Sunday, September 2, 2018

"What do you feel?"

I'm going into my 6th year of college coaching and have learned so much throughout my journey. When I first started, I knew I had great information to share and was excited to get after it. That excitability created an individual who talked a lot, but didn't quite know how to listen. The art of communication is a lost one. Not many people talk on phones anymore, texting is the way of the world...and when it comes to coaching, coaches talk a lot, and players just listen. 

Part of my mission is to create players who become their own best coach in the heat of competition. Where they have a great understanding of themselves, and know what they can go to in order to stay on a competitive track. This includes "cues," "feelings," or simple thoughts that they can always go to. 

A couple years ago I had a epiphany...what I communicate makes complete sense in my head because I am the one choosing the words to communicate the message, but that doesn't mean the person I'm communicating with will or should understand it. Part of being a good coach is you need to be able to say the same thing in about 15 different ways. If you can do that, eventually the athlete will be able to visualize and internalize one of those messages and there will be a better chance to make it "click." Additionally, being able to show the move doesn't hurt with the communication, whether it is you demonstrating or finding many great examples to show. 

But it doesn't stop there. When I am working with a hitter on a particular move using communication that needs to be adaptable to each athlete, and it starts to look like things are "clicking," there is one key question that I have found to be powerful..."what are you feeling?" This simple question allows the hitter to internalize and explain how his body is moving in space. This turns into two-way communication, where powerful open dialogue can take place, rather than just a coach saying "do this," and "do that." 

The open communication doesn't stop there. After realizing how powerful this question was in creating better understanding, I now ask my players many questions...all the time. "What could you have done differently?", "What happened there?", "What did you notice?", "What helped you make that play?", etc. The more we can establish two-way communication and internalization, both individually and as a group, the better...hands down. 

I believe that to create robots who have limited understanding of what they are doing or how they are moving, have the coach be the only one that talks. To create baseball players who understand themselves and how they move in space, so they can adjust in the face of competition, two way/open communication is the way to go. That requires questions, not just from our players, but us coaches as well to open discussion. 

Players can learn from this as well. You don't need a coach to prompt you with questions to understand something better. If you want to grasp the game better, learn how to communicate it. From what you learn in practice from your coaches, take the time to act as if you are the coach and you are going to explain a technique to a bunch of unknowing people. You can even do this alone. It seems silly, but it becomes powerful. People must think I'm crazy when they drive by me in my car, and I am talking to myself as if I have my hitters or outfielders standing in front of me. I'm completely fine with the weird looks...

I often say, "I wish I knew back then, what I know now." I know I would have been a better player, and would have adjusted quicker. That is because I understand the game better. There are several reasons why, but I believe the biggest reason is because I learned how to better communicate the game better. Communication is everything when it comes to understanding. 

Thanks for reading.

Coach Burm

Saturday, February 17, 2018

"Compete with what's being asked of you"

It's been awhile since my last post. They won't be weekly anymore, but whenever I have the time to sit down and organize some thoughts...I feel like that is the best way to go about this.

We are well into winter practice with Madison College, and the season is coming fast. I feel good about the preparation to this point, but we still have a lot of work to do. There is one reason why I think guys are getting a lot out of their preparation this year, and it is the idea that they are doing a good job with "competing with what's being asked of them." 

"Competition" is a word that is used a lot within our program. The easy form of competition is team against team, and pitcher against hitter. I believe, that to get the most out of your preparation and practice settings, players need to learn to compete with what is being asked of them, whether it's a drill, or a swing adjustment, or whatever else. For example, if there is a particular drill that we are putting them through with game like feel, they need to win that drill. Another example is when making swing adjustments, or trying to establish a certain "feel" in a player...they need to learn that their competition in that moment is to establish the feel and understand how their body is moving. 

This seems like a simple concept, but many times, players don't have the ability to create that amount of attentiveness to what they are doing on a daily basis. Most times, players are more worried about the result of the baseball off the bat, rather than trying to master what is being asked on them in that particular moment. When trying to make a specific swing adjustment, the result is NOT the most important thing to me...what's most important is can the hitter feel the difference in their body. If the hitter convinces himself to compete with the "feel" and the "move" of what's being asked, they will have a better ability to develop feel. When the hitter can feel, the hitter can make their own adjustments, which is a powerful thing.

