Are We Coaching the Athleticism Out of Our Athletes?
By Jim Koerner
Throughout our country, baseball practice is taking place nearly every day. You can go to almost any area and find a field where players are being run through a series of defensive and pitching drills, base running, and batting practice. Well-intentioned coaches from the little league level on up are instructing our young players on the proper ways to play the game. These coaches from various backgrounds are applying methods mostly learned from either playing, watching, or reading about baseball. These methods are inducing a positive or negative response in each athlete, directly affecting the confidence level at which these athletes perform. How can we ensure that we are building these young athletes into instinctively driven, confident players that can maximize their athleticism? The answer is easy, but the implementation will be challenging.
Coaches will need to rewire some of their own belief systems, temper some of their own importance in the game's outcome, or even how the game is played. They will have to suppress their own impulse to over coach and direct every movement as well as how they potentially react to the result of a certain plays. In some cases we may even have to redefine why we are coaching. Is it for personal gain, where we are looking to pad our winning percentage, or is it truly for the betterment of the athlete? Movement restrictive drill sequencing, restrictive verbal cueing, reactionary coaching habits, and the inability to simply let players fail all lead to robotic, tentative and scared athletes.
Imagine a scene where all the neighborhood kids get together to play baseball. They improvise for bases, bats, and balls. They separate teams on their own, and most importantly, there are no adults to interfere. If done consistently, besides the occasional argument, what do you think would happen over time? It is my belief that the kids would begin to make intuitive and instinctual based adjustments on their own. Players would figure out such things as how big a lead they can take, how and when to go first to third on a single, when and when not to take an extra-base, how to position against certain hitters, and what pitches to call, among numerous other advantages. Personal limits would be pushed without fear of repercussion from a pre-programmed coach.
Now, if we can incorporate this type of mindset into a structured practice routine, a lot can be accomplished that will positively affect the overall development of our players.
Let's examine what a movement restrictive drill looks like. In its simplest form it's any drill that puts a limitation on a player's ability to move a body part. For example, let's look at all the hitting, throwing, and fielding drills we've seen over the years that have our athletes move in compartmentalized progressive steps.
Each step cuts the kinetic chain and forces the body to restart while losing feel, athleticism, and adjustability.
The result in a lot of situations is a stiff and robotic athlete. Drills that promote adjustability and free flowing energy transfer are more likely to allow your athlete to gain the "feel" that they are looking for and the ability to organize their body for the desired result. Other examples of movement restrictive drills that are less obvious happen during base running every day.
From a very young age, kids are taught that the third base coach directs all the traffic on the bases. Kids are more worried about "picking up" their coach than watching the ball and reacting to what they see. In most cases, if a coach has to direct a player to advance a base or go first to third on a single, the delay in reaction will cause the runner to be out. Instead of forcing these players to pick up the coach, why don't we teach them to read a defense by judging the depth of the outfield and their positioning? Let's teach how the speed of the batted ball will affect how far the runner can advance and define how the different angles an outfielder can take to a ball will determine whether or not advancement is possible. By doing so, we are allowing our athletes to trust what they see, rely on their own instincts, and play the game at a faster level.
Our cueing as coaches also has the potential to be a detriment to how a player performs. It's imperative that our players fully understand what we as coaches are trying to convey when using certain terms. Among others, phrases like "stay back" or "get on top" can cause a great deal of mechanical failure when misinterpreted. We also need to understand that these cues can be interpreted completely differently from one player to another. That is why it is important to have an individualized understanding of each player's needs. What works for one may not work for another. Consistency in how we communicate these terms and in what context can also help establish an understanding of the feel we are trying to create. Wrongly interpreted cueing can make the most athletic player look lost. Coaches must also avoid using the words always and never. I can still hear coaches telling me to always use two hands in the outfield or never swing at a 3-0 pitch. Over the years, I've found that the best outfielders I've coached primarily caught the ball with one hand. Why?
