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  • So You Want To Play At the Next Level Do You?

    I should hope that every player involved in sports would aspire to that claim.  If that's the case, then get prepared to work!  Saying you want to get better and actually doing something about it are two completely different things.  Too many players dream about playing college baseball or beyond but are naive to what it takes to get to that level.  You have to have speed and quickness, strength, proper mechanics and so much more.  You may be the best player on your team or at your school or maybe had 15 home runs this season but that doesn't mean your game is suitable to the next level.  Everyone thinks that they will get that phone call but yet it happens for so few.  If you want to be that other person then you have to make the commitment to becoming a complete player.

    To become that player you must first have the heart.  I define excellence as "doing more than you have to when you don't want to!"  Your buddies are going to the movies or to a football game but you haven't hit or done your throwing program that day, what do you do?  It's 1010, humidity makes it feel like 1100, do you still go outside to get your sprint work in?  These are the types of questions you MUST answer if you stand a chance of continuing your playing career past high school.  I can assure you, there are a lot of other people out there who are not going to the movies until they finish or who don't think 1010 is too hot to do anything.

    Becoming a complete player starts with analyzing yourself and your game and admitting to yourself that you have weaknesses.  We all have them, there's nothing wrong with that.  Deciding then to do something about those weaknesses is a big second step.  Start with your speed, agility, strength and quickness.  Training in these areas by yourself or on your own is very difficult.  There are so many trainers out there who specialize in these areas.  Use them.  They have the knowledge, the programs and they will get to know you and your abilities better than you know yourself.  They will push you beyond the level you can push yourself to or ever thought you could get to.  Make sure the coach you choose understands your sport and has experience in that sport.  There are movements that are more important in baseball than in lacrosse.  Certain positions should avoid certain exercises.  Check out their references and don't be afraid to ask questions.  I think finding a trainer who understands and appreciates that becoming a complete player involves training in multiple disciplines is hard to find.  A hitting coach is just as important as your pitching coach or strength coach or speed trainer.  Find coaches who are great at one thing and put them into your circle.  You want a strength trainer who is willing to call your pitching coach and find out where your deficiencies lie.  You want that person to then build a program tailored for you.  Good coaches will work together to help you and appreciate the importance of other trainers in your development.

    Look next at your skill levels and be honest with yourself.  Are you a one zone hitter or a one pitch hitter.  Maybe you can hit the fastball on the inner third of the plate for a homerun and that's it.  At the next level, the pitcher is not going to throw it to your strength.  He is going to identify your weakness and EXPLOIT IT!!  You have to be able to hit any pitch in any zone to ALL parts of the field.  We are not all going to be power hitters.  If that's not you, then don't try to be one.  Go up to the plate and line doubles into the gap every time.  You are more valuable to your team than the guy who hits a bomb once every 15 at bats and hits .250 for an average.   Look at your throwing mechanics.  In my opinion, arm injuries are on the rise because most players don't throw the ball properly.  No question throwing too many pitches, throwing breaking balls too early and throwing too often are playing a part as well but when you can't throw it right in the first place pitching is just going to make it worse.  Arm strength is just like physical strength, determine how strong your arm is to start (with the correct mechanics!) and then get into a throwing program and start building it.  You have to throw often and in a strict regiment if you are going to gain anything.  Arm strength takes time just like physical strength.  It is not going to happen overnight , so be patient.  Learn to throw the ball correctly and then arm strength will come.

    There are a lot of great books out there on the mental side of the game.  Read them.  Harvey Dorfman has written a whole series on the mental game of baseball.  They should be must reads for any serious player.  If you don't think the mind plays a factor in your success and needs it's own training, then you are not going to make it past high school.  Yogi Berra, who was not the smartest guy around, once said (and I am paraphrasing) "this game is 10% physical and the other half mental."  Obviously that doesn't add up but he is right.  The physical attributes are not hard if you are dedicated to working on them.  Dry drill the muscle movements in the house first.  If you can't do it slow, you won't do it fast.  Next, take it to the field and perfect it in a live setting.   Once perfected, it is the brain that keeps us from succeeding.  A pitcher floats you a change-up and you swing out of your shoes for the fence, the guy who has very little velocity on his fastball ends up striking out 12 because all the hitters think they will light him up or you try to throw 95 mph when you can only throw 80 mph.  These are all examples of how we beat ourselves.  Be yourself, stay within yourself and don't try to do too much.  Know what kind of player you are and be the best at what YOU can do and you'll succeed.  I once worked for a coach who used to say  "take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves."  How true that is.

    We don't have room here to discuss every area that great players work on but having the right diet, vision training (yes you can strengthen your eyes), learning to read pitches via hand movement and not just spin, studying your competition, doing well in school, carrying yourself with class and dignity, respecting the game and others....the list just keeps going.  Don't think for a second that coaches don't look at these things.  Having earrings in, long hair and your hat on backwards, says a lot about your character and can stereotype you before you even step on the field.