This idea of "compete with what's being asked of you" came to me early during winter practices when I wanted to find a way to have our players be more attentive to what they were doing, yet still enjoy that process. For me, competition is fun. So, if you can compete with the drill, or compete with the feel/adjustment, you then have more attention to detail, and with the competition mindset you make the process more enjoyable/powerful.

How does this mindset then translate to a game? At Madison College, a big part of playing "WolfPack Baseball" is having the mindset of "beat the game, not the opponent." Beat the game, not the opponent directly correlates with "compete with what's being asked of you," or maybe, "compete with what the game presents you." Every pitch/situation is its own competition through the course of a game. The beat the game, not the opponent mindset makes the scoreboard irrelevant, and the process everything. It asks players to be more focused pitch by pitch, and to compete with each situation that the game presents. I am convinced that it doesn't matter the opponent, the team that can win the most pitches/situations that the game presents will most always win.

The hope is that this mindset can be brought into life outside the baseball field as well. The only way that you can be competitive, is to be present. So, when in the classroom, be present, and compete with what is being asked of you. At work, be present, and compete with what's being asked of you. With family and friends, be present, and compete with a good son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, cousin, etc. Lastly in life, be present, and compete with being the best version of yourself each day.

Compete with what is in front of you, and what is being asked of you!

Yours in baseball,

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Why reinvent the wheel? Teach what the best hitters do

I have seen a lot of interesting things on twitter from some hitting people that seem to think the only way they can become relevant is by reinventing the wheel, and providing something that hasn't been said before that logically makes no sense when you watch the best swings in the world. One that is absolutely beyond me is that hitting should be done on one leg. There are literally people out there that are saying your front side is irrelevant...

Hitting is an athletic move. Any athletic move out there whether it's playing defense in basketball, a linebacker in football, or a hitter, you have an athletic base, with leverage into the ground. In hitting it is especially important to understand that your backside is only as good as your front side, and your front side is only as good as your backside. In order to be directional and process energy that we gather in our load through the baseball coming from in front of us is to have the ability to hit into something. Your front side is everything when it comes to directionally processing energy through an object that is coming from in front of you.

Many young hitters lose ground contact (and leverage) with their front foot as they launch to the baseball. This could be the result of many things: 1) Hands not maintaining a tight path to contact, 2) starting the rotational part of the swing before establishing leverage in the ground, 3) simply not getting into the ground enough with our front side (keeping too much weight on the back side during the load to stride phase...this would be "spinning") name a few. A spin swing will allow you to potentially hit the ball, more than likely to the pull side, if the pitch is in the right spot and you are on time...but there is almost ZERO adjustability with these swings. A directional/leveraged swing will allow you to hit to all fields, and have adjustability when facing a pitcher who is trying to keep you off balanced.

Here are some of the best hitters at heel plant, and then at the point of contact. Take a look at their front foot.

What I notice:
1) At heel plant, there is bend in both legs. It's athletic, balanced (head in middle of the feet), and leveraged.
2) At contact, the front leg straightens out, which is a result of a back side driving into a strong front leg. This keeps the head in the middle of the body and allows for a swing that is in the zone early, and extends. AKA a swing that is directional with a lot of force through the point of contact.
3) At contact, the front foot is holding true. It is not spinning with the back hip acceleration as they get to contact (I know you can't see the whole launch phase of the swing with these two pics but the front foot is relatively in the same spot at contact as it was at heel plant). The front foot may move some depending on the amount of force being brought by the backside, but as you can see in these pictures, the foot is still in the ground and allowing for proper energy transfer through the baseball coming from in front.

One important thing to note... If you watch these videos all the way through, you may eventually see the hitter roll over the front foot some...AFTER CONTACT. This is a result of the explosiveness these hitters poses, and the back hip acceleration into their strong front side. Pitch location and height also can impact the action of the front foot, but the one consistency of the best hitters is they do have leverage, and the front side IS just as important as their backside, and at contact, they are hitting into something...a strong front leg.

To say the front leg is not important in hitting is ludicrous. I don't want hitters that just spin to the pull side, I want hitters that can do damage to all fields. Rotation and spinning are very different. Rotation starts with the legs and leverage into the ground. Sitting on one leg and spinning to contact will open up holes. If you run into it you may see if fly, but the best pitchers will be able to take advantage of these hitters as there will be many holes to expose.

