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Age Appropriate Instruction. Kids can't do what kids can't do!!!

Kids can’t do what kids can’t do.  Instructors need to give students information and skills that they can perform correctly and BUILD upon.

Simple, right?  Obvious as well.  It is, in fact, the fundamental principle upon which ALL education is based; the reality that learning is a PROGRESSIVE experience; a curriculum of DEVELOPING KNOWLEDGE and SKILL  Students are taught to begin with simple skills; simple facts, and then continue to build upon, broaden, deepen, and detail their information and skill level.  They learn more.  They perform progressively advanced skills and they are taught and allowed to “GET BETTER”  Students walk before they run.  They do addition and subtraction before multiplication and division; algebra and geometry before college level calculus.

Again, simple, right? 

Evidently not!  Why is this very basic fundamental learning principle virtually non-existent in baseball instruction and other sports as well for that matter. I was working as an assistant college coach when I started teaching baseball to youngsters.  My career goal at the time was to work my way through the college baseball coaching system; get connected and eventually aim for a head coaching job.  I started teaching kids strictly as a means to pick up a few extra dollars and, quite honestly, to give myself a chance to hit for free in the cages since I was still playing in a local summer semipro league at the time.  So here I was, working with college level players every day and then thrown into an environment where I was teaching 8- to 12-year-old children.

What struck me immediately was how much the kids could NOT do.

An easy and obvious example lay in trying to teach the “stride” in hitting.  I had students, even youngsters who were very obviously natural athletes, who simply could not perform the “stride” correctly.

Over and over again I would ask and instruct them to repeat drills encouraging them to “walk away from their hands,” “stretch the rubber band,” etc., and yet, inevitably, even after as much as 45 minutes of continuous “drill” work, as soon as they hit against flips, a machine, or  live pitching, they would immediately “drift” forward with their upper body and get onto their front foot; heads moving; affecting their ability to see the baseball correctly, etc.

A big part of this issue is, of course, mental.  Kids in sports are not only naturally aggressive but they are TAUGHT to be so.  Baseball however, is very different.  Baseball is a mental game; a game that involves a different and very unique form of discipline — learning to “wait,” “stay back, relax,” etc.  

And who would expect chilren to have that kind of discipline at this stage of their lives?  They are, after all, kids.  (I find it amusing and often remind people that hitting a baseball is infinitely more difficult than hitting a golf ball and yet who plays golf?  Middle aged men that's who? Middle-aged men have acquired the maturity and ability to accept the difficulty of the task and are willing to do the work; both mental and physical to be successful.)

So … Hey Coach,  here’s a “reality” sound bite … your eight year olds don’t get it yet.  Nor should they have to.  This is not on them to DO the skill.  This is on YOU to TEACH them how; to make it easy … and enjoyable for them to learn.  Teaching after all is not about what YOU or about what YOU know ... it's about your youngsters and what they know and can do. It’s about what you can communicate and impart to your students.

The other part of the problem is, of course, mechanical and it became both immediately and readily apparent that the kids simply could not manage the task.  Simply put, they lacked the coordination necessary to move one part of their body forward (stride foot) while another part (hands) stayed back and quiet.

I told the owner of the facility that I felt I was ripping the clients off by working on a skill that would take them too long to master.  The solution?  I simply took the stride away.  I had the athlete assume a wide “athletic stance” then transfer his weight to his back foot with a (slight) inward turn of his knee off the ball of his foot (I called it a “load” phase) and hit from there.

It worked.  Immediately and effectively.  Probably the most interesting “side benefit” of teaching this way was that, after a reasonable period of time hitting this way (without the stride) inevitably most of the students were able to take a stride correctly as a logical “next step” in their skills development.  They had gotten their bodies “accustomed” or “habituated” to being on the backside so it was now very logically easier for them to simply execute the “next part” of the skill correctly.  Not only did their minds understand the skill but, more importantly, their bodies were now ready to execute the skill.

