Tryouts Need Not Be Feared

023 TryoutsMention tryouts to youth coaches and you’ll hear the words hate and dread a lot.  Tryouts are fraught with politics and issues with parents, not to mention the unpleasant business of having to cut kids which no one wants to do at the younger ages.  All of this makes them difficult to run and much longer than necessary.  Simplifying the format can cut through all the [expletive-deleted] and angst.  And after all, shouldn’t tryouts bring some excitement from watching young kids “rise to the occasion”, the possibility of adding some new talent to the ball club and the anticipation of a new season with its infinite possibilities when your record is 0-0?

My team is part of a town-run program which is a great thing as it keep the costs low and eliminates the need to force kids to play year round to help justify a high cost.  To reduce the potential for issues surrounding tryouts and politics and parents (and I’ve heard there have been some in the past), the head coach is the only adult allowed on the field during tryouts.  Ever try throwing BP or hitting fungoes with a clipboard in your hand?  Personally I am against the mollification, but you can’t change the fact parents see what they want to see no matter what actually happens on the field.

The parental blindness also leads to kids trying out who really shouldn’t.  At the top-end of the ability spectrum, you’ve got kids who throw hard.  At tryouts at the lower end of the spectrum you have kids who can’t catch the ball.  Hello safety issue.  No one likes cutting kids, but sometimes you really need to for the kid’s sake.  And while I love the fact our program’s policy is to field as many teams as the number of kids who come out permits, that doesn’t mean the reason a kid tries out for a summer travel team shouldn’t be a bit beyond “Johnny just loves baseball so much.”  The parents ought to realize this or at least temper their expectations.  Let me put it this way, my son loves hockey, but he doesn’t really know how to skate.  If I brought him to a travel team’s tryouts, whose fault would it be when he doesn’t make it?

Yet in order to appease those same parents, tryouts typically become long, overblown affairs.  Parents have a hard time believing it’s possible to evaluate a player without hours upon hours of tryouts.  I’ve seen coaches therefore rotate the players through every spot on the field as if a kid is trying out for a particular position which only leads to chaos and lengthens the process.  If a kid this age has good mechanics when fielding grounders, he can field them at any spot in the infield.  I would argue there are only two positions to evaluate players at during tryouts (at least at the 9U level): generic infield and generic outfield.  Sure you want to look for potential pitchers and catchers but you need more than a few kids in these slots as a nine-year-old isn’t pitching or catching a complete game, and therefore you’re not in a position to take a kid whose only asset is a live pitching arm for example.

To combat all this, I run tryouts based on the way any open tryout I ever went to was run, the only difference being everyone participates in each drill.  Four stations to evaluate speed, fielding, throwing and hitting then a short session on pitching and catching simply to see if there are any potential additions to the rotation and if anyone who fancies themselves a catcher can receive.  Quick and easy and I’m done inside of one hour and 30 minutes.  If I were allowed to have other coaches assist in the evaluations, I would even run some stations in parallel to keep the kids from standing around at all.  In order:

  • Warm-ups and throwing to loosen the arms: I pay attention to how the kids throw when they are loosening up.  As the Ripken brothers say, you can often tell who’s going to win a game by which team throws better in the pregame.  The same is true for tryouts.
  • 40 yard dash: People have told me I should have them run from home plate second base, but you can always teach kids baserunning technique.
  • Four grounders at short with a throw to first: If you can field a ground ball at one infield position, you can field them at any infield position.  And if you can make a throw from shortstop, you can make it from anywhere.  Here I’m looking for feet, hands and throwing accuracy on balls directly at the fielder, to either side and on one they have to charge.
  • Two grounders in center field with a throw home: This one is more about making a strong, accurate throw than anything else though I will look for their approach to the ball and their transition from fielding to throwing.
  • Two fly balls in center with throw home: Are they able to judge fly balls?  Again a decent throw is a good thing.
  • Eight swings at the plate: Eight is more than enough.
  • Pitching and Catching: Five fastballs (which is all kids this age should be throwing anyway.)  Again here I am just looking to see if I have any potential pitchers.  Given a nine-year-old isn’t going to throw more than two innings a game I need a lot of them to pitch.  The catchers are there because a) the pitcher needs someone to throw to and b) I want to see if the kids who want to catch can receive pitches.  I don’t make all the kids catch, only the ones who are interested.  And I don’t do catcher throwing evaluations because it doesn’t matter at this age as it takes multiple miracles to throw a runner out (here’s a post about why receiving is more important than throwing from youth catchers.)

