Landon Donovan shows class, honesty

We had to bring you some World Cups posts during this great tournament, didn’t we? Here’s a terrific article by the LA Times’ Bill Plaschke on Landon Donovan and the strides he’s made to put his Team USA snub behind him and find a silver lining.

Too much, too soon, too fast?

This Los Angeles Times article about a new app developed to help youngsters avoid and rehabilitate from pitching injuries is really an exposure of the not-so-great side of youth baseball, injuries and overzealous parents and coaches.

CoachDeck partners with Changing the Game

We’ve formed a strategic alliance with John O’Sullivan and his Changing the Game Project. John’s mission is very similar to ours: To improve the quality of the youth sports experience for coaches and, especially kids. Read the press release for more information on the partnership and the Changing the Game Project.

Belated Father’s Day cartoon

We know we’re a bit late, but we just stumbled upon this cartoon and it’s perfect. We’re new, big fans of Drew Litton!

Father's Day Baseball Cartoon

Increases in physical activity lead to decreases in ADHD

Many believe that ADHD is either often misdiagnosed, over-medicated, or not even a real disorder. This study, brought to us by our partners, PHIT America.org shows that maybe the problem with many our today’s youth is not “Attention Deficit” but rather activity deficit.

Read June’s issues of OnDeck

If you didn’t receive our popular OnDeck Newsletter today, don’t despair! You can download your own copy of our baseball and/or soccer editions and sign up here so you never miss another issue.

Another edition of OnDeck goes out tomorrow

Sign up to receive the June 2014 issue of OnDeck delivered to your inbox tomorrow. Don’t miss out on our popular newsletter!

The Long Road

Six years ago, my son had the worst day of his young life. He’d been cut from his high school baseball team in his junior year. A couple of weeks ago he got the news he’d always dreamed of: He was selected by the Tampa Rays in the Major League Baseball draft. How did he get past that devastating setback and much more to be where he is now? The journey has been one that has left me prouder than I could ever imagine and should serve as inspiration to any youngster who faces adversity in sports.

Cade starred in football, basketball and baseball all through grade and middle school. He was well-known in the community as an athlete. If you asked him what he was going to do when he grew up, it was either play in the NFL or the Major Leagues. At the large, division one high school he attended, he started at wide receiver on the freshman football team, made the freshman basketball team and was the shortstop on the freshman baseball squad. His sophomore year he began experiencing some arm pain. He tried to play through it but it got so he couldn’t swing a bat. We took him to the doctor and learned that he had broken the growth plate in his throwing elbow. He would miss at least half the baseball season in a cast. When he returned, he took over as JV shortstop but he and I both got the sense that something in the coaches’ attitudes had changed and that maybe they had become bigger fans of other players.

That summer, before his junior year, he went through a huge growth spurt, going from 5’5” to 6’1” almost overnight. You would think that size would bode well for football, but he was now a bit awkward and had lost much of his speed because of the adjustment to his new body. When the varsity football season began, for the first time in his life, Cade found himself a bench-warmer. It was a tough pill to swallow, especially seeing kids who used to watch him from the sidelines, now starting ahead of him.

He was happy to have football end so he could get back to baseball. But as the tryouts neared, he expressed concern. He said he was not getting a good vibe from the coach. I dismissed this as unfounded worry. There was no way this kid, who had started at shortstop on the freshman and JV teams, who had always been one of the best players in our community, was not going to make the varsity team.

The day the teams were going to be announced was also my second son, Nick’s birthday. He was a year behind Cade, hoping to make the JV team, (which he did). Even after the head coach had made a speech to the kids about how he thought that coaches who don’t make cuts face-to-face were cowards, the day tryouts ended he announced that the roster would be posted on the team website. That evening, our whole family tried to act as though it was just another day while we waited for the names online. I don’t know that we even did anything special for Nick, we were all so anxious. Then, Cade went into the office where the computer was and shut the door. We waited for him to come out. When the door opened, the look on his face told me everything I needed to know. I scanned the web page and re-read it to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. I came out and told my wife the terrible news. Cade didn’t make the team.

To say it was like a death in the family may sound excessive but I can tell you it had all the same characteristics. The shock and numbness. The feeling of helplessness and despair. I called the coach. He didn’t answer and I left him a voice mail asking that he call me back. He never did. My daughter, who was ten at the time, couldn’t stop crying. Cade disappeared in his car and I spent an hour driving around town searching for him and trying to come to terms with this. Was his baseball career over? Just like that? My wife called to let me know he’d come back home. I went into his bedroom seeking the right words to say. I remember I told him that I bet there were other guys playing in the Major Leagues who had been cut from their high school team. He looked at me with eyes I could tell had been recently tear-filled and said that no, he was sure there weren’t. “Then you’ll be the first,” I said.

