Player development below age 14

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9 Years Old -tapped weigth to bat, hitting a 1 pound plyocare ball
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Having fun or getting better? Why not both?

What is development?

Author Vern Gambetta describes development as an increase in overall qualities of the complete athlete – balance of all components of physical performance: strength, power, speed, agility, and flexibility.

In general, development may be best thought of as not being skill specific. Development is what makes skill specific possible. It is the prerequisite of specific skill. If a youth player is lacking the ability to perform a specific skill/pattern or wants to improve any specific skill, it is a pretty fair estimate that about 95% of the time the answer to “how to improve” starts with overall development/movement. Athletic development of any youth athlete over the long-term is a much more important and has a bigger impact on any sport activity than just “mechanics”. Fundamental movements and good training habits is the key to development.

Not only as a youth coach but also as someone who has been around sports for decades I’ve noticed how much overall athleticism/physical development has declined in the youth population. But more importantly, so have the high school, college, and professional coaches and trainers noticed it as well.

Jeremy Frisch of Achieve Performance https://achieveperformance.training/ recently put it this way: “Childhood used to be great preparation for sport, but sport has now taken over childhood. Young athletes lack the diversity of movement and free play that was once found in abundance years ago.”

If you are not familiar with Eric Cressey and you have a young athlete in baseball or softball, I suggest you become familiar. His bio and website can be found here: https://ericcressey.com/about-eric .

Eric stated this in a blog entitled “Why We Are Losing Athleticism”:

“Anecdotally, the typical athletes I’ve seen on initial evaluations are now considerably less athletic than what I saw in 2006, when I first moved to Boston. These kids also have more extensive injury histories, and they’re on more medications.”

In another blog post entitled “20 Ways To Prepare Young Athletes For Success In Sports and Life” he writes this:

“One thing I’ve found quite interesting over the past decade or so is that the number of overzealous, pushy, high-pressure parents has increased exponentially. As we all know (and not surprisingly), burnout rates in teen athletes has gone sky-high in this same time period. However, on a more anecdotal level, I know I can speak for myself and many other qualified coaches when I say that the “typical” kid who walks through my door on Day 1 just isn’t as athletic as he used to be. Asymmetries are more profound, injury histories are more extensive, basic movement skill acquisition has been skipped over, and – perhaps more significantly – the athletes are a bit “desensitized” to the overall training process.

They view everything as just another game/practice, so the value of each training exposure is a bit less. This was something that just didn’t happen when I was younger and free play was so heavily emphasized; we got tremendously excited for each opportunity to get better, whether it was a summer soccer camp or a new drill or training approach that our coaches introduced.”

Why below age 14?

Puberty, growth spurts, growth plates, burnout, and repetitive use injuries (lower backs and arms) are real. Until a year after puberty starts (actual age varies per child) a parent can’t know: 1) what the next year brings physically or mentally for your child, 2) what their level of interest/commitment will be to any sport. So the recommendations and thoughts below are targeted for those in the pre puberty years. Also, this is the most critical time in an athletes developmental stages – it becomes increasingly more difficult to increase overall athleticism after puberty. Not that it can’t happen, just the window is closing as time marches on. In the post puberty teenage years – the development needs change. Not just because of the physical and mental aspects that puberty can impact but also the size of the field and the talent on the field changes. I will address 14+ development in a different blog post.

What does youth development look like?

If you think about it almost anything can help youth development below the age of 14. You can purchase developmental programs. If you have the means, go for it but do not think you can buy something and then development is “done”. Even if you change-up a purchased development program weekly or monthly, you are only getting a small piece of what true development looks like. You cannot purchase youth development like it’s another piece of equipment. Everything works, some things work better than others (depending on the player), and nothing works forever.

An element of development that is sadly missed by many parents of youth athletes is the undeniable benefit of free play. What is free play? In essence it’s being a kid, having fun. A shortlist of free play activities: riding a bike, go swimming, touch football with buds, climb a tree, go to the park, play tag, shoot some hoops, play street ball, play a different sport (organized or otherwise), mow the grass (not riding), build something with your hands, jump on a trampoline, and the list goes on and on. To put it directly, have your child spend less time with their face looking at a screen or playing the same sport/game/routine year around and spend more time breaking a sweat while having fun – lets call that Youth Development 101. Do not under estimate how vital this is for your child. There are certain elements of development that shouldn’t be homogenized.

