Friday, December 17, 2010

MLB Seeks `Real World Series' With Japan's Baseball Champions

Bloomberg.com reported yesterday evening that MLB officials are in talks with Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball to become the first American sports franchise to apply a true international scope to the "world champion" title (no offense to Canada, eh).

While the plan is wrought with challenges, not the least of which are bitter cold and the risk of lackluster commercial potential, it seems at face value like a positive move. On the other hand, we do have the World Baseball Classic. By "we," in that case, I'm really referring to Japan, since they presently have a corner on the market.

I, for one, have always sensed a bit of hubris in the "World Champion" title afforded World Series and Superbowl champions, and the move would at least apply a bit of legitimacy to such a claim. One might wonder, though, if such an endeavor would be looked upon with the same level of incredulity as the NFL's decision to move games to Mexico City and London.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Managing Athletes' Expectations

In the past, I have tended to group youth sports coaches in a few convenient little "boxes," all neatly arranged by their motivation to get involved in the lives of our young athletes. For some of us, it was a natural inclination to take the field with our children. For others, it was a passion for teaching and mentoring young ahtletes. Then there is a third group that seeks to relive or replicate their own past victories on the field (or, perhaps, to compensate for the lack thereof).

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to witness the most glaring example of the latter group that I have seen in seven years as a youth sports coach.

While waiting for my eight year old son's flag football game to start I had, by chance, set up my chairs near one team's coach. The children from the previous game, all of them eight years old, were making their way to the sidelines, eyes already scanning the crowd for the parent tasked with "snack and drink" duties for the day. Like a school of fish, the boys located their prey and moved in graceful unison toward the volunteer.

Much to my dismay, their coach intercepted them on their way off the field. He called a huddle, pulled out his team's playbook, and spent the good part of five minutes explaining run routes, coverage and a number of other strategic issues. Did I mention that his lecture was addressed to a group of hungry eight year old boys?

This was enough to inspire some frustration and a hint of judgmentalism on my part, but the moment would soon be surpassed by the coach's pep talk at the end of his lecture. Pointing one-by-one to his players, clockwise in the huddle, the coach rattled off:

"Good job, good job, good job, you need some work," followed by a list of things the poor kid "needed to work on."

Now that my oldest son is almost a teenager and I'm working through my next round, coaching my eight year old's team, I have had enjoyed reflecting on the points both high and low of my time with my older son. In hindsight, I took his teams far too seriously. That's the excuse I'm going to extend to that team's coach.

Particularly for less experienced coaches, we face the temptation to lose sight of why our kids are involved in sports. We remember our high school (or perhaps college) experience, and tend towards the assumption that our kids are far more mature than they really are. My heart sank for the last kid in the huddle, in part because I could see his own countenance collapse but also because I'm sure I made similar, careless comments to kids in the past.

My son's team proceeded to play the worst game ever recorded in the history of third grade flag football. They were simply outgunned, outmaneuvered and outscored. That afternoon I had a spontaneous, quiet moment alone with my son.

I asked him what he thought of the game, if he was disappointed in himself or his teammates, and if he was frustrated about its outcome.

"Not really, Dad," he said, "I just had fun playing football with my friends."

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Protecting Pitcher's Arms: The Mechanics (Part 2 of 2)

In our last article, we looked at an overview of contributing elements to chronic elbow injuries in young pitchers. In that article, I made the assumption that most youth baseball coaches were not pitchers at the varsity level or above and, therefore, have either used secondhand knowledge (the example of other coaches, pitching clinics) or applied knowledge (for example, applying their knowledge of fielding mechanics to the pitch) to coach their pitchers. Additionally, I outlined three coaching opportunities -- rotational pitching, elbow position and pitch selection -- as practical examples of how we can make our pitchers more effective while ensuring player safety. This week's article will explore each of these in greater detail.

Rotational Pitching

I mentioned in the previous article on this topic that rotational pitching was an ideal style to implement with young pitchers. While it is worth pointing out that many of baseball's most powerful pitchers use a linear stride in their delivery, there are a few reasons why rotational pitching is ideal for young pitchers.

I'm sure that most, if not all, coaches at some point have watched their batting order fall prey to a kid throwing fireballs from the mound, whose pitch speed is easily 5 MPH or more faster than other players in the league. Most young batters, ill prepared to adjust to a significantly faster or slower pitch, will perform poorly against such a pitcher. As a result, our temptation as coaches is to teach our pitchers to become that pitcher, encouraging him to "throw harder." As I'll discuss in a moment, however, pitch location and speed variation are more important (not to mention safer) than velocity. As a result, the perceived advantage of a linear stride in pitching is not particularly applicable in youth baseball.

