Instructional Scrimmage …a win-win activity for every practice

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You are coaching a youth baseball or softball team and wrap up another game with more mistakes than expected.  You’ve done a good job getting your team ready and practices have run well, but the team’s efforts are not translating to games.  What could be missing in your preparation?

Many youth baseball and softball coaches run solid practices, do a great job teaching skills and taking their kids through drills, but don’t see that effort in practice translate to game success.  One aspect of practice that many coaches leave out is practicing playing the game.

Failing to include a Scrimmage as part of a practice plan may be the missing link in a team’s formula for success in games.

The first reaction to the idea of including a scrimmage in practice is that it is not a productive use of time; ‘the kids are just playing around and not getting better’.   That can be true if the scrimmage does not have a clear objective and is not structured properly.  On the other hand, if a scrimmage is structured and managed as a teaching tool, it can be the activity that ties everything together.

 

 

Three Benefits of Ending Each Practice with a Scrimmage

1.         Kids don’t sign up to practice baseball and softball; they sign up to PLAY

Kids understand the need to practice, but we can’t lose site of the fact that playing is what they really want to do.

There is much talk of the need to make drills fun and competitive to keep kids engaged.  However, in many cases, trying to instill these elements into drills detracts from their true objective, which is to get the kids the reps they need to develop their skills.  Ending each practice with a scrimmage provides fun and competition.

Knowing that practice will conclude with a scrimmage helps with discipline in drills and other practice activities. Players are more motivated to follow directions and move quickly between drills when they know doing otherwise scrimmage time.

 

2.         Players learn to translate skills to the variations speed of a game during scrimmage

Actual game situations can vary quite a bit from a structured drill environment.  The combination of the placement of the ball off the bat and the speed and location of the runners is unique for most every play.  Kids can master drills and skills in practice, but if they are not experienced in applying those to the unique situations and pace of a game they are not as prepared as they could be.

 

3.         Learning to coordinate as a unit on defense

Drills, as they should, break the game down into smaller segments.  Scrimmage creates an environment where all nine players must participate to ensure the defense functions properly regardless of what comes up over the course of a play.

At the youth level broken plays occur often.  When these circumstances come up in a scrimmage players learn to regroup on the fly and bring the play under control.  Early in the season players will be slow to cover a base, be in position to back up throws and get into position to execute a relay.  Through scrimmage they quickly recognize how each player contributes to defensive play.

In the scrimmage format outlined below, we maintain a fast pace that engages all nine defensive players throughout the activity.  On each play there will be mistakes; corrections are made and learning within the context of the game takes place. 

Our feedback during scrimmage is not limited to correcting and teaching.  On each play we also have the opportunity to acknowledge the kids doing things well.  When we point out what our kids are doing right, no matter how basic, we build their confidence. 

Specifics regarding feedback during a scrimmage are covered in detail following the next section.

 

Scrimmage Structure

1.         Nine on defense, one batter, two base runners

Players do not sit out waiting their turn to bat.  Extra offensive players are on the bases getting base running experience.  Including base runners on each play also requires increased decision making on the part of the defense; a big factor in learning the game. 

Later, after the players get used to the flow of scrimmage and making a quick transition from the conclusion of one play to the next batter, we can utilize the option of having only one base runner and an on-deck batter, who steps in to bat as soon as the previous play is over.

 

2.         Players don’t pitch during scrimmage

Scrimmage is not the place for developing pitching skills.  A coach pitches from 20’-30’ away (we still have a player at the rubber fulfilling the defensive responsibilities of the pitcher).   The closer the coach-pitcher, the higher the percentage of hittable pitches.  I urge coaches to pitch from a knee (instructional video: watch 0:38 - 1:20 for Baseball; 1:20 - 2:10 for Softball). 

Keys to maximizing scrimmage time is a providing a high percentage of strikes and limiting the amount of time between the end of one play and pitching to the next batter.  At the conclusion of a play our players quickly get back to their positions, receive brief feedback and then the coach pitches to the next batter. 

 

3.         Positions on defense

Early in the season we give players reps at a lot of different positions during scrimmage.  My philosophy is for kids to get experience at as many positions at possible.  But as the season progresses we need to be mindful of getting players reps at the positions they’ll most likely be playing on game day.

 

4.         Assistant coaches spread out on the field to provide feedback following each play

Position one coach between the third baseman and left fielder and they communicate with those two positions as well as the shortstop.  A second coach stands between the first baseman and right fielder focusing on the three players closest to them.  If an additional coach is available, put them in the area behind second base where they can give feedback to players in that area. 

The coach doing the pitching (usually the head coach) focus their feedback on the pitcher, catcher and batter. Comments to the batter should be limited to simple reminders of what has already been taught and trained ie, ‘turn fast’, ‘head in place’, ‘balance’, etc.  Scrimmage is not the place for detailed batting instruction. 

In our first few scrimmages we let many mistakes go because not much content has been taught.  As the season progresses, and the kids are exposed to more information, our feedback during scrimmage covers more aspects of the game.

 

5.         Use a batting tee for scrimmage (sometimes)

Because the objective of scrimmage is to get the players massive game repetitions in a short period of time, using a tee can help achieve this goal.  A tee guarantees a strike 100% of the time, which speeds up the pace of the scrimmage. 

When using a tee, we can change the relationship of the batter to the ball/contact point and have some control of where the ball is hit (pull, middle, opposite field).   

Most scrimmages have the coach pitching, but it’s important to recognize the tee as an option.  Also, when we are short coaches, using a tee with a coach at home plate instead of pitching, with their back to the defense, they can keep their eyes on all the action.

 

Team development needs and which point of the season you are in dictates how much time is invested in scrimmage.  Early in the year scrimmage may be only 15-20 minutes, giving each player one time to bat.  As the season progresses, scrimmage time can bump up to 30 minutes with each player batting multiple times. 

 

Making an Instructional Scrimmage a Powerful Teaching Tool

Below are guidelines for setting up and running a productive instructional scrimmage.  This is not a complete list, but the fundamental aspects of play that a youth team wants to be executing by the latter parts of their season.

Rules for Teaching

  • Only correct what has been taught and drilled in practice
  • Be on the lookout for things the kids do correctly and acknowledge their accomplishments.
  • Keep comments directed towards actions, not results

 

Focus Points for Teaching

  • The teaching and reinforcement points that your coaching staff is concerned with depends on the age of your kids, their level of play and the amount of content that has been taught and drilled in your practice sessions.

 

Common Physical Mistakes and Addressing Those Mistakes

  • Errors and other physical mistakes are going to happen often.  Kids know when they have missed a ground ball or made a poor throw.  We want to help our players learn from their mistakes, so how do we address them?  Use action focused talk when giving feedback.  Examples:
  1.           Keep your feet moving through the fielding action and you’ll make that play next time.
  2.           Follow your head after the throw and it will be straighter next time
  3.          “Reach forward to catch” and you’ll make that play next time

 

 

The Primary Goal of a Scrimmage is Improving Team Defensive Play

Often in youth baseball games, when the ball is put in play, many of the players do not move.  The fact is that each player on defense has a role on every play and needs to be moving.  Scrimmage exposes kids to this fact multiple times in a short period of time. 

