I remember as a kid, getting on my bike, hooking my glove to those old rounded and curved handle bars, jamming my bat under the banana seat and wedging a baseball in between the frame of the forks and the upper bar. Then peddling as fast as I could to the nearby field, school or open area and joining my buddies for a game of sandlot baseball. That’s right, just like the movie, The Sandlot. Spending hot, sunny summer days running, hitting, throwing, catching, making up silly rules as the each game had an effect on your team’s outcome.
These days never appeared to end; they were days that seemingly made summers feel like there was no end in sight. It was what we lived for all day, then, dash home, get some food, change out of your grass stained, dirt covered street clothes and throw on your team's uniform and head to the yard for a structured, do it this way, don’t think for yourself game.
Why do you think as a kid, we spent more hours playing in an unstructured environment, playing dog tired and hungry and fighting for every at bat, ground ball or out? It is simple - we all wanted to be baseball players and were allowed to be our own baseball player with no governing rules on how to throw, hit, run, field or even when to steal and oh yes, taking pitches, no chance, it was about swinging the bat. It was about figuring out the game by figuring out the game - experiential learning and OWNING it.
What could we get away with, what could we not get away with? How could I pitch to certain buddy, did I know his weakness? Should I tag up or should I not tag up??? No one told me. Like the rest of us, we figured it out, albeit, not all of it, but we did figure it out. Even though we did not know how much we did not know, we found a way to begin to figure out what we did not know.
Sandlot baseball, playing catch, playing 500 Up (I think kids nowadays call it Jackpot), Burnout, Pickle, each one of these teaches one thing that kids in this generation lack…instinct or better yet, baseball instinct. Where has it gone? It's simple, two things have happened:
- First, kids are so preoccupied with other mitigating factors that just playing baseball with buddies is no longer at the top of their list. These factors then become distractions…video, internet, smartphones, satellite television, etc. Instead of using these factors as a means of developing and stimulating baseball instinct or game sense, kids use these to download videos, watch movies, play games (not baseball games) or just to communicate with their buddies. To each their own, no judgment is being placed here, but I just wish that there was more awareness and honesty with the fact that spending time on those things when you could be playing/practicing is taking away from your development as a baseball player...and from your baseball instinct.
- Second, kids are truly no longer capable of - or perhaps more accurately, encouraged or allowed to - doing their own thinking during games. Next time you go to a game, take note of how many times you will see third base coaches flashing signs for no reason, or telling kids to take pitches, or telling them when to go or not to go on the bases, or the best one yet, is coaches calling pitch after pitch and never letting the catcher and pitcher try to figure something out. Instead, kids are not allowed to think for themselves, they are not allowed to be empowered to make their own decisions, ones that they will own and be accountable for. Hey coach, did you ever think that calling so many movements for your players might be a built in cop out for them if and when they don't work out?
Yes, the importance of basic fundamentals is critical and good coaching has a very important role in it. Tough to play the game if one is unable to have some fundamental skill in the areas of hitting, throwing, catching, running, etc. However, where most kids lack is actually not in the spectrum of fundamentals, it is in the lack of instinct. Kids are not allowed to be inquisitive or to just "fiddle around" like you see a toddler doing incessantly, learning various causes and effects to no end. In some cases players become institutionalized, only knowing what they know - what they are filled up with - but not fully knowing what they need to know. Never having a chance to develop baseball instinct because someone else wants to do all of their thinking! It is too bad, because the essence of fundamental skill undoubtedly is critical and will get kids to the next level, but the importance of baseball instinct will have a considerable impact on fundamental skill development.
Baseball instinct has a wide array of meanings. But I would sum it up by saying it is how quickly a player is able to think and calculate, with no hesitation, to make an accurate and correct decision. It is a largely calculated move that involves split second decision making. The quicker the decision the better the reaction! Players with good instinct read, react and respond with the correct decision making process, while players with less instinct, are always a step behind and much slower to react.
Now, I go back to what kids nowadays don’t do; or the amount of over-coaching they receive; or the lack of letting kids figure things out. It is then without wonder that we have kids that may have fundamental skill, but lack true in game sense…or baseball instinct. And that's a shame. It doesn't have to be that way, and the ones that find a way to develop it will be better in the long run and very likely also find much more enjoyment in a game that they can play for a very long time.
Rick Johnston, Co-Founder & Head Instructor - The Baseball Zone