Pitching Academy
The word “slump” is taboo in baseball. Nobody likes that word, and players try their hardest to avoid speaking it. Ever. But, slumps are a part of the game of baseball. You can’t slump-proof your swing, and you can never predict when one will occur. A couple years ago, Miguel Olivo summed up what those who have slipped into the depths of a hitting funk go through. He said, “When you’re hitting, you just go play. But when you struggle, that’s when you start wondering. You go to the batting cage all the time. You’re like, ‘My feet … my hands … they’re going to throw me this pitch,’ then you’re caught in the middle.” The good news here is that hitters can implement a few strategies both physically and mentally to help reduce the duration and frequency of a downturn in their offensive play. Keep this essay handy; there will be a time it will serve as a much needed blueprint to beat a slump. Now, let’s dive in and uncover the mechanical strategies that make up Slump Busting 101.
Most hitters try to solve a slump by messing with their mechanics. Unfortunately, this type of tinkering rarely solves the problem. Guys will often adjust their stance, stride, etc. without understanding fully the reason for doing so, let alone what is causing their offensive troubles in the first place. To discourage the random mechanics tinkering without proper fundamental knowledge of hitting mechanics, think of it this way. I’m not a auto mechanic by any stretch of the imagination. I know how to open the hood of my car, find many off the major parts inside, though if something stops working, I lack the knowledge and ability to fix the problem. This is why I pay a mechanic to diagnose and solve the problem. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for me to start unplugging things, or taking apart pieces of the engine and replacing them unless I had reason to believe the given part was responsible for the mechanical issue at hand. Likewise, it doesn’t make sense for a hitter to change a portion of his swing mechanics without having solid evidence that the change will improve the problem. There are a few things one can do for the physical part of hitting to quicken the recovery out of a slump. Hitters should be encouraged to consider the following modifications to swing approach: remove the stride, reduce their swing speed in practice, and work on hitting pitches to the opposite field. Below I’ll explain my reasoning behind these three methods and why hitters who employ these strategies bust out of slumps at a much quicker rate than those who do not take these suggestions.
Because most mechanical issues for youth hitters stem from poor mechanics in the lower half of the body, eliminating the stride temporarily is a step (pardon the pun) in the right direction. While I think that a stride is a great way for hitters create some timing during an at bat, it comes with some challenges. Often during a slump a hitter’s timing is off. Because of this, excess movement in a swing doesn’t help the situation, it tends to hurt it. By eliminating the stride for a while, it allows the hitters to reduce the amount of moving parts in his swing. In short, it simplifies things. Once confidence has been regained, I would then bring back the stride. The only caution to this would be to make sure the hitter retains some rhythm in his pre-pitch routine. This will help him relax as well as maintain better timing with the pitcher.
The second modification necessary for slumping hitters is to cut down the speed of each swing in batting practice. The reason for this change is so hitters (once they understand mechanics) can identify the areas that need attention. More often than not guys who are having a tough time at the plate will press a little in batting practice and try to muscle up everything. This tensity in the body does not allow the hitter to relax and let his muscle memory guide his swing. There is nothing wrong with swinging at 75% capacity. Many times, reducing the swing velocity has a calming effect on hitters which promotes relaxation of his muscles at the plate.
Along the lines of staying relaxed and not trying to do too much at the plate, working on hitting the ball to the opposite field takes much of the pressure off of a hitter. Since most hitters like pulling the baseball, the more they struggle at the plate, the more many try to pull the baseball. The thinking is that if they can just hit a few balls deep into the pull-side gap, or out of the park, they will snap out of the funk. This thinking is backwards. There is nothing wrong with pulling the ball, but there is everything wrong with pulling the ball when you have a tight, non-relaxed swing. More often than not, the results will be a tense swing that produces top spin hits that hook badly and don’t carry into the gap. Or, if hitters are really struggling and trying to pull the ball all the time, the results will often be continuous weak pop-ups to the opposite field side. Focusing on hitting the ball the other way takes the pressure off of the hitters to force a slump to end. It allows for the hitter to see the pitch deeper in the strike zone and work on keeping the hands moving through the strike zone. Combining this step with a reduced swing speed, greatly hastens the pace of recovery out of a slump.