From the time the ball is put into play until it is returned securely to the pitcher at the play’s conclusion it is usually handled by 3 or 4 players and sometimes more.  At our level of play, managing the ball as it moves around the field is a challenge.  Base runners add to the complexity of the defensive responsibilities.  In a game (and scrimmage) there are no do-overs, so the players are pressed to make decisions quickly while executing the physical requirements as well.

The points below are few and brief, but constitute the core aspects of team play that we are working to improve in our scrimmage.

Identify the Situation

  • Number of outs
  • Location of runners
  • The bases a force out can be made

 

Movement

  • Three B’s: Play the Ball, Cover a Base or Back-up a Throw
  • “Cover the base with your eyes”
  • Players must move quickly and with purpose the moment the ball is put into play
  • Keep the ball moving at all times

 

Dealing with Base Runners

  • Conscious of all options for getting an out
  • Stop the runners by getting the ball to a point on the field where they see they are at risk if they try to advance
  • Quickly and securely get the ball back to the pitcher at the conclusion of each play

 

Communication

  • Catcher calls out what to do with the ball when it is in play
  • Infield echos to the outfield what to do with the ball
  • Fly balls between two players

 

Relays

  • Positioning of the cut-relay player
  • Communication between players involved in the play
  • Throws:
  1.   Outfielders always ‘hit the cut’
  2.   Cut-relay player footwork: “Move Feet to Catch”, “Move Feet to Throw”
  3.   Recognizing when to not relay the ball (runners either stop or are safe the majority of the time in relay situations)

 

 

Teaching and Feedback - Individual Skills

The primary objective of the instructional scrimmage is to keep things moving.  Given this goal, a scrimmage is not the place for detailed teaching of individual skills.  Our comments are limited to quick reminders of aspects of the skills that have already been taught and trained in drills.  It is likely we will identify aspects of skill technique that need further work.  In these cases we make a mental note and address those needs in an upcoming practice(s).

Batting

  • Lower Half Turn
  • Head in Place
  • “Let the ball get to your feet”

 

Base Running

  • Aggressive on balls hit to the outfield (always looking to advance two bases)
  • Proper technique running to and through first base
  • Don’t watch the ball; put attention on the base (or base coach)

 

Fielding Ground Balls

  • Get to the ball quickly (‘Charge the ball’, etc.)
  • Footwork
  • Reading hops
  • Hand and glove position

 

Fielding Fly Balls

  • Drop step
  • Beat the ball to a spot or running through the catch
  • Extend the glove arm to catch (catch the ball away from the body)

 

Throwing Technique

  • Move feet to power the throw
  • Keep head straight and pointed towards the target
  • Momentum to continue towards the target following the throw
  • Wrist snap for better accuracy

 

Proper Type of Throw for the Situation

  • Underhand toss on short distance throws (more accurate and easier to catch)
  • Was a throw necessary?
  1. Could the player fielding the ball carry it to the base before the runner arrives?
  2. When the runners stop trying to advance, a defensive player can run the ball in or run it to a point close enough where a sure throw and catch can be made

 

Missed throw

  • “Ready Position” - be prepared to “Move feet to catch”
  • “Reach forward to catch”
  • “Ball first, base second”
  • Wait until the ball is on its way and is accurate before committing to a ‘stretch position’

 

 

Developing our players’ skill and knowledge through drills and the teaching of the finer points of batting, pitching and fielding are important parts of any well planned practice.   Adding a scrimmage to the end of each practice makes the day’s learning the complete.

 

More information is found on Scrimmage page of the website. 

A Great Part of the Sports Experience ...the interesting things you see during your travels

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Yesterday I put on a pitching clinic for a local league at Garfield High School near downtown Seattle.   It had been years since I'd visited Garfield.

Pulling into the parking lot I found a world famous name in front of me: 'Quincy Jones Performance Center'.

It was a pleasant surprise to see that this 79-time Grammy Award Winner and music industry icon, who who worked with Michael Jackson, among other legends, had helped out his Alma Mater by building this venue on its campus.

Jones' family wasn't all about music.  His father, who moved the family to Seattle following WWII when Quincy was 12, had been a semi-pro baseball player in Kentucky.

Another musical legend also attended Garfield HS; Jimi Hendrix.

it was a great day working with all the kids, parents and coaches of Seattle PONY baseball; and walking the same grounds as two of the most famous people in the history of American music.

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Want To Run More Productive Practices and Develop Better Players? …..make this one simple adjustment

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Great coaches give keep their players moving constantly and maximize the number of repetitions in skill development activities in each practice.

How do they do this?

They chuck away their bat and deliver balls in drills by rolling, throwing and tossing the ball.

 

A key to skill development is repeating the same good actions over and over and over.  For this to happen we need to consistently deliver the ball to the same spot.  What percentage of the time can we, using a bat, hit a ball ten feet to the second baseman’s right while standing at home plate?  What percentage of the time when rolling the ball from 20’ away?

 

When using a bat, we shank the ball, pop it up, line it past the player or hit it too wide.  Gosh, sometimes we even swing and miss  [:o  And what do these errors by the coach, in delivering the ball, do to help our players get the reps they need to improve?

 

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College and pro coaches run fielding drills every day without a bat, why don’t we do the same in youth baseball and softball?

Dodgers Outfielders - training drop step and going back (in the background) - Watch 0:30-0:50    

 

A theory that I have is many of us show up early to the park to watch a college or pro game and see the coach standing at home plate hitting balls around the field to their players in pre-game warm up.  We then make the mistake of copying this warm-up activity when running drills in our practices.

 

An effective drill session has 3-4 groups of players on different parts of the field, with coaches running drills by rolling or tossing balls to their players.  These drills are run in compact spaces, they are fast moving and, most importantly, the plyers are getting mass repetitions and repeating fundamentally sound actions.

Cardinals OF - low liners - Watch 0:00 – 0:20

 

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When I was coaching in college, driving to high school games to scout players, I went past hundreds of youth practices.  In almost every instance the same thing was going on:  a coach at home plate, with a bat in their hands and the entire team spread out around the field with most of the players standing around waiting while one ball was being hit by the coach.

 

I would see this having just finished a college practice where our coaches had been rolling and tossing balls to our players in many of our drills.  Just the other day I drove past my local high school where the girls softball team was practicing.  And there it was again!  Fifteen or 16 girls standing around, waiting, while the coach stood at home plate hitting a single ball around the field.  While doing this, there was a bucket full of balls sitting right next to the coach…..not being used.

 

A misconception about ground ball drills is the ball needs to be delivered fast.  Developing fielding skills is more about footwork, timing, and angles then the act of catching the ball.  (Through repetition, the players will develop the hand-eye coordination for catching ground balls.)   I constantly see youth coaches in practices hitting rocket ground balls to their kids.  These kids are still trying to learn basic fundamentals….and working to overcome an understandable fear of the ball.

Rangers      1:00-1:07 (can’t see coach; based on pace of ball and accuracy, can tell its being rolled)

                    2:58-3:11 - tossing fly balls

                    3:45-4:00 - batting off a knee from pitchers mound (same concept: Compact Space, Accuracy and Reps) 

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We want to deliver balls in such a way, so the players have time to work on their approach to the ball, get their feet and bodies in a good fielding position and have a good chance of cleanly fielding the ball, so to then work on transitioning to make a throw.  When the primary thing on their mind is the possibility that their teeth might get knocked out, executing good fielding fundamentals is not going to make it up the priority list.

