Why A-Rod is Suddenly a Postseason Hero

a-rodFor years, the knock on perhaps the greatest player ever to suit up in a Major League uniform was that Alex Rodriguez never performed to his capabilities in the playoffs.

In the autum of 2009, however, that has changed, as A-Rod hit .365 with 6 homeruns in 50 postseason at-bats, a .500 OBP, and a 1.308 OPS in leading the New York Yankees to a World Series Championship.

So what’s changed?

He’s the same player … from the neck down. But above the neck is where Alex Rodriguez has improved — he’s now relaxed and focused, using many of the techniques learned while working with mental coach Jim Fannin.

In the last post you had the chance to hear me speak with Jim Fannin about some of those techniques, and the challenges of mental preparation for baseball.

Here are some of the tips or “takeaways” from the interview:

- No matter what the situation, the essence of your craft does not change. In other words, you use the same physical technique and concentration in “regular” and “pressure” situations

- Big games: sometimes you need to “spill” some energy — maybe jump up and down a few times to expel your energy if you feel a little too jacked up

- Batters: lock in to the release, forget about the pitcher

- Batters: Pick up the baseball within 6 feet after release, and then be sure to track it within the last two feet

- Batters: start learning to pick up the ball and the pitcher’s release in the on-deck circle

- Batters: EXPECT to hit the ball solidly – confidence is key

- Pitchers: prepare to retire the leadoff batter by getting the heart rate up and throwing the last few warmup pitches as if they were “game” pitches

- Pitchers: mentality should be to retire the leadoff guy every inning

- Pitchers: if tense, stressed, or nervous, slow down your heart rate by walking off the mound, taking a breath, unhinging your jaw, and focus on throwing through the target (see the target not the batter)

- The ultimate for all players is to have the same mindset in all situations

- Every great player uses the tools of visualization

- Visualization is applicable to every level down to little league

- Every human being spends 56 hours — 50% of their waking hours — daydreaming. Daydreaming is a form of visualization, but it is generally random and chaotic.

- Controlled visualization is proactive and specific – you are daydreaming about what you want.

- Most people visualize about what they don’t want — so you want to visualize what you want

- Coaches: the great coaches and teachers — no matter what the sport — are painting a picture of total positivity in the student’s mind.

- Coaches: using “don’t” in your instruction is completely ineffective – so eliminate it from your speech! Replace the “don’t” with a positive image

- All players who struggle with their mental mindset can improve — but they have to want to do it

If you want to listen to the podcast, you can find it here:
Jim Fannin On Baseball podcast

You can also subscribe to the OnBaseball.com podcast through iTunes.

Mental Prep for Baseball with Jim Fannin

How does a Major League Baseball player prepare — mentally — for a big game or a postseason series?

I had the opportunity to discuss that topic and many others related to mental preparation for baseball with one of the leading experts on the subject, Jim Fannin.

Jim’s worked with 24 All-Stars over the years, including Alex Rodriguez, Casey Blake, Barry Zito, Carlos Delgado, Jim Thome, Orel Hershiser, Frank Thomas, Alex Cora, and many others.

You can learn more about Jim Fannin and the services he provides by visiting his website, JimFannin.com.

Listen to the conversation below. You can also subscribe to the OnBaseball.com podcast through iTunes.

Choking Part Two

(click here for Part One)

Last week we examined some of the situations where baseball players “choke”, and found that “pressing” usually results in “choking”.

Now we’re going to learn how not to press and therefore not choke.

Prepare – Physically, and Visually

Preparation is the key to success in any sport (or business, for that matter). When you practice, you are prepared, and when you are prepared, you are confident. When you’re confident, the worries go away. Without worries, you won’t feel the need to “press”, or otherwise attempt to go above and beyond your capabilities.