Suddenly, Cade had no place to play baseball. We were told of a wood bat spring league in Los Angeles comprised mostly of red-shirt college freshmen and others who weren’t playing high school for various reasons. Most of the games were two and a half hours away. Some were on school nights at 7:00 PM which meant that immediately after school he loaded his car, made the long drive alone to the game and back, often getting home around midnight. He struggled initially against the older kids on the mound. He was discouraged, maybe even doubting himself. But by the end of the season he was batting third in the lineup.

While this was going on, we found a new school for Cade to attend so that he could play his senior year. That fall, he began to fill into his new body and his determination to achieve his life’s goal took on a whole new life. He began lifting weights like never before. He found a teammate on the baseball team who would meet him early in the morning for batting practice. He got up each day at 6:00 AM and left the house while it was still dark. The two of them hit in the cage every morning before class, all fall and winter. There was never a free afternoon that he didn’t ask me to take him down to the field and pitch to him. I set up a wiffle ball machine in the garage and he hit off that every night.

Finally, the baseball season came. After having to use a wood bat against college pitching for a year, being able to swing aluminum against high school kids felt like shooting fish in a barrel. He batted .465 for the season, was voted League MVP and all-city. Still, because he’d missed his junior season, he only had offers from a few small four-year schools. His new club ball coach recommended he go the junior college route because he thought he’d have a better chance to get drafted into the pros. Since this was Cade’s only dream in life, we chose to have him go to a JC.

The junior college coaches did him a huge favor by realizing he was an outfielder, not an infielder. He had a great two-year career and was told by multiple coaches and scouts that he was a lock to be drafted as a sophomore. But, to his tremendous disappointment, his name was never called. So he had to mentally regroup again and reconcile to find a a four year school where he could continue playing. Though he had several D2 scholarship offers, the only D1 offers he had were walk-ons, which didn’t interest him.

Along the way a small NAIA school, San Diego Christian, had been recruiting him. They offered him a full scholarship, and their head coach was a former Major Leaguer. Cade knew he’d play every inning there. So he said yes even though we worried he might never be seen at such a small school with no history of success. But he felt if he put up big enough numbers, even at this tiny school he could get drafted after his junior season and go play in the pros.

His first three games were tremendous. He was batting .500. He was on his way to having the year he had dreamed of. Then, diving for a ball in center field, he came up holding his right arm. He immediately told me it was broken. I held out hope until we got to the hospital. It was confirmed. The elbow was broken and he would need surgery.

The surgeon told us that he’d never seen anything like this injury. That the growth plate he’d broken his sophomore year of high school had simply never healed. Worst of all, there was no guarantee it would heal this time either. There was a chance Cade’s career would be over. The doctor took a bone graft from the hip to try to promote the healing. After the surgery he said that best-case scenario we’d know in three months, but that it could be as many as six months before we’d have an answer. In the meantime, as soon as Cade could stand up and move without too much pain, he began hitting off the tee one-handed every day.

We went back to the surgeon in three months and got the best news possible. The bone had completely healed and was stronger than before. Cade was even cleared to play the final month of the season. When he came back, a team that had been 18-13 without him went on a 16-3 run and came within one game of the NAIA World Series. But, because of his injury, he’d missed the window to impress the MLB scouts and, again, went undrafted.

He spent the off-season in the weight room and batting cage. He added another fifteen pounds of muscle and came into his senior year 6’2”, 205. His speed was at an all-time high. Knowing that his final collegiate season was his last chance, he did what he needed to do: He finished with a .408 batting average, 11 home runs and 43 stolen bases. He was conference MVP, All-American, and helped lead tiny San Diego Christian to the NAIA World Series. Yet even with that performance, it took until the third day of the draft and lots and lots of names called ahead of his before he finally got the news of his life from the Rays. The anxiety leading up to that moment was excruciating. The joy and relief, overwhelming.

Now he has a clean slate; none of the accomplishments of the past have any meaning. But I have to believe the character he developed suffering setback after setback along the way does. What began as the worst possible thing that could have happened to him turned out to be the best. But only because he wouldn’t quit and was determined to turn any negative into a positive. That he decided it was up to him, not someone else, to say when he was done playing. He still has a long way to go to achieve his ultimate dream. But as I look at the distance he has yet to travel, it seems miniscule compared with how far he has come.

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

Creating a Plate Strategy – What You Must Know

By Nate Barnett

It was Hall of Famer, Ted Williams who once said, “A good hitter can hit a pitch that is over the plate three times better than a great hitter with a questionable ball in a tough spot.”  Williams writes in his book, The Science of Hitting, that becoming a highly selective hitter is what made him the career .344 hitter he was.  After finishing reading his book (highly recommended by the way) this principle stood out as one of the more valuable tips given.  While the majority of instructional time at all levels of baseball is spent on mechanics, the strategy a hitter brings to the plate has the potential to transform his performance for the better.  A poor strategy (or worse, no strategy at all) will certainly chip away at a hitter’s success at a rapid rate.  Because of the importance of the plate strategy, it should be a major focus alongside your mechanics training.  The very best hitters at any level will display a combination of solid hitting mechanics and command of his mental game.