 

A few years back I watched a TV interview with Brendan Ryan, who was the Seattle Mariners’ shortstop, and at that time regarded by many as the best defensive shortstop in the game.  This was during spring training and he was still recovering from an arm injury.  The sportscaster asked him, “Brendan, how do you get any work done when you can’t throw?” 

 

Having been a shortstop, and having instructed fielding for years, I wanted to jump through the TV screen and hug Brendan when I heard his response.  He said, “Paul (Silvi), I can do everything.  All fielding and throwing skills are based on footwork.  I do all the drills, I just don’t finish with a throw”.  He went on to say, without being prompted, “You know, Paul, I see youth coaches spending way too much time teaching hands, when they need to teach kids how to use their feet.  Paul, my feet make my hands work

 

When running most ground ball and fly ball drills, have the coach positioned 20’ or 40’ or 50’ from the player, depending on the drill, and roll, throw or toss the ball.  Tell the players in advance what actions they are working on and where the ball will be delivered. Then repeat the drill, with the ball going to that same spot 5-10 times for each player.   Once that set of reps is completed, move on to another drill or change the current drill by alerting the players that you will next be delivering the ball to a new spot.

Twins - Sano footwork in OF - Watch 3:50-4:15; 4:55-5:10

 

Some coaches will say, “But in a game, the ball comes off the bat, comes at them fast and they don’t know where the ball is going to be hit”.  

Correct! But this is not a game. 

This is practice and we are helping kids develop skills.  Skills are learned best when the same action is repeated over and over.  We want make the most of our limited practice time to develop skills, so that when game time comes our players are equipped with the skills they need to perform as well as they can.

Yankees, DP Turn - using a machine (same concept: Accurate delivery, Quick pace, Massive Reps) - Watch 0:15-0:35

 

Let’s run our youth baseball and softball practices like college and pro coaches.  Let’s ditch the bat and roll, throw and toss balls in many of our drills.  We will get a lot more accomplished, the kids will keep moving, having more fun and will get better at the game!

Herding Cats …can the Tee-Ball experience be improved?

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Baseball?   Hmmmmmm.....yes, there are bases, and the players are hitting the ball with a bat, but really, Tee-Ball is a bunch of kids in the park playing a different version of tag.

Sports, especially baseball, are very different when played by 4-6 year olds.  The soccer folks have figured this out; baseball has been slow to figure this out.   When was the last time we saw a youth soccer game comprised of 4-6 year olds that had two sides of eleven playing against each other?  No, they are playing 4 against four on an itty-bitty field.  Many youth baseball organizations continue to have teams of 12-14 kids, with all of them playing in the field together.

How much action are those six outfielders having?  What is the experience like for this young of a human when asked to sit still for 5-10 minutes waiting for a dozen teammates take their turn to bat?  We are fighting human nature to ask a 4-6 year old to sit and watch other kids play, but not be allowed to join in.

What is the logic in mimicking the game played by mature teens and adults and having teams of a dozen or more players and stashing half the team in the outfield where few balls are hit (at least early in the season)? 

Let’s give the idea of making Tee-Ball a game of 6 v 6 a chance; played with kids at the four infield positions, pitcher and catcher. l.

These over-sized rosters create additional problems on the offensive side of the game.  When we watch the game played at higher levels the players sit patiently on the bench waiting for their turn to bat.  We take the game to the Tee-Ball level with delusional thoughts that our little tykes can do the same.  Rosters of ten, twelve or more makes the players endure what is an agonizingly long wait, for a very young child, to get a chance to bat. 

Let’s re-evaluate our antiquated approach to how Tee-Ball is structured.  Could it be that the current structure has resulted in a significant number of players leaving the game, out of boredom, long before they had an opportunity to learn what baseball is all about?  Have we been losing the opportunity to fill more rosters at the higher levels within our leagues as a result of how the Tee-Ball level is currently operated?  

 

Cut Back the Number of Kids on a Team

Tee-Ball with six kids on a side makes a lot of sense.  Teams can be organized with seven on a roster, figuring that on many days we will lose one player to the sniffles, etc.  On days where all seven show up, the extra player can be placed in center field (which is about 10 feet behind second base).  The extra player, in this scenario, would only get stuck in the outfield one time per game, assuming we rotate defensive positions each inning.  

Almost all the game action is in the infield.  When a ball does make it to the outfield, our little infielders are more than eager to run after it.  These little bundles of energy are dying to run around.  Chasing the ball into the outfield is a major bonus for them.  

With fewer kids on the field, each player has a legitimate opportunity to participate in each play.   It also makes it easier for each to learn and gain a basic understanding of the game when each is playing an actual position, rather than standing among a mass of bodies.   Having a bunch of kids spread out in ultra-shallow outfield depth waiting to accost the infielders each time the ball is put into play is not an environment for learning.

 

More Reps and Limited ‘Dugout’ Chaos

When we make the change to six against six Tee-Ball, the kids learn more, have more fun and a higher percentage will return to play again next year.  The league administrators I have talked to over the years name increased retention as a top priority, if not the #1 goal, for their league.  Let’s look at a few ideas that can improve the Tee-Ball experience for the players (and the adults too).

1  -  Start each inning with runners on first and second base.  Why not?  This is not pro baseball; it’s not high school baseball; in fact it doesn’t closely resemble the game our 11-12 year olds play.   With two kids on base and a third player batting we are  left with only three little monsters to manage in the ‘dugout’.   In addition to limiting the number of kids in the dugout, by starting each inning with two players on base we are getting more kids involved in the game.  Those on the bases are gaining valuable game experience.

2  -  Kids love to hit the ball and run.  By cutting in half the number of kids on a team, we double the number of times each player gets to bat each game.  More chances to bat means more fun, excitement and anticipation on the part of the players.  Double batting opportunities increase skill development.  Greater skill development improves the experience and increases the desire to return and play baseball the following year.

3  -  Fewer kids on defense allows each player to handle the ball more often.  Confusion is decreased by eliminated unneeded bodies running around creating chaos.  In this new environment the opportunity for the kids to gain a better understanding of the game increases exponentially.

 

The Batter

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A common scenario at the Tee-Ball level is the game being played by three kids: The batter, the pitcher and the first baseman.  This is a result of many players’ inability to hit the ball past the pitcher.  Below are a few simple strategies to improve batting.  When our batters put the ball in play on the first swing or two and most of the balls are hit beyond the pitcher, the game moves faster, more players are involved in each play and everyone has fun and learns the game.

Swing the bat with the legs  -  The power in a batting swing comes almost entirely from the legs.  Most children only use their arms to swing the bat.  his is the most important skill to teach in Tee-Ball.  This article explains teaching kids to use their legs to power their batting swing.  The article is for kids a few years older than Tee-Ballers.  Utilize the technical and teaching points; leave out references to a 'batting workout', 'checkpoints' etc.  That stuff is over the heads, attention span and interest of Tee-Ball age players.

Distance the Batter Stands from the Ball on the Tee  We want the batter to stand one bat length away from the tee stem.  Extend a bat from the tee stem to the batter’s hip (while they stand straight and tall).  .