    In the end, it's all about making a choice.  Do you want to be the best you can be?  Then take a minute and be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses and devise a plan to improve in ALL areas of your game.  It really is a great feeling when the phone rings and someone tells you how good you are and that they want you to represent their institution.  That's when you'll look back and say "man, I'm sure glad I did my sprint work that day."

    by Todd C. Buczek 
  • "We have to add more velocity to our fast ball!"  "We have to add more power!"  "He's got to get faster!"  All statements we get on a daily basis.  To improve in these areas and others, involves improving the mechanics of the motion.  In other words, if you want to run faster, you need to improve your running technique.  Yes, speed is a gift from God, we all can't run 6.6 second 60 yard dashs.  That doesn't mean we can't be quicker.  You must improve your posture, how your body parts fuction together, what arm goes up with what knee are just a sampling of what we are talking about.  Going out and running 15 110 yard gasers is not going to make you faster.  It'll probably get you in shape but not allow you to post a time to get scouts to look at you or help you make that all-star team.

    The same can be said for every other area in sports.  We are concerned with baseball here and we make a monumental effort to help people understand that the better the fundamentals, the better the player.  "If you can't do it slow, how are you ever going to do it fast?"  You want to improve your son's velocity on the mound?  Help him to throw the ball properly.  Pitching is nothing more that throwing it correctly where you want, when you want.  Sure velocity is important but Greg Maddox made a career out of throwing his fastball where he wanted, when he wanted at 83-86 mph.  He'd get it up there if he had to but understand, hitters get themselves out.  So many players lack basic fundamentals that they never master at the younger ages.  Why do arm injuries still persist?  Leagues have the necessary pitch count/rest rules in place these days but yet we still have arm problems.  Why is that?  Because we don't throw correctly.

    Hitting, defense and every other area of the game are the same way.  The time to work towards improvement is not during the season but rather during the off-season.  Just a couple of hours a week over a four or five month period can make a world of difference.  Besides, who doesn't want to go outside and have a good old game of catch with their son or daughter.  If we are going to do that, why not make sure we do it correctly.  Slow it down, use some throwing drills to improve your ability to hit a target.  Set a blanket up in the basement or garage and get a tee.  Sit on a five gallon bucket and work the upper half of your swing all fall and winter.  Isolate different body parts during each different session and watch how much improvement you see before next season.  One thing is for sure, your bat speed will improve with all those correct repetitions.  The time to train is during the off-season so adjustments have time to settle in and your son or daughter can be used to them before you show up for your next game.  Confidence is the name of the game.  You are not going to get much of that if you practice on Monday and then expect to show up Tuesday and execute things differently.

    Good luck this fall and we wish you the best of luck improving your baseball skills in the off-season.

  • One of the most common questions we get when someone is purchasing a new bat is "should I go with a big barrel or small barrel?"  We usually answer their question with one of our own, "what are you trying to accomplish on the field?"  I think most people want their child to be successful, develop good hitting mechanics and have fun.  Their are still others that believe the bigger the barrel the farther it will go.  That is not necessarily true.

    Personally, I have seen very few players ten and under who can correctly swing a big barrel bat.  It is not a knock on them but rather just a result of their physical age.  In swinginging the bigger barrel they develop long, loopy swings because they just don't have the strength to get the bat head around.  When they load up, the knob points in the air and the barrel hangs down their back.  By the time the ball crosses the plate, the bat is still behind them resulting in choppers, ground balls or pop-ups.  Those pop-ups which are not always caught at that young age will be soon enough.  Coaches constantly holler to their players to "get the bat up, swing faster and drive the ball."  The whole time he never stands a chance to do so because he can't even keep it off his shoulder.  In addition, the 2 3/4" barrel bats which are really popular are not even legal in middle school or high school baseball.  2 5/8" bats are the only size allowed.  The longer we swing the bigger barrels, the harder it gets to change.

    You CAN hit legitimate home runs when you can generate bat speed.  Although the surface space may be smaller with the 2 1/4" barrel, young players actually have a chance to swing the bat correctly because the weight is more evenly distributed throughout the bat as opposed to the big barrels where it all sits in the end of the bat.  Not only can they get it around faster but the smaller bat greatly improves their eye hand coordination.  We now have a chance to swing down and through the ball instead of up and out.   Hitting a baseball is hard enough on its own.  Eliminate things you have control over and work on the basic check points associated with hitting.  Generate better bat speed and we are on our way to being better hitters.  I will take nine hitters in my line-up who are going to go up to the plate and hit me five or six line drives every 10 at bats any day of the week over the hitter who is going to hit me five pop-flys.  He's not helping us or himself.

