CYB spent a few hours recently with Matt Kata to reflect on what he learned running his Cleveland Indians Youth Baseball Camps this summer, and to also get his thoughts on tips for coaches this off-season to prepare for an even better 2016.
CYB: Matt, could you please tell us a little more about your camps and how they are structured?
MK: Our main objectives with our summer camp program is to provide high-quality instruction on the basic fundamentals of the game, develop positive character traits, and strengthen the bond with baseball and the Indians. Our camps are 5 day, full day camps (9am-3pm) for kids ages 6-14. We are in a different city each week for 7 weeks and then we have a camp downtown at Progressive Field.
CYB: How do you develop these skills when you only have 5 days?
MK: That’s the biggest challenge. For me, it starts and ends with the coaches. We had an unbelievable group of passionate and energetic coaches this past summer. They brought it each and every day during the summer!
The theme for our curriculum is Sesame Street simple! Hitting, throwing, catching, and fielding are complex procedures and we really focus on simplifying the way that we present and teach them to the players. Each station has a clear goal/objective and shared language which enhances the feedback the player gets when he/she is practicing. It also makes it easier for the coaches to provide quality, specific feedback, praise or critique.
Each day during the week is setup where we focus on all of fundamentals in the morning, have lunch, and then the afternoons are designed for game play, ending each day with Home Run Derby!
CYB: What does the morning routine look like?
MK: The morning routine consists of 8 different stations of drills or as we call them at camp, “vitamins”. I am not a huge fan of the word drill, especially when you are really trying to get the kids pumped about playing and practicing the skills. So we create the mindset of the drills as their daily baseball vitamins; you take regular vitamins to get your body and mind stronger…we take our baseball vitamins every day to get our skills stronger! Most of the vitamins stay the same during the week which allows the kids to really get familiar with the objective and movement patterns. After the 5 days, the hope is that the kids really leave with a good understanding of the principles and some simple and fun ways to apply them.
CYB: How are the drills organized?
MK: We have 8 “vitamin” stations that are divided by offense and defense. The 4 defensive stations focus on throwing, fielding, and catching. The 4 offensive stations focus on different aspects of the swing; timing, storing up energy, and controlling energy until contact. We also have a station that is focused on hand-eye coordination.
We have 8 groups each week in camp and each group will go through the 4 rotations in the offense or defense and then rotate accordingly. The drills are high energy and our goal is to get the most amount of touches and reps for the kids as we possibly can in the 14 minutes. We purposefully do not change a lot in each station during the week and this is where the clear objectives, shared language, and quality coaches really come into play.
CYB: What is an example of a tweak that you have used?
MK: We have 8 groups each week in camp that are broken down by simply by age. Group 1 each week will typically consist of 6 and 7 year olds and then it goes up from there to Group 8. This past summer, I decided to experiment with a concept I read about the Chinese diving team doing where they have all different age groups practice together. The way the week sets up, Thursday and Friday are review days with nothing new introduced at each of the stations. So we decided to implement this concept on each Thursday and the results were outstanding! The tweak provided a little freshness for the kids and coaches. You really saw some of the older kids take on a mentor roles and the younger kids dialing up their focus and concentration around the “big kids”!
CYB: Aside from teaching technical skills, what else do you focus on during camp?
MK: The first question I ask each group of kids on Monday morning of each week of camp is, “Who wants to be a MLB player when they grow up?” 80 hands immediately go up each week which never gets old for me! Goals and dreams are important and I shared that same goal growing up. But then I follow up that question with, “Who thinks I was just born that way and didn’t have to do any work to get to the big leagues?” No hands go up. Baseball is a tough game with so much that is out of our control. So on Day 1, we immediately instill our A-C-E mindset: control the 3 things that are up to us…our Attitude, Concentration, and Effort…encouraging them to “A-C-E the day! Each day at camp. At the end of each day, each coach will choose an “A-C-E of the Day” for their group. Indians Youth Baseball is also partnered with the Positive Coaching Alliance. One of PCA’s concepts is Honoring the Game which they call ROOTS: respect the Rules, Officials, Opponents, and Self. Coaches will also have opportunities each day to give “ROOTS Shout Outs” to any camper that they saw respecting the game during our afternoon time.
CYB: How much time do you spend communicating with parents?
MK: Communication is a crucial part of the camp experience. We try and provide the parents with as much information and detail on the expectations for the week.
Every Monday after our camp intro, I hold back all of the parents for about 10 minutes as the coaches get the kids warmed up. The first thing I bring up is the fact that each one of their kids raised his or her hand saying that they wanted to be a MLB player and then proceed to put into perspective the chances of them reaching that goal. Knowing this, the big question to them is, “what do you want your child to gain from the experience of playing sports, baseball?” As we know, there are a lot of life lessons engrained within the game of baseball. I believe that parents and guardians are important assets when it comes to the development process and our goal is to engaged them in the process. We encourage them to ask questions and stick around for as long as they can during the week to get a better idea of the drills and language. Doing this gives the parent or guardian some “street cred” in being able to talk the talk of baseball and have a little understanding of the process their child is going through.
CYB: As a coach, does the importance of parent communication ever end?
MK: I don’t think so. I believe that the parent or guardian is the biggest asset with development. They are the biggest cheerleader for their child and want nothing but the best for them. We hear a lot of stories centered around issues with parents. I believe that most of the time those issues arise from a lack of communication from the coach.
I meet with the coaching staff at my alma mater here in Cleveland, Saint Ignatius HS and we talk a lot about the parent’s role and ways that we can improve in that area. Educating and informing parents is so powerful and we came up with the idea of putting together a Parent Clinic where they would get a glimpse of the physical and mental process that their son goes through to have success. I was able to observe the clinic and it blew me away! Sons teaching their mom and dad how to throw, catch, and hit….smiling, laughing, bonding. It was outstanding and exceeded all of our expectations.
CYB: More and more, it seems that kids put a lot of pressure on themselves to be “perfect” when playing the game. How do you address that at camp?
MK: From Day 1 of camp, myself and the coaching staff work very hard to create a safe, positive, and fun learning environment for the kids. In addition to relentlessly focusing on our A-C-E mindset with the kids, we make sure that the kids know that mistakes are OK and that learning from them is an important part of the development process. We really focus on developing a growth mindset during the week where the kids are not afraid to fail and stretch themselves.
Trevor Bauer is a huge supporter of Indians Youth Baseball and tells a great story to the kids when he comes out about how he sometimes falls down when doing some of his drills, even at his age and he is in the big leagues! It’s great to see the looks on the faces of the kids afterwards.
CYB: As we head into the off-season, any further tips for youth baseball coaches?
MK: Keep looking for ways to ignite passion for the game of baseball. Sometimes it may be as simple as teaching kids the basic 101 of keeping score, which is something we do at our camps, and then taking the team out to a local HS, College, MiLB game, or MLB game to watch and keep score. It’s fun, there’s a team-building aspect to it and in the end you are helping kids develop a true love for everything about the greatest game ever played!
CYB: Anything else, as we wrap up?
MK: I think kids need a chance to really miss the game of baseball. I know that the landscape of youth sports and youth baseball has changed dramatically over the years and for many reasons but there is a lot of research out there on long-term athletic development and the issues around early specialization in sport. I am a huge advocate of playing multi-sports and the athletic development benefits but as I mentioned early, more importantly for the chance to get away from the game, miss it a ton, and get excited when it is time to start back up!
I enjoyed the conversation and keep up the outstanding efforts in positively impacting the game of baseball!
(Interview took place via phone 10/13/15)