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Batter’s Box Design***  Make a perpendicular line on the ground across the batter’s boxes.  Use grass paint, line chalk, or anything you can come up with to make this line.  Set the batting tee so the stem is lined up directly over the top of the line.  Each batter places their front foot on the line when getting into their stance.  This creates the ideal relationship between their body and the ball at contact.  Note the relationship between the ball and the front foot in the pictures.  Cntact is generally made when the ball is even with the front foot, give or take a few inches.  (Also not that each is turning their legs to swing the bat.)

Incorporate (I will suggest mandate) the practice of utilizing this line across the batter’s box in all practices and games across your Tee-Ball program.This simple practice will make a greater impact on the quality of PLAY in your at the Tee-Ball level than any other single factor.

Positioning and Alignment of the Feet  The batter’s feet, at this stage of development, should be parallel with home plate.  Help the batter position their feet properly.  Point out to them that we want to be able to draw a straight line from the toes of their back foot to the toes of their front foot and have that line go straight out to the pitcher.  The feet need to be slightly outside than the width of the shoulders (not just ‘shoulder width apart’). 

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Tell your Tee-Ball players to stand with their feet ‘wider than your knees’.  When they look down at their knees they should not see their feet directly below their knees.  Note: you will notice that most every child will prefer to stand with their feet close together.  This is because, at this stage of physical development, the legs don’t have the strength to comfortably stand with the feet wider apart.  The kids can develop a level of comfort standing this way, but it will require you to remind them (literally) over and over every day throughout the season.  It is important to stick to this constant instruction.  When the feet are wider apart, a batter is more balanced and is better able to utilize their leg strength, which is a critical factor in an effective swing.

These final points, along with standing the appropriate distance from the tee stem (#1) and correct positioning of the front foot (#2), will give our little sluggers the best possible chance for success.  Increased success on the part of the batter equates to more activity and participation for the kids on defense.

Hand Position and Grip  Hands should be held even with, or slightly above, shoulder level.  Both elbows need to be bent to some degree.  We want the top hand/wrist and bat to create a 90 degree angle.  This will put the barrel of the bat over the back shoulder producing the ‘classic’ bat position in the stance.  The bend in the elbows and wrist set the batter up to maximize their strength and whipping action when swingingNote: kids who do not maintain the bend in the elbows and wrist as described are usually dealing with a strength issue and likely need a shorter bat.

Grip: Right handed batters have their right hand on top when holding the bat; left handed batters have left hand on top.  The hands need to be together; no gap between the hands.  As long as kids are relatively close to the prescribed grip and hand position, just let them work with hand position they come up with.I will address batting and the swing in a lot of detail as we move through the fall and winter.

 

But We Can’t Find Enough Coaches

Who coaches Tee-Ball?  Answer: regular parents from our neighborhood.  It is understood that not every parent can run a team because of conflicts with work and other prior commitments.   It is understood that there are some parents who have little interest in being involved beyond dropping their kids off and picking them up.  It is understood that some parents have multiple siblings and are juggling schedules.  However, there are parents who do have the time available to run a team.  And it should be clearly communicated to the other six sets of parents that they are invited, wanted and needed to participate in as many practices and games as possible. 

It is important to work towards the creation of a mindset and culture at the Tee-Ball level that we are all coaches.  Ideally, each player has a parent participating in each practice resulting in a 1:1 adult to player ratio.  (Before Tee-ball practices begin in 2014, the Baseball Positive Website will provide just the right amount of information to help any parent be an effective coach or helper parent for their child’s Tee-Ball team.)  We can establish rosters of seven per team and find a coach for each; the soccer folks have shown us it can be done.

Tee-Ball players are the future of every league.  Putting in the time and energy to create a Tee-Ball program where every player has a great experience is an investment that will strengthen every league, and the game as a whole, in years to come.  The path to the greatest success for Tee-Ball is playing the game with six players to a side.

 

Assign An Experienced Board Member a Tee-Ball Director

Tee-Ball has the largest number of participants in most leagues.  These players are the future of the organization and their parents will be the coaches at the league's higher levels in the coming years.  We want the Tee-Ball program to be well organized and head-ed up by a person with experience as an administrator for the league  It can be argued that the Tee-Ball Director holds the most important position in a youth baseball and softball organization.  

 

Recap of Key Points

  1. Create teams of seven players

  2. Eliminate the outfield positions on defense

  3. Structure the batting environment for optimal success

  4. Make the Tee-Ball program a top priority of each league

  5. Every Tee-Ball parent is a coach

Saviors of the Game ...Parent Helpers

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Great numbers of youth softball and baseball players leave the sport each year because they say the game is not fun. The game is not the issue; it is the experience kids have participating in the game.  A large part of participation is practice. The primary reason practice is not always fun for kids is that much of their time is spent standing around…not playing.

Structuring practices that minimize standing around and maximize playing is paramount to the future health of the game. Getting more adults involved in practices is a simple solution to the epidemic of boring practices. The parents of our players are an untapped resource that can help make practices lively, active and fun again, and turn the tide of declining player participation.

The idea of coaches having parents help with practice can conjure up resistance from both sides of the equation. Why is this? Coaches want to be sure their teaching message remains consistent and clear, while many parents feel they don’t know enough to be helpful.

Let’s start by establishing an honest perspective of the activity we are involved in; 12U is not high level baseball and softball. Intricate and detailed teaching is not required for our kids to develop skills and learn the concepts needed for them to succeed. Parent Assistants do not need great softball or baseball knowledge to be helpful on the practice field. The only requirement is a willingness to jump in and participate.

Many will do so when they receive a sincere and enthusiastic invitation from the head coach Many of us resist bringing parents in to help in fear that we will be ‘found out’ – we don’t want to them to learn that we don’t know everything. For those of us with limited experience, our credibility is not in danger if we tell the other parents up front that we are not grizzled coaching vets. We are simply volunteers who made a large time commitment to run the team.

Credibility can be a greater concern for those of us who do have a fair level of baseball or softball knowledge. We tend to put too much pressure on ourselves to prove we are good coaches. Keep in mind that most parents are just regular folks with limited experience in the game. Those parents that choose to participate will be appreciative that we made the commitment to invest so much time in their kids.

Having parents on the field helping with drills does not degrade our authority or our position as leader. Parent helpers are assigned to ‘basic commodity’ activities. The more complex teaching areas such as rundowns, relays, batting, pitching etc. remain under our direction. The key is to utilize parents to help run activities where mass repetition is the primary need. Also, there are many non-teaching activities to which they can be assigned that will help a practice run more efficiently.

 

Non-Teaching Activities for Parent Helpers

Backing up Throws During Playing Catch Practice (warm-up) and During Drills   We want to maximize each minute in practice by having kids constantly active and working on skill development. Arguably the biggest time waster in practice is kids chasing after poor or misplayed throws.

Kids age twelve and under, and especially those age 10 and under, miss dozens of throws every practice. Incorporate a couple of parent helpers whose primary (or only) job is to position themselves behind any area of a drill where a ball getting past a player will take away from the flow of the activity. Those helpers carry 4-5 balls with them at all times. When a ball gets past a player, their job is to immediately get a new ball in the player’s hands, so the activity continues with minimal delay. As time permits those parents retrieve balls to maintain their supply.

Catching Throws   There are many, many activities that run much more efficiently when there is an extra person to catch throws. This can be at a base or assisting next to a coach who is running a drill. Having an assistant, relieving a coach from the need to manage balls coming back in at the end of each drill repetition, frees up the coach to focus on teaching and keeping the drill moving.