Lastly, don’t worry moms and dads, having/creating a process is not difficult nor expensive and a degree in exercise science is not required. There are free sources available or some that cost less than a single lesson – all of which can benefit your child for years if not decades. Dynamic movement and body weight exercises/warmup as well as recovery can have a huge positive impact on youth development (on and off the field). Below are some examples of great resources/programs:

  • Wasserman Strength has a free dynamic warmup ebook: Click Here
  • Own the Off Season has a free speed program: Click Here
  • Zach Dechant’s Movement Over Maxes can be purchased here: Click Here

I hope this post helps in understanding what youth development is, what it is not, and why it is important. Get better!

Featured post

Youth Hitting – Part 1 – Know the Why

Hitting a moving round ball with a round bat is not easy. But getting better at the youth level does not have to be hard or expensive. It is not uncommon for parents to view development of youth hitting (and pitching for that matter) in extremes: 1) do basically nothing or next to nothing or 2) over coach, over talk, frustrate the child, etc. Neither extreme is ideal and 2) is most likely the worst option over the long-term. But the training/development focus at the youth level should only come down to 2 basic components and both are highly teachable/trainable:

  • Swing Fast
  • Hit line drives over the infield

I did not say “swing level”. I’m not sure what swing level means. I know what most people think it means but practically speaking how do you “swing level” at a low strike? Swing level to what? The ground? In baseball, you will never see a pitched ball that travels level to the ground – more on that later.

Swing Fast

It is not an accident that I put swing fast as #1. At the youth level, developing/training bat speed is the most important element in hitting. Nothing adds more fun to playing the game than driving a ball into the outfield and there is no feeling quite like hitting the hard and on the sweet spot. The facts are clear, the faster a ball comes off the bat, the better chance it has of being a hit.

Of course “how fast” is relevant to the age of the player. Naturally, the average bat speed of a 7-year-old is less than the average bat speed of a 15-year-old. Increasing the body’s ability to generate more bat speed is always relevant.

There are two basic ways to increase bat speed: 1) increase the players physical ability to generate bat speed and 2) move better (basic swing mechanics) to make better use of a players current ability to generate more bat speed. Even though 2) sounds easier or faster on the surface, in reality 1) is simpler to train and normally produces faster results. Here is the best part, a player can do both at the same time. Stay with me.

First, let’s go ahead and address some of the normal negative comments some will say about youth training/developing to swing fast. All push backs to training this way tends to sound like one of these: strike outs from over swinging, players hit better when you swing at 80% (or some such).

In both of these cases the person saying these things is viewing training/development through the same lens as playing in a game. That is known as moving the goal post – changing the environment and the context of the point being made. On game day, it is time to play the game, compete, if its close to a strike, hit it. In short, the player reacts. Training and development happens before game day, in most cases weeks if not months before game day. The end goal is when a player plays the game (reacts) his/her previous development (swing fast, hit line drives) becomes the natural reaction. Playing a game is about winning that game, development is about getting better at THE game – big difference.

Also, a player may hit better in a game or team practice by feeling like they are swinging 80%, 50%, or whatever. If a player has developed the ability to swing faster, then regardless of the feel or percentage they will be swinging faster. 80% of a 65 mph max swing is faster than 80% of a 55 mph max swing. All things being equal for an individual player, the faster the bat is moving at contact, the harder the ball will be hit. Hitting the ball harder over the course of a season is always better than not hitting it harder over the course of a season.

In the short-term, a player may swing and miss more often when they are not used to developing an increase in bat speed. That’s ok – you gotta break some eggs to make an omelet. That’s why you don’t start doing this for the first time an hour before a game. It helps if the player and parent think in terms of several weeks or a few months. If the desire is to truly get better at hitting there is not one drill or a single hour training session that is going to help over the course of a season. But spending an hour (at home or batting cage or both), maybe twice a week, over a period of two or three months can and often does make a big difference when game day occurs.

Hit Line Drives Over The Infield

What is a line drive? Did you know Major League Baseball (MLB) actually characterizes EVERY ball that is hit in the field of play? And yes, they track and measure it. Per MLB – “Each ball that is hit into the field of play is characterized as a line drive, a fly ball, a ground ball or a pop-up.” The main thing most youth players and parents need to understand is a line drive is not just a ball hit relatively hard 5 feet off the ground. A line drive has a wider range (trajectory) than most people think. Visually, the range of line drives over the infield looks something like this:

LineDriveImage

A common negative push back on this is “youth players are not major leaguers”. Well, no kidding. But if you are implying that a 50 pound 7-year-old can’t hit a line drive in a youth game – you are simply wrong. If you are implying that any kid can’t train/develop to get better at hitting line drives – you are simply wrong.

Another common argument is youth games can be won by hitting a ground ball or bunt or “situational hitting”. Well, thanks for the news flash but once again that is moving the goal post.

