Putting the "Fun" in Fundamentals

Putting the "Fun" in Fundamentals

The beginning of our youth baseball season is here! We’ve been practicing inside regularly since January, and I could tell our 10-year-old boys were itching to get outside. That’s one drawback of living in the Midwest; baseball in January, February, (and sometimes part of March) is pretty much confined to a cage and a patch of turf (Other drawbacks include mosquitos and the smell of hog farms, but I digress . . . ).
 
So how did we keep things interesting for our kids during those months? How did we keep them engaged in the hard work that it takes in the winter to have success in the spring and summer? How do we make sure they embrace practice, so they can enjoy baseball, and not just this year, but for years to come?
 
We’ve tried a few strategies to keep the kids having fun AND improving. One thing we focus on is competition. Kids love to compete, so we’ve put together some drills that have them all fighting with each other to get better. It works in our group because the kids are all friends and handle it the right way.
 
The other thing we try to do is keep things fresh with different drills and tools, some of which we can discuss here over the next few weeks. That’s where the Magic Tee comes in. It’s a good way to work on those fundamentals, while at the same time being very new and interesting for kids to use. Again, getting kids to enjoy indoor practice in January and February? That’s magic.

The "Magic" Behind Magic Tee

The "Magic" Behind Magic Tee

As one of the originators of the Magic Tee, I’ve seen this project evolve multiple times over the past seven years. We’ve developed several different prototypes, explored all of the ways that it helps young hitters, and talked to hundreds of people in the industry, from coaches to manufacturers, about what they like and don’t like about it. The one constant, though, has been a desire to make baseball and softball training better and more fun. This is the core of what we want to do, and I believe is the magic behind the Magic Tee.

My two kids, one who loves baseball, and one who could care less about baseball, softball, or any other sport that involves a ball, have tried it and had success with it right away. Check out the video evidence below.

 

The Tee: A Coach's Perspective

I’ve coached a lot of baseball, and the tee can be an important part of developing a young swing, and refining and honing an older, more developed player’s swing. I watched a video of Bryce Harper in pre-game last year, and what did he start with? Tee work!

The Tee: A Young Hitter's Response

However, during the past five years as I’ve been with my son and his teammates, there are a few typical reactions when the tees come out.

  1. "The tee is for babies. We stopped playing tee ball when we were 6!"
  2. "This is boring. When can we get in the cage to hit live?"

That’s standard, and it’s understandable for kids who can’t see the long-term benefits of taking time to work on the mechanics before getting in the cage. I think we’ve all heard teachers and coaches use the old saying, “You have to walk before you can run.” The tee is the equivalent of “walking” in the development of a kid’s swing.

Young Hitters + Hard Work = Magic!

All this goes to the heart of what we are doing with the Magic Tee. Kids that have used it are excited and energized by it. “That’s cool!” is the regular response. Getting kids to do some of the necessary work, while having fun doing it, will make training better and more effective.

Nine-year-olds doing hard, important work on their swings, and having fun doing it? Well, that’s magic.

Is this Heaven? No. It’s Magic Tee

There’s just something about baseball. Maybe it’s cliche, but I’m from Iowa and one of my "Top 10" movies is Field of Dreams. The movie captures a beautiful picture of the power of the game of baseball and the way it creates bonds beyond and memories that last forever.

My grandfather (who passed away 3 years ago) and my dad love baseball. My dad coached me in Little League and we spent many sunsets, sometimes well into darkness, in the driveway playing catch. I can still remember playing "burnout" with grandpa in their front yard, with a big grin on his face and my cringe catching his "fastball." Now, when I see my dad play catch with my sons (daughter too) I smile thinking about what my dad and grandpa did for me through the game of baseball.

My son Ben hitting a line drive right at me! (Fall 2015)

My son Ben hitting a line drive right at me! (Fall 2015)

When Ryan and Rob approached Nathan and I about working on this project with them it was really exciting. We had recently sold Tourney Machine to Time Inc. and were right at the beginning of our "coaching careers." This past summer our boys Jack and James played on the same Little League team and we'd had multiple conversations about the challenge of hitting, building confidence at the plate, and what we needed to do to help our boys build better hitting fundamentals. The first time I saw our tee prototype I said, "I want one!" After a few conversations we knew we had to make Magic Tee a reality. 

The Right Tool

For our family, paying for specialized hitting lessons for Jack isn’t an option right now as we don’t need another planned event in our week or the extra expenses. I knew I needed a tool that can be used in the backyard, before practice, and after practice that teaches the right muscle memory habits. The Magic Tee delivers all these things.

Magic in the Making

While Kevin Costner has already proved that Iowa is heaven, I hope that as we bring Magic Tee to life over the next year you'll be able to use it to create memories and "magic moments" of your own––because in the end, those moments are the ones that matter most.

Finding His Mojo: James’s Hitting Story

Finding His Mojo: James’s Hitting Story

I’ll toss a couple of things out here as I start this post.

  1. Baseball is awesome.
  2. Hitting is hard.

I love baseball. I played it as a kid, was coached by my dad, but after high school I drifted away from the sport for awhile. The love affair resumed when my oldest son James stepped onto the field for the first time six years ago. It was the first sport that he truly “connected with” and is still his favorite sport to play (so long, soccer!).

As a parent, it’s an amazing (almost magical) feeling when your kid really connects with a sport. To see them work hard, make breakthroughs–like catching that first fly ball in the outfield–and make contributions towards their team. You see it build their confidence but you also see them learn to struggle with adversity. That’s where this story, and our story with Magic Tee begins.


Struggling at the Plate

In 2015, despite making progress in other aspects of his game, James was struggling with making contact at the plate. Due largely to poor swing habits and swing training, this lack of making contact was discouraging him and leading to a lack of confidence at the plate, which of course, had a “snowball effect,” putting him on the verge of no longer wanting to play. Knowing how much he loved the game, I knew I needed to find a better training tool to help him with this aspect of his game.