Because it is a less restrictive movement, and ultimately more athletic than when reaching with two hands, again allowing athletes to be athletes. As we've seen over the last several Major League Baseball seasons, depending on the situation, the 3-0 pitch might be the best pitch of the at-bat. Instead of coaching our hitters to always take that pitch, let's coach them to better understand their strengths and weaknesses, so they're prepared to hit every pitch.
Another step towards building a confident and successful athlete is for the coach to avoid putting their players in a box. My interpretation of a box is when a coach has a preconceived view of what something should like and then works towards that desired result. Not all boxes are bad, but every coach must understand the difference between style and technique. Style has no bearing on performance, while the technique can and will affect the outcome. How a player stands in the batter's box, how a pitcher goes through the windup or how an infielder throws may all look a little different and shouldn't necessarily be coached. If we're spending time on coaching someone's style we again could be hindering the player's ability to configure his body into an athletic movement. There is an old adage that says don't fix what's not broken. To be fair, I will say that there are some circumstances where someone's style may affect their technique. In these cases, adjustments do need to be made.
We hear coaches at all levels frequently talk about being process-driven. We need to hold true to that philosophy. Let's briefly analyze a scenario when a coach exhibits two different reactions on two similar plays. In the top of the third inning, with a 2-0 lead, the runner at first base does a great job reading a dirtball out of the pitcher's hand. The throw by the catcher is high, and the runner is able to slide under the tag. The player is praised appropriately by the coach. In the very next inning, with his team still leading 2-0, a different player also does a nice job reading a dirtball out of the pitcher's hand. Only this time the catcher does a great job recovering and makes a perfect throw to the bag. The runner is out. The coach immediately drops his head and as the player jogs back to the dugout, you hear the coach say "you need to be smarter than that." This scenario consistently plays out throughout amateur baseball. It is this type of mixed messaging that can cause a player or team to lose aggressiveness or confidence in what they are doing. We as coaches need to understand that if it is a part of our system and we are allowing players to react to what they see, then there are going to be times when things don't work. We need to avoid responding to outcomes but be more in tune with processes.
If the player hesitated and was thrown out in the above situation, you can communicate where the process broke down. If the process is flawless, encourage your player to stay aggressive and keep trusting what he sees. The bigger issue may come from the coach not having a system at all. A coach that has strong situational and philosophical beliefs allows one to communicate expectations in a clear and concise way.
A strong belief system that is communicated properly doesn't just help your players with their performance, it also helps the coach with the consistency of their response.
Mistakes happen all over the field. Coaches need to be aware of their body language and how they respond to these mistakes. Negative reactions or the need to overcorrect can hinder the athlete's ability to perform at a high level. Ask yourself these questions. Does a player's failure on the field elicit a response in us that threatens our own coaching ability? Are we worried about what others will think? If you answer yes, you're letting your ego drive your reactions. It's not about us, it's about the reason for the player responding the way he did. I find it important to ask the player why. Instead of immediately telling a player what they should have done, or reprimanding him for the mistake, take a moment to ask "what did you see," or "why did you make that decision." If the player has sound reasoning for the decision, you might be more likely to move on. If the player's thought process wasn't correct, now you can coach them in a much more productive manner.
Let's not lose sight of the fact that baseball is a difficult game to play and becomes much more difficult if our players lack the confidence and freedom they need to be successful. Coaches, understand your role in the development process and how your words, actions, and beliefs play a role in how your players develop and perform.
Jim Koerner is currently the Director of Player Development at USA Baseball. Koerner has 21 years of college coaching experience, including 18 years at the D1 level. He spent 13 years as a college head coach, with ten as an NCAA D1 head coach. Koerner has coached over 30 MLB draft or professional Free Agent Signees, 11 All-Americans, 4 Conference Players of the Year, 4 Conference Rookies of the Year, 2 Conference Pitchers of the Year, and over 60 All-Conference selections. Additionally, Koerner is a 2x Conference Coach of the Year and 2021 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Southern Division Champion..