Keeping an open mind is important; nobody has all the answers, but for me, there is no reason to reinvent things. What's new creates interest, but be careful, because there are a lot of people out there that are preaching things that defy logic. How about we watch the hitters that are the best at their craft, and teach the things they all do very well?

Please understand, that in order to grow I think it is incredibly important to gather info from many people. Most of my philosophy that continues to evolve is not original thought. I have read a lot, listened to a lot of great baseball minds, and had a lot of trial and error. I do not have all the answers, but I do think if the best hitters are doing relative moves, then there has to be some importance in teaching that.

Last thing, not all hitters should be Miguel Cabrera, and I should not teach all hitters to look exactly like Miguel Cabrera. Every hitter needs to own their swing. There is a lot of uniqueness to every athlete, and we need to welcome that uniqueness; but when you see the best hitters having common similarities with what they are doing, we as coaches can help guide these unique individuals to understand those essentials.

One of those essentials is the best hitters use their legs...BOTH of them in very effective ways.

Thanks for reading.

Yours in baseball,

Friday, November 17, 2017

Yes...OF play is important

The more I watch young players, the more I realize that good OF play is a unique skillset. It is really hard to find young players that are really good in the OF, where you can tell they take pride in their ability to track down baseballs. Maybe it's a product of being in the north, where the cold weather months make kids more focused on offense rather than defense. One thing I know as a college baseball coach is that you need to be able to play defense, otherwise you'll be competing with about 8 other guys for that one DH spot in the lineup. Players should work to be a complete player, not just an offensive guy. 

As an outfield coach, my goal is to develop outfielders where I feel that all three could play CF if needed. If I have three guys out there that can cover that type of ground, we won't have many holes. To get guys to this point takes a lot of detailed practice and work. When you have a good outfield/defensive group, you then allow your pitcher to be more aggressive in the strike zone which keeps the tempo of the game up, and keeps pitch count down. 

It is true that there is a lower percentage of outs recorded in the OF, but it is crucial to be prepared for those limited opportunities; the ball will find you as soon as you start taking pitches off mentally. For me, outfield play is as detailed as teaching the swing... but for this post, I am going to keep it simple in terms of a couple goals to aspire to when it comes to tracking down baseballs. Here are the goals: 1) play fast from the beginning, 2) beat the ball to the spot, don't meet it, 3) catch the ball above your eyes. Here is what each of these goals mean to me. 

1) Play fast from the beginning. Too many OFers coast to the baseball. We need to play fast from the beginning knowing that it is always easier to slow down, than to speed back up. I correlate OF play a lot to baserunning. Like in baserunning, the first 2-3 steps are vital in being able to get to the spot. We need to have explosion in our initial moves to the spot. What can help with this is getting into a proper pre pitch setup. Here, the OFer steps into his set up position, or hops, to get his legs engaged under him and ready to move. How we are set up is also crucial. Many outfielders start too wide with their feet. If we start too wide, and then need to do a drop step on a ball hit over our head, we only become wider. Being too wide restricts ability to be explosive on those initial steps. I like outfielders to be about shoulder width apart with their feet in their set up. Another thing that is important when it comes to getting the best reads to be explosive is what the outfielder does with his eyes when the pitch is delivered. I tell outfielders to get their eyes locked in on the hitting zone as soon as the pitcher starts his delivery. If we track the ball all the way from the pitchers hand to the hitting zone, we could have a delayed read. 

2) Beat the ball to the spot, don't meet it. This fits right in with play fast from the beginning. As an outfielder, my goal should be every time to get behind every baseball hit in the air. In order to do that, I need to play fast from the beginning, and continue to play fast all the way to the spot. Many guys play fast from the beginning, but then as they feel like they are getting close to the spot, they begin to coast. Outfielders should see how many times they can play through a baseball in the air. In order to do that, you need to not only play fast from the beginning, but also continue to bust it all the way to where you believe the baseball is headed. If we can do that, we then can get in an athletic position where we can work through the catch, and catch the ball above our eyes.  

