Best NFL photos of the year

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.

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Read the December 2013 OnDeck Newsletters

Our final 2013 editions of the popular OnDeck Newsletter have been released and are waiting for your reading pleasure. You can download the baseball/softball issue here and our latest soccer edition here. If you’d like to be sure you receive future issues straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Who do you believe?

We frequently receive letters from parents and coaches asking for advice. Below are representations of two such letters, written about the same child: One from the child’s parent and one from his coach. You will notice, the two authors see the same situation from completely opposite perspectives.

“Dear Sir: My son’s coach is so unfair! Let me give you some background. My boy began playing competitive basketball when he was eight years old. He is now eleven. He has always been one of the best players on the team and has been used to getting lots of playing time. This year we moved him to a new team that is supposed to be in a more competitive league. Even though he is one of the youngest players on the team, he is still clearly as good or better then anyone else, including the coach’s son. But guess who suddenly is sitting the bench while the coach’s son plays nearly every minute? When he does get in the game he is so nervous because he knows that if he makes one mistake he’ll be yanked and put on the bench. Some games he hardly plays at all. This is devastating to my son and I’m concerned that he’ll lose the love of the game and not want to play anymore at all. Other parents have even come to me and said they think he’s a great player and they can’t understand why he doesn’t play more. It is everything I can do not to confront this man but my son doesn’t want me to. The team wins most of its games so that is probably why no other parents seem angry. Do you have any suggestions for how I should handle this? Should I speak to the coach even though my son begs me not to?”

Signed,

Parent of a great player.

“Dear Sir: I coach an 11-12 year-old basketball team in a competitive league. I am not a paid coach and my son, who is twelve, is on the team. Lately, I’ve been having difficulty with one of the players, or maybe more specifically, his parent. The boy in question is eleven and he is a nice kid, like all of them are at this age. The problem is that, in my opinion, he isn’t ready for this level of competition. I think his parents pushed him to be on this highly-competitive team more than it was a case if him really wanting it himself. As I said, he is younger, and one of the smaller players as well. He is a pretty good defender and shooter, but needs to work on his dribbling, and he struggles grasping our offensive scheme. I try to give him extra time at practice, but I find that takes away from the other kids. I can see him getting more and more discouraged and his attitude is suffering. He pouts at practice and  especially at the games if he’s on the bench. In our last game, when I put him in, he got the ball three times and all three times he turned it over. First, he dribbled off his foot out of bounds. Next, his pass was stolen and taken the other way for an easy lay-up. Then, he was trapped in corner by two defenders and held the ball until he got a five-second call. Finally I called time out so that I could get someone to take his place before we gave up our lead, plus I didn’t want him to be totally embarrassed. I could tell that his mother in the stands was furious but I don’t know what else I can do. Any advice would be appreciated.”

Signed,

Coach of a not-so-great player.

Isn’t it interesting how two people can view the same circumstance so differently? So where does the truth lie? As usual, probably somewhere in the middle. And since they asked for our advice, here it is – for both sides. To the upset parent: Is is possible that your child might not be ready for this level of play, and that you are seeing his talents from a strong bias? If this coach is unfair, why aren’t other parents complaining? And since this is a competitive team that cares about winning, if your son was good enough to help the team, don’t you believe the coach would play him more? How much time does he spend on his own trying to improve? Putting aside our thoughts about the wisdom of ultra-competitive teams for eleven and twelve year-olds, this is what you signed up for. Rec leagues are designed so that everyone plays and the emphasis is not on winning. But you can’t have it both ways. If you want him to play with elite competition, he has to work hard to earn playing time and not just expect it to be granted.

And to the coach: I understand you believe this child may have been pushed into a situation he wasn’t ready for. But your job as a coach is to try to find a way to get the most out of each player. You say he is good at certain aspects of the game. Why not put him in situations where those talents will be utilized and his deficiencies will be minimized? At practice, it doesn’t take any extra time to praise a player when he does something good. That will usually get them to stop “pouting” and maybe make them more likely to want to play harder. And, I understand that this is a competitive team, but calling time-out to take a fragile eleven year-old player out of the game might be taking the desire to win too far. In our opinion, your greatest accomplishment as a coach would not be to run the table and win the championship, but to bring this player out of his shell and turn him into a positive contributor who wants to come back and play again next year. If you can do that and win the championship, more power to you.

There are always two sides to every story – two perspectives. The letters we get rarely recognize this, probably because we tend to get so emotional about our kids and youth sports in general. When we’re feeling angry or mistreated, both coaches and parents would be well-served to put themselves in the other’s place. Walking a mile – in someone else’s shoes – might be the very best way to calm down and gain perspective.

Brian Gotta is President of CoachDeck LLC (www.coachdeck.com). He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.

Arnold Palmer saves Christmas

Have a box of tissues nearby while you watch this video of Arnold Palmer calling in a special favor to Santa Claus.

Slump Busting 101: Hitting Mechanics

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.

Coaching your child: Expert advice from T-ball to high school and beyond

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

Merry Christmas!

All of us here at CoachDeck would like to wish you and yours a safe, peaceful and Merry Christmas.