Monthly Archives: April 2019
As a youngster and then even later as an adult, sports for me was a way to get my mind off of bigger troubles. No matter what else may have been happening in my life, when I was in the middle of a game the only thing that mattered was the game, which was often a welcome relief.
To me, that’s one of the biggest purposes youth sports should serve – a pleasant diversion from the trials and tribulations of growing up. But for many young people today, especially teens, apparently the opposite is happening. Rather than being lifted up, more young athletes than ever are suffering from depression as a result of their participation in youth sports (including fastpitch softball). Thanks to my friend Tim Boivin for pointing out this article to me, incidentally.
One of the major changes from days past the article points out is how so many high school-age teams are now training like college teams. I certainly know that to be true, because I hear stories all the time along those lines.
I remember a few years ago hearing about a 14U travel team that at tryouts promised “brutal conditioning” for its players. I just shook my head. Truly, do 13 and 14 year olds really need brutal conditioning? And while they may have followed through on that promise, I saw that team play and they weren’t any better than anyone else around the area.
I’ve seen messages on the websites of high school-age travel teams talking about how demanding their coaches are and how they will yell and scream at you if you make a mistake, as if that’s a good thing and something to aspire to. All constant yelling and screaming does is make players tentative and lead to more errors. There’s a huge difference between holding players accountable and making them shrivel up inside until they hate going to practice games.
Now, I know some of the Internet tough guys are going to say kids today are soft. But that’s not true. I see a lot of grit and determination in today’s players, probably moreso than back in the “good old days.”
But the difference is back then most of us weren’t chasing scholarships from the age of 12. Pitchers weren’t expected to have the same level of pinpoint accuracy as the college seniors playing on TV – or professional athletes. Hitters weren’t constantly being harangued about their slash lines and how their last at-bat looked to any potential college scouts in the stands. Fielders weren’t being told their chances at a scholarship were done because they booted a ground ball in the third inning of a showcase.
And most of us weren’t training as if the end goal was to become a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger. We’d show up, warm up, practice, do some running, then get on with our lives.
What ends up happening is that all of the joy gets sucked out of the game. Instead of playing for fun, too many kids end up playing “for their futures.” The valuable lessons of teamwork and overcoming obstacles are replaced with feelings that they will never be enough, or will never do enough to please the coach.
It’s no wonder kids playing youth sports today are more depressed than ever.
The only thing about sports that should make a player sad is that the season is over. What’s important to remember, as I’ve said many times, is that kids are not just short adults. They don’t view the world the same way adults do, and they don’t process information – especially negative input – the same way adults do.
Coaches will do themselves a huge favor by remembering why they started playing sports when they were young, and trying to bring some of that fun and wonder to their teams.
It’s fun learning new things. It’s fun discovering you can do something today you couldn’t do last week (including things that require tough condition). It’s fun working together toward a common goal and being part of something that’s bigger than just you. And when it comes to winning, it’s a lot more fun to be a part of it and a contributor to it than always watching it from the bench.
Softball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. Keep that approach in mind and maybe we can start to reverse the trend of depression among youth athletes. It has to start somewhere. Let it start with you.
Growing up in the Chicago area in the 1960s (yes, I’m that old) I was a rabid Cubs fan. I had posters from the newspaper on my walls, pennants from games I’d attended, and other various and sundry pieces of Cubs kitsch around the room. (I also begged my parents for a Cubs satin jacket that never came; I guess they figured I would need something to tell my psychiatrist someday.)
If you had asked me back then who my favorite player was I would probably have told you Billy Williams, mostly because he hit left-handed and threw right-handed as I did, which made him easy to identify with. But like all of us back then, there was one Cubs player who stood above them all: Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.
We all loved his sunny, “let’s play two” attitude, his fan-friendliness (more on that in a minute) and of course his powerful swing. By the time I became aware of the Cubs in the early 1960s Ernie had already made the switch to first base. I was surprised to discover later that he not only used to play shortstop but was the National League MVP two years in a row at that position on teams that lost more games than they won. Yes, he was that good.
So I was thrilled to get the opportunity to read a new book on his life, “Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, the Life of Ernie Banks” by venerable Chicago sportswriter Ron Rapoport. Written in an easy, breezy style that makes it tough to put down, the book provides incredible insights into Ernie’s life, from his time growing up as one of 12 children in a poor section of Dallas to his career in the old Negro Leagues to his move to Major League Baseball as the first black player on the Cubs, on through his playing career, and then his post-career life.