    If your son is 10 and under I would strongly encourage you to stay in a smaller barrel bat.  Stay in a -13 (difference in the length and the weight) until he shows he can truly handle the additional weight.  Then move to a -10.  When you get to a point where you are a couple years out of middle school or high school baseball drop to a -8 or -8.5, then to a -5 one year out.  The transition to the -3 which is required in school ball will be so much easier.

    by Todd C. Buczek 
  • February 17, 2009 - in Hitting

    When I left the college game in 2003 I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself.  I had traveled the United States for years looking for the next great high school prospect.  What I had found were way too many high school seniors who lacked the basic fundamentals associated with this great game.  They could not get to the five basic check points in a swing nor could they throw correctly.  All too often we would sit at a weekend showcase and leave with just a handful of players to follow up on.  So when some friends asked me to work with their children I decided that maybe I could make a difference.

    The first thing I purchased was a top of the line video system complete with cameras and the Dartfish Video Analysis Software.  Dartfish is the number one analysis system in the world today.  It is utilized by everyone from sport coaches to the United States Olympic Teams.  There is no better system out there, in my opinion, to evaluate a persons athletic abilities.  If you are currently working with a trainer who does not conduct routine video analysis it may be time to look elsewhere.  Video may be negative in nature but it is a vital tool to improve one's technique.  Rather than argue about what someone is or is not doing, record and show them.  I do believe, however, that finding the good is just as important as finding our flaws.

    Since those early days, we have recorded over 6,000 baseball players of various ages.  We see the same faults in every one of them.  Some do them "more wrong" than others but their mistakes are all the same, weight out front early, front side flying open and the bat dragging behind.  I listen to what is being taught in our parks and on our travel teams and I cringe as a lot of it is wrong.  Some coaches will admit that they don't know what to tell the player and will encourage them to get some outside help.  I applaud them.  There are others, however, that continue to teach "what worked for them" or even the typical textbook philosophy to hitting a baseball.  We are not all the same!!!  One person may be rotary, another linear or still another a hybrid mix of everything.  Turn the television on any night and you will see any number of different approaches to hitting.   The one constant that remains is that we are looking at two completely different levels of athletes.  Those guys are big and strong but more importantly they are fast.  They can make mid-swing adjustments that the average player can only think about after they have swung.

    So what do we do to make a difference.  I think most young players can trace their problems to one of the first two check points, Stance and Trigger.  If our stance is bad, the rest of our swing will be poor.  Even if our stance is good but our load or trigger is poor, so will our swing be.  BUT, if we can start our hands out of trigger and still be closed, then we have a better chance of succeeding.  Almost all players fly open (the front hip turns too soon) and that is why we try to pitch everyone outside.  Problem is, the guy on the mound usually doesn't throw the ball correctly so he can't always get it where he wants to.  He misses 6"-8" outside and good hitters will take it.  Or he'll miss down the middle and the ball will get hit hard.  But it can be hit harder if we can generate more hand speed.

    In our stance, step 1, I try to get players to remember four things.  First, feet apart.  We are going to eliminate our stride.  Wait a minute coach, we need to stride to get more power.  Maybe, maybe not.  Bottom line is, when players stride, all their weight goes out front so I'll argue that you actually loose more than what you are trying to gain.  Everyone would agree that if you find a hitter with his weight out front you'll throw change-ups or breaking balls instead of fastballs.  I have yet to find someone who has perfected the stride.  Second, toes down, shoulders over the toes.  One of the biggest problems we face is getting kids to get their weight on the balls of their feet.  They squat, bend their knees too much, the list is endless.  If your weight is on your heels, you'll never stay through the ball.  Third is the elbows in which ties directly into the hands, number four.  Kids today, grip the bat way too tight in the bottom of their hands.  This slows the hand speed down.  We need to get the bat into our finger tips.  Problem is, with the elbows flared out at the side, we can't get it all the way down into the fingers.  When air exists in a pocket between the fingers and the bat, the hands will rotate when we load.  They'll actually move.  When that happens, the front elbow comes up and it becomes virtually impossible in today's young players to throw the hands.  The hips spin, the bat drags way behind and we fly open.  Now we have to get way up on the plate to hit the outside pitch and when we do come across that guy who can hit his spots, he's coming inside.  By keeping that front elbow in, we will be better able to use the hands, create more "pop" in our swing and remain closed a lot longer.

    Out of stance, we'll move into our trigger or load.  I always tell players remember two things.  Trigger is nothing more than raising the hands to a "punching position."  The top hand is slightly above our back shoulder.  The back knee slides back towards the catcher (NOT DOWN AND OUT) to a point just inside our back foot.  One neat trick to help them find that spot is to make two fists and place one in front of the back knee in their stance and the other right beside it.  Tell them to move the knee back and in front of the other fist but not to touch it.  They'll pick that up quick.  Do it at the same time we raise our hands.  After that, take the knob and the hands and "stick" them into the pitch.

    In the end, I think it is important to note that I believe our job as coaches is to prepare players for their next respective levels, whatever that may be.  Winning makes the game enjoyable, yes.  But so does succeeding on the field and being better prepared for that middle school or high school team.  Who cares what your philosophy is in hitting or what worked for you.  Have that player balanced and able to cover the whole plate and watch how many more quality at bats he has.  Until next time.....

    by Todd Buczek 
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