Additionally, as is the case in hitting, hip/shoulder separation (rotation of the "core" muscles) is critical to powerfully pull the shoulder and generate pitch speed. Tim Lincecum is an excellent example of a pitcher who uses hip/shoulder separation to generate formidable speed. Weighing in at only 170 pounds, Lincecum doesn't come anywhere near the heft of the league's power pitchers. Still, his excellent hip rotation allows him to generate exceptionally fast and powerful upper body momentum, resulting in a fast pitch.

By teaching our kids to pitch rotationally, we are naturally instilling in them a tendency towards wider hip/shoulder separation. This, in turn, will take the strain off the young pitcher's shoulder, as he is no longer attempting to generate pitch speed through arm strength alone. The result? A more consistent, better protected pitcher.

Elbow Height

Many well-meaning coaches teach a high elbow as a means to raise the pitcher's arm slot (the angle of the forearm in relation to the upper arm). The thought here is that a lower elbow will produce a more linear, less "loaded" pitch. A pitcher in this instance keeps his shoulders relatively horizontal, while extending his arm vertically to produce the desired load. This creates additional strain on the rotator cuff and the labrum.

So how does a pitcher raise their arm slot without placing undue strain on their shoulder? By altering their shoulder tilt. By tilting the pitching arm side shoulder upward at the release point, the pitching arm can extend without pushing the elbow above the shoulder. Not only does this reduce shoulder strain, but it can also encourage the upper body to rotate, thus contributing to a rotational pitch.

Pitch selection

The issue of pitch selection is one worth pointing out, although it has already received significant attention. The curveball and slider are frequently cited as unsafe because of their tendency to strain the elbow and wrist, respectively. In my opinion, coaches should generally seek to avoid these pitches until the players' growth plates have closed. Instead, teaching an effective changeup or knuckle ball is a great way of altering pitch speed to throw off the batter's timing. Additionally, varying the placement of the fastball can keep the batter guessing without relying on unsafe pitch motion.

Conclusion

One of the things I love the most about baseball is that it is both a team sport and an individual sport, combining the strategy and the passion of team sports with the technique and discipline of individual sports. Pitching is one area in which significant study and attention to technique can be applied. It is my hope that the tips included above have inspired a desire to apply safe and effective techniques to coaching your pitchers.

Additional Resources:

The TUFFCUFF Strength And Conditioning Manual For Baseball Pitchers: A 52-Week Guide To Pitching Workouts And Throwing Programs
by Steven Ellis

101 Pitching Drills
by Bob Bennett

The Picture Perfect Pitcher
by Tom House

The Art & Science of Pitching
by Tom House

Saving the Pitcher: Preventing Pitcher Injuries in Modern Baseball
by Will Carroll

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Protecting Pitchers' Arms: The Mechanics

My last article covered the increasing trend toward "Pitcher's Elbow" injuries in youth baseball players. While I believe the article did a sufficient job of explaining at a very high level how coaches may contribute to the problem, I didn't touch on one significant cause of chronic injuries: technique.

I'm going to stick my neck out a bit and start from the assumption that most youth sports coaches were not pitchers at the high school level or above (neither was I). For the rest of us, we may have used what we learned as fielders and applied that to pitching to the best of our ability, or perhaps we tried our best to emulate what we've seen other, more experienced pitching coaches teach.

Like most coaches, my occasional participation in pitching clinics left me armed with just enough information to be dangerous. I taught my oldest son how to pitch with the knowledge I had picked up, and he has managed to "hold his own" on the mound thus far. Recently, though, as he grows older, I realize that his technique needs to be more finely tuned with knowledge beyond what I have been able to instill in him.

As the hitting coach for Town & Country Baseball's All Star team, as well as a few other successful groups of kids, I have often been tasked with "fixing" peculiar elements of young batters' swings. Over time I have developed a rather simple methodology -- and an even simpler philosophy -- to effective hitting. With a bias toward rotational hitting, my philosophy is, "never do anything in your swing that isn't related to moving the ball forward." Similarly, I believe a lot of young pitchers can incorporate extraneous motion in their delivery, ultimately reducing the effectiveness (and possibly even the safety) of their pitch.

As a prime example of simple, efficient delivery, I tend to look no further than Greg Maddux, one of the most durable and effective pitchers in recent history. Greg Maddux's pitching motion shows obvious parallels between effectiveness at the plate and effectiveness on the mound. In my next post I will look at his motion in greater detail, but for the sake of this article I'd like to point out, in high level, what has made him particularly effective.