This is an amazing accomplishment, because unlike many of today’s athletes, Ernie was not the type to talk about himself or share his innermost thoughts, even with family and close friends. The book describes how he created this happy, upbeat persona and then did all he could to maintain it throughout his life.
It was his armor in a way, but it was also his way of connecting with people. Rapoport says he was genuinely interested in others – perhaps more interested in them than in himself – so any conversation about Ernie and his accomplishments quickly became a discussion about the life of whoever he was speaking with. It’s doubtful he would have had much interest in the narcissistic social media culture had it existed when he was younger.
The basic story
Rapoport paints a vivid picture of Ernie’s life growing up, pieced together from interviews of family and people who knew him then, and a little bit from Ernie himself during one long car ride after 9/11 when he finally shared some details about his life. An older sister in particular fills in a lot of the gaps about what life was like for the family then.
Ernie’s athletic abilities showed up early. He was recruited to play high school football, and despite his slight frame was quite successful – until his mother shut it down when she found out. Eventually he found baseball – his father’s favorite sport – and was brought into the Negro Leagues, playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, who were pretty much the New York Yankees of that league.
While Rapoport doesn’t get too far into the weeds on the social issues at any point in the book, the discussion of Ernie’s experiences with the Monarchs does provide some insight into what life was like for black players back then.
When Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier in 1947 it was viewed as a huge, positive event. But Rapoport also takes the time to describe its ripple effect on the Negro League teams, which had been thriving businesses mostly owned by African-Americans. We rarely think about those consequences, so it’s an interesting perspective to gain.
For the players, of course, it was tremendous. Even though they weren’t paid like today’s players (most regardless of race had to have jobs in the off-season to pay the bills), for the African-American ballplayers it was a definite step up in pay, and of course it was a huge contributor to the social changes still to come.
The book lays out the tribulations and triumph’s of Ernie’s early career with the Cubs, being an All-Star caliber player on a team that typically lost as many as 2/3 of its games. It also describes his close relationship with Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley, who gave Ernie business advice throughout his career, and who was an early innovator in baseball (for better or worse).
Ever the optimist, Ernie continued to believe the Cubs would get better each year despite all evidence to the contrary.
Until the mid-to-late 60s, that is. Suddenly the Cubs had accumulated a wealth of talent, including the pitching the ballclub never seemed to have, and suddenly they were contenders. By this point Ernie was heading toward the end of his career, but still contributing.
One thing I hadn’t been aware of was manager Leo Durocher’s animosity toward Ernie. According to the book, it was because Durocher craved the spotlight and felt Ernie stood in his way toward claiming it in Chicago. Durocher tried to retire or push him out several times, but Ernie persevered and kept winning the job back. The psychological damage was done, however.
One thing that kept Ernie hanging on was the possibility of playing in the World Series, the one accomplishment that had eluded him in his career. It looked like he would finally achieve that goal in 1969 until the Great Collapse, when the New York Mets overcame a huge deficit and won the pennant.
That’s an area where Rapoport kind of veers off the main path of telling the life story of Ernie Banks. He spends several chapters on that fateful season of 1969, discussing what happened with all the players.
At one point as I was reading I reminded myself it was supposed to be about Ernie, because he had all but disappeared from the book at that point. Eventually, it does come back to him and the effect it had on him.
The book then describes Ernie’s post-baseball life, including some rather sad details, his death in 2015, and the subsequent battles over his estate. By the end, while I can’t say I felt like I knew him well, I did feel like I knew him as well as anyone could given Ernie’s reluctance to talk about himself. For that I thank Rapoport immensely.
As someone who lived through much of the era being discussed, I was also able to match what was being described to my own experiences. Perhaps one of the most interesting pieces was the race issue.
In my neighborhood, we based our sports idols on team and performance, not race. We didn’t care if a Cubs player was white, black, Latino, Asian, Christian, Jewish, or any of the other ways we all tend to divide ourselves.
We would have been thrilled if any Cubs player had moved in next door. I honestly don’t remember thinking Ernie or any of the other African-American players were different – other than they were famous ballplayers and we were not.
