Recently while browsing through a youth baseball message board, I came across an interesting coaching discussion that had received a fairly large response. The initial post revolved around a dad who was looking for advice on how to break his son’s fear of getting hit by a pitch. This is a fairly common issue with young players, so it wasn’t the topic that caught my eye, but rather the long list of responses from coaches and other parents. There were dozens and dozens of responses, each with their own ‘expert’ advice, and each being equally confident in the success of what they were offering. Some had to be hundreds of words long. While in most instances the advice seemed reasonable, it was just the combination of them all together that made me scratch my head. I imagined being a 7-12 year old kid trying to process all of these different opinions being thrown at me, and how much my mind would have been blown. This reflects a problem that I have come across among many youth baseball players, and that is ‘overcoaching’.
What is ‘overcoaching’? Well, like the game of baseball itself, it has two parts, the mental and the physical. On the mental side, it is the concept of “paralysis through over-analysis.” As in the example above, the young player may start off with a common problem of being scared of a pitch, but after hearing “you have to do this _____” from 20 different people, the player may not be scared of the ball anymore, but is now so caught up in the box on thinking of the 20 things he was told that he can’t focus on hitting. Many young players these days who are serious about baseball play on Little League teams, AAU teams, and school teams, then on top of that go to private instructors. That is a ton of information getting thrown at a young person with little experience, and many times the information is conflicting, which leads them to either choose one over the other. I have encourted many players who will actually change the way they play to appease whichever coach or instructor they are currently with at the time. They say “well Coach X told me to make this my batting stance so I hit like that when I am at those games” or “Coach Y told me to grip my fastball like this, so I do that when I am working with him.” Well what happens when that player goes to high school or college and have 10 times more info thrown at them? They don’t have a solid fundamental base to fall back on mentally because they have been trying to do so many things and never mastered one.
Along the same lines, trying to sort through so much info can put a lot of unnecessary pressure on a young player. Geoff Miller of The Winning Mind touches on this over at his blog titled Hidden Pressure of Travel Baseball. The pressure to win, combined with the pressure of having to apply what several coaches are telling you can be a large burden. There is a reason players like Manny Ramirez, who is always “Manny being Manny,” are successful hitters. From a mental standpoint, they aren’t frozen in the box thinking of 100 different things the hitting coaches told them. They go in the box with a focused and clear mind and just hit.
More outwardly obvious is the physical ‘overcoaching.’ From a coaching standpoint, it seems this issue mainly comes out of private instruction and not from a team setting. Having been the recipient, as well as the instructor, of many private lessons, I am not saying they are a bad, they are very helpful. But with that being said, there can be too much of a good thing, and they can be overdone. Most coaches, especially Little League or high school, simply don’t have the time micromanage every aspect of their players’ mechanics. Travel coaches often are also private instructors so that can be a different story.
Regardless, the player that has been ‘overcoached’ physically stands out because they likely have flawless mechanics. You may be wondering, why is that a bad thing? Well, it’s because their mechanics have almost become robotic. You can tell at some levels that the player is more worried about conducting the perfect swing, and holding the perfect head position or follow through, than they were concerned with actually hitting the ball. It sounds ridiculous but if you have seen enough baseball you know exactly what is being described. With pitchers, it’s usually a player with a picture-perfect delivery who cannot throw a strike to save their life. Once again, they are more focused on the mechanics than the result. This is just made worse when coaches and parents yell from the dugout things like “keep that elbow up” from the dugout and stands.
These players love the game and have a great work ethic, and have probably taken hundreds of swings, or done hours of pitching drywork in front of a mirror. That is all great, but if you spend your time drilling bad habits into your head, it’s almost has the opposite effect of what you are looking to do, and just ingrains those bad habits into your muscle memory. The perfect example of this was a player I played with when I was younger who was one of the most talented players on the team. He was probably the hardest worker on the team – would be the first one hitting in the cage before practice everyday and would stay late afterwards. However, all he worked on was setting the ball up high on the tee and crushing away. He really would crush the ball in the batting cage from that position. When it came gametime though, he would get thrown three curveballs in the dirt, would take the same high-tee swing from the cage, and would miss by several feet. If someone messed up and threw one into his swing path though, it was a homerun or a double. That swing was so ingrained in his mind through repetition, it had just become second nature regardless of what pitch he was actually seeing.
What is the point of all of this? Nowadays there are instructional tapes, YouTube videos, Fred McGriff infomercials, special tees, arm contraptions giving you the ‘perfect’ throwing mechanics, weighted bats, you name it. This is all on top of the many coaches and instructors youth baseball players come across. The knowledge being offered out there is very overwhelming to someone who doesn’t know how to approach it. The key to avoid this ‘overcoaching’ is to just drill into a young players head that all of this info is not must-follow. Baseball is not one-size-fits-all. Every players has their own style and what works for them. Young players need to try different things and figure out what they feel most comfortable with on their own. It’s okay to tell a coach, “you know what, I tried that, and I’m just more comfortable with this other way.” Any good coach would rather hear that than just have a player continually struggle with something they don’t like doing. If a private instructor continually tries to drill you into one thing you don’t like, or if you have been working on the same thing with them for an extended time and nothing is improving, get a new instructor – there are usually several quality ones around. The last thing you want to do is to ingest so much coaching material, especially at the youth baseball ages, that you become paralyzed mentally and physically to the point where you can’t just go out and play. It is important that youth baseball players, and coaches, know that there is a point where too much coaching can hurt a player more than help.