Baseball is an embarrassingly simple game … on paper. Pitcher throws ball, hitter tries to hit it where they ain’t, and fielders try to catch it. If we introduced the concept of the game to aliens from another planet, they wouldn’t understand how such a simple game found its way into the fabric of our world. “You mean to tell me that your national past time, and the game that is one of the most popular games in your world, involves one human being throwing a ball and another hitting it?” this alien might ask. “And humans find it so entertaining that you not only watch it, play it, and read about it, but some of you devote your lives to it? That’s pretty much all we need to know to go ahead with our plans to take over this planet.”
Anyone who has played the game of baseball, or tried to coach it, knows it’s anything but simple. A player doesn’t have to be 6’6″ to play it, and they don’t have to be 250 lbs. Anybody and everybody can do it, but most can’t with regular success. As hard as it is to consistently throw a ball accurately, it’s harder to hit it where they ain’t. Even relatively young hitters learn that they can be heroes one day and zeroes the next. The simple complexity of hitting a ball consistently can prove maddening, demoralizing, and even a little humiliating to a young kid, because it seems so simple. They cannot figure it out for themselves. They need coaching, guidance, and as much support as we can offer.
These three ingredients to improved play, and the resultant character development that follows, are essential, but the three most mandatory ingredients to accomplishing anything in life, are time, patience, and repetition. The latter might be the hardest for a child to grasp, as the typical nine-year-old complaint to mind-numbing repetition centers around, “I can hit, catch, and pitch now. Why do we have to keep practicing them so often?” As I’ve written elsewhere, there is little-to-no room for creativity in sports. There are quick-fixes, they’re out there, but my guess is their efficiency numbers pale in comparison to kinesthetic learning, or the knowledge gain by doing it so often that we know what to do when there is no time to think.
Time, patience, and mind-numbing repetition turned an eight-year-old named Isaac into a decent fielder, so the coach put him at shortstop in year one, but he struggled with hitting so much that the coach put him at the bottom of the batting order. He had the typical problems an eight-year-old experiences of looping under the ball. He had so many strikeouts in year one, and he reacted so emotionally to each one, we began to think that baseball probably wasn’t for him.
“Why does he get so upset?” one of his teammates asked. “He shouldn’t get that upset. It’s just baseball. It’s supposed to be fun. No one else gets as upset as he does.”
We wanted Isaac to lighten up and enjoy himself. Baseball is a game, and when we play a game, we’re supposed to have fun. We’re out there with our friends, and we’re supposed to enjoy playing with them. “Don’t get mad, learn,” was a line repeated so often in our backyard that we both got sick of hearing it.
The answer I would now give Isaac’s teammate is that Isaac wanted it more than his teammates. Some might find this a character flaw in need of correction, but in order for Isaac to have fun doing something, he had to be good at it, and he thought he would be good at baseball before he stepped on the field. His first year was supposed to be nothing more than a display of his athletic talent. When that didn’t happen Isaac did not want to do the elementary things he needed to accomplish his goals. What eight-year-old does?
Why can’t I hit the ball?
Nothing came easy for an eight-year-old Isaac. The core problem for Isaac was that he had a counterproductive image of himself as a good hitter. He thought he should be there before he even picked up a bat, and the evidence he saw to the contrary (in his first full year playing baseball) was demoralizing. Every failure, to him, was an epic denunciation of his ability and his character. The eight-year-old world is dramatic, traumatic, and fatalistic.
Our motto entering year two was keep it simple and overcome adversity. Things happen in baseball. A batter can hit a ball square and a fielder can catch it. A hitter can strike out three times in a game. What happens next defines that batter. How does the batter respond in their next at-bat? “The best batters in the world go 1-3,” I told Isaac, and “baseball is the second hardest game in the world behind golf. What happens after we commit an error in the field?” I asked him, adding, “I’ve committed every error in the field that you have, and I’ve done some that were far worse. I’ve committed errors in front of other people that still keeps me up at night, twenty years later.”
Most of the coaching, consolation, and support I offered Isaac went in one ear and out the other, so I’m not sure if anything I said worked. I think time and repetition had more to do with it. Isaac and I spent time doing an exercise I called 40-40-40. Forty ground balls, forty flyballs, and forty reps doing whatever he wanted, usually forty at bats or forty pitches. We also went to batting cages.
