Monday, September 4, 2017

The True Rewards from Coaching

Today is Labor Day Monday. But Saturday was the best day of my holiday weekend. The best day I've had as a coach in a while actually. And I didn't even pick up a bat or a ball. I didn't even leave the house.

I got a call Saturday morning from Huntington, WV. It was one of my former players on the other end. I hadn't seen him in almost a decade, but had often wondered how he was doing. He was a 12-year-old kid the last time I had any direct contact with him - a kid with a ton of heart, desire and passion to succeed...and great parents, who pushed him to be the best person he could be - and encouraged me and my coaching staff to do the same during his three years with us.

He found me on Facebook a couple of months ago and called from Huntington, WV because it's the home of Marshall University, where he and his Miami (OH) teammates were about to begin their football season - his senior season as a starting defensive back.

We talked about the "good ol' days," how we and our families were doing, and how his team was looking. We talked about how some guys have turned out after their Little League days - some guys having real trouble in their lives, and others who've really got it together - and this guy seems to be doing really well. He's an awesome kid - just like he was at age 12.

I told him how I've changed as a coach over the years and how my perspective has evolved regarding what really matters. Conversations like that get you thinking about the legacy you'll leave. Apparently I made enough of an impact on this kid that he would call me a decade later on the morning of his senior season opener. Wow. We as coaches have such an awesome opportunity to impact our players' lives. I just hope there are others out there who have been affected positively by their experiences with me. I hope the good far outweighs the bad. I hope my own kids at home have gotten a good enough dose of the positive side of Coach Merchant.

Obviously I give credit to the parents for how our players turn out. But just to have this connection after all these years - what a great day, which ended with me watching a college football game like I never had before - just hunkered down, with no channel changes, just following number 14 around the field the whole game, watching him do what he loves, and thinking about our conversation, his parents in the stands and the great job they've done raising this fantastic young man.

How rewarding to have these types of relationships. I am realizing that this is the true reward from coaching and all those hours of hard work - and fun. That's what it's all about. Man, I love my "job." Happy Labor Day, everyone.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Chill Out - It's Winter

It's early February and in some parts we're still waiting for winter to truly arrive. In the Carolinas, winter often pays us a brief visit, only to disappear and soften us up before a harsh, cold reminder that it's still basketball season. But despite this, the wheels of the youth baseball calendar have been set in motion for some time.

January brings us the new year - and lessons, clinics, new bats, cleats, gloves and a load of excitement for the new season. "Hope springs eternal." February brings us tryouts - and nervous parents, gossip, conspiracy theories and complaints about who is or isn't doing what right.

I've been known to dabble in my own share of cynicism from time to time. And I can be a harsh critic of what's wrong with youth baseball too. But I've seen the game from all sides over my nearly two decades. I can tell you there are no conspiracies in February. There may be poor communication about how things are handled, and varying opinions from yours, to be sure. But no one has it out for your son. He's a kid. So you don't need to start worrying or complaining before you even sit down in the bleachers.

And if you're one of those nervous parents, worried that your baby won't get a fair shake at tryouts, I can easily tell you this: bashing other players - other children - about who has an attitude, a foul mouth or just "isn't that good," in order to prop your own kid up on a pedestal - that doesn't work and only tells people you have your own growing up to do.

So be positive, be classy and avoid the dregs of sports parent conversation this February. Let's all just chill and wait for that last blast of winter to put a freeze on things, so we can then restart and have fun when spring arrives.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Jose Fernandez Showed Us How to Enjoy the Game

The death of Jose Fernandez was a shock. Not just because he was a great pitcher and a rising star in Major League Baseball. But Fernandez showed what could be great about baseball and was such a good example for young players watching. He really loved the game and enjoyed playing it. He smiled on the mound. Think about that - how many pro pitchers do you see who are so happy and comfortable in their own skin that they smile on the mound? 

I think that's how the game should be. I think the fans would prefer it. I think players perform better when they relax and enjoy it. Every pitch is a challenge, not a threat to your well-being. Fernandez was the greatest example of that perspective on the game. His death is a huge loss for many reasons. But it's particularly sad to think that a generation of kids won't see a shining star like Jose openly enjoying the game like he did.

Too many young players carry the weight of their world on their shoulders when they play. It's all or nothing. They succeed and everything is great. They fail and it's all over - tears, anger, tension. I'm sick of it. We've created a culture in youth baseball filled with pressure - as if what happens in a 12-year-old game really matters. Guys like Fernandez showed that it's okay to relax and have fun, and take it for what it is - a game. 