My own personal contact with Ernie was limited but memorable. My mom heard one day that he would be at the local Kmart in Wheeling signing autographs, so she had my brother Rich and me grab a couple of the cleanest baseballs we owned and she took us there.
As I recall, Ernie was as nice and accommodating as any human being could be. He smiled, he spoke with us a little, and he signed the dirty old balls we’d brought with us with a ballpoint pen.
One of my few regrets in life is that a couple of years later, in a scene right out of The Sandlot, we needed a ball to play with so I grabbed the one Ernie had signed. I was aware of what I was doing, it wasn’t an accident; having a signed baseball just didn’t mean that much to me then. Wish I had it now.
I also remember going to Wrigley Field to see Ernie play in-person, and watching him on TV. Every time he stepped to the plate you had the feeling something monumental would happen. It did 512 times.
Reading this book brought back all those memories. It really was a different era, when baseball (and professional sports generally) was a business, but not the Big Business it is today. I still remember hot dogs for 35 cents and buying the mandatory program and Cubs pencil (15 cents for the program, the pencil might have been free) so I could keep the book during the game.
More importantly, Ernie Banks was a one-of-a-kind player. He had prodigious talent, yet he seemed so approachable. This book brings out all of it.
If you were a Cubs fan back then like me, you’ll definitely want to read this book. If you are a latter-day Cubs fan, you really should read this book to understand the history of the club and why there is a statue to this man outside the Friendly Confines.
But even if you’re not particularly a Cubs fan, if you enjoy baseball I think you’ll enjoy reading it. The book will transport you to another time and place, and will likely bring a smile to your face as you read it. You might even find yourself saying “Let’s play two” the next time you’re at the ballpark.
If there is one universal truth in fastpitch softball it has to be this: basic overhand throwing is the most under-taught part of the game.
It doesn’t matter if you’re watching a local high school or middle school game, a travel ball tournament, or even a college game on TV. You can almost guarantee that many of the throwing motions will be questionable, and some will be downright abysmal.
I see this all the time when I give individual lessons or conduct clinics with a group of players. The mechanics that are used to get a softball from player A to player B – which constitutes a good part of the game when a strikeout doesn’t occur – are often just awful.
So why, exactly, is that? I mean, throwing is certainly a part of every practice. It’s often one of the first things players do at practice or before a game, occurs throughout, and then is often one of the last things that happens at the end.
The only conclusion I can come to is that it’s not being taught. Throwing may be part of warm-ups, but it apparently isn’t a skill anyone thinks about working on. It’s more of a prelude to the “important stuff,” like fielding or hitting or running the bases.
That’s a huge oversight, especially when you consider the often-quoted figure that 80% of all errors are throwing errors. Which means teams could cut out 80% of their errors by learning to throw better.
Where else can you get so much payoff for paying attention to one specific area? Certainly not hitting. It’s highly unlikely you will improve your hitting by 80% no matter how much you practice. Yet teams and individuals will spend hour upon hour working on their hitting mechanics.
Throwing? Nah. Just get loosened up throwing however you feel like it and then we’ll get down to the serious work.
Just imagine, though, if teams would say hey, wait a minute. Let’s take a half hour today and try to learn to throw better. Not only would they be likely to throw harder and improve accuracy; they might also cut down on the arm injuries plaguing so many players these days.
While there is obviously more to it than I can get into right now, here are a few basics of what you should see players doing when they throw – even (especially) in warm-ups.
- Stand sideways to the target with glove arms in front, hands together in front of you.
- Begin your stride, stepping the front foot so it will land at a 45 degree angle and separate the hands by pulling the elbows apart, with more emphasis in the beginning on the glove-hand elbow. The motion should be like stretching a rubber band.
- As the throwing hand goes back, turn the hand palm-down and start to make a circle. How big of a circle depends on the position and distance you will have to throw. Small circle for catchers and infielders, larger circle for outfielders.
- Land the front foot, which should be about when the glove-side elbow gets as far as it can. Then start pulling the elbow back like you’re trying to elbow someone behind you in the gut. (Be careful not to just swing it around like you’re elbowing someone in the head.)
- As the glove-side elbow begins to pulls back, rotate the hips the hips, which will help pull the shoulders in. You should feel a stretch around the stomach area if the hips are leading the shoulders properly. By now the arm should have completed the circle and be in a position to come forward.
