Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Little League Featured on Uni Watch

The Little League Museum in Williamsport, PA was featured today by Paul Lukas on one of my favorite sites, Uni Watch - "The Obsessive Study of Athletics Aesthetics." A fellow reader sent in some great pictures of various historic uniforms and equipment from the early days of the organization.

I especially like the Lundy Lumber jersey on the left. I consider my team to be old - we are celebrating our 60th anniversary this year - but Lundy Lumber has been around since the very beginning in 1939. The old jerseys look pretty similar though.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Selected Reading Material 1-27-12

What Are Sports Parenting Sympathy Groups and Why Should You Avoid Them? by Janis Meredith  -  How not to act.

All Stars For a Lifetime by George Will  -  The story of Charleston's Cannon Street YMCA Little League 1955 All-Stars and their march to Williamsport.

Fans vs. Parents by Meagan Frank  -  Are you a fan or a parent?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Million Dollar Swing Mechanics

Prince Fielder just agreed to a 9-year $214M contract with the Detroit Tigers. He was the top free agent on the market after 6 great seasons in Milwaukee, in which he finished in the top five in NL MVP voting three times. He has the most majestic swing in baseball.

But he ain't just heavy. Prince Fielder has a great swing, as shown in the video below (3:36) from the 2011 Home Run Derby. This was a pretty special event, as it showcased several of the very best swings in baseball: Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Bautista, David Ortiz, Prince Fielder and Robinson Cano.

You can say the same things about each hitter in this video: The hands take a direct path forward to the ball. The back foot and hips rotate to face the pitcher. The front leg is braced and back knee is bent 90 degrees at contact. The top hand is under the bat when it meets the ball - not pushing from behind or rolling over the handle too soon. Once the front foot lands, the head is incredibly still and down on the ball. The finish is high, with hands above the shoulder. These are the keys to great swing mechanics. Love this video.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Little League Bat Resource Page

Little League, Inc. has created a new comprehensive web page regarding its most recently posted bat information. This is the place to go for parents and coaches in search of 2012 regulations, lists of approved bats, definitions of bat terminology and frequently asked questions. Little League has put out most of this information in various places before, but now it has been grouped together in one convenient place.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Which Youth Players Will Be High School Stars?

I came across a good post at the Youth Baseball Blog about predicting which of our young players will play high school baseball or beyond. The point made by "Coach Bob" is that no one knows, so let them have fun without the expectations of what they might be doing five years down the road.

Kids obviously go through significant physical changes in their early teens. It is not uncommon that I see former players that I literally don't recognize a few years down the road. They might be bigger, wider, leaner - whatever. But how they develop physically as a teenager can certainly affect their chances of playing high school ball. How they develop mentally can do the same. When they are in Little League, baseball or softball can seem like everything. But there is a whole world of activities and interests that they will encounter as they grow up.

So I agree that we as coaches need to keep things in perspective and make sure they have fun. We want them to have fond memories of their time on our team and playing with their friends. I would add that we can also hope to instill a good work ethic, self confidence, good sportsmanship and a love of the game that may last a lifetime.

But in my experience, I do think there are some early indicators of future success on the diamond:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Selected Reading Material 1-11-12

A small sampling of recent interesting reads.......

Let the Kids Play: They'll Do Better in School  -  Studies show a correlation between physical activity and grades. By Alice Park, Time.

Top 10 Sports Parenting Predictions for 2012  -  By Rick Wolff

Will This Opera Pro Convince You Not to Push Your Kids in Sports Too Early?  -  Why child prodigies often "flame out." By Bob Cook

Monday, January 9, 2012

Vision and Focus in the Batter's Box

Here's a good MLB Diamond Demo with former Royal's All-Star Mike Sweeney talking about vision in the batter's box.  First, he discusses a fairly common sense mechanical aspect of keeping the head down on the ball: During the course of the swing, the batter's chin should go from the front shoulder to the back shoulder. If both eyes are seeing the ball as it is pitched, and the hands load properly before pulling forward, the chin will touch the front shoulder as the ball is approaching. If the eyes track the ball in to contact, and the hands finish high enough in the follow through, the chin will then be touching the back shoulder.

If the chin doesn't go to the back shoulder, the batter is not only not seeing the ball as well as he should. But he is also likely pulling his bat away from the ball, instead of to it and through it. The head is obviously connected to the neck, then the shoulders, then the arms, hands and bat. I like to think of the bat as an extension of the head. If the head is down and in at contact, there is a better chance of meeting the ball with the barrel of the bat. If the head flies out, there is more of a chance of weak contact at the end of the bat - if there is contact at all.

Sweeney also discusses the importance of the batter focusing on the ball as it is being pitched. As they say - "see the ball, hit the ball." To me, this means the batter needs to clear his head of any thoughts apart from the baseball itself when he is preparing to swing. His analysis of the previous swing, his necessary adjustments, his emotions, his planning - that all needs to happen before he digs in. Once he sets up in the box, the batter can rest assured that he is prepared. He can take a deep breath, relax and focus on the ball. With this simple, relaxed focus, there is a better chance of a timely, mechanically sound swing - and therefore a better chance of a good hit.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Creating Good Muscle Memory

I did a hitting lesson yesterday with a young player that I hadn't seen in a few months. I had worked with him many times in the past and we had made several adjustments to his swing. But he hadn't played baseball since May. He wasn't even sure until recently about playing this year. I didn't know what to expect - figured he would at least be pretty rusty after so much time off. What a pleasant surprise it was when he stepped up to the tee, and within the first five minutes his swing was nearly flawless.

Score one for "muscle memory." Technically speaking, the neuropathways he had developed earlier in the year causing his body to swing with correct mechanics were still strong enough that his body naturally made the right movements. Not perfect movements, but pretty darn close for a 10-year-old that probably hadn't picked up a bat in many weeks.

Muscle memory is made possible by a process called Long-Term Potentiation. When a new movement is performed, corresponding brain synapses fire and form the neural connections necessary for that movement. The more that same mechanical movement is performed, the stronger and more efficient those connections become. This makes it more likely for a person to repeat a particular movement without much thought - like riding a bike.

I'm no neuroscientist, so I like to think of it as two paths in a forest. The first path represents the old incorrect mechanics. That path has been traveled many times. But then a second, better path is created representing the newly-learned correct mechanics. With time and focused effort, this new path is traveled more and more. After a while the second one becomes the more beaten path and the one that is more likely to be traveled. The old path is still there, but is overgrown and abandoned.

The younger the player, the easier it is to change paths and create new muscle memory. That's why it's important that we teach the youngest players how to throw, catch, field and swing correctly. Like riding that bike, those skills will never be "forgotten." And while to some, it may seem wasteful for parents to hire a private instructor for their child at age 8 or 9, they might actually be saving time and money down the road when it would be neurologically more difficult to make the necessary mechanical adjustments.

Learning correct mechanics is just the first step. It's very common for a player to learn to swing or pitch properly, and then go home and "forget" it. His brain has not been trained to naturally control the right movements. The old path is still prominent and the new one cannot be found without a good amount of effort and expertise. Developing correct muscle memory takes focused repetition. He must not only practice, but practice the right way. Drills can be beneficial. So can the use of video and mirrors. Over time the new path is routinely found with little effort at all. Even if you've been away for a while.
For more on this topic, check out the good article I found by Steve Robson at Peak Performance.