Monday, July 28, 2014

It's All About the Fundamentals — Part I: Practicing Our Swing

Coach Nick's nephews coaching Brady on his swing.
Nick called them the "Wonder Twins".
Brady participated in a baseball clinic recently. Coach Nick Mammano, who is well known in our league, led the clinic.  He has a passion and love both for the game of baseball and the kids he coaches that runs in his family—and is contagious.  This was a great opportunity for Brady to work on the fundamentals of his game in preparation for moving up to the next level of competition. 

The key to success in baseball, or any other endeavor involving our body, is learning to control the body so it does what we need it to do when we need to do it.   

During the clinic, Nick and his assistant coaches taught the students the fundamentals of hitting, catching, fielding, etc.  Power for a baseball swing comes from the hips and mid-torso, so Nick broke it down into three repeatable steps.  The drills helped the kids focus on rotating their hips when swinging, while keeping the rest of the body fairly still.  As the students focused on repeating the steps one, two, and three, their bodies were slowly learning to hold the bat properly and move the way they needed to.  The idea is that over time, those movements will be impressed upon their muscle memory, which will improve the mechanics of their swing and make them better hitters. 

Brady with Coach Gary at the tee [background].  
The older gentlemen is Nick's dad—Pops—who also had much
baseball wisdom to impart to the students.
Of course the kids don’t always get that at first. Some of them got frustrated at having to constantly repeat all the steps over and over, instead of just “swinging for the fences”.  They have to practice movements that seem uncomfortable and unnatural—even unnecessary.  (Think of Daniel-san training under Miyagi in the original Karate Kid movie.) Brady and the other participants got many chances to practice what Nick had preached to them—soft toss, live pitching, hitting drills.  

As shown in the photos, over and over again, the students swung, and each time a coach was there to offer input, suggestions, and, as needed, corrections.

Coach Nick teaching proper batting technique.
I think part what makes Nick such a good coach is that he has the ability to teach his players what he would do if he were them.  (Many are skilled but not as many can impart that skill to others.)  At the end of the evening, after the kids had worked hard for two hours, Nick thanked them for hanging in there, commended them for the progress they made, and then he made a statement that stuck with me.  He said to them, “I am not trying to teach you to hit like me.  You will never hit just like me.  I want to teach you to hit like you.”  In other words, he wants them to be the best hitter they are capable of becoming.

During the clinic, I watched Nick (and the other coaches) work with Brady and the other kids, patiently explaining and demonstrating the steps, sometimes literally guiding their bodies to help them understand the proper mechanics, and exhorting them to go through the same motion every single time they swing the bat.  However, Nick told the kids at the end of the clinic that even the best coach can only take them so far.  If really want to be able do what Nick would do if he were them, they are going to have to practice—a lot!  The mechanics he is teaching them have to become as familiar to the students as they are to the coaches—and that only happens after hours and hours of practice. 

When the hitter steps to the plate during a game, they are pretty much on their own.   The coach cannot and should not say much at that point.  As they enter the batter’s box to face the opposing pitcher, the spotlight is squarely on them.  As the ball races toward them, they do not have time to think about the mechanics of their swing.  No, in that moment the batter simply reacts to the pitch, drawing upon what is already embodied in them—from all those hours of practice—and swings... Contact!  A base hit!  Maybe even two?!  Standing at first or second base, brushing the dirt off, with just a moment ot reflect, perhaps they will realize the value of all those hitting drills Coach Nick did with them during the clinic.  One can always hope… J

In Part II, we'll look at what baseball and spiritual life have in common.

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