The hitting mechanics portion of a slump is only half of the battle. Solving the second guessing and doubt that goes on in the brain of slumping hitters is the second half of the anti-slump equation. That portion is the topic of another Slump Busting 101 article. Work on the three mechanics-related fixes discussed in this article and an offensive rebound is likely to be just around the corner.
Nate Barnett is a hitting, pitching, and mental skills coach residing in the Puget Sound area in Washington State. He played in the Seattle Mariners organization and is co-owner of the The Pitching Academy.
By Steve Henson
It’s an unforgettable line from Field of Dreams: “Hey, Dad, you wanna have a catch?” Kevin Costner is already an adult when he tosses a baseball to his ghostly father. For most dads and kids, the moment comes much sooner; and for thousands of families across the country, a simple catch leads to dad signing up his son or daughter with the local youth league, and then signing up himself as coach.
Then the simple joy of tossing a ball back and forth transforms into something more complicated. The team, of course, includes other players. And they have parents, many of whom have opinions about you as a coach. Practices are difficult enough to run smoothly, and they lead to games, and games are competitive. Are you a good coach or a poor one? Is your child a good player or a lousy one? Are you playing favorites with your child? Or are you harder on your kid than on the others, creating friction in the family?
None of that mattered during the backyard catch. Coaching a son or daughter, it turns out, is one of the most challenging pursuits a parent can take on. It can be exceedingly rewarding. And it can be exceedingly frustrating – to the child as well as the parent.
Even if the child hits the sports equivalent of the lottery and becomes a professional athlete, memories of the years under dad’s tutelage can be a mixed bag. Kevin Neary and Leigh A. Tobin co-authored a book, Major League Dads, which features 250 pages of big-league baseball players recounting being coached as youngsters by their fathers. Most of the memories are positive: the work ethic dad taught, the skills he honed, the fun he emphasized. Others are telling, and could help serve as a road map for any dad piling bats and helmets into his car and heading off to the field. Neary and Tobin even reference Field of Dreams (and its most unforgettable line: “If you build it, he will come.”)
Another resource for parents coaching their children is Bruce E. Brown of Proactive Coaching, who has spoken to more than a million young athletes, parents and coaches over the last 12 years. His common-sense advice helps anyone involved in youth, high school and college sports maximize their enjoyment while avoiding pitfalls. He was the primary source for a story I wrote in February on how to avoid being a nightmare sports parent.
Most dad/coaches do a good job, Brown said, although they all face obstacles. He pointed out that because professional athletes often have freakish athletic ability, their success isn’t necessarily the product of a dad who did everything right as a coach. But some do. The finest youth coach in tiny Pierson, Fla., 35 years ago was Larry Jones, whose son, also named Larry, was such a chip off the old block people started calling him Chipper. Of course, today Chipper Jones is a 19-year MLB veteran and seven-time All-Star with the Atlanta Braves.
“My dad and I still talk two or three times a week,” Jones told Neary. “Whenever I get into a slump, my coaches ask me if I’ve called my dad. He knows my swing the best of anyone.”
Greg Maddux, who ranks eighth all-time with 355 wins, is appreciative of something most children don’t hear: “The greatest lesson I learned from my father was that you’ve got to think for yourself. You’ve got to learn how to do things for yourself. I know it was hard for a dad to do and say, but he did it.”
It’s inevitable that a coach will say something to his child he wouldn’t say to another player. When a pre-teen Derek Jeter wouldn’t shake hands with the other team after a loss, his father/coach told him it was “time to grab a tennis racket, since you obviously don’t know how to play a team sport.” And Tampa Bay Rays slugger Evan Longoria’s dad told him to stop crying when the boy was pitching at age 8.
“I can just remember him walking out to the mound and him giving me that stern look – almost a yell, but not really – saying, ‘What are you doing crying out here?’ ” Longoria said. “But he made sure not to go too far with his look because he didn’t want me to cry even more.”
Coaching a son or daughter is not a prerequisite for getting him or her a college scholarship or reaching the pros. The father of J.D., Stephen and Tim Drew – the only family to have three first-round draft picks – didn’t coach. But regardless of a child’s talent, a parent might choose to coach. It can be tremendously rewarding. And most youth sports organizations will gladly accept another volunteer.
Steve Henson is Senior Editor, Major League Baseball at USA Today Sports Media Group. You can follow him on Twitter at @HensonUSAToday