Life Lessons in Sports

There is no greater teacher of life lessons than participation in team sports. No matter if you are young or old, male or female, sports offers something for everyone, and I am no exception. 

It feels as if my experiences playing baseball, football, basketball, and hockey have laid a foundation for virtually every situation that I have encountered in my adult life. The positive (and not so positive) events on the playing fields have provided me with valuable lessons on subjects such as teamwork, self-esteem, and speaking up for my beliefs. 

Sports offered me a chance to step out of a sheltered world and into an environment with many diverse individuals. My first experiences with Little League baseball came when I played on a team with kids from similar backgrounds as myself. Teamwork came easily because we played with each other in the neighborhood and it was an smooth transition into organized competition.

As I got older, however, I had to learn how to interact with teammates that had a different view of what sports were all about. I learned that some guys were less concerned about the team's success and more concerned about their own personal goals and statistics. This philosophy was in direct contrast to everything my dad and my youth coaches had taught me; as they always stressed the importance of team play. And so I felt a need to let those players know (sometimes loudly and emotionally) that we were not going to be successful if individual accomplishments were more important than team goals.

Because I was able to stand up for myself and my teammates without help from the coaches, I discovered a level of confidence and earned a newfound respect from my teammates who believed I was right to confront the "ball hogs" or "spoiled brats". 

Those lessons and experiences from team sports have had a lasting impact on how I view the world as an adult. I applaud unassuming intelligence, selflessness, introspection, teamwork, work ethic, being prepared, and basic old school friendliness. I abhor prejudice, egomania, bitterness, ignorance, apathy, and laziness. I see examples of all these traits every day in the business world, at home, or at school, and I always try to apply the positive values and concepts realized from participating in sports to lead me to a quality, successful, and happy existence.

You did what this summer?!?!

I was out walking the neighborhood with my daughter recently and ran into one of my high school pitchers, a rising junior, who proceeded to tell me about his summer. He indicated that he just got back from a showcase tournament in New York, and prior to that he was pitching in a tournament in New Mexico. In the world of travel athletics, such statements are so common that most of us fail to evaluate and synthesize the information given to us. 

That said, allow me to repeat this story in my own words: A 16 year old student-athlete, who is a marginal Division III prospect, traveled around the country this summer to play baseball.  

And…..how is this logical? With the exception of the tournament organizers and the airline and hotel industries, who else truly benefited from this experience?  You decide.

World Gone Mad

I recently received a frantic email from a parent of a seven-year-old child, seeking to schedule a 60-minute private lesson to prepare his son for his travel team tryout this weekend. Here was my response:

Dear Mr. ________,

From a philosophical standpoint, I will need to decline your offer to work with your son. I believe that 7 years old is way too young to be taking a private lesson, and certainly way too young to be exposed to a tryout format of any kind. We at DNA have maintained a strong stance for several years now that travel sports for prepubescents is not developmentally appropriate and hence not healthy for kids. We also have an enormous amount of research and data that substantiates our belief.  It's the world we live in - I know - the perceived benefits of accelerating our student-athletes through travel sports and tryouts at the earliest of ages - but we will continue to hold firm to our philosophical opposition to what appears to be the norm.

That said, I would be more than willing to work with your son for 20-30 minutes at some point this fall or spring with you present, and provide you a few pointers and drills that may be FUN for the two of you to engage in together. But to do a private lesson prior to a tryout at the tender age of 7 - this is not something me or anyone else at DNA is comfortable with.

I hope you understand our position on this.

Thanks,

Andy Pohl
DNA Sports

Chicago Youth Sports: A Culture Gone Rotten

When I first moved to Chicago in the fall of 2002, I heard whispers regarding the existence of rampant cheating within the high school programs and youth leagues of Chicago. I found it all really hard to believe until I started to experience it first-hand in the spring of 2003, my first season as a varsity high school baseball coach in Chicago. I remember not only how shocked I was that cheating actually occurred, but to the degree it was happening and the overt way it was practiced. 

I have witnessed cheating of all types – student-athletes competing for neighborhood schools without living in the neighborhood, student-athletes gaining admission to selective enrollment schools with rigorous academic requirements that non-athletes could not gain admission to, and teams dressing players for games that were not enrolled as students or who had already graduated. For years, I have been a part of games with questionable umpiring. I’m not referring to a few bad calls, as those are a part of the game, but rather I’m speaking of a consistent pattern of poor officiating that has been documented multiple times by a variety of coaches.  Examples include players being called out on strikes on strike two – not on strike three, the doctoring of scorebooks which resulted in the opponent’s best players mysteriously leading off innings when the game was on the line, balls consistently bouncing into home plate – but called strikes, sudden shrinking and/or expanding of strike zones, and the movement of foul-line cones which lengthened the field of play. I have seen kids being purposely thrown at with no consequences from umpires. I have seen coaches report false scores from games that never happened to local and state officials to increase win totals. And for years, coaches in Chicago have been getting away with it. No consequences, no investigations, nobody blowing the whistle.