This experience triggered a philosophy that, for me, has become a cornerstone of my teaching program; “age and skill level appropriate” instruction. Baseball, like most things in life, is a matter of repetition and development; the more you do something, the better you get at it.  The trick for all of us as instructors and coaches is to be able to discern and recognize the individual athlete’s skill level in their development at the moment and to give them skills that will allow them to advance and get better.  Giving a student too much or a skill level that they cannot perform correctly does nothing except discourage them.

I actually grew up in the horse business and trained horses professionally since I was about fifteen years old.  An older professional taught me something that was invaluable.  He said that, “… a lot of trainers know what to do when they get ON a horse.  Very few of them know WHEN to GET OFF.  Sometimes when a horse knows three things and you give him a fourth thing to learn it is simly too much and worse, if you keep banging on that fourth thing sometimes the first three things fall apart.”

Again (and to repeat the obvious): this fact is the foundation for all instruction and  yet it is virtually nowhere to be found in baseball instruction.  Why is this? Last week I was invited into the office of a very successful instructor who asked my opinion on what to do with a 14-year-old who could not stride properly.  The instructor made the comment that he just could not understand this players ineptitude since it had always been so easy for HIM (meaning the instructor). “Yeah, it’s easy,” I commented.  “ For you.  You were a professional athlete.  This kid is obviously not.  Yet.  Give him something he can do and let him work it out.  Let him get better.”

Recently I saw a DVD on hitting produced by a nationally prominent instructor guilty of the same mistake.  He was running tapes of Babe Ruth, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, etc., and explaining how their method of hitting was the only way to teach.

Yeah, right.  And while you’re at it, why don’t you just take your 12-year-old son who gets straight As in math and sign him up for a graduate level college calculus course.  Let’s see how he performs.  Let’s see what happens to his confidence.  See how his passion and enthusiasm is affected … all by being asked to perform at a level that is completely inappropriate for his PRESENT skill level.

What parent or teacher would do that?  Ready for the easy answer?  No one. Years ago I was conducting a clinic for coaches.  The format was such that I met with the parents and coaches first and then ran a very short session with approximately 50 nine- and ten-year-olds.

I offered up this same point of teaching that was directed toward an appropriate age and skill level, and to the man, the coaches all disagreed with me.  I reprimanded them and mentioned that they were comparing their children to millionaire world class athletes who perform these skills ritualistically for hours on end on a daily basis.

I was shouted down.

I proposed a deal to settle the debate.  We let the children themselves supply the final answer to our argument.

The kids were brought into the gym.  I offered up a fairly simply “task” — that of stepping forward into a balanced throwing position.  I got the group lined up in front of me and asked which of the students were right-handed.  Coincidentally 90% of the  children were right-handed.  I asked them to face me head on with their chests facing me as a target and then to step forward toward me with their right foot.

“Step forward with your RIGHT foot,” I yelled. 

Drum roll please.

Less than half of them did it correctly.

So you’re going to tell me that a 9- or ten-year-old boy or girl who barely has the capacity to tell the difference between his right from his left foot can hit like Babe Ruth?  Wade Boggs?  Tony Gwynn?

My last example is the easiest one of all; it involves the simple athletic ability to draw a CIRCLE correctly. 

A child cannot draw a circle until the age of two.  You can take the most gifted child on the planet.  You can yell at him.  Punish him.  Cajole and plead.  Beg.  He will not be able to do it.

Make instruction simple.  Make it fun.  Help your students perform and build their skills and their confidence.  Slow it down.  Break it down.  Do it correctly.  Do it correctly over and over and over again until it becomes a habit.

Make instruction easy for your young athletes.  Successful instruction is not about what you know as a teacher and it sure as hell is not about what you saw and learned while you were watching the Yankee game on the television.  You can impress your buddies at the water cooler or call into your local sports radio talk show  with that stuff but it doesn’t work with your 10-year-old all star team. It is about what  your STUDENTS can grasp and perform.

The process works when you work the process.

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