Plate strategy is a funny thing.  When I ask many of the older hitters I work with about their strategy at bat, the most common answer I get in return is “to make solid contact”.  I argue that this is not a strategy in itself, but the end result of an at bat.  It’s the strategy itself that will increase the odds of making solid contact.  Because of the commonality of the no strategy strategy, hitters constantly under achieve.

Before we move further, let’s create a working definition of what I mean by plate strategy.  Plate strategy can be defined as the plan a hitter brings to the plate that is built around his particular strengths combined with his understanding of the pitchers tendencies in each count.  Using this definition we can press forward in creating the first part of the strategy: determining your strength zone.

The process of finding your strength zone will take a little time, and can be discovered over a series of practices if attention is paid to determining a few things.  Use the following steps to find your strength zone.

1.   Take six baseballs (Williams prefers seven, though six fit on home plate, so I use six) and place them in a line so they cover the entire front edge of the plate nearest the pitcher.

2.   We will name the balls numerically.  The ball nearest you as a hitter is the #1 ball.  The ball furthest from you on the outside corner is the #6 ball.

3.   When you are in batting practice, or even in a game scenario, learn to identify what pitch locations you handle best.  For most every hitter fastballs are easier to hit than curveballs, so let’s just determine the locations based on fastballs only.  You’ll want to establish a range of pitches that you can hit particularly well.  This will become your comfort zone.  For example, when I played, I could handle the #2-#4 balls extremely well.   I would then adopt these three balls as my range of comfort.

4.   Once you have confidence that you can identify your range (#2-#4 or #3-#6 or whatever) you will then spend the most amount of time in practice working on the pitches in your comfort zone.  When you have identified your range, #2-#5 balls or #3-#6 balls, or whatever it may be, it’s again important to focus your work in this range.  If you’re working of the tee, set it up in your range.  If you’re working soft toss, work on pitches in this range.  It should also be mentioned that a #3 ball up in the strike zone might not be hit as well as a #3 ball lower in the zone.  Once you are comfortable with your zone you can always refine it to be more specific.

5.   Now that you understand which range of pitches you hit well and which you don’t, it’s time to develop an understanding of the dynamics of each count.  This step requires a lot of discipline.  For that reason, it will take a significant amount of time and patience to develop to the point of consistency.  What you’ll want to work towards is discipline and confidence to only swing at the pitches in your zone when you are ahead in the count.  The counts of 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, and 3-1 are green light counts.  This means that you’ll be patient enough to only swing at fastballs in your comfort zone during these counts.  Once you have trained your eye long enough to recognize pitches that are thrown into your zone, you can begin to maximize your at bats.  Because of this your batting average will soar because you’re only offering at pitches you know you can handle.

I should pause here and elaborate on a couple crucial points from above.  I had mentioned that most of your practice time will be spent working on pitches you’re already good at.  Some have questioned this saying that it should be your weaknesses that deserve the most attention.  The reason I disagree with this is because wherever the focus is in practice, it doesn’t change the fact that the pitches good hitters want to swing at are those they can handle best.  Therefore, if a hitter is disciplined enough, he stands a much better chance if he hits pitches he’s comfortable with.  It is also safe to say that in any given at bat (Little League through high school) a hitter will get a minimum of two good pitches to hit.  (Obviously, the higher the level of baseball, the fewer good pitches a hitter will see.)  Let’s say there is a 75% chance of getting at least two good pitches to hit per at bat, and there is an 80% chance that a good swing will be put on those pitches.  With those percentages in mind, it’s reasonable to make the statement that you should spend most of your practice time working on improving your contact percentage with pitches in your zone.  Spend the majority of practice developing strength in your zone, and a minority of time working on reducing the areas on the plate that you are not good at.  The only exception to this would be if your zone is only two ball widths wide.  Then you should work towards expanding your zone.

Secondly, the remainder of counts outside of those mentioned above (0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1) are important to discuss as well.  When you find yourself in a count in which you’re even or behind in the count, you’ll have to expand your zone.  For example, my zone of #2-#4 would expand to #1-#5.  I would leave the #6 ball alone until I had two strikes because it was my weakest pitch.  With less than two strikes, but not in a favorable count (0-1, and 1-1), I would also open up the possibility that I would have to swing at an off speed pitch.