3) Catch the ball above our eyes. Outfielders should ALWAYS work to catch the ball above their eyes. What’s below my eyes I can't see, and I don't like catching a ball blindfolded. If I use my feet to get to the spot properly by playing fast from the beginning, and by beating the ball to the spot not meeting it, I then can catch the baseball above my eyes. It seems pretty simple that by catching the ball above your eyes, your success level will be much better, but there are many players that struggle with this concept. If there is a ball sinking or diving on an outfielder, keep it as simple as "take your eyes to the baseball." Not only will you be working to get your eyes below the baseball to help secure the catch, but also where your eyes go, your body will follow. 

Here is a good picture of what that looks like:

Here is a good example of what it SHOULD NOT look like. This is Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs during game 3 of the NLDS. Several things that he should have been aware of: 1) the wind was blowing hard towards the foul line, 2) it was a ball off a lefty bat which naturally will slice towards the line some (add in the wind with that, the ball is going to take off.) Schwarber did not play fast from the start (you actually see him attempt to speed up at the end...too late); he did not put himself in a position to beat the ball to the spot; also, although it looks like he had the ability to catch the ball above his eyes, the ball was slicing really hard, so it was still a tough play because he did not play fast from the start to the end. This ended up being a costly play as runs eventually scored. Schwarber is not a natural OFer, and he has been working hard to be better out there. This shows that the details are always important, and that we can never take a play off. 

Like I mentioned above, there is a limited amount of outs recorded in the OF. The key words are "outs recorded." There are still many chances in terms of not letting a single get stretched into a double, limiting free bases by hitting cuts, making the opposition work 90 feet at a time so it takes multiple hits to score a run. For me, we need to be able to make the spectacular plays, and be able to get OF assists, but that is just icing on the cake. The most important part of OF play is the ability to read balls off the bat well, have good angles, play fast, and get the ball back into the INFers as quick as possible. If our MIFers are turning a ton of double plays throughout the course of a season, that is part reflection of the OFers being able to keep the opposition 90 feet at a time. 

There is a lot that goes into good OF play. It needs to be taught with as much detail as the swing, but for now, have a couple goals in the OF. These seem to work: 1) play fast from the beginning, 2) beat the ball to the spot, don't meet it, and 3) catch the ball above your eyes. 

Yours in Baseball,

Thursday, November 9, 2017

How the best hitters store energy

I wanted to do a hitting follow up blog about another important essential when it comes to the best hitters. Like I have said, what I like to do when it comes to figuring out the proper swing is watch the people that are the best at it. The two hitters that I am going to use as an example for this blog are Miguel Cabrera and Buster Posey...they are dudes.

I have heard a lot of hitting people talk about the importance of loading into the heel of your back foot, in order to store the energy more into your hip. After messing around with it myself, and teaching it to some players that looked like they could benefit from it, I have turned into a big fan. Too many hitters load more into the ball of their foot, which ultimately creates more of a push move to the baseball. When hitters do this, I see many things: 1) hip drift, 2) a hitter that is reliant on one speed and doesn't give himself the chance to have adjustability, 3) balance issues (inability to maintain a centered/balanced/strong position), 4) feet that are not grounded in a position to use the ground as leverage, 5) inconsistent posture. The comparison I use are starting blocks for track runners. These blocks put the runner in a position to explode off the ball of their hitting, we don't want that. We simply want to put ourselves in a position where we land in a strong athletic hitting position (see my last blog) so we can be in a centered position to explode our back hip to the ball, with a tight turn to the baseball.

How we load/store energy into our back hip is essential in getting us into this strong athletic hitting position consistently. The main concept of this that I think is very important is being able to maintain the shape of our back leg from when in our batting stance, all the way to when our front heel plants after our stride and separation...likewise, also maintain a knee angle in front of our back foot during this process as well. 

Here is Miguel Cabrera in his batting stance:

Pay attention to the bend in his back knee, and also how the knee is slightly angled in front of the back foot.

Here is Cabrera in his loaded position, ready to make his forward move:

Notice how the amount of bend in his back knee has not changed, and how he has maintained the knee angle in front of the back foot.

Now here is Buster Posey:

When these guys start their load, they get into their back heel which helps them feel the energy stored into their back hip. This action helps them maintain the shape, and angle of their back knee. When they make their forward move and the front foot is down and into the ground, you then see the back knee form a further angle away from their back foot as their head stays in the middle of their body thanks to a strong front side, this is the start of the "ground, up" swing. How they load helps this process take place.