That’s it.  Nothing more.  Why make it any longer than needed?  I’ve been told you need more fielding (you don’t), you need to move the kids around to different positions (you don’t) and you need to give them more swings (it’s wishful thinking a kid who has missed eight is magically going to hit the ninth and you’re evaluating the swing not the outcome.)  Having each kid participate in exactly the same drill gives me a much better way to compare them.  And because every kid participates in every drill, it’s much harder for parents to argue the process wasn’t fair or their kid didn’t get a fair shot.   Doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  It just means it’s a hard argument to raise.

This year because we’ve moved the tryouts to much earlier in the year, I am thinking about including a scrimmage (on a different date) which is often the second part of the open tryout format.  While I’m loathe to make the tryout process any longer, I do look forward to making tryouts a little more fun for the kids while at the same time giving me a sense of their “game faces.”

Hey, now I’m starting to get excited.  Tryouts are around the corner.  That’s a good thing.

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Best Is a Four Letter Word

022 Best Is a Four Letter Word 001I’m the best baseball player you have never heard of.  I was hitting plastic balls across the living room when I was 16 months old.  In the coach-pitch “league” when I was six all the fielders were moved to the outfield for safety reasons.  At nine, I became the first kid ever to hit one over the fence at the little league field.  As a 12-year-old in actual little league, I once came up with the bases loaded after hitting a grand slam the previous inning.  The umpire kept telling the opposing coach to walk me, “You gotta walk him.  I’d walk him.  You’re crazy not to.”  The opposing coach didn’t.   It cost him another four runs.  Later that summer, I was the starting first baseman for the New York City All-Star team in the Nanshiki Baseball Games.  Wish I had known about it as an 11-year-old.  It would have been nice to play in Tokyo.   Babe Ruth league Batting Champion (we didn’t have an MVP award) at age 13.  At 14, I tried out for the US Olympic team.  Hit one off the scoreboard in center at the college stadium we were trying out in – 405 feet to the scoreboard.  The Olympic coaches loved me as a player, but a 14-year-old wasn’t about to compete with Will Clark and/or Mark McGwire.  As I said, I am the best baseball player you have never heard of.

We had a stud on that New York City All-Star team.  Pat was our shortstop, our cleanup hitter, our captain and one of the few kids in my naivety I ever thought was better than me.  He was a big muscular kid.  The next year, I played against Pat as his team of 13-year-olds demolished my Babe Ruth league’s rag-tag All-Star team in the state tournament.  I had grown an inch or two taller and Pat hadn’t.  He was still good, but I didn’t think he was better than me anymore.  The next year, I went to play for that team and there was no Pat.  His baseball career was over at 14.  In a way, mine was too.

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Hitting in Shea Stadium in a travel league All-Star Game

Being the best 14-year-old is only a good thing if you keep getting better.  I didn’t.  While it was good enough to get me through high school and recruited by colleges and to play in college as well (though I was a JV kid, turns out the college coach wasn’t into a 160lb first baseman who didn’t hit homeruns even if I never hit under .400 in college), it caught up to me in college and probably already had in high school even if I didn’t realize it.  Every guy who I played with who made it beyond college (my high school teammate who pitched for the Brewers and Giants for three or four years, Zimmy, the pitcher I once mentioned before, who was a bonus-baby with the Marlins and went as far as AAA and the three or four other guys from high school or travel who played in A or AA ball) all had one thing in common.  They were getting better every year.  We might have been at the same skill level when our paths crossed, but their trajectory was upward and mine was flat.  They made and I didn’t.

Nowadays, I always chuckle to myself when I hear about a kid being a total stud or being the best in the league or in town, particularly when it comes from a parent.  It’s not I don’t believe the kid is good or that they are the best in the town.  But I know that kid.  I was once him.  And I know from my own experience baseball (any sport really) is a marathon and being the best right now means just that and only that.  The Justin Heywards and Todd Fraziers are few and far between.  Whether it is physical maturity, mental maturity or just pure ability, if you aren’t getting better, you are going to fall by the wayside sooner than later.