Searching for An Answer

My initial attempts to help him work on hitting were focused on more repetition, so I purchased a hitting stick so that he could get in more reps (without breaking windows in our neighborhood). There were at least three major downsides to this solution:

  1. It required an adult (me) to be around to hold the stick.
  2. It really didn’t help him address the mechanical problems with his swing.
  3. The feedback from the tool was ok, but not great because it’s a ball attached to a stick, it didn’t respond like a real ball.

My next attempt was to simply work on hitting with whiffle balls in the backyard. The goal was to produce solid line drive hits and if he hit the ball solidly, it should easily sail into the neighbor's backyard. Off my pitching, he produced a lot of pop-ups and grounders, but not many line drives. More frustration.


The Right Tool = That Magic Moment

Right about this time, Rob and Ryan shared their tee prototype with me, I knew it was exactly what James needed and I joined the team as a founding partner. I quickly asked Rob if I could start using the tee prototype with James. We set it up in the backyard with the same old whiffle ball we had been using and he ripped the first ball clean over the neighbors fence!

Text conversation between Rob and I immediately following first working with the Magic Tee.

Text conversation between Rob and I immediately following first working with the Magic Tee.

James couldn’t believe it. His swing still had a long way to go, but I could tell his mechanics were substantially better hitting from the Magic Tee. Due to its suspension design, he saw the ball differently and was naturally adjusting his swing to a more proper swing path.


Magic Tee + The Wizard: The Story Continues

In addition to further repetitions on the Magic Tee at home, we’ve been combining the natural training that the tee provides with additional coaching from Ryan, our resident batting wizard. Very quickly Ryan was able to diagnose areas for improvement and within an hour or so, James was reaping the benefit of a better hitting tool and great coaching! Here's a quick video recap of the experience.

 

James’ story will continue and Spring will be here before we know it. We’re sure there are many more “James-types” out there––people looking to take their hitting game to the next level, no matter the starting point. And they all deserve the best training tool possible.

With Magic Tee, this is the exact kind of hitting magic we want to bring to kids, parents, and coaches everywhere.

The Magic Tee Backstory

The Magic Tee Backstory

The creation of the Magic Tee was something that came from a 20-second conversation Ryan and I had walking out of the gym together. He had recently been playing with his kids using a sports themed toy that would “hang” a felt-covered wiffle ball from a plastic Velcro-covered hook. As he watched them swing he realized that instead of trying to hit the ball “up and off” as they would from a conventional tee they were swinging more down and through as he wanted them to do. The beauty of it was that to them it was totally intuitive. They didn’t have to think about why it worked better – it just did – and Ryan could then help them focus on improving their swing instead of just avoiding clubbing the tee.  

For Ryan, his years of experience in playing, hitting, and coaching helped him easily understand that an easy-to-see hanging ball was helpful in teaching his kids a cleaner, easier, and more natural swing path. In a nutshell, it was just obvious to him that it was a good thing.

That “Magical Conversation”

So what was the magical 20-second conversation we had? Ryan jokingly mentioned to me wanting a way to accomplish the same hanging feature as did the toy, but for a real baseball or softball. From what he described it would need to be able to do the following:

  1. Hang a heavy porous ball of different levels of slickness, new, old, dirty, heavy, etc.
  2. Have a tiny contact patch so that the entire ball was easily visible

As a mechanical engineer it seemed obvious to me that a source of suction was the method required to satisfy all of the requirements. It was the best way to overcome gravity and the porous ball surface while still touching as little of the ball as possible.

THE original prototype! Yup, that's an engine hoist and a shop vac.

THE original prototype! Yup, that's an engine hoist and a shop vac.

Creating the Magic

I created a crude testing-setup to evaluate my theory by using a shop-vac with a taped-down hose end to make the hose end small, turned the vacuum on, and hung it all from an engine hoist so that the hose end was hanging down at just the right height to hit a hanging ball from. My goal was to get the ball to hang with just enough vacuum to overcome gravity, so that when the ball was hit it would release and fly like a pitched-baseball would and yet not adversely effected by too much suction. It took a few tries to get the orifice the right size, but once I thought it was acceptable I asked Ryan to do a few test hits from it. It only took one to realize we were on the right track. He blessed the idea as sound and that did what he wanted it to do. I think we celebrated with beers.

From there we commissioned our fabricator friend Aaron Tjaden to create several functional tee prototypes that utilized a foot vacuum pump so you didn’t have to plug it into an electrical outlet, providing the ability to take the tee anywhere.

Then we had kids start using the tee at local practice sessions, and using it, and using it some more.  Over a number of months our prototype tees had over 1000 swings on them. That testing allowed us to see the wrinkles in the design, fine tune the vacuum system (we've now added an electric pump because smaller kids had trouble with the manual foot pump), and figure out where the tee was most likely to break or wear down over time. 

Rapidly learning proper swing form on one of our later prototypes.

Rapidly learning proper swing form on one of our later prototypes.

The Magic Emerges

We were both a little surprised at the results of testing. We expected the tees to get clobbered and destroyed by kids swinging too high and hitting the top of the tee, knocking it over, etc., but it never happened. The more we tested, the more we kept getting the same results: with the ball hanging from our tee, they would almost NEVER swing too high! They would usually take a couple of swings that were too low (and wiff), and then their spatial reasoning would kick in and at they would start making clean contact – just like magic.

The go-to-production design has come as a result of all of the development, testing, and fine tuning from the past, all fueled by our desire to create a hitting tool that teaches a proper swing and is easy-to-use, attractive, and fun for both players and coaches!