Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Leader or Follower?

If you play a team sport, especially as you get older, every player is either a leader or a follower. Every team needs a couple of leaders and the others need to understand that they are followers. But you can’t have too many leaders or the absence of a leader. 

While there are a number of reasons for underachieving teams – not enough talent, lack of focus, poor practices – the absence of a clear cut leader is a big one. 

Before describing a leader, let me point out that it is alright to be a follower. A follower knows their role, knows what is expected of them and performs their tasks to the best of their ability. 

What are the three main characteristics of a leader? 

The most important is respected. You can try to be a leader, but if nobody is willing to follow you, you are only leading yourself. The other players on the team have to look up to the leader.

A leader has to be skilled. In the realm of athletics, it is difficult for a player standing on the side line to be followed. Fair or unfair, the players that end up as leaders on a team are usually some of the best. 

Finally, a leader separates friendships on and off the field (a follower has to do the same). If a teammate is having a bad day or doesn’t seem to be focused or isn’t performing the right drills, one of the jobs of a leader is to step in and let the teammate know. 

There are really three types of leaders – those who are vocal, those who lead by example and those who try to lead but are not followed. 

A vocal leader is the voice of the team. They let people know when they do things wrong and, more importantly, are the first to praise a teammate for performing well. 

A leader by example doesn’t necessarily say much – though it is possible to lead by example and vocally. An example leader gives 100 percent at every practice, game, conditioning sessions, film session or whatever else may encompass that particular sport. They are usually pretty good at their position. Others see how hard they work and want to either duplicate the leader’s hard work or impress the leader with their own work ethic. 

There are also leaders who lead themselves. They want to be a leader, they want to say the right things and do the right things, but in the end, their teammates don’t have the necessary respect for them. You can’t be a leader if you turn around and nobody is following you. 

Leaders without followers usually develop from a combination of the other two types of leaders. There are players who try to lead but simply aren’t good enough to find the field. There are players who give the impression that they aren’t giving the maximum effort on every play. There are players who want to be vocal, but are only degrading and negative. Not only do you end up alienating your teammates, but you don’t find many friends off the field either. 

A leader is accountable for not only their individual success, but also that of the team. They act as the coach on the field and help their teammates do whatever it takes to win. They always give their best effort, never complain about practice and are willing to listen to coaches and other teammates. They follow any team rules, are always on time and always do the right thing, whether or not a coach is around. 

Being a leader carries a responsibility, not just to you, but also to your teammates, coaches and fans. Not everyone is cut out to be a leader. And that is quite alright.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Checking For a Bunt

With runners on base, an easy way for a pitcher to check for a sacrifice bunt is to attempt a pickoff. A batter will usually turn and show a bunt at the pitcher's first movement. With a runner at second base, it becomes even more likely that the batter will tip his hand if you execute an inside pickoff move.

Remember, you do not have to throw to second base, so that makes this situation that much more valuable.

Finally, realize that if you are able to get the batter to show you he planned on attempting to bunt, doesn't mean that the coach will still have the play on.

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Facing Adversity

Inevitably, at some point in your baseball career – and more importantly, your life – you will face hardships. It may be as a team with a losing streak, coaching change or other unusual circumstance. Personally, adversity shows up as a slump. 

How do you deal with adversity? 

When you are in the midst of a problem, doesn’t it seem like everything is magnified. Each mistake you make, batter you face or at-bat you are given feels as if there is an enormous weight on your shoulders. The pressure is squarely on you. 

Baseball is the great team game. I say that with a little bit of sarcasm. Many coaches will teach that you win or lose as a team, and rightfully so. But baseball game is made up of individual show downs – pitcher versus batter, catcher versus runner, fielder versus field and coach versus coach. 

For your team to be successful, you have to perform better than your opponent in your individual chances. 

And the hard part is you may only get three or four at-bats or a couple of chances in the field. If you execute, you may be forgotten about. If you don’t execute, that is typically what everyone remembers – especially after a loss. 

Remember that you will face adversity – both individually and as a team. The question is how do you respond? 

When things take a turn for the worst, the one thing you can’t do is panic. Becoming flustered will more than likely compound the problem. 

That is another great thing about baseball – it is such a mental game. If you “try harder,” you will probably continue down the same path. Trying to hit farther, pitch faster or field better doesn’t usually give you the results you are looking for. 