I think about this a lot as I head into the new season.  As a coach, it’s in terms of am I doing everything I can to help all my players get better, particularly the “best” ones.  For my players, I see glimpses every so often where a kid who has had some success stops listening and as a result stops learning.  For them, it’s in terms of helping them understand while being told you’re good is something to savor, it’s not something to rest on.  Being even better tomorrow will be a whole lot sweeter so let’s keep working.  I try to remind the parents about it as well.  As a father, well, if there is a parent out there who doesn’t want their kid to be the best at whatever they do, it’s not me.  So as a father, it’s about reminding myself to focus on the improvements they are making every day and not to see only the shortcomings they have as players now.  More importantly it’s to remind myself not to push too hard now particularly with the way kids are sent into drills and organized practices at such an early age these days.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember, really hard.  But I need only look back to my own experience to know I really don’t want my kid being the best right now.

From the Rafters

021 Rafters 002When my son said he wanted to play basketball I was all for it.  Try everything, you never know where or when you’ll discover your passion.  It took a bit of searching to find a program, but I figured any one would do because he’s never played.  If he liked it, I’d worry about finding a “good” program next year.  About the only thought I put into it making sure it fit the family schedule which is how I found myself in the stands at the local Y for his first session.

In the lead up, he was “practicing” his dribbling and shooting.  I went to play with him a few times and showed him some basics – aim for the corner of the square, jump off your left foot on layups on the right side and vice versa (yes, I made him try his left hand on left-side layups), jump straight up not forward when you are shooting and the like.  The sessions were playful, though on a few occasions he may have felt put upon so to speak.

So be it.  A guy who works for me just kept on playing when his basketball and baseball careers ended after college.  He’s in two basketball leagues and plays on two fast-pitch softball teams.  Last week, his Wednesday night basketball team added a just retired (technically still a free agent) major league pitcher.  The ex-pro shows up to his first game, sees a kid shooting a basketball haphazardly and asks the kid what he is doing.  The kid says he’s shooting around to which the ex-pro replies, “Like that.  What’s the point?  You’re here.  Put in the time and do it properly.  Go over there and take 175 shots the right way.”  The kid doesn’t even play for the team.  He was just a kid shooting a ball at a hoop.

021 Rafters 001There’s a reason the ex-pro pitched a little over 13 years in the majors and won a World Series ring in the process.  As Cal Ripken says, “It’s not practice makes perfect.  It’s perfect practice makes perfect.” Which is why I was more than a little perplexed when the first thing they are teaching my son is to turn sideways with a back step and bring the ball up to his ear when he receives a pass.  Sorry guys, but what about catch the ball and get into “triple threat position” (i.e., two hands on the ball near your hip from which you can pass, dribble or shoot?)  The move they are teaching is only useful when the defender is in your shorts.  Even if you still have your dibble, you’ve eliminated it as an option, along with shooting and passing to one side of the court.  Truthfully, triple threat might not be right depending on your position and the offensive system you are running.  But these kids don’t have positions and are light years from an offensive scheme so shouldn’t we be teaching them the fundamentals and a more utilitarian skill from the get go?  I was exasperated as I watched.

Of course, I had no idea what to do with it.  I’ve never been on this side of the sidelines in a sport where I wasn’t learning as much from watching practice as my kids were from actually practicing.   I had an almost overwhelming urge to yell out to my son to get into triple threat position, but for his sake, there was no way I was doing that.  Ego-maniac though I am, I also wasn’t going to say anything to the coaches.  Desperate for an outlet, I saw a parent of one of my baseball players and asked him, “What do you guys do when you think I’ve taught your kid something stupid?”  He just chuckled.  So I sat there and laughed at myself for becoming the parent every coach dreads (seriously, is there anything worse than the parent who has “played before?”)  Still I was mostly thinking “this is a waste of money” as I was kicking myself over having set aside the only rule in finding for a youth sports program that matters.  I’d chosen convenience and decided “as long as he has fun” should rule the day over finding a good coach who knows how to teach the sport and let the kids have fun.

When we got home, I asked my son how he liked basketball and if he wanted me to show him how to do the move they were teaching him.  He was hyped up from playing so I did.  Then I told him, I don’t agree with it, but it’s what the coaches are teaching you so you do it.  Of course, I had him immediately do another five reps getting into triple threat position.

Casey Struck Out

020 Casey Struck OutIt’s every kid’s dream.  If you played little league, it was yours too.  Two outs, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, down by three.  Of course, you hit the dramatic, game-winning grand slam.  To borrow from Neil Diamond, except for the names and a few other changes, this story’s the same one.  Except it’s not.  Casey didn’t get the big hit.  Casey struck out.