Shagging During Batting Practice   Any balls the kids aren’t playing directly off the bat are collected by a parent helper. The idea that position players shag balls during batting practice is a misnomer. Shagging steals hours of potential skill building opportunities from our kids over the course of a season...also, “it’s really boring”. At the college and pro levels the position players do not shag, they spend their time playing balls off the bat. The pitching staffs of higher level teams do the lion’s share of shagging.

Throwing Ground Balls and Fly Balls During Batting Practice   Yes, you read that correctly: throwing ground balls and fly balls.  When throwing a ground ball or fly ball, accuracy is significantly higher than when using a bat.  There are no fouls, shanks and swings and misses when tossing the ball.

Between batters and during any lulls in live balls being hit by the batter, a parent helper throws ground balls to infielders.  Another helper can stand behind second base and toss fly balls to an outfielder during stoppages in balls being hit by the batter.  Balls can be delivered underhand or overhand; underhand is often more accurate and easier on those old muscles and joints. Fly ball tosses only need to travel 30’ and don’t need to be higher than 15’; the objective is to give the outfielder a high number of accurate, catchable fly balls.

 

Video of a highly efficient workout

– all balls are thrown by the coaches: watch for 10 seconds at each of the following time points: 2:25, 2:40, 5:00, 5:30, 6:45

 

We must do everything we can to structure batting practice, so that all twelve kids are constantly participating in skill building activities.

Keeping kids focused on their skill area during BP   A well-structured batting practice is a “12 Player Drill”. Players not hitting live at home plate are involved in the following activities: hitting balls off a tee while on deck, playing balls off the bat while in the field and reacting to balls off the bat as base runners. Another group of players is positioned down the right field line hitting whiffle balls pitched to them (off a knee from 15’) by a coach/parent. Other kids in the ‘Right Field Group’ spend time working on their pitching and/or catcher skills.

These activities do not take place simply by telling the kids to do them; it requires supervision and constant re-direction to keep them focused on their assigned activity. A few strategically positioned parents with simple, but specific instructions can greatly increase skill building productivity during batting practice.

 

Parents Helping Run Simple Drills

There are many basic skill activities where the primary objective is repetition moreso than in-depth instruction. One of the most basic formats of an effective practice is having small groups rotating through a series of drill stations.

 

(The coaching guide section of the website will grow throughout March.  You will find suggestions of where parent helpers can assist in a variety of activities.)

 

When working in these basic skill activities it is important to emphasize to parents that they only want to perform the very basic task you assign them; they will be surprised to learn that most practice activities are not complicated. It is also important to be clear that they should not do or say more than what you ask.  Occasionally a parent gets over-eager in their desire to help.  Remind them that the messaging originates from you and the parent helper is simply reiterating the message. Forewarn the parent helpers that the kids will make mistakes and not be perfect in their actions. It is important the parent helper only communicate the key points prescribed by the coach for the given activity and not start free lancing.

Don’t be overly concerned if parents don’t do things exactly right. Keep giving them pointers throughout the year based on your observations. They will learn, improve and become more valuable over time. Keep in mind that the kids will not be scarred for life if a helper does not run an activity perfectly.

Getting parents involved and prepped will take some time during the first few weeks of practices. Investing the time and effort early on will pay dividends in skill development and the level of fun experienced by the kids over the course of the season.

COACHES: ITS NOT WHAT WE KNOW ...it's what they understand

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How is your spring going for you and the team you are coaching? If the flow of practices and the pace of the kids picking up what you are teaching is a bit less than you had anticipated or hoped, I want to share one thought with you that may be helpful in your mindset in coaching the kids…

…....
“IT’S NOT WHAT WE KNOW, IT’S WHAT THEY UNDERSTAND”
…....

Volunteer youth baseball and softball coaches go into their task with a level of knowledge and experience across the spectrum from those who have played and/or coached at the HS, College, or Pro level to those who never played and may not have a deep understanding of the game.
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Not having a high level of experience or knowledge is not necessarily a negative, while having a tremendous amount of knowledge or experience is not necessarily a benefit.

Those with little background can find it easier to follow the lead of knowledge source – such as www.baseballpositive.com ;) …while those with a significant background in the game sometimes struggle with bringing that information down to a level of communication that the kids can consume, digest and convert to their play on the field.
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The objective of the Baseball Positive website is to assist coaches at both ends of the spectrum, and all those in between, by providing a consistent teaching ‘language’ that is clear and consumable by the kids.

Throughout the pages of the BP website we utilize the same Teaching Phrases and Words that have a specific meaning, making it easier for kids to Understand what they are being taught.


Examples of Teaching Phrases:

“Move Your Feet”
“Ball First, Base Second”
“Turn Fast”


All the best for a great spring helping the kids learn and grow their love of the game!
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Mark Linden - Director, Baseball Positive - marklinden20@gmail.com

 

'PLAYING CATCH PRACTICE' ...the most important part of the day

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“Hey kids, grab this bucket of balls and go loosen up your arms. We start practice in 10 minutes.”

When we say this to our team we are effectively saying, “Hey kids, go spend some time on the most important skill in the game, unsupervised, with no structure and then we’ll practice.  And when we practice, you guys will screw up throwing and catching, the drills will be a mess, I will get frustrated and yell at you and our practice will fall apart.”

‘Playing catch’, ‘getting loose’, ‘warm up’, that time honored ritual at the start of any day at the ballpark is the downfall of youth baseball and softball.  Because it is not valued at the level that it should be and teams miss this daily opportunity to improve their ability to play the game well.

Playing Catch is the essence of the game, it is the foundation of everything we do on defense, but do we put a proper value on that time? Do we work at it?  Do we establish and maintain discipline in the activity?  Do we have a plan for what we want to accomplish? 

I am stating, emphatically, that the activity of playing catch is the most important ten minutes we spend at the park.  We want this be the most focused, mostdisciplined and hardest working part of a practice; not just for the kids, but for us as coaches.  It is the one time during practice that our full attention is on the task at hand.

Let’s start by changing our mindset of this activity.  In most instances playing catch is called ‘warm up’.  Hey guys and gals, lets ‘warm up’.  Coaches, please, let’s take the phrase ‘warm-up’, pull it out of our brain, stick it in our hand and chuck it as far away from the baseball or softball field as possible.  At least in its use in relation to playing catch.  If we use the phrase warm-up, let’s use it to refer to warming up the body (through exercises or appropriate skill building activities - see the ‘Skill Building Warm-up’ page), not warming up the kids’ arms.

From this point forward let’s approach the playing catch segment of practice as a Drill.  The term ‘drill’ sets in the mind of a player that the activity is meant to develop skills; and for us coaches it is a structured, discipline and supervised activity that has clear objectives.

There is a “Playing Catch Practice” page on this site.  Unfortunately it is one of the least visited pages (technology is great, these websites give the administrators so much information of what is going on).  The fact that this page is one of the least visited is my fault.  I did not put enough emphasis on the need for every coach to not only view that page, but to study it and apply the principles and activities.