Naturally you will practice your skills before a “big” game — you should be practicing all the time, regardless of the “importance” of a particular contest. As with a “regular” game, you should be thinking about what, specifically, you need to address. For example, your opponent may be adept at stealing bases and bunting; in preparation, you (as a coach) would want to provide extra drills in those areas. As a batter, you may know that the opposition’s starting pitcher has a blazing fastball; therefore, you’ll want to dial up the pitching machine to acquaint yourself with the velocity. As a pitcher, you may be going into a park with unusually short fences; as a result, your plan might be to spend extra time in bullpens pounding the bottom half of the plate.

In addition to your physical practice, mix in visualization. See yourself in various situations and moments in the “big” game. Close your eyes and picture the field, smell the grass, hear the crowd cheering. Always “feel” like it’s a 1-1 game, bottom of the ninth, two outs — so that when and if that situation does come up, you’ve already been there (sort of).

Stay Within Yourself

I think I heard this cliche about ten thousand times during my high school career (this and “Keep It Simple Stupid” were the catch-phrases in sports during the 1980s). But unlike many buzz words, this one has some validity.

If you’ve never heard it, or numbed yourself from its meaning, “stay within yourself” means to to understand your skills and limitations and perform within them. Some people confuse this idea with a lack of effort, but that would be misunderstanding the concept. For example, if you’ve never thrown a baseball more than 82 MPH, don’t go out and try to crack 90. Instead, do all that you can do with that 82 — thread a needle, make it dance, change locations, work something offspeed from it. Similarly, if you are a contact hitter with 3 career homers in 10 years of competition, and you find yourself at the plate with the bases-loaded, two outs, and your team down by three, don’t swing for the fence. Stay within your limitations — as you would in any other at-bat — and do your best to put the bat on the ball. Focus on the pitch, find the ball, get the barrel out to it — from there, whatever happens, happens.

We used Alex Rodriguez as an example of someone in the big leagues who presses in the postseason. He’s arguably the best hitter in all MLB, yet once the playoff start he (admittedly) has a tendency to get away from the best use of his talents by expanding the strike zone (swinging at pitches that are not strikes). That’s a prime example of not staying within one’s self — because part of A-Rod’s success is his ability to recognize and demolish pitches in certain areas of the strike zone, and the moment he changed the approach of waiting for those pitches, he was no longer the future Hall of Famer named Alex Rodriguez. After all, not even A-Rod can hit everything.


Put Things Into Proper Perspective

This can be the hardest part, and really is the root of pressing and choking: perspective. The reason athletes press is because they place undeserving importance on an event. Yes, a particular game may seem to mean everything to you, but stand back from the situation for a moment and look at game for what it is in grand scheme of life and the world — it’s a game.

I’ve used quotation marks in this article when talking about “big” games and “important” games because they’re only “big” if someone thinks they’re “big”. Realistically, how truly “important” can a baseball game be? This isn’t a bullfight or an encounter with a black bear — it’s a baseball game, and no one dies at the end. Even at the big league level, if A-Rod hits a homerun to help the Yankees win a playoff game, it’s not like cancer will be cured. At the end of the game, when the final score is burned into the scoreboard, it’s still a game — one relatively meaningless pin in the haystack of life.

One of my semipro coaches from a long time ago addressed it this way:

“You think there’s pressure in getting a squeeze down in the bottom of the ninth down one run? That’s not pressure, that’s fun. Pressure is when you have a wife, a kid, another on the way, a mortgage to pay, and you’ve just lost your job — THAT is pressure, son, not something that happens in a baseball game.”

Look, we all know that people wouldn’t play baseball if it wasn’t important to them. Of course there is importance, and there are “big” games in our lives. But the point is, if you can feel that apple swelling in your throat just from thinking about the “big” game, the easiest way to reduce the swelling is to reduce its importance — think about where it truly fits into the grand scheme of things, and you’ll likely begin to feel the tension subsiding.


Focus and Control

There may be some folks who don’t buy into the reduction of importance. For some, to quote Vince Lombardi, “winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing”.

Problem is, few people know the rest of that famous quote. It goes like this:

Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all time thing. You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is habit.

People mistake Lombardi’s “winning” as being defined by final scores and team records. In fact, what Lombardi meant was that “winning” was a way of life, the way you conducted yourself — and if you always conducted yourself as a winner, and fostered winning habits, then in the end you had the best chance of being on the winning side of a final score.

