By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck
Several years ago I happened to be at the fields of a league that had recently purchased our products to provide to their coaches. I watched parts of of three different teams’ practices. What I saw was both gratifying and disappointing.
My son had a varsity game at a local high school which, it turned out, is adjacent to a Little League complex. I noticed the name of the league on one of the backstops and remembered that they’d recently placed an order with us. There was an hour before the game began so I decided to spend a little time watching some of the preseason practices being conducted by the youth coaches.
The first team was almost finished and the coach wrapped up practice with a drill straight from our baseball deck, called Home and Second Race. The team is divided into two squads. One begins at home plate, the other at second base. One by one, a player from both teams races around all four bases. When he gets back to where he started, the next in line goes. The object is to see which team finishes first.
All the players on both teams were excited – jumping up and down as the last runners rounded the bases. It came down to a photo finish, which was too close for me to call. The coach named a winner and one group of players rejoiced, the other shouted their disapproval. They all asked if they could do it again, but the coach said they had to give up the field to the next team.
A few minutes later the next group took the field. There were only six players – half of what the first team had had. Four adults were present. A pitching machine was set up on the right field foul line, presumably to pump out fly balls. These coaches decided to utilize it. So they lined the six players in center field and, one-by-one, a kid stepped out away from the group and waited for a ball to be shot out of the machine into the air.
This was clearly a Minors division team – not the top level of Majors. It is unlikely that any of these players would ever see a ball hit off of a bat anywhere near as high as the machine was firing them. But the kids dizzily moved their feet, trying to get underneath the ball as it hurtled down, and occasionally caught one, but usually watched it drop a few feet away. Each player took four or five in this fashion while the other five players in line twisted around in boredom, mostly facing the opposite way.
One of the four coaches was feeding the balls to the machine. The other was catching the throws back in from the players. The third and fourth were out with the players, but they spent more time talking to parents who wandered by than with the kids. It was everything I could do not to walk onto the field and ask them if I could help.
What would I have done differently? If outfield practice was, in fact, what I thought we needed to work on, I’d have had all four coaches take a couple handfuls of balls and work with one or two of the players individually. Each of us would have tossed fly balls in the air, starting with easy ones to build confidence, then gradually increasing the difficulty. Not only would the flies have been much closer in approximation to what the players would really see in the game, but they’d have gotten ten times as many repetitions along with much more instruction. Instead of this being the sole, tedious activity performed at today’s practice, we could have accomplished more and better training in fifteen minutes, then moved on to something else.
And if we were going to shoot balls from the machine to the kids one by one, why not at least make it a game? Our CoachDeck Team Fly Balls drill does just this. This drill would have divided the six kids into two teams of three – Team A and Team B. Each time a player makes a catch he gets a point for his team. Each good, one-hop throw in is worth another point. Now, all of the players would be excited and paying attention throughout the drill. Plus we’d be simulating game-like competition.
As I walked away and headed to the high school game, I passed a third team practicing. Because they looked a little older and their field was very well-kept, I assumed this was a Majors team. They were also doing a drill right out of our deck, the Relay Drill. Three teams of four players were throwing the ball down and back in a race. One of the players kept shouting, “Hurry!” and, “Throw it!” trying to exhort his teammates to win. Again, when the drill was over, they asked the coach if they could play one more time. And like the first team, there were also twelve players at this practice.
So I don’t know if some of the coaches received a CoachDeck and some did not. Or if only two of the three team managers had decided to utilize the deck. I know that one of the frustrations I hear from our customers when we follow-up with them at season’s end is that they noticed some of their coaches not using the deck. It annoys them, as it should, that they spent the league’s money to provide them with this training tool, and it was ignored.
But just because a few coaches don’t take advantage of CoachDeck is not an indictment of the product but rather, of those individuals. It would be wonderful if we could guarantee 100% participation, but that will likely never be possible. What we hear from leagues who have tried other things such as phone apps or websites is that more coaches use CoachDeck than anything else – by a wide margin. Even if a third of the league’s coaches pay it no attention, that still means two-thirds are running fun and exciting practices the players love. It would be illogical to eliminate a program benefiting the majority of the kids in the league because of the apathy of a few. It seems more sensible to replace the horses we’ve led to water, but who refuse to drink.
Brian Gotta is a former professional recreational youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is President of Help Kids Play, a collection of companies whose mission is to further the development and enjoyment of youth sports.