'We can't discuss anything fairly - He just keeps moving the goalposts!'

Taking advantage of poor fielding and throwing errors at the youth level wins most games – that’s why it is often used as an excuse to not get better at things that matter most.

There is no debate that being able to swing faster and hit more line drives during a season makes the game more fun to play and more enjoyable for parents to watch. There is no debate that increasing the ability to hit more line drives helps win games. There is no debate that having fun playing a game is a worthy goal physically and mentally for the child and the parent.

I hope this gives you some understanding “why” developing a faster swing and hitting more line drives matters. The next post (Part 2) will be recommendations, pics, and videos of how to help a player get better at hitting. I’ll leave you with this vid of a line drive, wait for the slow motion of the hit/swing. Until next time, get better!

Hitting – What does a good hit look like?

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to make various post related to hitting. Everyone has opinions on hitting mechanics. But before we can discuss hitting mechanics/movements we first have to agree on what a good hit looks like.

I’m not limited this to whether or not a hit ball is technically a “base hit”. From a training/development point of view we need a standard higher than just the result of making contact. I’m talking about a well struck/solidly hit ball produced by a swing that is efficient. An efficient swing is defined as repeatable, adjustable (player knows/feels where the bat is going), and is powerful relatively to the player. Example of 2 youth players:

  1. Player 1 swings: is a reaching or lunging or “push” swing creating a bat path that strikes the ball with descending blow, ball bounces several times and no infielder gets a glove on it for any number of reasons, ball rolls out to the outfield, hitter running to first base safely, outfielder fields the ground ball and throws the ball towards second base, makes a bad throw, hitter runs to second base and is safe. This result is the classic example of what is known as a “little league double”.
  2. Player 2 swings: makes a well-balanced, powerful swing, barrel makes solid contact with the ball, the ball hits the sweet spot of the barrel, the batted ball is a line drive into the outfield that happens to be hit right at an outfielder, the outfielder catches it, batter is out.

Which one of the two hits above is better?

It seems obvious to me that swing 2 above is the better hit even though it resulted in the hitter getting out but there are people who teach and argue that swing 1 will produce at the lower levels of baseball. In other words, there are people who teach, train, or will argue for swing 1 above because it takes advantage of youth field/throwing errors. This kind of thinking is not only at the youth level.

Here’s my take. I get the concept of swing 1 above from a trying to win a youth game standpoint. Even at the high school level fielding and throwing errors happen all the time and it’s “easy” to take advantage of these errors. My question is do you want a youth player to get better by being able to hit for damage (hit it harder/better, line drives) or by taking advantage of bad defenses? I promise you, if they want to play the game for as long as possible then it is no question training to do more damage at the plate is the childs ticket to playing the game as far as their talent allows. Defenses get better, more and more ground balls become outs.

This kind of “just put it in play” mindset goes beyond the youth level. Here is a video by the director of hitting for Driveline Baseball. They train players from youth to the professional level. This video is only about 4 mins and mostly about using physical assessment and tech to help players get better but play close attention to the first 60 seconds:

Of course making contact when a player swings is important but why is it sometimes thought of as one extreme or the other? Why can’t a player train/develop to do damage AND train to make better/more solid contact at the same time? The answer is of course they can, but that takes more time and effort. Is it worth it? Well, that depends on what you want out of the sport. Until next time, happy hitting.

You Will Choose A Tiger. But Which One?

The attached video applies to way more than just youth sports and that is its true greatness. While the vid is easy to understand be sure to listen closely for the context of these phrases:

  • never struggles
  • same tools – different environment
  • no matter what we trying to learn … at the edge of our ability, a little outside of our comfort zone is where development (getting better) takes place
  • our comfort zone is the zoo … limits development
  • everybody knows this
  • understand fear

In less time then it takes to drive 20 miles, you can learn the benefits of being a jungle tiger. Enjoy!

Parents Sanity Hack – Short-term & Long-term Thinking

I know you love your kid. I know you will do what you think is best. I understand. It can be very difficult for those who don’t understand that baseball and softball is by their very nature a game of managing “failure”. It is a humbling game. Similar to golf, it is the ones that manage or view failure the “best” are often the most successful. The best pitchers on the planet throw bad pitches, lose games and give up home runs. The best hitters on the planet strike out, hit into double plays and swing & miss the ball by 2 feet. Umpires make bad calls. A parent(s) reaction to these type of short-term “failures” is CRITICAL as it relates to how your child views the game as well as how your child reacts personally to these events. How a parent reacts and what they say does impact how well a child plays, their confidence and for how long they continue to play the game in the future.