During the course of a baseball game, yes, you absolutely must know the score (and the outs). But it doesn’t help your cause to worry about the score, or to concern yourself with what the final score will be — because it’s out of your control. You may think that you can directly impact the final score with a solo homer — and you can — but you can’t control what the pitcher is going to throw, nor where he will throw it. You can think “if the pitcher throws me a first-pitch fastball, chest high, inside part of the plate, I’m going to hammer it”, but you can’t think, “I’m going to hit a homerun”. There are simply too many factors out of your control (the wind, a leaping outfielder, an intentional walk, etc.).

Playing baseball is difficult enough when you have intense focus — the minute you allow other things to enter your mind (such as the final score), you’re taking away from that focus. For example, much is said about players’ batting averages with men in scoring position. When there are men on second and third, and it’s a tight ballgame, of course you want to get a hit. But if you think that broadly, and think about something out of your control (the hit itself), then you are not applying your best focus to the task at hand.

Instead of thinking about “getting a hit”, narrow your focus to what is in your control: seeing the ball, recognizing the pitch speed and location, deciphering whether you can get good wood on it, and then telling your hands to get the sweet spot of the barrel through the middle of the baseball. Remember you need to think about all this in a few tenths of a second — so that last thing you want to do is cloud your focus with useless thoughts (such as “getting a hit” or the final score). If you are intensely, narrowly focused on a specific task, you won’t have to worry about pressing or choking — your brain won’t have room for it.

Conclusion

Again, it’s easier said than done, but perhaps if you understand why players choke, and how to combat the “pressure” of a baseball game, you will have a head start on playing to your peak performance — regardless of the “importance” (or “unimportance”) of a specific game.

Why Players Choke

(This is the first of a two-part article)

Unfortunately, I’m a Mets fan, and if you’ve followed their 2007 season, you may have heard about “the greatest collapse in baseball history” — their loss of the NL Eastern Division title despite being in first place by seven games with only 17 to play. There have been many excuses given for their demise, but to lose that many games in such a short span has more to do than what’s happening on the field — it’s something in their minds.

Interestingly, the “other” team in New York — the Yankees — also had a disappointing end to their season, albeit in the playoffs. One player in particular that everyone has focused on is Alex Rodriguez, who is perhaps the greatest baseball player of all-time, yet cannot duplicate his regular season production in the postseason. His playoff malaise has reached epic proportions: in his last 59 postseason at-bats as a Yankee, he accumulated only 8 hits (.136 average). Among those 59 ABs, 27 came with runners on base — and he was 0-for-27 with 11 strikeouts.

How could the most talented man in baseball be so horrific? Yes, players go through slumps but are we to believe that A-Rod coincidentally hits a slump in the first week of every October? Or could have have an issue that it theorized about the Mets — that it’s something in his head?

In short, did these players choke?

Regardless of what you want to believe about Alex Rodriguez and the New York Mets, the fact remains: athletes DO choke. Many players when the “pressure” is on, play at less than their ability. It’s a mental thing. But why does it happen, and how can it be avoided?

Rising to the Occasion – Myth?

Some players have no problem with “pressure”; in fact, they thrive on it. Reggie Jackson — particularly after his 5-HR World Series in 1977 — was nicknamed “Mr. October” for his ability to hit well in the postseason. Current Yankee Derek Jeter has been identified as a “clutch” player, and his teammates Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Paul O’Neill could “rise to the occasion”. Jack Morris was known as a “big game” pitcher, as was Curt Schilling and Bob Gibson. Why are some players seemingly able to “elevate” their game in “important” situations while others fail?