So I hope we never forget Jose Fernandez. He was a big kid with amazing talent who competed fiercely - but enjoyed competing fiercely. And he wasn't afraid to show it. What a sad day. But when the sadness eases, let's remember that smile. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Five Ways an Incorrect Load Leads to an Incorrect Swing

A good coach I know and respect told me after one of our clinics last year that when he works with a group of kids learning to hit, the first thing he does is spread them around the room and have them practice setting up and loading correctly. It makes sense. You start from the beginning - the stance and load - and learn a correct starting point for the swing.

It seems the more I work with young hitters, the more I see a problem in this department. It is rare that I have a kid naturally load correctly and return to the proper hitting position. So I've started doing the same thing. My hitting clinics and initial lessons usually begin with working on how to correctly set up in an athletic stance, load the hips, and then return to a hitting position with the front foot down before any shoulder rotation or forward movement of the hands takes place. Boring stuff. But vitally important to the swing. And I'm always amazed at how difficult this seemingly simple act can be for young hitters.

Here is AL Rookie of the Year, Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros, doing it well:

Athletic stance, load the hips and return to a hitting (launch) position.

The batter loads to create energy. You go back to go forward. You have to do it if you want to hit the ball with any force. But so much can go wrong with young players' mechanics while loading. The head, wrists, elbows, shoulders, feet - anything - can move incorrectly during this time. It is very common with younger, physically weaker players. And it's a chain reaction. If one body part moves the wrong way during the load or return, it will likely be positioned incorrectly at contact.

As a youth instructor working with players ranging from about 7-15-years-old, I try to keep things pretty simple. Simple, meaning less moving parts, so less can go wrong and more can go right. It's very mechanical and scientific. To me, hitting is not an art. It's a science. It's physics. Force against force. I want to teach my players to have the best chance to put some direct force into the ball.

After a young hitter gets a simple, correct swing down, we dial back the mechanics talk a bit and try to loosen up and let the athleticism and energy flow. This energy is created in the load. But if the hitter has flaws in his load and doesn't return to the correct body positioning when the front heel plants, that energy won't be directed into the ball correctly. What follows will likely be a flawed swing.

Here are a few of the most common flaws I see in the load and return that will cause an incorrect swing. This assumes the player starts from an athletic stance, feet somewhat wide, hands near the back shoulder, knob pointing down at or in front of the catcher's feet...

Monday, March 30, 2015

Another Call for Pitcher Safety in Youth Baseball

I wrote this article a year and a half ago regarding player safety. It includes a video of my son nearly getting killed by a line drive.

Today, I am proud of our league, Myers Park Trinity Little League, for mandating protective head gear and chest protection for its Major League division pitchers. Each team's pitchers are using the IsoBlox Skull Cap. And many players are using the Evoshield Heart Guard. We just had our first Saturday of games using this equipment, and things went very smoothly. I've heard nothing but support. The players are adjusting quickly and the parents are happy. The only negative sentiment has been that composite bats are still allowed.

It's time for Little League International and other youth baseball organizations to step up and do the same thing that our league has done in mandating head gear and chest protection for pitchers. I believe they should also back up the mound for all player pitch divisions, ban all composite bats and mandate the use of BBCOR youth bats to limit how hard a baseball can be struck.

The game is different than it was years ago. Some of the players are huge. The composite bats they are swinging, with more mechanical training than ever before - the ones that are tested and approved by Little League (yes, the bright orange and green ones) - shoot rockets through the infield. I see it every game.

Little League, in particular, prides itself on being a leader in safety. It's time to lead. Do something.

For more on this issue, please read my previous article:
It's Time for Some Safety Upgrades in Youth Baseball

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Throwing With a Purpose

At our January youth pitching clinic, Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell discusses the importance of working on mechanics when throwing with a partner. This should be considered an essential part of the warm-up process during team practices. Developing proper throwing mechanics are a must for young players.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

MLK Day Pitching Clinic a Success

We had a big turnout and some very positive feedback at the free MLK Day Pitching Clinic at Myers Park Trinity. Dozens of young players and several eager coaches attended to talk mechanics and arm care.

Thanks so much to the great coaches who volunteered their time to join me in our efforts to teach some fundamentals to the kids. This is a special group of guys with a clear passion for the game: Jack McDowell, our headliner, who was outstanding; Mike Hennessey, varsity coach at Country Day; Josh Thomas, our strength and conditioning coach; Greg Wilcox, MP coach and former pro pitcher; and my usual crew of loyal and outstanding fellow coaches and alumni - Rich Fennell, Allen Sherman, Nick Harding, Maxwell Purdy and Gregory Purdy. Here are some pictures from a great day:

Jack McDowell discusses throwing mechanics with all age groups.

Jack McDowell works with a young pitcher in the bullpen.

Mike Hennessey talks pitching with a group of 12-year-olds.