It’s the playoffs and we’re playing the second place team.  They’ve beaten us pretty good before but tonight the boys are outplaying their opponents in every way until the bottom of the fifth.  We’re up 4-1 when we implode and give up five runs.  They bring in their best pitcher.  A walk, a hit, an out, another walk and another out brings up my son.  Two outs, last inning, bases loaded, down by two.  Except for the names and a few other changes.

I give him the reminders I use with him, “telephone” to remind him to keep his hands up and “aggressive” to remind him not to let good pitches go early in the count.  Then I tell him, “this at bat is like any other.  You’re been hitting all year so go up there and get your licks in.  Same as always.”  I am telling him this so I calm down.  I yell over to my third base coach to text me the results because I’ll be in the car in the parking lot.  I’d be lying if I said I remember the exact sequence, but he fouls off a couple, takes a couple of balls, fouls off another and goes down on a fastball, a little up but, with the strike zones used in 8U baseball, one he has to swing at.  It was a really good swing, popped the hips, swung hard, got the barrel through the zone in time with the pitch, he just missed it.

I want to go to him and hug him.  I want to tell him, “I know it hurts a lot.  It’s okay.  It’s okay to be upset, but you didn’t lose the game.  It was a great at bat and a great swing.  I’m proud of you for the guts it took to go up there and have an at bat like that.”  Then he throws his bat.

020 Casey Struck Out 003

Even the pros lose it now and then

I want to go to him and hug him, but now I am disciplining him.  He’s an emotional kid so I know he’s upset and there will be tears.  I don’t like the tears, but these are little kids playing a tough game.  Contrary to what Jimmy Dugan said there is crying in baseball.  Lots of it.  (Jeff Vrabel wrote a great piece  on it .)  Now I’m making him pick up his bat, walk it into the dugout and have a chat with me.  When he doesn’t do it my voice goes up a level or two.  He’s in no mood to listen.  More water works ensue and he digs his heels in a little deeper.  I’m getting angrier by the second.  I’m not sure what’s most fueling it, the fact he threw his bat, the fact he is not picking it up, the fact I’ve got 11 other upset kids but there is only one causing a scene or the fact this situation has turned into a parenting moment on public display.  “Who needs this?” flickers across my brain before he kicks the ground, grudgingly picks up his bat, brings it into the dugout and I give him the only warning he will receive, “It ever happens again and you will find yourself glued to the bench.”  We shake hands with the other team and go out to try and give my team some perspective.  He’s calm, or at least calmer, after the post-game spiel so we get an ice cream, and I finally tell him what I wanted to tell him all long.

I always held the hardest part of coaching my own kid to be Daddy Ball, the fear delusional visions of grandeur will motivate me to play my kid in spots he has no business playing in.  But ability and playing time tend to take care of themselves even if parents are prone to see whatever they want to see.  The more young players I’ve seen and the more I’ve heard their private coaches’ assessments, the more I’ve learned to trust my own assessments and those of my assistant coaches to guide who’s on the field when and where.

More and more, I’ve come to believe the hardest part of coaching your own kid is being a parent and finding the balance between coaching and parenting.  I’ve had to cut an eight-year old.  I’ve had to tell a parent they had to ease up on their kid.  I’ve had to occasionally tell a parent their kid wasn’t “all that.”  I might not have enjoyed doing so, but all of those were easier than disciplining my son because I was confident I was right.  The blurry line between parent and coach creates an insecurity and enables clouded judgment.  My son had to be disciplined no doubt.  But who really made it more of a scene in the end?  The moment I became the parent instead of the coach, I lost my ability to remain appropriately detached and not place expectations on my kid I wouldn’t have for the other players  Or at least to deal with the situation rationally.  I turned an unpleasant situation into a bad one for everyone.  I would have spoken with or disciplined any player for throwing their bat.  But I would have been a whole lot calmer about it if it were someone else.  It’s not my kid’s fault his dad is the coach.  We all know he shouldn’t benefit from it, but he shouldn’t suffer from it either.

After the season I ran into a parent who brought up the at bat.  They told me how bad they felt for me and how well I handled it.  “You’ve got such a passionate player and I can only imagine how much you wanted to console him.”  Good job?  Let’s ask my son.