First, you have to take “clutch” performance for what it really is: a player achieving his potential in what is perceived as an “important” situation. The aforementioned players — Jeter, Jackson, Schilling, etc. — were all very good to outstanding players in the regular season. If you look at their career postseason numbers, they’re not significantly different from their career regular season numbers (generally speaking). So they didn’t necessarily “elevate” their game as much as they maintained it. An example: Reggie Jackson had a career .262 average and hit one homer every 17.5 ABs in regular season; in the postseason, he hit .278 with one homer every 15.6 ABs. Considering that he came to bat nearly 10,000 times in 21 MLB regular seasons, and his postseason numbers cover a comparatively measly 281 at-bats, I think it’s safe to say that “Mr. October” wasn’t significantly better than “Mr. April”, “Mr. May”, etc.

And yes, there are some cases of players who played remarkably better in the postseason, but their stats are based on a small sample of work — and could have been affected more by a hot streak than a mental elevation. The bottom line is, players who routinely “come through in the clutch” are the same players who regularly out-perform their peers.

Identifying and Defining Pressure

So if a Reggie Jackson was great in October because he was great from April to September as well, what is the problem with A-Rod? Why can’t he maintain his extremely high level of performance when “it counts”?

It’s simple, really: he, like nearly everyone else, identifies the games in October as being “more important”. As a result, he buys into the theory that he must “elevate his game”, when in fact all he needs to do is continue doing the same things he always does. The minute a person tries to go above and beyond what he or she is capable of doing — in any sport, and nearly any activity — that person is doomed to failure. For example, how would a featherweight boxer do against a heavyweight? Can you trust an auto mechanic to fix the space shuttle? Do you think a poet can ace a CPA exam?

This is also called “pressing” — putting more pressure on oneself than is necessary to complete a task. Many players look at a particular ballgame, and believe they have to “step it up”. Unless they’ve been dogging it, nothing could be further from the truth. You can’t do more than you’re capable of doing, and if you haven’t been performing at your peak level, that’s a problem with the past, not the future. For example, Alex Rodriguez had just completed one of the greatest offensive seasons in New York history — whatever he did to swat 54 HRs and drive in 156 RBI from April to September would have been more than acceptable in October. Just because it’s the ALDS doesn’t mean Paul Byrd will suddenly gain 10 MPH on his fastball. C.C. Sabathia won’t suddenly discover two new devastating pitches. The ball doesn’t change its size, and the fences aren’t moved back. It’s the same game, and requires the same approach, the same technique, and the same execution that had been repeated for the past six months.

Of course, it’s easy to say — much harder to overcome (for some).

In the second part of this article, we’ll dive straight into the anatomy of what causes players to choke, and how to avoid it (or, “maintain” your game).

Losers Focus on Winning

Do you find the headline intriguing? It’s true: the biggest mental issue for losing teams is that they’re obsessed with winning.

Seems not to make much sense, but hear me out — I have firsthand experience.

In over 25 years of baseball (and four years of football) playing and coaching, I’ve been a member of dozens of teams — most ordinary, a few extraordinary, and a few too many that were hopeless, hapless losers. The extraordinary teams had a full squad of players who understood how to win. Every other team had perhaps a selection of players who knew the “secret” to winning, but were mixed in with a bunch who had no clue. As a result of my experiences, I usually know after one or two games whether a team is doomed for a losing season.

Generally speaking, losers spend most of a game obsessing over the outcome — whether or not they’ll win. They know the score, and are fearful of it, at every moment in every inning (I’m referring to the players; it’s the manager’s job to worry about the score). They might openly ridicule a teammate who has just made an error, particularly if that error led to a run. Losers will beat themselves up for striking out in the previous inning, when they’re back on the field and need to be thinking about defense. They’ll often explain that they “can’t stand losing”, or “will do anything to win.” However, they don’t really understand what winning is.

Winning was defined most succinctly and accurately by the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi:

“Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all-time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time.”

Lombardi also spoke these gems:

“Success demands singleness of purpose.”

“We didn’t lose the game, we just ran out of time.”

Read through these three quotes several times, until you “get it”. Winning is not something that you turn off and turn on — it’s something that you always do, it’s a habit. You don’t let your mind wander all game and then suddenly concentrate when it’s the last inning; rather, you are intensely riveted on every pitch, and only that pitch, until the pitch / play is complete.