Whatever it was we did clicked. His turnaround, from year one to year two was so 180 that the coach eventually put Isaac in the coveted three hole in his batting lineup. Isaac started the second season in his customary position at the bottom of the order, and he gradually worked his way up to the two hole. This is a summation, as the progression proved painfully gradual, but he was in the two hole by game eight. Before the start of game eleven, Isaac believed he was the best hitter on the team, but instead of putting Isaac in the leadoff spot, the coach put him in the three hole.
“I’m getting on base coach,” Isaac said. “Why are you putting me in the three hole? Why am I not in the leadoff spot?”
“We need your power in the three hole,” the coach said.
I’m going to try to be objective here and say that in year two, the nine-year-old Isaac was one of the three best players on his team throughout the 15-game regular season. He might have had one bad game all year.
Isaac was one of the primary reasons that his team won their divisional playoff game. He went two for two, drove in two runs and scored two, in a 5-2 victory. He also, and more importantly, pitched the final two innings, and he only gave up one run.
He didn’t do too well in the final playoffs, but the rest of the team carried them to victory.
In the championship game, however, Isaac went absolutely nuts. He went 3-3, with 5 RBIs, and one run scored, in a 9-8 game. Isaac accounted for six of his team’s nine runs. He was cracking these hits into the outfield, whereas most of his hits, and his teammates hits, barely clear the infield.
Isaac’s best at bat occurred in what could’ve been his final at bat, and possibly the team’s final at-bat of the season. Before the inning even started, I began counting the batters before him, worrying that Isaac might be the final at-bat. My worst fears came to light as two batters walked and two batters struck out. Isaac stepped up to the plate, down two runs, with two runners on base, and two outs. The score at the time was 6-8, and the opposing pitcher was throwing a surprisingly lively fastball for a nine-year-old.
For two innings, Isaac’s teammates couldn’t come anywhere close to hitting this pitcher. The pitcher was the other team’s ace, brought in to close the game out and secure their championship. Isaac and the pitcher battled to a 3 balls 2 strike full count. Isaac fouled a couple of hits off that told me he might be overmatched. Then, he uncorked at unbelievable hit that ended up tying the game and forcing the opposition to bat in the bottom of the inning.
Isaac pitched the final inning and gave up one unearned run to lose the game.
Earlier in the season, Isaac pitched an almost perfect two innings, striking out 5 of 6. I told him that he would probably never come that close to perfection again. I said that to try to take the pressure off him in his attempts to duplicate that performance. Guess what, he topped it. That final at-bat was so clutch.
We all went nuts on a catch Isaac made in the outfield, earlier in the game, but I told the other parents that that catch was nothing compared to delivering a tying hit in the bottom of the last inning. Isaac’s nickname around the household is either three for three, or Mr. Clutch.
As Isaac walked out of the dugout, his coach stopped him: “I just want to say how enjoyable it’s been watching your development these last two years.”
How does a nine-year-old develop the skills necessary for some sort of progression in athletics? They have to want it, first and foremost. No matter how much comfort, coaching, and support we offer, if they don’t want it, they’re not going to get it. The next ingredient, as I spelled out earlier, is time and repetition, or as one famous basketball player once said, “Practice!” The more time we spend doing anything, the better we will be at doing it. As Malcolm Gladwell suggests, we can master just about anything with 10,000 hours of concentrated practice.
Keep it simple. No tricks. Don’t worry about velocity or location, and don’t think about the future. Someone suggested that Isaac might, one day, play in the majors, and others whispered other, sweet nothings in our ear. If a three-year-old plays with a rocket, we’ll probably hear someone in the room say he might become a rocket scientist. People do this to be nice, and because they probably can’t think of anything else to say. Smile, say that’s nice of you to say, and walk away, then return to the mind-numbing repetition of playing catch, fielding ground balls, and throwing the ball around. They’ll be proud of their progress, and they’ll want to quit when they regress. They’ll learn, and they’ll make tiny adjustments, until some sort of muscle memory develops over time. That might sound simple, but think about all of the mechanics involved in muscle memory. A young baseball player can be coached, taught, advised, and tweaked, but until a kid does it so often that they know it, they’ll never learn it. These principles, and this whole article, are devoted to baseball, but we can just as easily apply the principles discussed here to just about anything in life.