Fast forward to the recent scandal involving Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League Team (JR West). I remember thinking back in August that JR West winning was the worst thing that could happen to them, because Little League would be forced to investigate. As we all know, winning inherently lends itself to added scrutiny. What the coaches and parents of JR West failed to realize is that winning at the national level, as opposed to the local level, forces a heightened level of accountability people from Chicago just aren't accustomed to. Yet, because cheating is so ingrained in the culture of Chicago youth sports, in large part because coaches have been able to get away with it for so long, the coaches and parents who decided to enter Little League despite the rules probably felt they wouldn’t be challenged.

People will try to spin this in every way imaginable, but there is no getting around the facts.  And this is not the first time Little League has stripped a team of its title, so to suggest this program was targeted is a challenging argument to make. As accusations of injustice are being frivolously thrown around by local leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Father Pfleger, I can’t help but think the only injustice that occurred in this situation involved the kids from the neighborhood who couldn’t compete for the Jackie Robinson West Little League Team because their roster spots were taken by kids from outside the neighborhood. 

I can only hope that the exposure of this unfortunate situation involving JR West will lead to Chicago’s high school and youth league coaches, as well as parents and administrators, to self-reflect and clean up their act. If the primary purpose of sports is to teach life lessons, we are failing miserably here in Chicago.

The Beauty of the On-Base Percentage

At some point in our time around the game of baseball, all of us have heard a coach use the phrase “the best hitters in baseball make outs 70% of the time.” This is actually incorrect. They are obviously referring to the notion that the best hitters in baseball usually hit around .300, and that is indeed accurate. They do. However, they most certainly do not make outs 70% of the time.

Take for example Andrew McCutchen in 2014. Accounting for all his plate appearances, it would be far more accurate to say that he made an out about 59% of the time (we are not including the number of times he reached on an error for our purposes here).

Want a more extreme example? Barry Bonds in his 2004 season actually only made an out 39.1% of the time!

This notion may be surprising, and we must clarify that we are by no means saying McCutchen hit .410 this year or that Bonds hit .609 in 2004. This actually reinforces the idea we were presenting in our previous article about how the batting average is a misleading statistic.

What we are trying to present however, is a more accurate measurement of just how often players get on base, as well as how often they don’t make outs.

So as we begin discussing the On Base Percentage statistic, keep in mind its actual calculation:

OBP=(Hits+Walks+Hit by Pitches)/(At-Bats+HBP+Walks+Sacrifice Flies)

Simply put, the OBP stat tells us exactly what you probably think it tells us: the rate of how often a hitter actually reaches base. The reason this is important is statistically very simple: base-runners correlate to runs, and runs correlate to wins.

I’m sure every single coach out there can reassure our belief that you do not win games by hitting six or seven solo home runs. On the contrary, you get runners on base to create run scoring opportunities, and then mix in extra base power and speed to your offensive game. That is the very definition of a dynamic offense. Take the ten teams who made the playoffs in 2014: 7 of them were ranked in the top 10 in On Base Percentage, a trend you will find no matter what year you look up.

Many baseball minds who love the OBP statistic love the base on balls. We would like to clarify that we are not discussing a hitter’s ability to take a walk, so much as we are discussing his ability to get on base. There is indeed a slight difference.

If you look into the calculation of the metric, you immediately realize that walks and hits are the two inputs that a hitter is most in control of, as you never want to rely on a player being a valuable offensive weapon because of his ability to get hit by a pitch.

At the end of the day, we advocate that there be separation between the batting average and the OBP. In other words, we never want to undermine a player’s ability to make hard contact and get hits, but we understand walks are most certainly important as well as very projectable (it’s rare to find a hitter whose eye at the plate just disappears).

Beyond just getting on base, walks imply a very patient hitter, which also hints to the fact that the player is swinging at hittable pitches and not pitcher’s pitches. We will look into the importance of this when we discuss the Slugging Percentage statistic.

No matter who you are coaching, your message to your hitters should always be the same at its core: get on base. Some players will have a gifted ability to make hard contact on every swing and hit .325, so they won’t have to walk much to achieve a respectable OBP. Other’s may only hit .260, but still possess an elite OBP (around .400 at the Major League level) because of their keen eye at the plate.

As a coach, you should mainly be concerned with whether or not your hitter is avoiding making outs frequently, and not so much the process of how he does so. A walk isn’t necessarily as good as a hit, but a base runner is a base runner. You can’t score a run if you don’t get on base, and you don’t win games if you don’t score runs.

On that merit alone, the OBP is absolutely one of the most important (yet simple!) offensive measurements in the game today.