- Continue pulling with the body, bringing the arm forward with the elbow leading, at or slightly above shoulder height.
- Drive through, allow the wrist to snap (don’t “snap” it on purpose, just keep it relaxed and allow it to happen), allow the back leg to drag up naturally, and finish with the throwing-side shoulder facing the target. That shoulder should now be lower than the glove-side shoulder.
There’s a bit more to it than that, but those seven steps should give you a pretty good start. There’s lots of good information out on the Internet that can give you more details too, although it’s important to remember to keep it simple for your players.
Teaching it purposefully
Here comes the tough part. You need to make time to work on these mechanics during practice, and they’re probably going to take a lot more time than you realize. You also need to make sure your players understand how important it is, because in our “instant-everything’ age, with its seven second attention span, it will be easy for players to complain about being bored long before they’re executing anything that looks even close to what I’ve described above. But you have to keep after them.
Once your players have achieved at least a minimal level of confidence, it’s time to bring out the stopwatch. Tell them you want them to throw and catch from 40 feet or 60 feet (depending on their age) with no throw-aways and no drops for one minute. Then start the stopwatch, and call out the elapsed time or the time to go in 15 second increments.
Sounds easy, right? There’s no minimum number of throws and catches required, no time pressure. Just a limit on how long they have to do it.
Allow about a half hour minimum, especially if your team’s mechanics aren’t so hot at first. Just the fact that there is no room for error will create some problems. But any flaws in the throwing motion will be amplified under pressure, and pretty soon even your best players may be throwing balls that hit the dirt or go sailing over their partners’ head.
Calling out the time puts even more pressure on them – again, even though there are no minimums to hit. Knowing that only 15 seconds has gone by gets in their heads. So does knowing there are 30 or 15 seconds left, because they start thinking “don’t make a mistake” instead of focusing on their mechanics.
It can be frustrating. It can be maddening. But it will be worth it when you don’t have to hold your breath every time one of your players winds up to make a quick throw. With good mechanics the ball will go where it’s supposed to. When that happens on a regular basis, you make things easier on the defense, pitcher, and even the offense, and you’ll win a lot more games as a result.
Don’t be one of those coaches who skips over teaching throwing. Put emphasis on it, demand excellence, and it will pay off for you big time.
Last night, as I often do, I was doing a pitching lesson. The pitcher in question was also doing what many pitcher do – reaching out with her stride leg instead of driving her whole body forward.
That’s a very easy habit for pitcher to fall into. We tell them to get off the pitching rubber, so they throw their stride leg forward to pull them off. The problem is, that often leaves the other leg stuck right where it started – at least until the pitcher makes a conscious, labored effort to pull it into the back leg.
That’s one of the things the Queen of the Hill is designed to correct. But you may not always have one of those handy, and even if you do you’re probably not going to allow a pitcher to take it home with her unless she’s your daughter. So last night I came up with a different explanation.
I told the pitcher it’s like she wants to take a trip, and her pivot or push-off leg is her suitcase. If she was going to go far away for a few days, would she leave her suitcase behind?
Of course not. So rather than reaching with the stride leg and then extending the other leg until it straightens out and THEN trying to bring it forward, she should be sure she takes her suitcase with her when she leaves on the trip – i.e., as her center of gravity moves forward.
That seemed to resonate with her, and actually with the new student who came afterwards. More specifically, I told her to try to keep her pivot/push leg knee under her hip as she goes forward.
Why even worry about it? Well, for one thing if the other leg is being left behind it’s acting like an anchor, preventing the full momentum from going forward and slamming into the stride leg. Which would throw your body forward faster – hitting a tree in a car at 20 mph or 60 mph? (Kids, don’t try this at home.)
Leaving the leg behind also tends to put the pitcher into a forward-leaning position, which not only hurts speed and accuracy but can also put stress on the pitcher’s back.
Finally, it wastes a lot of energy that should be going into the pitch. When pitchers make this correction they feel ever so much lighter during the stride phase of the pitch. That’s because they don’t have the friction of a heavy back foot working against them.
If you’re working with a pitcher who is having that issue, give the trip/suitcase idea a try. And if you do, let me know in the comments if it works for you.