There are so many advantages in developing the above philosophy.  Additionally, the higher level of baseball played, the more refined the strategy must become.  Good pitchers can control a game if hitters will swing at pitches that are marginal or even out of the zone.  Once a pitcher slips behind in a count his strategy must change; he must come into the strike zone a bit more.  He must now throw more fastballs.  The job you are challenged with is to make pitchers continuously modify their strategy.  When you force a change, it creates some level of strain in the mind of the pitcher.  Once you have done this, your chances of getting a good pitch to hit goes up significantly.

Finally, it’s worth making mention that you will only get to use your hitting mechanics a fraction of the time per game.  But, your mind will be running all the time.  Those athletes who fully understand and implement mental strategies into their game will be the ones who continue on and play.  Looking back at the athletes I played with in the minor leagues, the ones who went on to play MLB were the ones who had control of both mechanics and the mental game. Take the time to develop a plate strategy, and you’ll find your at bats significantly improving in this great sport of baseball.

Nate has worked with athletes for nearly 20 years. His playing career was successful and resulted in being inducted into George Fox University Baseball Hall of Fame.  Once finishing college, Nate signed a professional contract with the Seattle Mariners. You can find more instructional articles and videos at www.hittingexcellence.com

Get Psyched! (Part 2)

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Confidence

Confidence may be the single most important mental factor because you may have all of the ability to be successful, but if you don’t believe you have that ability, you won’t use it to perform your best. Confidence is about believing you can be successful when it gets tough, perform your best when it counts, and achieve your competitive goals.

Preparation breeds confidence. Preparation is the foundation of confidence. If you believe that you have done everything you can to perform your best, you will have confidence in your ability to achieve your goals. This preparation includes the physical, technical, tactical, and mental parts of your sport.

Adversity ingrains confidence. Your biggest challenge is to maintain your belief in yourself when you’re faced with adversity. To more deeply ingrain confidence, you should expose yourself to all experiences that take you out of your comfort zone, for example, bad weather and poor training conditions.

Success validates confidence. When most athletes think of success, they think about having great results and reaching their competitive goals. But every day you train, you’re scoring little victories. With each of these small “wins,” your confidence steadily increases until you have the confidence to achieve a big “win.” After every training session, be sure to acknowledge the small victory—give yourself a pat on the back for your effort and remind yourself of the goal you are working toward—and allow them to accumulate.

All of the previous steps in building confidence would go for naught if you did not then experience competitive success. Success validates the confidence you have developed in your ability. It demonstrates that your belief in your ability is well-founded. Success further strengthens your confidence, making it more resilient in the face of adversity and poor performances. Success also rewards your efforts to build confidence, encouraging you to continue to work hard and continue in your sport.

Positive self-talk. Perhaps the most powerful mental tool for building confidence is positive self-talk. The first step is to become aware of how positive or negative your self-talk is. Often, athletes say things like, “I stink” or “There’s no way I can do this” without even realizing it. The problem is that your negativity will become ingrained and will come out in competition. Positive self-talk is a skill that develops with practice. Identify the negative things you often say to yourself and figure out something positive you can say in its place. Then, be aware of when you’re negative and immediately replace it with something positive.

Intensity

When you’re in a big competition, it’s natural for your intensity to go up and for you to feel nervous. You have to take active steps to get your intensity back to a level that allows your body to perform its best. There are several simple techniques you can use to help you get your intensity under control.

Deep breathing. The most basic way to lower their intensity is to take control of their breathing by focusing on slow, deep breaths. Deep breathing ensures that you get enough oxygen so your body can function well; you will relax, feel better, and have a greater sense of control. This increased comfort will increase your confidence, calm you, and improve your focus. Deep breathing should be a big part of your pre-competitive preparations. If you take a few deep breaths, you ensure that your body is relaxed and comfortable, and you’re focused on something that will help your perform your best.

Slow pace of pre-competitive preparation. A common side effect of over-intensity is that you tend to do everything faster. You can rush before the start of the competition as if you want to get the race over with as soon as possible. So, to lower your intensity, give yourself more time before your start and slow your pace as you get ready.

Music.

Music is one of the most common tools athletes use to control their intensity before competitions. We all know that music has a profound physical and emotional impact on us. Music has the ability to make us happy, sad, inspired, and motivated. Music can also excite or relax us. Many world-class racers can be seen listening to music before they compete. Calming music relaxes you and makes you feel good physically and mentally.

Smile.

The last technique is one of the strangest and most effective I’ve ever come across: Smile! As we grow up, we become conditioned to the positive effects of smiling. In other words, we learn that when we smile, it means we’re happy and life is good. Second, brain research has found is that when we smile, it releases brain chemicals called endorphins which have an actual physiologically relaxing effect. When you begin to feel nervous, simply smile and I promise you will feel more relaxed immediately.

Dr. Jim Taylor holds a Ph.D. in Psychology, is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, and blogs on politics, education, technology, popular culture, and sports for huffingtonpost.com, psychologytoday.com, seattlepi.com, and on his own blog at drjimtaylor.com.