What winners know, and losers don’t, is that executing the tasks necessary to win cannot be complicated by a preoccupation with the final score of a particular game. It’s about focus; if you are thinking about whether or not your team will win the game, then your mind cannot be completely focused on the task at hand — whether it’s throwing a pitch, fielding a grounder, or laying down a bunt. Baseball is difficult enough with a clear mind; cluttering it with concerns that are out of your control makes effective execution next to impossible.

Don’t read this wrong — it’s not that you shouldn’t want to win, or that you can’t think about winning. The point is, you need to have 100% concentration on the current task in order to succeed. Your small success in execution, followed by a teammate’s success in their execution, and so on, will give your team the best chance to win the game. If your team ultimately wins a game, it is usually because your teammates converted most of their opportunities — a series of small successes or “wins”. Bobby Cox led his Atlanta Braves to 14 consecutive NL East Division Championships using this exact principle. Cox’s teams rarely relied on colorful stars or dramatic individual achievements to win games; rather, they wore teams down by throwing strikes, fielding impeccably, and executing a team hitting strategy (taking pitches, moving runners, placing bunts, hit and runs, etc.). It’s a boring recipe, but it’s successful, because each player focuses on his specific task.

To give an example of a winner’s, versus a loser’s, mindset, imagine a pitcher on the mound in the ninth inning of a 2-1 game with the bases loaded, two outs, and the opposing team’s best hitter at the plate. The “loser” will be focused on “winning the game”, or “protecting the lead”. He may also be thinking about the opposing hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, and the fact that a base hit would mean a loss. The idea “I have to strike this guy out” may go through his mind. He might also think that a wild pitch will bring home the tying run — as would a walk. The loser has so many thoughts in his mind, and so much self-inflicted tension, that he forgets to focus on executing.

On the other hand, the winner toes the rubber with the same approach regardless of the situation: get the sign from the catcher, focus on the target, throw the pitch. Of course, the winner is well aware that the bases are loaded, that it’s a one-run game, and the other team’s slugger is up. However, the “pressure” of the situation motivates him to think more clearly, and execute his next pitches with more intense concentration. Rather than worrying about the score or what a wild pitch may do, he’s thinking “my catcher has called a fastball, he wants it down and away. I’m going to keep my head on the target and release the ball with my fingers on top and follow through the catcher’s glove. If it’s hit back to me, I will have plenty of time to throw to first base.” … etc.

It’s the same way for the hitter. The “loser” batter in this situation is thinking “I want to win this game so bad, I’ve got to get a hit”. The “winner” thinks, “bases loaded, there’s a lot of ways to keep this game going. I’ll take this one pitch at a time. I’m looking for a good pitch to hit, something I can hit off the sweet spot. I’ll look for ball, get my hands back, keep my head down and watch the bat hit the ball. Otherwise, I’ll let the pitch go.”

For the winner — whether it’s the pitcher or the batter — the focus is on executing. The loser is focused on the outcome of the game.

Winners understand that a series of successful executions give their team the best chance of winning, and that thinking about the final score only hampers the ability to execute. Losers are so wrapped up in whether they win the game, they may not even be aware of what is necessary to be victorious.

So remember, if you want to win, you have to win “all the time”. To win all the time, you need singleness of purpose — in other words, you need to be completely focused, and fixed on, the specific task at hand. And if, at the end of the game, your team has been outscored, remember: you’re not a loser — you just ran out of time.

Why Ask Why

Anyone who has, or has been around, a young child, knows what his/her favorite question is: why.

Why is the sky blue? Why does a dog bark? Why do I have to wear a hat and gloves? Etc., etc.

Asking “why?” is innate to a youngster. For adults, the persistent questions are enjoyable at first, but can eventually become draining. Little by little, as many youngsters mature, the questions come out less and less — as if they feel their parents’ impatience or maybe feel they are “too old” to be asking why.

However, you can never be too old to ask “why?”, and when it comes to learning — and teaching — baseball, you should always be asking “why?”.