The first thing we want to master as coaches is running a great “Playing Catch Practice” routine - every day.  If our kids do a great job of playing catch at the start of each day, we will find that the rest of the day operates much better than we might have imagined. When our kids play catch with a purpose each day, as the season progresses, the quality of our team’s play skyrockets in a positive direction.  But don’t take it from me, listen to Cal Ripken Jr.  In his book he states (and I paraphrase), “I can walk into a ballpark, watch both teams playing catch before a game and from that simple observation tell you who is going to win the game.”

“Playing Catch Practice” is an activity that is conducted with the utmost seriousness, has absolute focus and is the part of the day that everyone, including the coaches, is at their very best and working hardest.  Each participant must have a clear understanding of what they are trying to accomplish in each action and in each segment.  Each participant must be disciplined (with the coach maintaining that discipline throughout) in every action.

For the benefit of the kids, the game and the blood pressure of all coaches, please take 10-15 minutes to look at the “Playing Catch Practice” page right now.  And refer back to it often throughout the season and beyond.  If we coaches place the utmost of importance on this single aspect of practice we will see the quality of our teams’ play improve beyond our greatest expectations.

Prevent Injuries From Swinging Bats …be like the pros, carry the bat by the barrel

 

 

As a parent, what is your greatest fear for your child when they are playing baseball or softball?  Getting hit by a thrown ball?  A line drive hitting them while pitching?   Taking a ball in the teeth from a bad hop? 

 

 

 

Each of these scenarios can potentially result in a serious injury, but are considered to be ‘part of the game’ and are not entirely avoidable. Getting hit by a bat swung by another player can be avoided by training our kids to always carry the bat by the barrel

 

 

 

This video is of an incident that happened during a major league game a couple years ago.  Ryan Braun is swinging his bat, not in the on-deck circle, but near his teammates in the dugout.  This is a grown man who has spent his life at ballfields interacting with teammates.  Even with this experience it is possible to get into your own world as a payer and forget for a moment what is going on around you. 

 

 

 

If this type of mind fart can happen to a grown man, a pro, it certainly can (and does on a daily basis)  happen to a young perosn. Any of us who have spend much time around a youth baseball players have seen a player swinging the bat randomly somewhere on the field and its clear they are not considering the possibility of another player, or sibling, friend coach possibly walking by and being in range of being hit on the follow through of a swing.

 

 

 

 

 

Below are simple rules that Baseball Positive maintains during its camps, batting classes and team workouts and, knock on wood, bat injuries have been avoided.  Implement these rules in your team's and league’s activities and prevent this from happening to one of your kids.

1.   Hold the bat by the barrel when moving from place to place.

2.   When a bat is pulled from a bat rack, equipment bat, etc. the player immediately grabs         the bat by the barrel.

3.   When a bat is picked up off the ground, it is picked up by the barrel.

 

 

Also:

When multiple batters are swinging a bat at one time in close proximity to each other ie a batting station during practice  (whiffle ball batting, tee work, soft toss etc.), no batter is allowed to move from their designated swinging spot until all participants have set their bats down.  All players move in and out of the batting station together.  If balls need to be picked up; all batters stop their swings and pick up balls together

No player is allowed to toss a ball up in order to swing at it i.e., ‘pitch to themselves’, play ‘golf’ with a bat and a ball that is on the ground or any other such bat swinging activity not clearly defined by a coach/adult.

 

 

 

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There are only two instances players are allowed to hold the bat by the handle and swing the bat:   

1. When standing at a spot that is designated by a coach/adult for working on the swing i.e. whiffle ball batting, batting tee, soft toss, etc. 

2. When standing at home plate during batting practice, a scrimmage or a game 

 

 

 

 

Simply laying these rules out does not guarantee the kids’ safety.  The coaches and adults involved with a baseball or softball activity must take a hawkish approach to enforcing these rules all day, every day, all season.  We should only see kids holding a bat by the handle when they are getting ready to hit a pitched/tossed ball or when standing at a tee.  Any other time we see our kids around the ball field they either do not have a bat in their hands or a carrying it by the barrel.

 

The incident (shown in the video) involving of Ryan Braun and Jean Segura never should have happened.  There is an on-deck circle for a reason; it is a designated safe place to take warm up swings.  All players and coaches know to be careful when walking near the on-deck circle and to walk wide of the in-deck circle when passing. 

 

In this instance Braun was the third batter scheduled to hit and Segura was batting second.  Braun wanted to start getting loose early and chose the top stop of the dugout stairs as a spot to take a few swings.  You would expect that he would be conscious of the fact that the second batter in the line-up would be coming to the stairs soon, not to mention the fact that any player or coach from the teams could walk by.  But players do get in their own world at times think about the job they have to do.  The top step of the dugout with a bat in your hands is not a good time to go zone out.

 

What makes this incident worse is Braun didn’t just take two handed swings that would keep the bat relatively close to his body.  He swung the bat straight back behind him, in line with the stairs, with one arm.  This sent the barrel of the bat nearly six feet behind him into the dugout where he knew there his teammates and coaches were located and might possibly be close by.

No player at any level of baseball has any business standing at the entrance/exit of the dugout swinging a bat.  If Braun was that anxious to loosen up he could have walked down past the end of the dugout and stood where he could see the rest of his teammates and they could see him.  The rules laid out above can’t be levied on a team of Major League baseball players, but most are followed using the common sense of a professional who has been around the game their entire life. Unfortunately, in this case, a grown man failed to use common sense resulting in an incident that jeopardized the career of his teammate.

 

Turning back to our kids; in order for these rules to be followed and for them to stick we must put ourselves in the minds and shoes of the kids. 

First, young children still see the world almost exclusively through their own eyes.  They are the center of the universe and their immediate wants and desires can override common sense and rules.  Second, kids see the handle as being the only option for holding a bat (and holding can quickly turn into swinging).  Finally, children (and most adults) don’t immediately change their habits the first time they are told.  We must be diligent in helping them establish the habit of holding the bat by the barrel whenever they are away from a designated swinging area and carrying their bat. (We adults must also establish this same habit when we have a bat in our hands; kids take their cues from us.)

 

How do we motivate our kids to establish the safe habit of always holding the bat by the barrel when carrying it from place to place?  Let them know that is how the pros do it (and point this out to them); the pros are cool  : )

Many kids want to emulate the pros and most want to look cool.  When implementing this rule we do so, from an adult’s perspective, to maintain a safe environment for the kids and we do so, from a kid’s perspective, because holding the bat by the barrel is cool.

Starting today, let’s teach our kids how to be cool …and remain safe.

 

Batting Pros Carry the Bat by the Barrel...

See the video from: 0:15 – 1:10…

Watch how the batters hold the bat immediately following striking out.  This is an example of how the pros carry their bat when they are not batting.  The proper way to hold a bat, when not batting, is by the barrel.

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Overthrowing The Pitcher At The End Of A Play ...a simple way to eliminate this common mistake from youth baseball and softball

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A common mistake made by youth teams is mishandling the ball while getting it back to the middle of the infield after a play has ended. 

The definition for 'end of the play' is when the base runner(s) have stopped running hard and attempting to advance to another base.  Making a wide turn and/or dancing around baiting a throw are not examples of attempting to advance.

After the play has ended there is no reason to risk making an overhand throw.  We train our players to 'run the ball in'.  When moving the ball to a teammate, the options are to hand the ball off or make a short underhand toss.