There are several things that "loading into the back heel to maintain back knee shape and angle," helps create: 1) a strong/balanced hitter, 2) a hitter who is better able to control their forward move, 3) a hitter that can land in a consistent hitting spot at front heel plant, 4) a hitter that can maintain posture, 5) a hitter that can create a ground up/directional/explosive swing. These hitters have a backside that works.

One thing that I noticed when watching the world series is what Justin Turner and Chris Taylor do to help them be in a good spot to hit. Turner, before the pitcher starts his motion, jams his back heel consecutively into the ground. My guess he does this to establish where he wants to heel his load= his back heel. Chris Taylor literally steps slightly backwards before loading into his back side. This is a great drill that I use often to help players feel a back heel load, and also maintain the ability maintain the shape of the back knee, and the angle. These guys have great balance, and are able to consistently create whippy, explosive swings, because they are able to land consistently in a good spot to explode.

Many young hitters are sway loaders, where their hips sway back as they attempt to store energy (the back knee gets over or behind the back foot), and then they sway forward to get their front foot down. This makes it really tough to be consistent.

In conclusion, the best hitters consistently get in a good spot to hit. How they load their energy directly impacts their ability to be in a good spot to hit. Loading into the back heel, so we can maintain bend in the back knee, and our knee to foot angle, seems to be an essential aspect for some of the best hitters in the world.

Thanks for reading!

Yours in baseball,

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Where I start with the swing

It is really easy as a coach to turn our hitters into robots. We need to be careful about how we communicate things/how often we communicate things, so that we don't create a hitter that is over meticulous about what they are doing. This is especially important when our guys are competing against a pitcher in front of them. The tee and cage are where we can be a little more detailed when it comes to working on specific things. Here, we can be more conscious of how the body is moving to get us in the right spot to hit consistently. It is VERY important that our hitters understand how their bodies move, but let's form that understanding in the cage. Then in game, they will be better able to feel things and make adjustments themselves. But most importantly, when it comes time to compete with a pitcher, I want hitters that trust and turn it loose, attacking to their plan in the box.

One essential aspect to the swing for me is rhythm. Hitters need to understand how their bodies move to establish rhythm in the box. I say all the time to our hitters "if you can hit, you can dance." Our rhythm in the box is there for us to match the rhythm of the pitcher in front of us. We need to "dance with the pitcher," so that we can put ourselves in the best position to be on time for his best fastball. The truth is nobody likes a stiff dancer. How many of you have been at a wedding and seen that stiff dancer on the dance floor? It's not the easiest thing to watch. Kudos to that person for having the courage to get out there and move (that's typically the 1st step), but there is no looseness and explosion. Hitting is a fast twitch action, and that comes from loose/rhythmic pre-swing movements. Just like how nobody likes a stiff dancer, nobody likes a stiff hitter. I like to focus on rhythm early, so that hitters understand how it puts them in a position to not only be on time, but also explosive when it comes time to swing. There are a lot of great rhythm drills out there that force the hitters to "feel how their body is moving." I think that is incredibly important.

What is most important to me is how consistently we can get into a "strong athletic hitting position" at front heel strike. For me, there are certain factors I look for when getting into this position. Here are some pictures of some of the best hitters in the world at front heel strike:

You see a lot of similarities in these pictures. I call this the "strong athletic hitting position." Here are some specific things that I notice:
1) Their heads are roughly right in the middle of their feet. They are centered/balanced in a position to rotate around their axis. Hitting is an athletic move just like playing defense in basketball. When I ask a hitter to show me how they would guard me in basketball, they show me an action where their head is in the middle of their feet, with some bend in their knees, ready to fire any sort of direction.
2) They are able to maintain their center by landing in a firm front side position. Notice there is slight bend in the front knee; that is good as it allows for proper hip rotation/freedom. Even with that bend, they are in the ground with their whole front foot, strong, grounded, and ready to fire. Also notice how all their knees are inside their front foot. There is no "leaking" forward. They have energy stored, ready to explode on the baseball thanks to their firm front side. Typically, the front knee will straighten out as the barrel reaches the baseball. This is because the back hip fires to that firm front side.
3) Their hands are stretched back (roughly over their back foot). This is important when it comes to creating adjustability within the swing. We can better lag the barrel on off-speed pitches when we have our hands stretched back at front heel strike. There is more that goes into creating adjustability in the swing, but the hands back is a good first step.
4) You are starting to see the beginning of the ground, up swing process. What I look for with this is at front heel plant, the back knee creates distance away from the back foot, while the head stays centered, and our front side holds strong. The best swings are those that work from the ground up. The ground, up approach creates torque within the body to maximize our ability to create bat speed.
5) There is a clear picture with all these guys where their shoulders are separated from their hips. Many hitters have issues when their hips and shoulders fly open together. I like the cue of "land with your front shoulder inside your front hip." See if you can see that in these pictures. This coiling action is important when it comes to being able to generate bat speed, while also having plate coverage.