Rotational Pitching: As a batting coach, I almost always prioritize rotational hitting over linear hitting. Linear hitters move their bodies forward, in a straight path toward the pitcher, while rotational hitters rely on rotation of the shoulders and hips. Similarly, Greg Maddux utilizes a rotational approach to pitching, characterized by a rotation of the hips and shoulders instead of forward motion toward the batter. Unlike rotational hitting, however, it is important to note that many of the Game's most powerful pitchers, including the uber-power-pitcher Nolan Ryan, used a linear stride.

Elbow Height: Anyone who has coached the 5-8 year age groups is likely familiar with the mantra "T-L-tuck" to describe throwing mechanics. Elementary throwing technique involves an extension, a load / release action and a follow-through. Teaching kids to "T-L-tuck" is a simple way to instill each of these actions in a young player. In many cases, though, the elbow tends to remain at shoulder height throughout the throw. By contrast, Greg Maddux's elbow tends to remain below shoulder level throughout his release. In my next post I will go into detail on why this is important.

Fastball, fastball, fastball: Even though Greg Maddux's pitches seldom broke 90 miles per hour, his excellent control over the fastball kept batters from making consistent, hard contact with the ball. While he did occasionally rely on the breaking ball, Maddux's primary pitches were the two-seam fastball, the four-seam fastball and the circle changeup.

In my next post I will outline each of these three points in greater detail, specifically from the perspective of preventing chronic injury in young pitchers. As coaches, we owe it to our players not just to teach them to play effectively, but to instill in them the habits they will need to ensure their longevity playing the game.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Protecting Pitchers' Arms

Over the last few months I have seen a significant amount of attention paid to the increasing rates of stress-related injuries to young baseball players' arms, particularly pitchers. Interestingly (but not necessarily surprisingly) enough, the rate of increase has correlated with an ongoing trend favoring travel or "select" baseball teams over recreational leagues like Little League Baseball, PONY Baseball, and others.

The culprit (again, not surprisingly) is one frequently identified by medical professionals such as Dr. Joe Chandler. With breaking pitches being introduced during players' formative development years, as early as 10 and 11, in some cases, young pitchers' elbows are facing unprecedented strain during a time in which their growing pre-teen bodies are particularly vulnerable. According to Dr. Chandler, many injuries among 19- and 20-year olds can be traced back to injuries in the pre-teen years.

Additionally, many coaches are unaware of "safe" pitching limits. In addition to the daily threshold recommended by the American Sports Institute in Birmingham Alabama (75 - 105 pitches per day, depending on age), the Institue also recommends a full day's rest for every 20 pitches thrown for players 16 and under. Thus, a well-meaning coach could prescribe a "safe" guideline of 40-50 pitches per day for his pitchers -- well beneath the daily guideline -- and still be putting his players at risk of chronic injury.

Finally, distribution of talent can further contribute to the risk of chronic injury. Because pitching and catching are arguably the most technically demanding positions on the baseball field, it is not uncommon for players to make respective appearances on the mound and behind the plate in the same game. While much of our attention thus far has been devoted to the pitcher's elbow, such cross-training puts the player at aggravated risk for chronic shoulder injuries.

Today's baseball landscape is divided primarily into the "recreational" and "select" categories, with a proportion of the recreational leagues operating in an unfamiliar grey area. Successful "select" teams are highly protective of their depth charts, but the temptation to introduce breaking pitches too early is ever-present. In recreational league, the most critical risks to pitchers' arms are coaches who are not aware of the implications of overuse, or who place competitiveness above the higher objective of player development.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Play Ball!

With another year of baseball in the hopper and ready to go, we at PinchCoach.com are following a "quiet period" while we made a series of enhancement to how youth sports teams, leagues, players and parents will experience the youth sports experience.

First of all, we recently launched the Virtual Clubhouse program for partners. This program allows website owners to provide the PinchCoach.com suite of Youth Sports Management tools on their own site, while earning additional income. Additional information on our sports affiliate program can be found here.

Additionally, we introduced our League Version. With a range of features including player / volunteer registration, field management, scheduling, communications and a fully automated online draft, we are poised to bring new levels of convenience and sophistication to the operations of youth sports leagues. Please visit our website for more information on our Sports League Management solutions.

Finally, we are now offering a subscription-based version of our youth sports management solutions, as well. This version includes no advertisements on the site, as well as the ability to manage multiple teams and pass roster / statistical information from season to season.

We look forward to another season of changing the game in youth sports software. Let's play ball!