Steve Springer of Quality At Bats put out this video on the Biggest Mistake Parents Make:

So let me suggest a way of viewing a youths journey through sports. If adopted, this view will help you manage how you react and what you say or don’t say. No, this is not some mind control thing. It’s more about the parent acknowledging and reacting to the reality that the in-games results of any youth baseball or softball game is not that important in the grand scheme of things. I know it sounds obvious but most parents actions and words say differently.

A parents short-term vision should not be pitch-to-pitch, day-to day or even month-to-month. Twelve consecutive months, a full calendar year, should be every youth parents short-term window. “I can’t do that” – yes, you can. Ask yourself, if you are willing to do “anything for the benefit of my child” then what is the excuse not to decide to change your short-term view for a youth sport?

How does this benefit you and your child? Glad you asked.

  • Do you currently say something after every pitch? Even if it is a good pitch?
  • Do you give advice after every at-bat that results in an out? or every swing & miss?
  • Do you talk more during the game than at practice?
  • Do you say anything directly to the umpire when you are sitting on the other side of the fence?
  • Do you talk, give advice or ask “what happen” to your child during the game?
  • Do you talk about the mistakes, errors after the game or on the ride home?

All of these things would NOT happen if your short-term view was longer than that moment. I can promise you nobody feels worse than the player when a mistake or bad play occurs. Build a kid up. React positively. “You’ll get’em next time.”

I’m not saying you should constantly tell a player how great they are – that’s patronizing and the child knows better. If they want to talk about it, that’s fine. Just remind them you love watching them play and that making your best effort is what’s important.

A youth parents long-term view should be 3 – 5 years. First, what seems obvious but often not the reality in ones immediate actions is this fact – The long-term relationship with your child is far more important than any sport. Living for your child is part of a parents job, living through your child often ends badly for the parent and the child.

The primary focus of the long-term is an increase in overall athleticism. Do not fall for the trap that your child will grow into power. Pro tip: EVERY youth kid is growing/getting older. They grow at different rates at different ages but they are all getting older & stronger, assuming there is a medical reason that prevents it. The point is, getting better is relative to your child’s age/level. Getting older is not getting stronger/more athletic in the sense that all youth are getting older – including the competition.

When you begin viewing youth games or outcomes from a perspective that 12 months is your short-term and that several years is playing the long game, then what happened in the last game doesn’t seem like the end of the world. Am I saying the game stats or the win/loss record from your child’s 12-year-old season doesn’t matter when they get to high school? That’s exactly what I’m saying. “My child may not be playing the game in 3 – 5 years!” Your child may very well be finished playing competitive sports in 3 – 5 years. So the question is why were so mad about that bad call during the last game? …. See how this works? 🙂

Want Your Middle School Child Committing to a College? …. Why?

What does making a committment mean? Legally speaking – nothing.

KeepPlayingBaseball.org (Click For Full Website) writes it this way:

“A verbal commitment is a gentleman’s agreement between a recruit and a coach that states that the recruit will attend that school on a prearranged financial award. As a ‘gentleman’s agreement’, the deal is only as good as the word of the two parties involved. Legally, it is a non-binding verbal agreement with no guarantees, regardless of the terms that both sides arrange. No matter what a coach says, when push comes to shove, there is nothing legally holding the deal in place. A program is only obligated to honor the agreement once a recruit has signed a written financial agreement or National Letter of Intent (NLI) during his senior year of high school.”

The “verbal” as includes posting it on any social media platform. The post almost always include words like “blessed” or “humble” when they have “committed to University of …. “.

If you have recently watched the Little League World Series or College Baseball then there’s a good chance you have heard Kyle Peterson speak. His voice is well-known in the baseball world because he is generally considered one of the best baseball broadcasters/commentators on TV. In my opinion, he is the best on TV at helping explain the game and at relating it playing level.

If you don’t know who Kyle Peterson is, Wikipedia has this: Peterson was drafted by the Brewers as the 13th overall pick in the first round of the 1997 MLB Draft after a collegiate career at Stanford University. He made his major league debut in 1999. After that season, he did not again play in the majors until 2001. He retired from the game after 2002. Upon retirement, Peterson joined ESPN as an analyst on College, Major League and Little League events. Since 2003, Peterson has covered the College World SeriesLittle League World Series, and Major League playoffs. Peterson now works as an analyst for the SEC Network.

Just to be clear, Kyle Peterson is not a casual baseball fan or just a dad of a youth player. Not only is he former college and pro player but also currently actively involved in the college baseball community. Below are a couple of statements he made recently about an 8th grader who is committed to Mississippi State University.