Mishandling the ball while getting it back to the middle of the infield and in the the pitchers hands not only costs the defense by allowing runners to advance further than they had planned to; it also delays the game and extends the length of the game.  A big part of making youth baseball more fun for everyone involved is to keep the game moving along at a quick pace.

 

 

Hey Umpires and Board Members - let's take baiting out of the youth game

Let's eliminate baiting from the youth game.  We've seen it happen over and over.  A play ends, the ball is back in the pitcher's hands, but a base runner is dancing around 10 feet of a base, daring the pitcher to try to get them out by making a throw.

The temptation for the young pitcher is often too great to resist.  They make the throw, the ball gets past the base and the runner takes off.

All the while, the other two dozen kids are standing around waiting, doing nothing.  The parents, coaches and umpires are waiting.  This game of 'I dare you' slows the game for everyone and is not baseball.

As leaders in youth baseball, we are constantly working to make the game a better experience for everyone.  A big issue with the game is the pace being too slow.  Eliminating baiting speeds up the pace of the game.

 

How is This Implemented?

The board agrees to empower the umpires to use their judgement in determining when the defense has successfully gotten the ball in to the pitcher, effectively ending the play.  At that point the umpire hollers, "TIME!".  ...then calls for the next batter to get in the box and hit.

Simple...

Let's keep the game moving.

Struggling To Prepare Your Team For The Season? Not Enough Time? Can’t Get A Field? …how to prioritize your practice activities and holding a championship level practice anywhere

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Poor weather is a huge problem for many youth baseball and softball coaches prior to the start of the season.  In many urban areas, limited space makes it hard to get field time to hold a practice.

 

These issues are real.  The start date for the season is real as well.  This article helps coaches step outside the box and establish a new mindset towards practices. 

 

You will find links to drills and videos that will help you to run great practices regardless of any challenging circumstances you are facing.

 

 

 

No Field Required

The most important thing to recognize, in order to get more practices in is that a baseball field is not required to hold a Championship Quality practice.  Any flat space works ie a patch of grass using throw down bases (or any marker to represent a base) and using cones to mark out drills.  

For years I've heard folks remark about the difficulty in holding practices.  When I ask the reason, I'm usually given one of two reasons:

  1. Can't get a field assignment
  2. Weather

 

#1 - A baseball field is not needed - example: when Wichita State University resurrected  their program in the late 1970's.  They had no baseball field.  The team practiced in a grass field.  Five years later they were in the National Championship game.  After a decade of existence they won the National Championship.

Watch from 1:00 - 1:40 of footage of the team practicing  ...the first minute, leading in, is pretty inspiring; it shows highlights of their National Championship win.

 

#2 - When its wet or drizzling, practices can be held on a concrete school yard....the Baseball Positive website has dozens of drills that don't require a grass or dirt surface.  Many neighborhoods (urban and suburban) have an elementary school with a covered basketball court (less so in the sunbelt states).  This is a place to hold a practice if it’s raining hard.  When I coached my son's eight-year-old team, I told the parents we would never cancel a practice.  We'd either be at the park (when it wasn't too wet) or at the elementary school.

 

Rain/Wet Day Practice   

Skill Building Warm-up   

 

 

 

Drill Prioritization

The following drills and activities don’t cover it all.  They do address  the core fundamentals of the game and will give your kids what they need to develop their skills and be competitive on the field.  The Baseball Positive website has a lot more drills, if you want more. 

 

Whiffle Ball Batting

Pitching Wiffle Balls (video):

watch 0:38 - 1:23    

Many coaches feel that their kids need to feel a real ball coming off their bat.  More important is the kids get as many swings as possible.  When using wiffle balls, multiple kids can be hitting the ball at the same time.  We get a lot more swings in a shorter period of time.

 

 

Receiving a Throw at a Base

On the surface this may not seem like a high priority.  Keep in mind that most outs (other than strike outs) require players to catch a thrown ball at a base; something that most  teams don’t teach their players or practice

 

Infield Base Coverage

Note: run this without a pitcher (I need to update the diagram)

How often, when a ball is put in play, do we have players just standing around?  This drill trains player that no matter where the ball is hit they have a responsibility.  Additional drills are on the website to train outfielders and to address more detailed situations.  The there are 9 players on the field, and only one ball.  The question we want to ask our kids is, “What are you going to do if the ball is NOT hit to you?”

 

(Mini Diamond – super tool  )

 

 

Underhand Toss

This is a Major League Skill.  Big League players throw the ball underhand many times each game….when throwing short distances.  The game played on the small diamond has many more instances requiring short distance throws. And many kids don’t realize that tossing the ball underhand is even an option.

 

20’ ground balls

Reps, reps, reps.  Accomplished fielders get massive reps.  This fast paced drill gets kids many reps in a short period of time.

 

Infielders Throwing Across Rotation

We don’t need to limit ourselves to using just the three bases laid out on the infield for running our drills.  Throw down a couple of markers to represent first base.  Now we can have three groups of kids working at the same time, significantly increasing our reps….and greatly eliminating down time between reps.

 

 

Toss Drills (fly balls)

Reps, reps, reps.  There it is again.  More important than learning to judge fly balls is the need to catch a lot of fly balls.

 

Three Groups Drills

Pretty standard concept.  Set up three stations in your infield (this infield can be in a cow pasture in a rural area, or a concrete school yard in an urban area --if a ball field is not readily available--  using throw down bases) and get the kids moving.  The sample diagrams get your brain moving.  From these examples you can come up with additional set ups addressing your team’s needs.

 

 

Playing Catch Practice

Let’s step outside the box of how we perceive ‘warm up’ at the beginning of practice.  In this activity we give all our kids pitching reps, then a dynamic throwing session as a position player, then wrap up with a skill activity.  This 15-minute session, once a team has gone through it 4-5 times, gets a ton done in a short time.

 

 

 

Short on Time?

Condensed Practice Plan

Pre-practice - Wiffle Ball Batting

0:00 - 0:15 - Skill Building Warm up

0:15 - 0:30 - Playing Catch Practice

0:30 - 0:45 - Drills / Team Defense Activity

0:45 - 0:60 - Batting Practice using Wiffle Balls*

* When using wiffle balls, multiple kids can bat at the same time, which results in getting more work in, in a shorter period of time.

 

The structure of a complete practice (as well as a couple dozen practice plans) is found HERE.  The above plan is a modified version of full practice.

 

 

Instant Results

It is very important to recognize that kids are not going to Get It right away.  Each drill or activity usually takes three sessions before it starts to run smoothly. 

Day 1:

We get a, “Whoa, what is going on?”, response from our kids and a lot of chaos.  OK, that is what is going to happen, so we don’t get overly concerned.

 

Day 2:

Kids perspective, “Oh this is that thing we did the other day”.  They now know what to expect, but they still need time to grasp the flow of the activity.

 

Day 3:

Now the kids are familiar with the activity and have had some repetitions.  The third time we run an activity is when it starts looking something like we expected.

Moving forward -  this activity can get started quickly; the kids know what is coming up.  The activity flows efficiently; the kids know the routine.

 

But I don’t have time to do all these drills over and over. True, IF we are determined to run zillions of different drills and activities.  However, if we pick out 7-8 drills/activities to repeat throughout the season, the coaches and players get really good at each activity and we become a lot more productive.