When you ask “why?”, you learn something new, and you have a more complete understanding of the task at hand. (Note: the purpose of “why” is not to challenge an instructor; rather, it is to better comprehend what the coach wants you to do.) For example, a coach may tell a pitcher to land with a more open toe. If the pitcher simply plays good soldier and does as he’s told, without asking why, he’ll never understand that the purpose of landing more open is to allow his hips to rotate, add more torque to the pitch, and prevent arm injuries caused by throwing across the body. Human beings are not robots, and therefore should not take directions as if they are brainless machines. Understanding the reason you are doing something will help you succeed at the specific task, and more importantly, give you an overall picture or image of the entire action — be it throwing, catching, or hitting a baseball. Comprehensive understanding will result in faster, longer-lasting results.

Likewise, it is just as important for the coach to ask “why?”. For example, before you start telling a hitter to keep his hands inside the ball, understand exactly what that means and why it is important. If you don’t know, ASK. Anytime you pick up a catchphrase, learn a new drill, or hear about a specific mechanical action, ask what it means and why it is important to your ballplayers. This may sound obvious, but I can tell you from experience that there are plenty of baseball coaches preaching all kinds of philosophies, yet have no idea why those philosophies are important.

As a case in point, I can remember being 13 years old and my Babe Ruth League coach giving me all kinds of hitting instructions. “Get you elbow up!” “Keep the bat still!” “Don’t hitch!” were just a few of his commands. At the time, I had no idea why he was telling me these things, but to prevent from looking stupid, I never asked. I simply presumed that he knew better than me, and if I did what he said, I’d be a better hitter. As it turned out, all of his instructions were detrimental to my style of hitting, and my refusal to ask kept me in the dark as far as the hitting process went — I learned nothing in that year other than to take orders. But I didn’t find that out until years later, when I stopped worrying about looking dumb and starting asking “why” again.

Again, I’ll reiterate: the point of asking why is not to challenge, but to understand. When I got to college, my coach Bruce Sabatini instructed me to “hit down to the ball”. I asked why, and he answered, “it’s a shorter path to the ball. A short path means quicker hands, which means you have more time to decide on whether to swing.” He also asked ME WHY I kept my elbow so high. I responded, “I don’t know, someone told me to do that so I did it.” He considered this, and then suggested, “if you keep your elbow up there, it’s going to promote a long, loopy swing,” and he proceeded to show me the difference between a swing started with the elbow up and the elbow down. The light went off in my head, and finally I understood something about hitting. Had I asked when I was 13 why I must keep the elbow up, my coach might have given something to the equivalent of “because that’s the way it’s done” — in other words, he never asked why, and therefore never fully understood the mechanics of hitting a baseball.

At the same time, my Babe Ruth League might not necessarily have been wrong — there might have been a good reason to keep the elbow up. But since I never asked, I’ll never know. Maybe he thought a big kid like me would benefit from a loopy swing; after all it would enable me to get under and lift the ball — as in over the fence. But for five or six years I never knew why I was keeping my elbow up there.

The point is, if you are a coach, and you are presenting a mechanical change to a player, you should have a full understanding of why you’re doing it, for two reasons. First, because you need to know that what you’re changing is going to help that particular player. If you don’t know the reasoning behind a specific “absolute”, then you have no business applying it to a player — for all you know it might make things worse. Secondly, if you do know why, then you can explain the reason to the player, and he will 1) have a better understanding of the concept; 2) buy into the idea; and 3) trust you as an authority. All three of these factors lead to quicker progress and long-lasting, positive effect on performance.

Think about the last time you went to the doctor or dentist. He/she gave you a diagnosis of your problem and a recommended cure / solution. Then, you likely received a detailed explanation why that course of action was recommended — in some cases, a little too detailed for a weak stomach! This is a tactic to get you more comfortable with the procedure or medication being prescribed. As a result you “buy in” because there is logic behind the plan — a reason WHY. And naturally you’re going to trust a doctor who is so thorough with his analysis and recommendation. It’s a very similar situation between player and coach. You, as coach, need to have full understanding of the player’s current condition, and the proper “cure” for any malady. When both the coach and the player understand the issue, and the “why” behind the solution is easily accepted, and quickly adopted — a win-win situation for everyone.

