Equal Playing Time in Youth Basketball

Playing time is a frequent source of misunderstanding and conflict among coaches, athletes, and parents. The head coach and/or the athletic/league/program director must develop detailed guidelines for playing time and clearly communicate these guidelines to all parties.

At the youth level, coaches should do the best they can with awarding equal playing time for all participants over the course of the season. There is a significant difference between competitive play at the high school and college level and competitive play at the youth level.

While it can be challenging for coaches to give each player as close to equal playing time as possible, coaches at this level must understand that meaningful playing time is essential to childhood development, confidence building, and overall athletic development. Simply stated, kids who sit benefit less from sports than kids who play.   

Equal playing time is hard for coaches to administer. It forces them to put more effort into practices and player preparation. Most importantly however, it also tests their priorities.

Reasons why equal playing time should be an expected strategy at the youth level:

  • Maximizes team development. How many times have we seen the star player suffer and injury during a critical time and be replaced with a less experienced player who lacks the game experience to compete? Equal playing time will allow a team to be much deeper and talented at the end of the season when the games count more. 
  • Minimizes player fatigue. In tough physical games, coaches will lack skilled players if the top players are exhausted and lesser players have limited game experience.
  • Recognizes equal investments: Players and parents make equal financial and time commitments to the team and program. Players at early ages should be rewarded with having the same equal opportunity to play.
  • Improves team chemistry. When players feel everyone is treated fairly, they are more likely to focus on working together. When players feel they can succeed by making someone else look bad or themselves look better, they are learning the wrong lessons about team play.
  • Wins mean more to everyone. When everyone contributes to a win, there are no lingering resentments that will interfere with the celebration.
  • Better reflects coaching abilities. Winning games with kids who are physically more mature is more a success of enrollment than coaching. Winning games by developing all the kids on the team is a better test of a coach’s abilities.

Equal playing time can be applied in a variety of different ways. Coaches can award equal playing time on a game by game basis, or, perhaps easier, award equal playing time over the duration of a season. For example, coaches can use lopsided games as a great opportunity to get less skilled players in the game.  

Naturally, good coaches should recognize a potential blowout game long before the game becomes lopsided and start kids who normally don’t start or play kids of lesser ability more than usual. If that puts their team in a competitive disadvantage, so much the better for the starters to come into the game behind, having to work hard to catch up. If the blowout is a blowout even with the subs starting, at least the subs know they played when the game was still at stake. 

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.

Learning the Correct Hitting Approach from Big Leaguers

I watch a lot of MLB games and really, you can't apply what they do to youth baseball players. They are so physically gifted that they can do things that youth and high school players can't do and probably never will be able to do.

However we as coaches can teach the best players in the big league's mental approach to hitting because every age hitter can do that.

I've watched so many MLB games in my life and I finally realized the best players really don't want to swing at pitches early in the count unless it is in their preferred zone, which means there is a lot of swinging with 2 strikes. Then the foul balls begin and good hitters eventually get a pitch they can handle and hit it square. It takes a lot of discipline and confidence to take that approach, which all great hitters have.

MLB rookies, below average hitters and high school and youth players take the opposite approach for the most part. They are swinging early in the count and when they down in the count are mentally beaten because they expand their strike zone and swing at any pitch close. Smart and good pitchers will never throw strikes to players in this category, and their lack of discipline and fear leads to a lot of outs.

It is up to coaches to make hitters be patient and believe in themselves so they will still hit when behind in the count and not worry or internalize about what might happen. Take pitches confidently, understand hitting situations and visualize success.


Three Mental and Physical Absolutes of Pitching

Last week in a radio segment Don Cooper, the pitching coach of the Chicago White Sox, talked about three keys of physical pitching fundamentals: Stay tall, stay back, and stay closed. Those who have pitched and coached have heard those terms preached and used infinitely.

We want to add three absolutes that combine the physical and mental sides of pitching:

  1. Get ahead
  2. Get them down
  3. Get them out

As coaches we want pitchers to get ahead in the count by using their best controlled pitch, which takes skill, confidence, and great mechanics. We want them to continue to attack the strike zone to put hitters in a mental and tangible hole. Then pitchers need an out pitch and the ability and confidence to throw pitches that look like strikes out of their hand but end up being balls.

