Playing Time…and a Challenge

Recently, I stood next to three parents outside the 1st base line waiting for the game before ours to end. These parents were from the teams playing and I did not know them – so I guess I should apologize for overhearing their conversation and then posting it to this widely read blog. Last week we had 10 people read it – so we’re kind of a big deal…

Ultimately, the parents’ discussed playing time – or lack thereof – and one of the parents made the comment: “How is he supposed to get better by sitting on the bench today?” The comment intrigued me. The parent was concerned about his son getting better – which is positive. However, in my opinion, the assumed solution – “to play today” – is shortsighted. One reason is readily understood by most of the 10 readers here, and the other, I believe is one of the most overlooked aspects of sports today.

The first reason the parent’s commentary is myopic is based on statistics and how we develop as athletes. Let’s assume that there are 30 summer baseball games (which is on the higher end). If an infielder gets 4 groundballs a game (which many times is on the higher end), that is 120 groundballs the entire summer. Further, a batter gets on average three at bats a game. If he averages 5 pitches an at bat, that’s 15 pitches a game or 450 pitches a season. From a pure mechanical perspective, these repetitions are insignificant. It takes considerably more “reps” to impact muscle memory, myelin development, or whatever scientific growth metric you would like to use. Therefore, the time to “get better,” as the parent noted, is not necessarily playing in the game, but during practice where deliberate mechanical actions and muscular movements can be emphasized. For example, if our infielders average 50 groundballs at a practice – and each groundball was fielded with the intent to develop – it would take 3 practices to surpass the amount of groundballs the player would see in an entire summer. Additionally, at the Compete Academy, players can come as often as they like. The 450 pitches can be seen in less than a week of cage sessions! Ironically, the numbers I just mentioned are also insignificant. Growth and development is a process that takes years of 50 groundballs a day; years of swings in a cage (and in a game). So if the parent truly wanted his son to “get better,” then he would sign him up for a membership at the Compete Academy (shameless plug) and be ready to sacrifice and experience a lot of failure before ever witnessing true growth.

In addition to the limited reps that a game provides; parents, players and coaches all overlook what can be learned from NOT playing in the game. I believe this is lost on every player I’ve ever encountered and is the main reason behind this post.

I loved playing and competing, and as outlined above, I believe the foundation of growth is deliberate practice and competition. With that said, however, I’ve learned more about the game and about myself as a player when sitting as a bystander than I ever did actually playing the game. When you’re playing, your focus is on the micro. You are consumed with reactionary thinking – which emphasizes the short term. “Ground ball hit to me, I’m going here with it.” “Fastball thrown to me on this pitch, I’m putting it over that tree.” When you are in the moment – and a linedrive can be hit at you, a pitch thrown at you, etc. – it is impossible to focus on the macro. However, when you’re sitting watching a game, you can objectively view the game and analyze it for your benefit. You can put yourself in any and all situations and learn from it. You can truly watch and read swings. You can analyze the probability of where the ball will be hit on certain pitches which will help you adjust your positioning when you play. You can read pitchers rhythms, pitch selection, outfield jumps, infield prep steps. You can analyze other hitters’ approaches and mentally correct their mistakes. There is so much you can focus on from simply watching a game. This is a luxury that I believe everyone misses: A player can learn as much, if not more, through analyzing a game as they can from playing in it. How awesome is that? The problem, however, is that most players make the choice to not gain anything when they are “on the bench.” They make the choice to talk about school/parties/friends, talk to their parents, complain about a lack of playing time, etc. They choose to do everything else except get better.

What’s the point? If you’re reading this, maybe this will put a different spin on growth and not playing every inning of every game. Admittedly, seeing live pitches, getting live plays, etc. is a significant factor to an athlete’s growth. However, it is not the only factor. In order for a student-athlete to be great, he/she must maximize the opportunities they are given to effectively grow. Sitting the bench every now and then is one of those opportunities.

Which brings us to my challenge.
Players: I challenge you to consume as much information as you can the next game you watch. Bring a notecard and a pen and take notes as if you were in class. Analyze the chess game between the pitcher and the hitter. Watch good hitters in every at bat and see if they’re setting up the pitcher or vice versa. Who is winning that battle? Guess pitcher intent and question pitch selection. Intently focus on all the mistakes made in a game – and there are plenty – and analyze what you would do in those situations. Between innings, take a bat and visualize ABs. In your mind, replay an AB in the game you are watching. Visualize what you would do differently and how you would have success. Take another teammate sitting the bench and do daily defensive drills down the line until the inning starts. Use a wall to practice picks. Then refocus your attention to the note card and the game you are studying. Be a student of the game – intently focused, always learning, always growing.

Parents: I challenge you – the next time you see your son sitting the bench – to hesitate before blasting the coach on the car ride home. Instead, discuss the chess game that your son just studied. Go over his note card with him. Tell him how proud you are of him for being a student of the game and a good teammate. Celebrate the fact that he is being cerebral in his approach to the game and being accountable for his own growth. In the long run, it will make him a better player; a better communicator; and probably a better person as well.

As a coach, I’m constantly failing, admittedly wrong most times; but always competing to be the best. I failed as a player which is what drives me to succeed as a coach. I strive for perfection and I seek to maximize the opportunities that are given to me. I take notes during most games and go over them the next day. Unfortunately, I didn’t do this as a player. I missed countless opportunities to grow. If I could do it over again, I would take advantage of every opportunity I was given – both on the field and off it. I would analyze the chess game behind baseball; I would take accountability of my own growth; I would celebrate any positive discussion I had with my coaches and my teammates; and I would have better appreciated a positive commentary with my dad. I challenge you all to maximize your opportunities and thoroughly enjoy them – because they don’t come frequently and they pass us quickly.

Comments 3

  1. Dude…
    You get me everytime…..when you bring up a point …..I answer or ask a question in my head…..next sentence. ….there’s my point…..my answer…..keep doin what you’re doin…..it works…..and I for one truly appreciate the things you do for these kids…..as do the rest the patents on the outside….
    Well done sir

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