It was a great experience to learn from one of the best.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

MLK Day Pitching Clinic

*** This clinic is now full. In order to have an effective session, we feel that we need to limit the number of registrations. Very sorry to anyone still looking for a spot. We hope to do more in the future.***

I'm excited to announce my first clinic of 2014 - a preseason youth pitching clinic for MPTLL baseball players with a Little League age of 9-12. The event will take place on Wade Field at Randolph Park on Martin Luther King Day - this Monday, January 20th from 12:00-2:00 pm.

The overall topic will be Pitching, but will include three important parts:

1. Throwing Mechanics - hand separation, ball positioning, glove tuck.
2. Pitching Mechanics - balance, stride, release point, follow through.
3. Strength and Conditioning - preseason throwing, band work, dumbbells, core strength.

The clinic is FREE, although it is requested that families consider using this time to donate any gently used baseball or softball equipment they may no longer have a use for, to be distributed by the league to children who cannot afford new equipment. Such items may include bats, gloves, gear bags, cleats, catcher equipment, batting helmets, or other equipment. We would also like to collect new baseballs to distribute. Any kid would love to be given a brand new, crisp, white baseball.

Lead instructors will include....

Brandon Merchant:
Youth Pitching and Hitting Instructor, MPTLL All-Star Pitching Coach.

Mike Hennessey
Pitching, Hitting and Fielding Instructor, CCDS Varsity Head Coach.

Josh Thomas:
Private Strength and Conditioning Coach, CCDS Middle School Head Coach.

Rich Fennell:
MPTLL All-Star Pitching Coach.

And last, but certainly not least, we are thrilled to have....

Jack McDowell:
Former MLB Pitcher, 1993 American League Cy Young Award Winner.

If your aspiring pitcher plans to attend, please let me know as soon as possible by email. Make sure to include your name and contact number, your son's name and Little League age (as of April 30, 2014). This clinic is for Myers Park Trinity baseball players with LL ages of 9 through 12. If the numbers get too large, we will have to cut it off and plan an additional clinic in the future. If you are interested in private instruction, please visit my Lessons page.

On the day of the clinic, players should bring their own water, a baseball glove and warm clothing if necessary. We encourage parents to attend and listen in from the bleachers if they are able to.

See you at the fields.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Baseball Gift Ideas For the Last Minute Shopper

Only one week left to shop, but here's what I would get a youth player that is serious about baseball, whether it's for Christmas or not....

1. Bats - More specifically a new bat that's not overpriced. I like to shop at, a discount site that sells great bats at very low prices. They are usually last year's models, which means they have a different paint job from the ones that came out recently. I like most DeMarini's, Eastons - although they tend to break after a long season - and Combats. If you want a great composite youth bat that is approved by Little League, they have a DeMarini CF5 for $140. Or if you want to spend less and get an alloy, the DeMarini Voodoo is another good option for $60. Make sure the bat you want is approved by your organization before purchasing. Here is the Little League list of approved composite barreled bats. Alloys are fine.

2. A Tee and a Net - Not the most exciting thing in the world, but having a tee and a net in the backyard is a great thing for a kid working on his swing. I have a Tanner Tee and love it. It is durable, easy to set up, and fits in a backpack. I use a small one and it extends plenty for taller players.

3. A Fielding Pad - These things are a great way to practice infield grounders. It's basically a flat glove that forces the player to use two hands and field the ball correctly. I just roll balls to my team and they get in the habit of doing it the right way. I saw them in-store at Dick's Sporting Goods, but they are obviously online too.

4. A New Glove - A quality glove takes a while to break in, so don't wait until the beginning of the season. There's nothing like a Wilson A2000, Nokona, Rawlings or other brand new glove under the tree. I also came across a custom glove company, Rico, that will make just about any color combination you want. They'll also stitch on the player's name and put an American flag on there. Pretty sweet. Make sure you get the right size and glove type for your player.

5. Lessons - Yeah, I had to put this one on here. Start the season right with a little knowledge and pre-season training.

6. Books - Speaking of knowledge, how about a book on hitting or pitching? This is probably for the older players or the coaches, but you can learn just about everything you need to know from Mike Epstein on Hitting, John Bagonzi's The Act of Pitching or any of the H.A. Dorfman books on the mental side of the game.

7. A Bat Bag - Most kids like backpack bags these days. They are easy to carry around and fit things like shoes and helmets better than the old over the shoulder long bags.

8. Coldgear - We think of baseball as a warm weather sport, but the first month is usually pretty cold. Having some Under Armour or Nike coldgear shirts or pants is key.

9. Batting Gloves - A great stocking stuffer. I like the ones with extra padding on the palm for durability and to absorb some of the vibration off the bat. I've bought three pairs of these Eastons for the kid over the years. That's from Baseball Savings - another good discount site to find a lot of the stuff mentioned above.

Good luck. Post a comment with any questions. Merry Christmas.