Young hitters invariably will panic and swing at bad pitches just like big leaguers do. It takes a great understanding of hitters and pitching to throw balls when pitchers have been programmed to throw strikes in their entire baseball lives.

The most successful pitchers understand that good hitters hit strikes hard, so whenever possible make them swing at balls. When pitchers get ahead and get hitters down in the count, they can accomplish this.


The Best Defense Starts with the Core

Whenever athletes start a workout program, experienced coaches or trainers always begin with core exercises to provide a great foundation that will help make the other parts of the body stronger.

We can correlate that with building a sound baseball defensive philosophy.  

The best defenses in baseball start with great up-the-middle play. Whenever possible the best players on any baseball team should be playing the most challenging positions on the field: pitcher, catcher, shortstop, second base, and center field.

And like the core, if you are strong in the middle the other parts of the team will likely be stronger too. The best teams play championship defense.

Teaching Responsibility So Accountability is a Non-Issue

 Diligent coaching starts and ends with teaching players responsibility from a team and individual standpoint. Every player in an athletic program must be taught team philosophy, team strategy, proper interaction with other teammates, respect for the opposing team and roles for each player on the team depending on talent level.

It should be explained to athletes on the first day coaches and players are together that any deviation from the team concept will hurt the performance of the team.

Where accountability comes in is when players knowingly or unknowingly break team rules. Young players usually have not been in a true team setting and do not know how to be teammates.

It is up to coaches to find out if players can be great team members or if they are more suited to individual sports such as golf or tennis. Coaches should not accept excuses after explaining and demanding team play. If players are not accountable for their non-team actions, parents should be informed immediately when such behavior is seen or identified.


Adjusting to Player Abilities in Basketball

In basketball, it is essential that coaches make players understand and accept their roles. Only then will players do what is necessary to be successful as a team and sustain long-term excellence.

To attain that, coaches must implement systems that best suits players' abilities. If coaches have teams that are quick and fast but small, it makes no sense to play a power post style offense. Conversely a big but slow team should not be playing an open post system which relies on ball movement and quick cutting.

On defense, if coaches have quick teams they should be pressing and trapping whenever possible while a bigger team should play defense that helps and recovers while trying to keep the ball in front of them.

Coaches that have a system without regard to player talents are doing a disservice to player development–team and individual-wise. Coaches can incorporate principles and drills that they like in practice but they must adapt to what they have. They must be conscientious and detailed enough to do what is best for his or her current team.

It will be beneficial for players in the long run and give coaches a reputation as being educators, the highest compliment, which leads to success in all areas of life.

Understating Athletic Reality

I had a refreshing experience recently when I attended the All America Baseball Game at Wrigley Field featuring the best players of the 2014 class with several members of my high school team. I have gone to many of these type of games in the past and invariably I heard a composite of "they aren't that good or I'm better than they are."

But my players, after watching some of the best in the country, told me they have a lot of work to do to maximize THEIR talents. They were stunned how physically developed the all stars were, and pledged to devote themselves to getting stronger and faster. It was so gratifying to listen to high school players understanding how difficult it is achieve excellence.

Since I was a youth athlete, others always have bragged how good they were, whether they were or not. They have been enabled by parents and others in their lives that they are great. Being told that early in athletics has curtailed many a work ethic, because why work at something when everybody that matters thinks you already are a star. There is a lot of competition in sports, and if you don't work at getting better all the time you will be left behind.

Having a career in professional baseball or any sport is incredibly daunting, because not only do athletes have to be physically gifted, they must be resolute in their preparation and sport-specific workouts. They also have to be lucky enough to stay healthy.

So when I continue to hear high school athletes talk brashly about how good they are and how it's a snap, I shake my head because they have no idea how hard it is to succeed or excel enough to be considered for professional sports.

My quote as always: If it was easy, your parents would be doing it!


