Fundamentals: The Key to Success

Along with three friends, I am coaching a Little League team of seven, eight, and nine year olds. All four of us are in our early twenties. Needless to say, we are the only coaches in the league without kids of our own. Our goal? Utter domination. Throughout the season I will keep Pitchers & Poets readers updated on the goings on surrounding the team.

When I played high school baseball, we wore practice t-shirts with the slogan “Fundamentals: The Key to Success.” I found the slogan to be (ahem) fundamentally true, but imprecise and insufficient. We practiced the fundamentals. We were not successful by any definition. But now that I’m wearing the goofy non-cleated coaching shoes, my definition of success has changed. We don’t seek a success based on wins and losses or academic excellence. We seek a success based entirely on fundamentals. Success for a team of eight-year olds means throwing and catching the ball, knowing what base to cover, and not bailing out of the batter’s box.

There is a whole literary universe of coaching essays and books that teach our youth leaders how to mold kids into fine citizens as well as fine athletes. The main catchphrase right now is that we should be Double Goal Coaches, who aim not just to win, but to teach life skills and good attitudes. The whole Double Goal Coach program – and it is certainly a program – is based on the idea that we are either “win at all cost” coaches or Double Goal coaches; its downfall is that it forgoes all nuance for the sake of that good vs. evil dichotomy. After all, there are a million kinds of leaders in the world. It goes without saying that coaches should be good role models, but the Double Goal affectation strikes me as disingenuous.

But this post is not about building character, it’s about building baseball players. The Killer Bees coaching staff is not too many years past the other end of the chain link fence. Unlike other coaches in the league, we have the relatively fresh memories of our own youth sports practices to lean on. We also agree as a coaching staff that the only way to make this group of kids into a decent baseball team is to make sure that they all look forward to coming to practice. Above all, it has to be fun.

When I was nine years old, the age of about half of the Killer Bees players, I had a coach named Joel Spivak. That’s his real name. He was a schmuck. Spivak was like an unfun version of Morris Buttermaker: stoned, chain smoking, screaming. It was the most miserable year of my baseball life. Our practices consisted of the entire team lined up about 300 feet away from a lonely backstop, waiting for him to hit towering fungoes in our general direction between drags on his cigarette. That was it, every practice was the same. Sometimes the balls went over the fence. When they did, we chased them and heaved them in to the kid lucky enough to be cutoff man. I think about half the team quit baseball after that season.

Our goal – never really expressed in these terms – is to create practices that are the opposite of the Spivak Method. We do this mostly by keeping the kids active. There is a great deal of running involved, whether that means races around the base-paths, laps around the field, or situational base-running drills. We also try to instill a level of competition into small events. The most universal of these is the relay race: line the kids up in equally-spread out groups, and let them throw the ball from one end to the other. Whoever gets it back and forth first wins the chance to take batting practice first. When we’re doing things right, keeping their hands up and screaming for the ball becomes part of their fun, not an annoying chore.

Small groups and constant rotations are the key. Like any other good baseball team at work, we run stations. Usually this means one infield station, one outfield station, and one hitting station. Sometimes there is pitching or sliding thrown in. The small groups and constant action are even more beneficial to kids than they are to teenagers or adults. Basically, the constant action keeps the more precocious ones – the little Nick Swishers – busy. In small groups, they are less likely to distract one another.

That said, on Monday we blew it all off. For most of the players, this is the first season of “kid pitch.” We figured that getting these kids to hit a ball not thrown by a coach or sitting on a tee would be a big challenge. Getting them to throw strikes would be an even bigger one. I’m happy to report that we’ve been proven wrong. At our All-BP practice, we unleashed a few of the kids who had been working with Coach Austen in special bullpen sessions. The Killer Bees throw smoke.

Our ace is a tall kid, let’s call him Greinke. He stands on the mound like he’s done it a million times; like he’s the best player out there and always has been and always will be. Then came the lefty, not a big guy, but with a solid arm and a propensity for working fast. Let’s call him Buehrle. And finally, our third pitcher started a little slow. He didn’t bring the heat, but he threw with a quiet confidence. After a couple early walks, he settled in and hit his spot (down the middle is the only spot we’re working with) to retire the side. He’ll be Brad Radke.

In another positive development, we have gone consecutive practices without any tears shed. The kids are throwing and catching the ball with confidence. Routine plays They are comfortable making routine plays in game situations. The fundamentals are coming together. We have also learned that our sponsor is not a bar known for the creepy dudes who hang out by its pool tables, but rather a popular local chain of hot dog carts. Hurray for red and yellow jerseys!

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