The Adventures of Coaching 12u Baseball
The year is over and in the books. My first time coaching 12u travel baseball is complete, and what an adventure! I have coached baseball in some way shape or form for about 10 years (majority of that time was coaching college baseball). I felt like the only similarities between coaching 12u players and college players is that both use a bat, glove and ball to play the game. But soon realized there are quite a bit of similarities. For me early on in the year, which started in September, it was about directing the kids on where to go, making sure our assistants knew what needed to be done and coaching the players on techniques of our drills. I am not going to go into the detail of having to maneuver practices on zoom, because COVID shut us down and made things interesting. I am not going to talk about how Deven, Ben and myself were constantly changing plans to make sure we can get the kids better even during lockdowns, finding field rentals, and having other organizations practicing with us. Instead, I am going to talk about coaching 12 year olds and the environment of 12u youth travel baseball.
Here is what our record was, my players had 9 wins, I had 15 losses and the tournament had one tie. Of my 15 losses, we got walked off three times. And let me tell you getting walked off sucks, but what is harder is explaining losing and getting walked off to 12 year olds.
As a college coach losses would be the thing that keeps me up at night as I retrace every step of the fall to know if each particular loss could have been prevented with a better fall plan. In youth baseball every loss is looked at from a different lens. I look at what each kid needs to work on to put the team in a better position to win going forward, I look at if we lost because the other team was better, if we beat ourselves, or the other team decided to do little league bush things that isn’t anything, but taking advantage of the situation of kids trying to play the game. Luckily I didn’t run into coaches that really did this, however our younger teams did.
Travel baseball is unique in terms of coaches making a lot of moves around the rules. Time limit rules were more of the annoying ones. Run rules can make a coach seem like a “bad guy” because he is trying to save himself a pitcher or two for the final game(s). On the losing side of the run rule a coach can also be deemed the “bad guy” because not all the players got a chance to play.
Automatic steals to second base is the norm as most catchers we played couldn’t throw anyone out at second base. A walk quickly turned into a double or triple. The umpire situation was abysmal. Umpires calling balls and strikes that are in no exaggeration, impossible to hit. However, we have an umpire shortage because parents can be nightmares (thankfully I have awesome parents on my team).
My main focus when coaching 12 year olds in games was to make sure they have fun, encourage them when they make a mistake and teach them the correction, and make sure they all get as much of equal playing time as possible. There are several strategies you can deploy for equal playing time and I was always talking to opposing coaches to see what their ideas were.
Up until the very last few games of the year, I really tried to move players around while still having them play a comfortable position too. This is what the final total was for my entire team. After this year I have come to the conclusion that if you aren’t the best team talent wise then it is impossible to win games AND optimize playing time for every kid. I am also confident in saying “it’s ok if I don’t win every game, if more kids get to play more innings.” Now if you are a travel coach that plays to win games, that is fine, especially if you are able to do that, while your kids get better AND don’t quit. PLEASE share your recipe!
Below is the playing time % of my players over the course of our year:
My goal going into this year was trying to find a way for every player to get 75% of the playing time, for the entire team. I achieved the goal outside of one player who hardly showed up to practice for several reasons and only came to two games, so he played half of the innings. I also bat 10 in a lineup (EH) and I count that as playing time. If I don’t count the EH as playing time there would be only one other kid that would be under 75% playing time. I could go into more detail about our playing phases (exploratory phase and competitive phase) but I would rather talk to you in person if you are curious.
Something that was different for me as a coach was the resources I have to get 12 year olds better at baseball. We have Hittrax, bat sensors and a mocap lab that are able to help me coach each individual player without having to do a traditional 1 on 1 lesson. Below is one of our Edge reports we can generate for the players. This is just one page of a 11 page report that our players have access to.
Here is another part of a page of a before (Sept — Nov) and after (May — July):
This type of information for any coach no matter the level is super important to know if what you are doing is actually working. At the youth level I feel like it is even more valuable because kids progress differently based on a variety of variables. This type of information helps a coach know what kid needs more focus and help in different areas. We can structure that into a practice plan.
Here is another page of a throwing report that we get from having all our players do a MOCAP.
Some of this information can be used for coaching in the short term but also just having this back logged so we can continue to track each player’s progress throughout the years they are in the academy will be huge for their development and arm health in the long term.
If you come to watch one of my practices, it will be very different then your typical youth practices. I rely heavily on our assistant coaches in practice (because I am also an assistant coordinator of the academy and have other things I have to attend to at times), but I also have to trust that our assistant coaches can do the job. You won’t hear a lot of internal cueing from me or any of our assistants. You hear A LOT of encouragement and external cues. My team is usually broken up into two sub groups (hitting and pitching/defense), we rotate after about 45 minutes of each and then they go and lift for 30 minutes of which I don’t coach at all, our HP department does all their programming and training.
When game time comes I let my coaches coach. I was fortunate enough to have the same assistant coach for all my games (that isn’t always the case with all of our teams). Alex Harter might be one of the best baseball coaches that you haven’t heard of… yet. This guy coaches these kids constantly, prepares them for the game and keeps them in check. He allows me to really focus on all the other aspects of what we try to accomplish with playing time, pitch counts and talking with umpires that don’t know where to stand when there is a runner on first base. He teaches our throwing protocols to kids as young as 9 years old and makes everything make sense for these kids. I have also had really in-depth conversations with him about pitching, PULSE, and programming at the college level. I guess you could say he isn’t your typical assistant youth coach.
One of the things I enjoyed most about coaching college was the relationships you build with your players. It is way different talking to a 12 year old and finding the right moments to tell them you are proud of them so the message sticks. Something I found super interesting is that I spent a lot of my time pouring into college kids about how their playing ability doesn’t define who they are as a person. While coaching a 12 year old that thinks they lost the game, and now I have to let them know that this one instance doesn’t define their playing ability.
Some of the themed individual conversations I have had with my players this year:
“You are the leader and players look up to you…”
“Whether you know it or not you are a leader, you are bigger than most of the other kids and your teammates look to you to defend them and lead them…”
“Even though you are the youngest player, the team follows your lead, let’s work on not hanging your head when you are having a hard time at the plate because the team follows your lead…”
“Because you throw hard, players tend to look up to you, so if you are picking on other kids, your teammates will follow, because you throw hard, lead differently…”
I have many other conversations that started or ended similar to these. At the end of the day this is what coaching is about. It doesn’t matter what level you are coaching at, find a way and impact the your players life.
This year’s adventure is over and it’s time to prepare for year two for Driveline Academy. We will make improvements as a whole, I will make improvements as a coach, and next year will be better than the last. If you want to talk baseball, never hesitate to reach out!