Interpreting Pitch Counts to Accurately Measure Fatigue

In recent years, many youth baseball organizations have placed a limit on the amount of pitches a player can throw per week as a means of preventing overuse and decreasing throwing related injuries. A positive by-product of these pitch count rules is that coaches are now forced to develop more pitchers on their staff and not rely on the same two or three athletes to win games. While there is little doubt that pitch count rules protect the health and safety of youth athletes involved, it is also important for coaches and parents to understand that pitch counts are an indicator of fatigue and overuse, but not an absolute.

Due to existence of different body types and exertion thresholds, every athlete is different when it comes to fatigue and arm injuries. There is really no rule of thumb when it comes to pitch counts and proper rest. While we do look at pitch counts as high school coaches and advocate their use in youth leagues, we are also proponents of a common sense approach when it comes to interpreting what these pitch counts actually mean.

For starters, we all are aware that proper mechanics are a key determinate to arm injuries. The problem with young pitchers is their inability to consistently repeat the same delivery time after time. Parents and coaches need to monitor and correct mechanics constantly. It is a never ending process.

Young pitchers who show the ability to consistently repeat proper pitching mechanics can throw more pitches than those athletes who are still developing a feel for the mound. In other words, a pitcher with poor mechanics who throws 30 pitches can be more damaging to the arm than a pitcher with solid mechanics who throws 75 pitches.

As indicated, pitch counts can be an indicator of fatigue and overuse, but it is not an absolute determinate. We really hone in on the number of stressful pitches and measure those. For example, a pitcher who threw 45 pitches in one game, all in one inning, can do more damage to himself than another pitcher who threw 75 pitches over 5 innings. Along the same lines, 50 pitches with runners on base in a tight game may be more stressful on the arm than 75 pitches with nobody on base with a 7-10 run lead to work with.

The catch-22 in this whole ordeal is that the best way to strengthen the arm is to throw more often. Other than the obvious wincing in pain and dangling or holding of the arm, other signs of fatigue an overuse include a considerable drop in velocity, poor command (leaving the ball up or bouncing the ball to the plate), and suddenly inconsistent mechanics.

While pitch counts do have their purpose, we encourage parents and coaches to read between the lines, identify possible warning signs, and constantly communicate with their athletes to better gauge fatigue and overuse. If they are not tired, let them throw. Don’t baby them!

Poor Hip Rotation in Game Situations

Often time young hitters struggle with turning and releasing their hips during game situations or live batting practice. This can be quite frustrating for coaches, especially for those who see their young athletes demonstrate a solid understanding of hip rotation during tee work, soft toss, short toss, or simple dry swings. There are usually two causes for lack of hip rotation in game situations.

Initiating the swing too late
When hitters start their swing too late, all they can do is defensively throw the bat at the ball. Late swingers do not have the time to take an aggressive pass at the baseball. As a result, they immediately go into survival mode.

You may have seen this even at the major league level, when a hitter with two strikes is thinking curve, but gets thrown a fastball. All that hitter can do is throw the bat late at the ball—all arms and no rotation.

Eliminating the stride and simply having hitters pick the front foot up and drop it down in the same spot (no lateral movement) will help hitters start the swing earlier. The key is mirroring the pitcher. When the pitcher’s front foot lands, the hitter’s front foot should land as well.

Fear of striking out and/or just being content with making contact
Hitters who have a fear of striking out become passive at the plate. They are content with just making contact, and not using their lower bodies in the process.

Especially at a young age, coaches should reinforce the idea that they would rather see an aggressive swing and a miss rather than a passive swing and poor contact. After a live round of a batting practice, hitters should be dripping with sweat. This aggressive mindset will help young hitters translate what they already know about hip rotation into game situations.

Many youth coaches use the phrase "squish the bug" as a means of giving kids a visual of what hip rotation looks and feels like. “Squish the bug”—the turning of the back foot as a means of initiating hip rotation—is not something I am hugely in favor of. If you want to turn your hip, turn your hip, and then the foot will follow. Big muscles pull small muscles, not the other way around. In other words, it’s not that turning the back foot is wrong, but ideally this should be an effect of hip rotation, not the cause. It’s important to understand that a player can still turn their back foot yet not achieve full hip rotation.