The Flaws of the Batting Average Statistic

The batting average has been around baseball forever, and it is a stat that we are all familiar with. Its computation is basic and easy to understand: (Total # of Hits) / (Total # of at Bats). We generally agree that a “good” batting average is somewhere around the .300 range, albeit that can depend on the strength of the competition.

However, as popular as the statistic is, it has very major flaws that I feel most coaches are already beginning to figure out, especially those around the game on an everyday basis.

How many times during a game have we noticed a player hit four rocket line drives, but all right at a defender? Is this player a poor hitter for doing so? Well, his batting average would be .000, but we all know that benching him the next game for this reason would be an atrocious decision.

On the flip side, how many times do we see a player hit a blooper into the outfield and a soft groundball, and end the day 2-3. In your eyes, is the player who hit .667 a better hitter than the one who hit .000 for the day?

The answer is absolutely not.

The first problem that we must expose about the batting average is that it can be very deceiving about a player's hitting performance, especially in a small sample. The reality is 4, 5, or even 25 at bats is hardly a large enough sample to get a good idea on where a player’s batting average will consistently rest.

In short samples, we rely on our eyes; if a hitter is killing the ball and making outs, we know that some of those batted balls will eventually start falling. We will discuss the BABIP statistic in a later article, but harder hit balls get through defenses quicker. On the flip side, those bloopers and soft ground balls are much easier to field, and over a larger sample will likely turn into outs as opposed to hits. At the end of the day, while the batting average statistic can give you some idea of a player's hitting ability, it can most certainly be deceiving. 

Luckily for us, there are much better metrics out there that we as coaches should look much more closely at. An additional flaw that we would like to point out is that the batting average assumes every hit is the same. This is actually a major problem, because we all know a double is more valuable than a single, and a homerun is more valuable than a double.

Unfortunately, the batting average does not account for this, and takes on the “a hit is a hit” philosophy. However, every coach most certainly understands that a 400 foot homerun is very different from a groundball through the 5.5 hole.

As we introduce the On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage statistics, we will attempt to show you much more useful (and simple) metrics in assessing a player’s on field performance. 

 

Traits of a Model Youth Sports Parent

During my many years in youth team sports I've come across a majority of parents who care only about their children and have no interest in a team concept approach to coaching. It is always a derivative of "I only care my child's progress."

But what constitutes a model parent, who cares about the program rather than an individual.

Without naming generic traits, I will talk about my dad. My dad had the most positive attitude of any parent whose kids played sports. His first piece of advice when I decided to play little league baseball was always try your hardest and respect your coaches.

He supported me and every member of whatever team I played on. He never spoke disparagingly of coaches and taught all of us to compete and respect opponents. He always said I had to earn playing time and never interfered with the process, because it was about me and not him.

And he never once cared about whether we won or lost. It was about what I learned, always! He believed that skill development and maturity were the most aspects of my sport education.

Correct life lessons. Thanks Dad!


 

Playing Sports: The Idea or the Reality?

I was talking to a parent recently and she was telling me about her son wanting to join a baseball team. She said he liked the idea of being on a team but she didn't know if her son knew what it took to be a teammate.

It is a great observation. Kids have to be able to handle structured practices, rules, discipline, and have the ability to be responsible, role-playing and caring. Plus they must be coachable and willing to learn.

Not everyone can do that and that is why it is important to identify whether a youth player is a dreamer or really wants to try hard to be an active and positive participant.

Be a Good Role Model

I was with a couple of ex-players from one of my successful high school baseball teams and they were reminiscing about their glory days. What threw me during their conversation was their biggest memory of high school baseball. It wasn't a particular game or an accomplishment during a game, rather it was me having a meltdown in an indoor practice that they remembered.

It reinforced my belief that when you are a coach and players respect and look up to you, you must always act in an exemplary fashion because like or not you are in a position of a role model.

You must leave a positive impression no matter the ages of your players, because they see and hear everything that you do and say. Being physically and/or verbally abusive will make your team believe that is correct coaching behavior and it will repeat itself if they choose to coach, which would be damaging and irresponsible to the next generation of athletes.


 

How Do You Learn to Coach More Effectively? Watch Bad MLB Teams.

I was told as a young player by my coaches to watch all the good teams like the Yankees, the Cardinals and the Orioles because that's how you learned to play baseball the right way.

But as an adult and as a career coach, what I have found is even more effective is watching bad MLB teams and what they did wrong. I can then make sure at practice the next day that my high school team doesn't repeat the poor execution and mental mistakes that always seem to happen to poorly coached teams or coaches that rely on skill and athleticism and ignore baseball strategy and fundamentals.

I watched a three-game series between two non-contending teams recently and started to take notes about missed cutoff throws, poor baserunning and leads, slow coverage by infielders of bases on steals, lack of discipline at bat in RBI situations and the inability to get a batter out by pitchers ahead in the pitch count. At practice I made sure I went over everything I saw that was executed incorrectly or ignored and did it correctly in detail.

As a coach a lot of good can come from watching bad.