C'mon, Johnny, let's throw strikes."Some variation of this extremely common statement is heard at most youth baseball games and even in some high school baseball games. Needless to say, it is directed at the team's pitcher. Sometimes, coaches make this statement before the pitcher has thrown his first pitch but much more often, coaches make this statement when the pitcher is having difficulty finding the strike zone.
Merely a harmless, odd thing to say?Some people joke about how weird it is to say this to a kid. "Of course the pitcher is trying to throw strikes. What, you think he's trying to throw balls?" they muse. OK, fine, that is a correct perception; it's true that only a small minority of coaches realize that telling a kid to "throw strikes" is weird. But that's not perceptive enough. Saying "throw strikes" is not just something to snicker about, to mock at what a goofy saying it is. If the problem was just that coaches say innocently odd things, it wouldn't be that big of a big deal. In that case, sure, you would chalk it up as a Yogi-ism, chuckle at the coach and move on. After all, when coaches say this phrase, I'm sure the intent is to be helpful. I don't know the exact reason why a coach would tell his kid pitcher to "throw strikes" but perhaps the coach thinks the pitcher isn't focused enough and needs a reminder to focus. Or, more likely, maybe the coach feels that he's not a good coach unless he's saying something to a player who's struggling. But whatever the reason, the coach didn't say "throw strikes" to intentionally be harmful. Yet, it actually is harmful.
What's the harm?When you say something to the effect of "throw strikes", you actually are doing not one, but two harmful things:
- Publicly disowning your pitcher. He's already struggling. So making that remark is basically throwing your pitcher under the bus in front of everyone else. It's like saying, "Hey, people, it's not my fault he's not throwing strikes and walking people. If we lose, it's his fault. Hey, I'm telling him to throw strikes!"
- Putting more pressure on your pitcher. Internally, he already realizes he's not throwing strikes. By vocally telling him to do something that he is currently struggling to do, you create more pressure on him because now he is aware his coach is unhappy. Unless the kid has a strong mental makeup, this added pressure makes it more difficult to throw strikes, creating a snowball effect.
The better approachHere's what I say: "You're good, Johnny. Next pitch!" By saying some variation of this, you're now doing three different things:
- Conveying to your pitcher that you're not worried. Players don't realize it (and most coaches don't either) but players are a reflection of their coach. If the coach is noticeably stressed, the players become stressed. If the coach is relaxed, the players tend to be relaxed. If the coach isn't worried, it rubs off on the pitcher. Remember, the goal is not to win the game; the goal is to develop your pitcher—in this case, develop his mental game. As you do that, the games will take care of themselves.
- Giving your pitcher confidence. The phrase "You're good, Johnny"—or some such equivalent—is intentionally given first to publicly support your pitcher. Phrases like, "Man, you were really close" or "That was a great pitch" if pitches are close but get no call from the umpire are excellent confidence-boosters. If pitches are nowhere close to the strike zone, you could say, "Love your delivery" or "Throwing hard—love it!" are confidence-boosters that still are truthful (unlike saying "You were really close" if he wasn't).
- Helping your pitcher focus on the next pitch. The phrase "Next pitch" is mentioned second to give your pitcher a new goal: rather than dwelling or panicking over what has happened in the past, you want your pitcher to focus on the next pitch. All season long, you want to teach your team that all that matters is the next pitch. The past is done. You can't control the past, to go back into the past to change what happened. But what you can control is the future—the next pitch. Just like flipping a coin (where past flip outcomes have no bearing on the outcome of future flips—it's always 50-50 on every flip), past pitch outcomes have no bearing on the outcome of future pitches.
The bottom lineIf you are a coach who has told your pitchers in the past to "throw strikes", make a commitment today to throw that phrase in the garbage where it belongs. In its place, say something that expresses confidence to your pitcher while encouraging him to focus on the next pitch. Even if they still struggle to throw strikes, your pitchers will love you for at least having their back rather than shooting it.
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