Saturday, March 21, 2015

Spring Training: Loaded with Valuable Lessons for Young Athletes

I love Spring Training for several reasons not the least of which is that it's a sign that summer and warmer weather is right around the corner.

But the number one reason I love Spring Training is because of the atmosphere it creates for generating interesting life stories that a ton of great lessons can be gleaned from.

The players and coaches are generally more laid back as they prepare for the season. Spring training games for the most part mean very little (unless of course you are non-roster invitee looking to win a job). It's all about getting your reps in and preparing your body and fine tuning your skills for the long-season ahead. So it's a great opportunity to dig into what drives these athletes and organizations and what makes them successful.

Here are a few of the things that really stood out to me as an athletic development coach over the first two weeks of Spring Training:

Wynton Bernard was a 35TH round draft choice by the San Diego Padres in 2012 two years later he was released and his career as a pro baseball player were bleak. But he scrapped together the money to fly across the country to an open try-out in Lakeland, Florida and earned a spot in the Tigers organization where he enjoyed a successful season at Class A West Michigan and earned an invite to Spring Training with the big league team. Oh by the way athleticism and speed (Bernard has both) always turn heads!

New Tiger centerfield hopeful Anthony Gose played quarterback and wide-receiver in high-school in addition to running sprints for the track team and was also a flame throwing pitcher (97 on the gun!).
Gose has been criticized for his current projection as a weak hitter but keep your eye on this guy. With that raw athleticism (he's only 24 years of age) he has the ability to figure it out and take an underdeveloped skill and make it an asset. Lorenzo Cain enjoyed a breakout year for the American League champion Kansas City Royals last season at age 29, and he received the same low-marks for his hitting ability but ended the season hitting in the coveted 3 hole for the Royals. It's worth mentioning Cain never played baseball until a friend convinced him to try-out his junior year of high school! With diverse athletic ability your window to adapt and develop specific skill increases exponentially!

There has been plenty of chatter about the negative effects early sport specialization can have on the long-term  durability and development of young athletes but something often overlooked is athletes getting locked into one position to early within a sport.

Consider this nugget from new Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (more on this guy who is quickly emerging as my all-time favorite leadership figure):

"It's broad. We really promote liberal arts. We're a liberal arts education in baseball... You need a lefty out of the bullpen once in a while, but overall, the broader base you give your position players with a broader curriculum, I think you really develop a better baseball player." 

And he's talking about fully developed young men. Imagine the tremendous gains you could make by implementing a similar philosophy with still developing athletes who are still highly malleable... You would have a dynasty on your hands and produce athletes that would be highly coveted due to their ability to contribute to a winning program!

This may be a sour subject for most Tiger fans but Mike Trout is the best all-around talent in Major League Baseball. He has the rare combination of elite hitting ability, power, speed and defense. And though Trout won the MVP award last season by his standards he had a down year with too many strike-outs and not enough stolen bases. He is looking to make the necessary adjustments that will take his elite skills to an even higher level.

Great message for parents and coaches here. We all remember that stud little leaguer that dominated the competition but by the time you got to high school that guy had vanished from the scene... This is largely because they are generally bigger and faster than the other 12 year olds. By the time the late-bloomers start to catch-up in size and strength they also  had to learn to develop the sport skills  that they can now take to a higher level with their new found physical abilities. Meanwhile the "big kid" always relied on their size and strength and never developed the necessary skill when it was more easily attained. Pump the brakes (easy on the accolades and ego boosting, 12 year-old superstars usually burn bright then flame-out quickly) on those early maturers and make sure they are working on the fundamentals sport skills and general athleticism that will allow them to sustain that early advantage over the long haul.

Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve is 5'6 and was told time and again by talent evaluators that they loved his skill and desire but they never offered him a contract because of his small physical stature. Altuve just wouldn't go away and eventually that skill and desire would not be denied. Baseball is a great game because of athletes like Altuve. Having tremendous raw power or an elite throwing arm will get you noticed but you won't stick around very long without the dedication to refine those skills so they can be applied consistently. Hard work beats talent every time when talent doesn't work hard!

Outstanding article on the philosophy of new Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon. This guy is one of the elite leaders in professional sports. A must read for coaches, parents and young athletes!

Enjoy the stories that come out of Spring Training. Once the regular season starts we will all get caught up in the results (wins, losses, statistics) and it will be easy to overlook the reason behind a team's and athletes success or lack thereof.

Phil Loomis
Athletic Development Specialist
Speed and Agility Specialist
Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Precision Nutrition Coach

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