SPOTLIGHT: Private instruction can be beneficial, or create conflict, for prep athletes

NEW NORMAL: Hutch Grace and his head coach at Calvary Baptist Academy, Jason Legg, have collaborated to benefit from Grace taking private hitting lessons during the offseason.

By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports

In last December’s chill, while preparing for the high school baseball season, Calvary Baptist Academy’s Hutch Grace realized something wasn’t right.

“I wasn’t hitting (the ball) solid,” Grace said. “And most of the time, I was under it.”

The result was either a swing and a miss, or a weak ground ball.

“My hands and timing were off,” Grace said. “It was one of those things you couldn’t fix in a day, or in 30 minutes during the school hour, when you only have 30 minutes or an hour to hit.”

So, Grace, like a lot of athletes trying to improve, turned to a private instructor.

“I think it’s a blessing, honestly,” said Calvary head coach Jason Legg, of athletes having the opportunity to take personal lessons. “There are guys out there who are professionally trained. Maybe they’re not a coach-type person, but they’re an individual training-type person.”

However, the lines between a player, coach, and instructor are as thin the white chalk of the batter’s box. If the coach teaches one way, and the instructor teaches another way, that can cause a bases-loaded jam.

“Let’s say you go out and work with whomever is teaching hitting,” Legg said. “You’re not producing on the field, yet when we do hitting as a team, you want to do something different than everybody else. Obviously, that’s going to cause a problem with any high school coach.”

One player, two head coaches, two instructors, and a parent were interviewed for this story. Everyone emphasized that a dialogue is essential.

“I just felt like it was really important to communicate with our coaches what we were wanting to do,” said Justin Grace, Hutch’s father. “I think that led to our coaches really embracing that anything you need to do to help Hutch, that helps the team.”

Paul Barton, a former college player who owns PB Performance, began working with players two years ago.

“The biggest thing is having a relationship with a coach,” Barton said, “and understanding what he wants to accomplish.”

Barton’s approach is as simple as a question.

“What can I do to help each high school win?”

Sometimes, when a player takes private lessons, the three-way relationship can get just a bit outside the strike zone. Vaughn Shapen, a former player and coach — and now instructor with Gold Culture Performance — hasn’t had that happen often. But it has happened.

“The way I look at it is if they’re not talking about you, you’re not doing your job,” Shapen said. “You deal with that with some of these coaches. They will let you know, or they will let the players know, that they don’t really care for the guy you’re working with.”

At Airline High School, Toby Todd has a few players who work with private instructors. In his 21st year as the Vikings head coach, Todd believes that one-on-one teaching can be helpful — especially in the off-season, when a player wants to stay sharp.

But Todd offers one caveat.

“For that young man, the bottom line is that in high school baseball, it’s a team-oriented game,” Todd said. “You need to do what’s best for the team and you need to do it the team way … the bottom line is to be in our lineup, you do things our way.”

“When push comes to shove, you’ve got to listen to your high school coaches,” Hutch Grace said. “They’re the ones determining whether you play or not. Of course, I’m going to have to go with doing whatever my high school coaches need me to do or tell me to do.”

Photo courtesy of ERIC LYDDY