**It is important to note that HOW these hitters load during their pre-swing movements also helps in landing in this strong athletic hitting position. That can be a conversation for another time.

This is where I like to start with hitters. They need to have rhythm in their bodies with their pre-swing movements, but then land in an "strong athletic hitting position," so they have the best ability to be on time and do damage to the baseball. When a hitter understands what a strong athletic hitting position feels like, it then becomes easier to work on the other important aspects of the swing.

There is no doubt that there is a direct correlation to why these guys all look the same at front heel strike, and their success as hitters.

Thanks again for reading.

Yours in baseball,

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A random person shows up to the ballpark...

I really like the thought that every day is a job interview. We have a conscious choice of how we approach each day. One thing I know is people are always watching and paying attention. As a coach, how I carry myself each day has a lasting impact on the players I have the privilege to be around each day. My hope is that I am consistent, and that I let my personality come out. Being consistent is not easy. We all are dealing with our own "stuff," but with the ability to be self-aware and talk to myself, I hope that I am doing a good job being consistent each day. As a player, especially at the high school and college levels, you never know who is watching. For example, the best scouts are the ones that blend in, because they want to see the true you, not a player that puts on a show because they know there are people in the stands watching. I coach at a JUCO, and our players have goals and aspirations to play this game at the highest levels. How they approach their days impacts their ability to not only learn and grow, but also provides a blueprint for people out there watching, and their teammates/coaches, to understand what type of a player they are, and what type of a team we are.

I have a scenario that I first proposed to the players I coached at Minnesota Duluth. I was the hitting coach there and I felt like we as a group did not have an identity. I really like that word, and I think it's powerful both from an individual and group standpoint. Here is the scenario I proposed to the hitters:

Imagine it's game day, and there person in town that is a baseball junkie. Maybe they just love the game; maybe they played or coached in the college or professional ranks... They see we have a game and decide to come check it out. They have never seen us play before and don't know much about our history, but they just want to watch some baseball. What do you want that person to say about you as a player? Additionally, what do we want that individual to say about us as a group? What words would that person use to describe you/us? 

I proposed this question to our hitters specifically, but obviously it can be used for a pitching staff, and the team in general. I gave the guys a day to think about the words that they would want to be used to describe them both as individuals, and as a group. The next day, I asked for their responses, and here were some of the words/comments: resilient, relentless, disciplined, go-getters, confident, present, "they attack,"they make it difficult on the opposition," "they are gritty,""they are in complete control of themselves," "they compete their asses off."  

I was very happy with these responses. The next step was to have the players explain what each of these words/comments "looked like." What actions would make someone random say these things about you/us? Talk is cheap if you aren't willing/able to put those words into action, so we needed to understand what it looked like. After we discussed/understood how these words can be put into action, we now needed to live up to it. Were they perfect in turning these words into action? Of course not, but this scenario provided a framework for me as a coach to help keep them on the right track. We could go back to these words/comments to hold ourselves accountable towards living up to our desired identity.

This scenario is similar to coming up with goals as an individual and team. For example, if our goal as a team is to win the World Series, that is a desired result in the far future, so it then becomes how are we going to approach each day/opportunity we have to help us accomplish what we seek? This defines the almighty word that gets thrown around a lot in athletics...process.  There is a process involved in accomplishing great feats, just as there is a process involved in living up to our desired identity.

What would you want that random person that shows up to the ballpark to say?

Thank you all for taking the time to read these posts.

Yours in baseball,