Patience to many people is something that runs in short supply. Then you start to talk about a results driven situation, and it really isn’t present. On top of that, throw struggles into the equation and patience is the last thing anyone wants to hear. 

Patience is difficult for most of us because we want everything now. We want to be the best. But we want it now. 

A different term for patience when it comes to athletics is hard work. If we aren’t achieving the results we want, how can we expect different results if we don’t make a change? 

Now I know I said earlier that we can’t try harder. But trying and working are two different concepts. You try in a game and work in practice or on your own. There has to be some root to your struggles. The earlier you can identify them, the quicker you can fix them. Once you figured out a problem, there is no substitute for hard work. 

Your character shines brightest when you are in the midst of adversity. How will you handle it?

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Throw With a Purpose

During a recent bullpen session, both a freshman and senior pitcher unleashed wild pitches that sailed eight feet above the respective catchers’ heads. And while this is typical at the beginning of the year because pitchers haven’t thrown off a mound, we are in the sixth and final week of our preseason bullpens. 

My guys have also thrown to live hitters over the last two weeks in our shorter bullpen sessions and not once did a pitcher air mail a pitch over the catcher’s head. 

After each threw their pitch in question, I asked them what was happening with their location. But I didn’t let them answer; I answered my own question for them. 

They weren’t focusing. 

When little kids first sign up for the local youth league, they go out in the outfield and throw to get loose. That habit develops and kids end up spending the first ten minutes of every practice they take part in throwing to get loose. Nothing more. 

Shouldn’t there be a little more attention paid to each throw? 

Again, I am not only talking about when a pitcher throws off a mound or an infielder is taking ground balls at his position or a catcher is making throws to a base, although all are extremely important. What can you do in that first ten minutes? 

For pitchers, there are several things to work on. Developing better mechanics, improving movement on pitches and working on control are three good places to start. 

If a pitcher limits him to improving only when throwing off a mound, it will be difficult. You can only throw off of a mound so much before you increase your risk of injury. A pitcher has to take advantage of every throw they make through the course of a practice. 

Every other position – infield, outfield and catcher – can also work on their accuracy. I have witnessed very few games in my life that didn’t have a throw that was off target. A first baseman may have scooped the ball from the dirt or a shortstop saved the ball from going into centerfield, but the throws were still not where they should have been. 

Maybe throwing isn’t your problem. You can still work on quickly getting the ball from your glove to your hand after catching it. Or you can see how quickly you can move your feet and turn your body to get ready to throw. 

Every player can get better at something – especially an aspect of throwing – everyday.
I challenge you to do a couple of things. 

First, think about your current habits. Do you make each throw with a purpose? Do you focus on getting better every time the ball is leaving your hand or you are getting ready to catch it? 

Next, if you don’t answer my questions correctly, change. Start to make every throw with a purpose.

When I was playing in a local youth league, our coach had us play a game when playing catch. If your partner caught the ball at his head, it was three points. A throw at his chest was worth two points and his waist one. Any other throw our partner had to reach for that was at least chest high and was caught was zero points. If you threw a ball that had to be reached down for to be caught, you had to subtract a point. Any ball that was too high or wide to be caught and anything that hit the ground allowed your partner to subtract three points from your score. 

The final part of my challenge is to start playing this game. It works.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stay Within Yourself

A piece of advice that is beneficial in all athletics as well as life, stay within yourself means know your limits and capabilities. Maybe your coach has asked you to “not do too much,” which means the same thing. 

You have a certain set of tools that you can work with. Not every player can be the best hitter or pitcher or fielder on the team. But you can contribute to every win by doing what you do best. 

Maybe you can’t hit the ball the farthest or throw a good curveball. But you are quick. You are a good base runner and cover a lot of ground in the outfield. Know your individual strengths and use them to help your team. 

Trying to do too much with your given abilities can work against your team. Trying to strike every batter out will lead to a lot of walks. Trying to hit a home run on every pitch will lead to a bunch of strikeouts. Trying to make a tag, catch or throw before you have the ball will lead to errors. 

Work on your abilities. If you want to throw harder or hit farther or field better or become faster, you can. It will take practice, but it is possible. But in the meantime, understand what you can do and focus on them. Stay within yourself and your abilities.

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