“My son is this age. This hits home. We are talking about where to go to high school, not college. It’s not right, at all, to ask a 14-year-old to commit to a college. Before he’s in high school. I hate rules but it’s time to tighten this up. Now!”

“I don’t know (players name), but his graduation year says he’s in 8th grade. He’s not even in high school yet. We need to change the system folks. We are really asking kids in middle school to commit to college? It’s not right for kids. At all!”

Here are some quotes from a Baseball America (Full Article) article written in 2017:

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “The more competitive that college baseball becomes, the more money that’s invested—which makes the fragility of jobs increased at the high-end programs—that just pushes the envelope on everything. That doesn’t make it right—it just is what it is.”

“I think what we’re doing at this point is insane,” UC Santa Barbara coach Andrew Checketts said. “I find it hard to believe that 15-year-olds are mature enough, have been exposed to enough things to make major, life-changing decisions like where you go to school.”

“Common sense has to prevail,” Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown said. “People on the outside (of college baseball) can’t believe recruitment has gotten to that level where it has led to these issues.”

KeepPlayingBaseball.org list 4 things in making the case against early commitments:

  1. Have all the financial, academic, and athletic info you need to make a well-informed decision before verbally committing.
  2. A lot can change. The longer you are verbally committed before you sign your NLI (National Letter of Intent – a legally binding document that includes scholarship offer), the longer there is for circumstances to change (your interests, coaching staff, direction of a program, etc.).
  3. You can be sure that teams are continuing to recruit and look for players after your commitment. Meanwhile, you stop searching for schools and other schools stop paying close attention to you.
  4. There is a double standard when it comes to verbal commitments. Players who de-commit are often labeled as having character flaws or being unreliable.

The NCAA adopted a new rule in 2018. From NCAA’s website, it states, “For student-athletes in sports other than football and basketball, official visits now can begin Sept. 1 of a prospect’s junior year in high school instead of the first day of classes for senior year.” This impacts official recruiting contact and visits – not verbal or written commitments. In the explanation of this 2018 rule changes, the NCAA goes on to say, “They are considered a first step toward regulating a recruiting process that can begin in middle school — and sometimes earlier. The Student-Athlete Experience Committee will continue to examine the recruiting environment, with communications (telephone, email, text), verbal and written offers, and off-campus contacts on the agenda for the next phase.”

Given all this information, if the parent of a current middle school child wants or allows the child to commit to a college, I’ll politely ask the question again … Why?

 

Get Better At Fielding – Parents: You Can Do This

Fielding is the basic framework of playing defense in baseball or softball. In no other area does the old adage of “repetition is the mother of skills” is always relevant. Of course there are some fundamental techniques or mechanics that can be worked on but at the youth level getting better at catching/stopping the ball (get a glove on it) will never “not matter”. So parents, if you don’t know anything about the technical aspects fielding, footwork, etc you can still help your player get better. In fact, your acknowledgement of not knowing “how to” is a really good thing – by the way, this applies to all areas of life 🙂

In the videos below, you and your child do not have to go though all levels of these fielding progressions. We are talking youth here and you have to start where you and the player are “at”. Getting yourself or the child frustrated is counterproductive at this point. The point is the speed of a drill and how the drill is done needs to be doable for the player – reps is the training protocol. Too many think everything has to “hard” in order for it to work or to get better. Of course challenging an athlete is part of the long-term process of getting better. But don’t jump to the chase (talking to mostly dads out there) – practicing the fundamentals is what separates the good from the not so good. You don’t practice free throws by running at full speed, so to speak.

Also, you don’t need a bat. Being able to use a bat helps, you’ll get better at using a bat the more you use it but don’t let that stop you from putting in the time with your child at catching and getting a glove on the ball. Throwing the ball underhand or overhand works. And does not have to be a baseball or softball – cheap practice tennis balls work. Visually tracking any ball, improving hand-eye coordination, and confidence is the goal – not the particular equipment being used.

Below are videos of Ron Washington, professional, major league coach, former manager. Ron is not only considered to be one of the best fielding coaches on the planet but also has earned the rep as being a good dude in the game and in life. That may not matter to some, but it does to me. Fun fact: If you say the movie Moneyball, Ron’s character was played by Brent Jennings . In the image below, Brent is on the left. Oh, the guy on the right is kinda famous as well …

moneyball

Back to the vids below, the fielders are professional players. The drills are not necessarily targeted at the youth level. But the methodoly and the “how to” applies to all.

Next is a great vid bellow by Coach Trent Mongero from Winning Baseball (Click Here For Full Website) . From bare hands, to ground balls, to fly balls you can not get “to good” at these 5 drills regardless of the position played.

Take what you can from these videos, build upon it and start getting better.

 

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