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.

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.


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.