Leave running basic skill drills to adults


September 24, 2006|By Cal Ripken

I am the father of two sons, 14 and 11, who love playing baseball. I have coached both boys for years and I will be coaching my youngest again next summer. He will be a 12-year-old next season, has been an All Star for three years and is well-liked by the other kids. I think he and a few other older, skilled players have a lot to offer the younger or emerging players and I would like to use them to run basic skill drills during practice.

I think this would help keep the skilled players more engaged during practice and it would free me up to help the kids who need it most. This past year I was coaching my oldest son and my youngest had a coach new to the league who made it very clear that he was the coach and the players were the players and should not try to help out with tips or techniques. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

TOM HOFMAN, Milwaukee

DEAR TOM -- One of your responsibilities as a coach is to provide proper supervision and create an environment in which parents are comfortable leaving their children. Parents put a lot of trust in the volunteers who coach their children, and it is important to keep that in mind.

I think that whenever you have skilled older players who approach the game properly in terms of enthusiasm and effort it is a good idea to use them to demonstrate skills to younger players. As you said, the younger players are likely to pay closer attention and try to emulate their older counterparts, especially if they look up to the players.

However, you have to keep in mind that 12-year-olds, no matter how mature or skilled for their age, are still kids. I'm not sure that it is in your best interest or that of your team to go off to one part of the field and trust that these more-skilled players are going to be able to effectively run drills while you work with other players.

First, 12-year-olds tend to do and say what they want, so there is no guarantee that they will communicate something exactly the way you would want. Second, there is no way that a 12-year-old is going to have the attention to detail equal to that of an adult coach, meaning that the drills they will be running most likely will be less organized and efficient than you might like. Third, if an injury were to occur among those being instructed by kids, you or your league could be held liable.

Instead of having kids work with kids, I recommend holding a preseason meeting with your parents and inviting them to participate on a rotating basis. It might be easier to recruit adult help if the commitment is for one or two practices instead of the entire season.

Most of our 8- and 9-year-olds played machine ball last year. Hitting a 38 mph-45 mph pitch seems to be no problem. However, when we face a pitcher throwing in the 25 mph-35 mph range, we have major timing problems. Do you have any drills that would benefit hitters facing slow pitchers?

SAM SKELTON, Madisonville, Ky.

DEAR SAM -- Any time young players make the change from hitting off a pitching machine or a coach to facing other kids, there is going to be a period of adjustment.

No matter how hard the kid is throwing, there is a fear of getting hit with a pitch that must be overcome. There also is a big difference between hitting off a pitching machine and a live pitcher. Kids can time the pitching machine and stride early to make sure that they can catch up with the pitch. This approach tends to cause them to shift their weight forward too quickly when facing live pitchers. Finally, coaches and pitching machines throw pretty much every pitch over the plate. Young pitchers tend to be inconsistent, and young batters are used to being able to swing at almost every pitch.

We have a drill called lob toss in which the coach sits on a chair behind a screen and tosses pitches with a high arc. The idea is for the kids to keep their weight back and let the ball travel all the way to home plate before swinging.

After this drill, try pitching to your hitters from the standard distance so that they can get used to timing pitches traveling that far. Make sure you throw pitches at different speeds so they learn not to cheat by striding too early every time.

After your players get the hang of hitting pitches at different speeds, throw some bad pitches on purpose to help them learn the strike zone and develop an understanding of which pitches they should let go.

My teenage son is physically able to be a good baseball player, but are there ways to help coach him so that he's mentally tougher and smarter?


DEAR TONY -- Some young players seem to have better baseball instincts and are mentally tougher than others. It's no different in school or the business world. We all know people who have worked hard to overcome whatever shortcomings they possess to be extremely successful.

I think it will be hard to make your son do anything against his will. If he's happy playing baseball and is comfortable with the level at which he plays the game, I would try not to change anything. Any changes have to be for him, not for you.

You might want to take him to some college or professional games. Go during batting practice so that he can see how the players prepare and point out different situations and how the players handle them. Pick out some players who exemplify mental toughness and have your son watch them closely. Talk to him about how they handle adversity and the professionalism that they exude. You can do the same thing while watching games on television. This can be a subtle way of introducing areas in which you want him to improve while also serving as a bonding opportunity.

Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to askcal@baltimoresun.com.

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