Boosting the Young Player’s Performance
“I haven’t had a problem filling out a roster, but I have had a problem filling it with quality players. We can always find two or three players who can play with anybody, but getting a solid nine is hard for us.”That is Coach Jim Holified of West End H.S. in Decatur, AL, speaking in the Decatur Daily Newspaper in the summer of 2005.
Many high school baseball players go out for the team ill-prepared to compete at that level. The urban baseball coaches are very well aware of this alarming trend. In fact, many of them have a hard time just filling out their roster.
It appears that our inner-city youth are moving away from baseball. The new favorite sports are football and basketball. In 2004, former Montreal Expos manager informed Sports Illustrated that “Baseball is now third, maybe fourth in the household.”
As a coach who has worked in an urban setting for many years, I realize that the challenge to develop high-achieving players can be very cumbersome. Over the years, we have had a few key components that have helped our inexperienced players mature into competitors.
Following are three developmental ideas that have been tested and proven effective within an urban baseball program.
Working From the Ground Up
This idea applies to the player’s lower-body movements. In baseball, all of the important movements made by the body originate from the ground up. Pitching, fielding, and hitting all operate in the same theory of lower-body movement. Teaching players to make the proper lower-body movements will put them into great position to be successful.
Pitchers who are able to maintain balance and accelerate toward the plate will certainly increase their chances for success. To teach the lower-body movement-the proper timing and rhythm in the delivery-we have incorporated a “Clap Drill” for our inexperience players.
The drill has the coach clap steps in the pitching delivery. The coach starts slowly, then begins to increase the tempo and force the pitcher to speed up his lower body.
The “Clap Drill” provides the opportunity to be guided slowly through the process and then, with experience, begin to speed up the pitch.
The drill also breaks up a complex movement and creates a tempo that the pitcher can actually take to the mound.
Tom House, founder of the National Pitching Association (NPA), has supplied us with a couple of lower-body drills that break down the complex idea of pitching and isolate the lower-body movements.
First, a “Cross-Arm-Drill” takes the upper body completely away from the pitcher and forces him to use only his legs.
Pitchers, with their arms across their chest, work through their delivery focusing on balance, while separating hip rotation from shoulder rotation.
They take a rocker step, pivot to balance, stride toward the plate, achieve foot plant, and turn their shoulders toward the target. This can be done either on flat ground or from the pitching mound.
After completing the “Cross-Arm Drill,” the pitcher will add a movement to the exercise that works the groin. Going through the same movement as “Cross-Arm Drill,” the pitcher achieves a foot plant and then pushes off the glove leg and pulls his throwing leg forward.
The action should resemble a lunging type motion, helping players contract the groin and build the lower body strength.
Fielding is another area in which the lower body dictates the correct execution. When fielding a ground ball, an inexperienced pitcher will tend to attack it incorrectly. To help him achieve success, the coaches must incorporate V-cut footwork.
The V-cut system will give the pitcher a better opportunity to react to balls hit on the ground. Getting a better read on the ball will help improve the player’s chance of fielding the bad hops.
When looking at an object from straight on, you will see that the speed and bounce patterns are very difficult to evaluate. By getting an angle on the ball, the fielder will have a better sight line to judge the velocity and spin.
V-cutting to the ball will put an infielder on a straight line to first base, enabling him to execute a more accurate throw.
Another benefit of the V-cut system is the reduction of arm stress. The V-cut helps the players create maximum momentum toward their target, thus decreasing the workload on the throwing arm.
The lower body also has a great impact on hitting. If the hitter doesn’t incorporate the proper lower-body movements, he is going to have a problem obtaining hits.
Hitting: The best trigger with which to gauge the use of the lower body is the lead leg, especially the knee. If the hitter starts in a balanced stance and takes the lead leg back, he will place a complete load on the back leg.
When this action occurs, the rear leg will be able to drive forward with great force. That is the first function of the lower body. The second function begins after the lead leg is taken forward and placed on the ground. This transfers the rear weight to the front side or lead leg.
The hitter should extend his weight dominated lead leg and lift his back leg off the ground.
Practice Makes Perfect
Repetition is the ultimate tool for perfecting a movement or skill. Most inexperienced players have to work out of their muscle memory. The more these players can perform their actions correctly, the faster their muscle systems will work for them.
Coaches must incorporate a practice plan that will allow them to reinforce the proper movements every day.
Time is a valuable asset during a practice session, but coaches must give the players time to work on all their developing skills. In fact, even if we have only 5-10 minutes left in practice, our players will always get a daily reinforcement of glove work, emphasizing defensive skills.
The players will reinforce their hitting fundamentals by going through the “Load, Stretch, and Fire” mode. This drill takes the hitter through the proper hitting phases, while training each muscle to move in the proper order (generating an effective swing).
The hitter sets up in his stance and waits for the coach’s oral (hitting swing) cues. On “Load!” the hitter will bring his lead leg back, and the coach will instantly call “Stretch!” That will have the hitter push his weight onto the flexed front leg and leave his hands back, aligned with the rear foot.
By leaving the hands back, the hitter creates a stretch in the lead arm. The stretch generates upper body power, enabling the hitter to burst through the arm extension.
As soon as the coach sees the hitter’s front toe touch, he will call “Fire!” and the hitter will snap his lead leg closed, lifting the back foot and finishing the swing.
Both of these drills serve as constant reinforcement of the techniques needed to be successful in the field or batter’s box. With a persistent approach to practice, coaches can inspire inexperienced players to improve their proficiency practically every day.
Maximizing Body Weight
To really get results, in either throwing or hitting, the players must be able to produce force with their entire bodies. When total body force is applied to movements, the hitters will achieve better results.
When using the whole body in the throwing motion, the players can reduce the stress on their throwing arms-allowing them to throw more frequently and with maximum velocity.
As most coaches know, the throwing motion begins with the legs. We’ve already explained how to isolate the lower body and train the quadriceps, gluts, and groin muscles to move explosively.
Another way to use the body during a throw is by generating momentum toward the target.
Players can also be taught to incorporate the entire body into the throw by encouraging a lower-body movement called the “Step Behind.” This will enable the player to gain momentum and distance toward the target.
Achieving the Step Behind: When a player receives the ball either by catching it or stepping behind the glove arm before delivering the throw to a target.
One way to help put the entire body behind the throw is by encouraging a lower-body movement (called the “Set Behind”), enabling the player to gain momentum and distance toward the target.
It is like a reverse crow hop. It occurs when the player receives the ball by catching or fielding it and then stepping behind the glove arm before throwing to the target.
When done quickly, the movement resembles a skipping action that will increase both the velocity and accuracy of the throw. The velocity can be improved by counter-rotating the hips during the throwing motion (by creating extra core torque before the release).
Another improvement, made with the “Step Behind,” can produce superior throwing accuracy.
Finally, urban baseball is in need of assistance all across America. Football and basketball have taken over as our top-tier sports, and baseball continues to decline in the inner city. In recent years, we’ve had various leaders and organizations coming forward with offers of help to our high school baseball coaches.
By being positive ambassadors of their sport, the coaches can help promote the game among the kids with limited knowledge of the sport and its benefits. They can help improve the glamour of the sport and make it a viable option for urban youth.