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… 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.


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.

Travel Teams

A few months ago, a highly experienced 7th grade basketball coach reached out to me in frustration, asking for advice on how to deal with players leaving early from his November school-sponsored basketball practices to attend travel baseball practice. I certainly share his frustration, as school-sponsored programs are now taking a back seat to “pay to play” travel programs that offer year round training at young ages for anyone with a heartbeat and a checkbook. A few years ago, I wrote a four part series regarding my concerns with travel baseball. I feel compelled to write more, as I’m worried it is only getting worse.

The strong correlation between youth sports injuries and overuse are well documented. Overuse can occur in season – too many games in too short of time span without proper rest – or it can manifest itself in terms of year-round training. Dr. James Andrews, perhaps the nation’s leading expert in youth sports injuries, uses the term "professionalism" when referencing the recent trend towards treating youth athletes like seasoned veterans.  “Professionalism is taking these kids at a young age and trying to work them as if they are pro athletes, in terms of training and year-round activity," says Dr. Andrews. “Some can do it, like Tiger Woods. He was treated like a professional golfer when he was 4, 5, 6 years old. But you've got to realize that Tiger Woods is a special case. A lot of these kids don't have the ability to withstand that type of training and that type of parental/coach pressure. Now parents are hiring ex-pro baseball players as hitting and pitching instructors when their kid is 12. They're thinking, 'What's more is better,' and they're ending up getting the kids hurt.”

It is now understood among medical professionals that many sports injuries that occur later in an athlete’s career were actually caused by years of overuse at a much younger age.  Like a ticking time bomb hiding in the body, consistent overuse drastically weakens the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the body, just waiting for the right moment of pressure to finally explode. Former MLB pitcher Tommy John, about whom the famous surgical procedure is named after, has recently engaged on a speaking tour to warn sports parents who have the foresight to listen.  “Throwing pitches in the big leagues will not hurt your arm,” says John. “It's what you did down the road when you were younger. ... In essence, the injury itself is a buildup of overuse. And not overuse as an adult, but overuse as a kid. What I would like to see these guys do, these surgeons and all, is ask all the guys who have had the surgery -- 'How much did you pitch as a kid and how often, and did you pitch year-round?' And nowadays, probably 70 to 80 percent of the pitchers today have been pitching 12 months a year since they were seven, eight, or nine years old. And your arm is not made for that."

Despite the overwhelming medical research against these training practices, travel programs continue to jeopardize the health and safety of their athletes by subjecting their participants to year-round practices and over scheduling of games during the season. It has reached a point where I can no longer feel sorry for athletes who blow out their elbows and shoulders. It’s no different than any other misguided practices – cigarette smokers have an increased chance of acquiring lung cancer, just as travel baseball players have an increased chance of blowing out their arms. In both cases, the public has been more than adequately informed about the risks involved. It’s now in the hands of the people themselves to attack the source of the problem by making better decisions to reduce their risk. 

While I have been warning parents about this for years, I am no longer going to concern myself with discussing the physical risks of overuse. After all, doctors are much more qualified than I am in this area. However, what I do want to focus on instead are the other damages travel programs can cause when preparing young athletes for high school competition, which is still the ultimate proving ground for youth sports success.

  1. Travel programs are feeding into the entitlement and narcissistic culture that is prevalent in current young athletes: Simply stated, high school programs just can’t compete with travel programs in terms of what we can offer. In short, we don’t have the budgets for multiple sets of uniforms, several different hats, fancy warm-ups, cool websites with highly detailed statistics, and weekend tournaments on well-manicured fields. High school programs treat their athletes in an age appropriate manner – as amateur teenage athletes, not professionals. Having multiple uniforms and warm-ups with names names on the back simply has no place at the high school level or below. If I see another 12 year old in a special Fourth of July camouflage uniform with wrist bands, compressions sleeves, eye black, and Oakley Sunglasses on the top of their hat I think I’m going to puke. This is not what youth sports are about. Unfortunately, every year we get a huge crop of incoming freshman who have a difficult time appreciating the simplicity of what a high school team can offer – hard work through internal and external competition, working together for the good of the group, and simply playing for the love of the game.   

  2. Playing time is earned, not paid for, at the school-sponsored level: In the world of travel athletics, parents simply shop around their son or daughter to the team that will maximize their playing time. This mentality does not translate well for many athletes entering high school, who have little experience with sitting the bench, fighting for playing time, or understanding how to persevere when they do not like the coach. This does not help facilitate the grit and resiliency that recent research suggests is most critical to success.

  3. School-sponsored athletics is not business, but rather a program that puts the needs of the athletes and the team above all else: The goal of travel athletics is quite simple – to be profitable. While the interests of the athletes is a priority, quite frequently this takes a back seat to the organization and the coaching staff’s need to financially get what they want out of the deal. In order maintain cash flow, many youth athletes are coddled by their travel coaches, or told what they want to hear, to ensure repeat business. Unfortunately, we see too many freshmen experiencing difficulty dealing with constructive criticism or various other types of pressure applied to them from their coach once they reach the high school level.   

  4. School-sponsored teams practice: Many travel programs just play games and tournaments without allowing much time for practice. At the high school level, practice is a huge component to the process that builds work ethic and mental and physical toughness, in addition to determining playing time. As high school coaches, we expect our athletes to compete as hard in practice as they do in games. I’m also concerned that athletes are not maximizing their development by having limited time to practice skills in a different environment. Of course travel programs do offer additional practice time – private or group lessons with their instructors – that parents also have to pay for.

I am more than aware that the days of house league play are over, just as the days when we all played pick-up from dusk to dawn, when leadership was developed on the playground, and when playing a few organized games a week did not dominate our summer (or our parents' schedules).  

We were all coached by parents, some more knowledgeable than others, but at the end of the day, we all had fun. The ‘crazy’ parents who screamed about playing time, the umpiring, or general coaching decisions were the exception, not the norm. I look back at those days fondly, and I feel badly for these kids who will never experience that.  

I do believe that it is only a matter of time where we will see an end to this current travel sports culture and a return to a more simplistic approach to youth sports as described above. Until then, all we can do now as consumers is to hold our travel programs to a different standard, one that maintains proper perspective, ensures the health and safety of its participants, and promotes positive social and emotional growth.

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!


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.


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.


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.