Players, the next time a coach tells you to do something that alters the way you throw, catch, or hit, ask why — with politeness and passion to learn. Coaches, the next time you learn something from a clinic, video, or book, ask why that’s the right way. Remember, this is a kid’s game, and often it’s good to employ some of those instincts (such as asking why) you had as a kid.

Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball in Japan

Last week (on July 4th) I watched the premiere of Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball on PBS. It is a documentary covering high school baseball in Japan, and specifically, “Koshien”.

Koshien Stadium is the home field of the Hanshin Tigers, except for two weeks in August when it hosts Japan’s national high school baseball tournament. Koshien, therefore, is the symbolic name of the tournament itself, and the mere mention of the word to a high school baseball player may very well elicit a smile, tears, or both.

I highly recommend this film to anyone who coaches or plays baseball (at any level), for several reasons. First, it’s a well-done, entertaining, and human account of the Koshien experience (and an insight into Japanese culture), from the perspective of the players, the coaches, and the fans; the director does a wonderful job of making the movie personal by capturing the emotions of each individual featured / interviewed. Secondly, the film exposes the remarkable passion exhibited by the people involved in baseball in Japan — be it a player, a coach, or a cheering squad member (yes, there are baseball cheerleaders in Japan, and they take their role VERY seriously). Unlike in the US, where the passion to win can be confused with the notion of “winning at any cost” and poor sportsmanship, the Japanese coaches and players hold a high respect for the game, playing it correctly, and honoring their opponent. How serious are the Japanese in regard to sportsmanship? As an example, at the end of one game, the losing team and their cheering squad sang a congratulatory song to the winning team.

In addition to passion and respect, there’s another virtue of Japanese baseball demonstrated in this documentary: dedication. Any US high schooler who thinks he works hard at baseball might have a different view after seeing this movie. In Kokoyakyu, there are several examples of players who have team practice for 6-8 hours per day, then practice another 2-3 hours when they get home. Now I don’t necessarily believe that 16-year-olds should be practicing baseball to those excesses, but I think this drives home the point that you will get out of baseball, what you put into it. Anyone who is trying to eschew the “instant gratification” fix plaguing many of today’s youth can point to this film and the quite opposite Japanese philosophy. While the Japanese want to win as much as anyone else, gratification comes more from the dedication, commitment, and hard work than the win itself. When a team loses (in Koshien, it is single elimination), the coach and the players commonly believe that they did not work hard enough to earn the win — as opposed to blaming a loss due to an umpire’s call, a bad day, or a “lucky” hit.

An interesting tidbit from one of the coaches: “When the team loses, it is the coach’s fault, not the players’ fault. It is the coach who prepares the players to win, and if the game is lost, the coach has failed.”

There’s nothing similar to Koshien in the USA — which is probably a good thing. The single-elimination tournament begins with about 4000 high schools throughout the country, and the final two weeks (held at Koshien Stadium) attract more attention than the Japanese professional version of the World Series � partly because the tournament has been around longer, since 1915. The only amateur series that compares in scope would be the Little League World Series; however, that corrupted travesty of a tournament has a long way to go in terms of respect and honor. The cheating and mishandling of youngsters that has gone on in the LLWS gives some idea of what could happen if the US had a countrywide high school tourney; the notion of winning here seems to operate on the philosophy of “the ends justify the means” — not at all what Koshien is about.

If you haven’t seen this documentary, keep an eye on your PBS station’s schedule; it’s a film you don’t want to miss. There is more information available on the PBS home page for Kokoyakyu .

Learning Baseball the Old School Way

There is one way to play baseball: the right way. That’s the way I was taught, and the way I teach others, of all ages. You, the baseball player, regardless of your age, will likely find something useful here. Some tips and opinions you read here may seem nuts in this day and age, and that’s OK. Not everyone is cut out to play America’s game the way it was meant to be played. Enjoy, and feel free to post your comments and criticisms.