But the kids get board doing the same stuff over and over.  I’ll suggest that when activities have a good flow, the kids are constantly in motion and see themselves getting better, bordom is not an issue.

 

 

 

Keep it Simple

I was fortunate to assist at Wichita State University in the mid-90’s during its heyday of multiple College World Series appearances.  The thing that struck me most about that experience was how plain vanilla the practices were.  All the players knew the structure of the activities and knew what was expected.  The amount of quality work that was accomplished each day was beyond anything I had experienced in all my years as a player.

Working with kids is challenging enough.  When we limit and simplify our practice activities, we can be better coaches, our kids are better able to develop their skills, and everyone enjoys their time on the field much, much more.

Will Your Child Succeed As A Hitter This Spring? …a step-by-step approach to building the swing (part 1 of 3)

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Is your ballplayer going to maximize their potential as a batter this season? What can you do to help? What does it take to get ready?

Take them to the batting cages and crank up the pitching machine or get out to the park and throw as many pitches as your arm can handle.  This is the way to get a player ready to be a hitter, as most people believe…pitch, pitch, pitch, swing, swing, swing. 

The fact is however, swinging at live pitches is the last step in getting a player ready for the season.  Developing the swing and/or getting the swing back in shape is a step-by-step process that begins with drills to develop muscle memory and working off a batting tee, working up to taking swings against live pitches. 

The information in this article, the first in a three-part series, guides a beginner or novice player in their learning and preparation, while it serves a fundamentals checklist for a more experienced batter.

 

 

Live Swings

Kids, of course, want to immediately start whacking away at live pitches. Swinging at live pitches is the ‘Icing on the Cake’ of the process.  The primary function of live swings is for a batter to get their timing down.

Prior to getting into live swings, a batter wants to establish consistency in the fundamental aspects of their swing using a tee, soft toss and short front toss drills.   This doesn’t mean we can’t let our kids have some ‘fun time’ swinging at live pitches, but we make that the last part of the batting session, with no instruction.  Again, live batting is for timing, not for teaching.  Feedback given to a batter during a live session is limited to reminders of points they have learned in the controlled environment of muscle memory drills, tee work, soft toss and front toss.  (Instruction points for live swings will be noted in the final two parts of this series.)

 

 

 

Tee Work

 

High School, College and Pro batters put in a lot of time working on their swing using a batting tee (it’s a good idea that youth players do the same).  The tee is a life-long training tool for baseball and softball players.

 

Show your young batter 30-40 seconds of this video featuring former MVP Josh Hamilton working with a tee.  This is an important education for kids; to understand that the tee is not just for Tee-Ball, but is, in-fact, a training tool used throughout one’s playing career.

 

 

 

Tee - Stance.jpg

 

Two important points when working with a Batting Tee:

 

1.   Stance*** in Relationship to the Tee

  •       Front foot even with the tee stem/ball
  •       One bat length from the ball (not bat and arm length)

            

2.   Each Swing has a Purpose

Make one aspect of the swing the focus for a series of 8-10 swings.  Take a brief rest break (spend 20-30 seconds picking up balls), then switch to a different focus point.

 

 

 

The five points below establish the three foundations needed to move to more advanced drill work: Using the Legs, Head Control and Balance.  These are covered in detail in the following sections of the article.

  1. Turn Back, (Load), Turn Fast (Legs/Lower Half of the Body)
  2. "Switch Heels" - same as number one, but with a more specific focus
  3. Head in Place/Head Down
  4. Feet in Place - at the conclusion of the swing (always full speed) ...are feet still in place? or did the batter allow the momentum of the swing force them to move one or both feet to a different spot than where they were during the swing?
  5. Centered and Tall - complete the swing (always full speed), then confirm the head, torso and hips are straight up and down (tall) and centered between the feet.

 

The first two points are physical actions the batter addressing in their swing.  They are pretty much the same.  The difference is, #1 is a general focus of the entire lower half; #2 is a specific action that creates the leg/hip turn.

The other three are ‘checkpoints’ after the swing.  These three points are characteristic of any fundamentally sound swing.  Many swings made by young players are missing one or more of these three elements.  The simple act of correcting these points can significantly improve a batter’s swing (over the course of a few workouts) with no technical instruction given.  At the completion of each swing, the batter checks to see if they executed the focus point.  If not, they make a more determined effort in their next swing. 

To accomplish any of these points, the batter is forced to execute a better swing.  The adjustments are not made because of a deep understanding of the swing or a conscious technical change.    By consciously working to achieve one of this points at the conclusion of the swing, the body will naturally produce a better swing.  In some cases the swing will improve after just a few repetitions. In other cases, improvement will be seen after 2-3 workouts.

 

Two final points

  1. The batter and instructor evaluate only the quality of achieving the objective, the single focus point.  The result of how well the ball was hit (if it is hit at all) is not something we evaluate at this point.
  2. Do not discuss other flaws in the  swing; likely there will be many.  Remember, developing the swing (or shaking off the rust) is a step-by-step process.   

 

The adjustments are not based on instruction or thinking.  The batter simply attempts to fulfill the single objective.  The value in this is the batter is improving their swing without thinking through the swing based on the verbal instruction from the coach/adult.....which often leads to confusion and/or frustration.

This 50-swing workout is plenty for one day.  After the tee work, reward them with live pitches, but I suggest we make this part of the activity ‘fun time’ with no instruction.

If our player struggles during the live session, that sets us up for selling the value of the tee work, “Hey, its early, we’ll keep working on the tee and soon you’ll be hitting the ball better”.

 

 

***Grip and The Back Elbow

These two aspects of the batting stance are misunderstood and often viewed as ‘fixes’ for a batter who is struggling.

The most important thing in the grip is to have the hands together.  Right hand batters have their right hand on top; left handers, left hand on top.  The popular myth is that a batter lines up their middle knuckles.  For some batters this works well.  Other batters line up their middle knuckles with the first knuckles (where the fingers meet the hand).  Most batters’ knuckle alignment is somewhere in between.  Somewhere between knockers and box

Batting Grip - Mauer mid.jpg
Batting Grip - McCutch mid.jpg
Batting Grip - Trout box.jpg

 

 

“Keep Your Back Elbow Up” is often heard from helpful parents and coaches.  Elbow placement in the stance varies from batter to batter.  There is no magic in having the back elbow up in the stance.  The idea of a batter wanting to keep their ‘elbow up’ originates, as I understand, from the fact that this position makes it easier for a young child to support the weight of the bat when holding it prior to starting the swing.

Batting - Back Elbow - Altuve down.jpg
Batting - Back Elbow - McCutch mid.jpg
Batting - Back Elbow - Bryant mid cropped.jpg
Batting - Back Elbow - Trout up.jpg

 

 

 

 

Fundamental Focus Points to Begin With

Turn Back 3.jpg

1.   Lower Half Turn (“Turn Back, Turn Fast”) …see ‘Batting is Like Jumping', six posts below

 

The legs initiate the swing action and provide the energy and momentum for the swing itself.  Many kids do not

realize the legs are part of the swing; not to mention their importance. An action to focus on during Tee Work (soft

and front toss as well) is the "Switch Heels" action.

 

 

Before working on this action during Tee Work, first we want to train the muscles to perform this action by doing

the no-bat Switch Heels Drill (to develop muscle memory in the legs):

 

Anchor Altuve - Copy.jpg
  1. Get in a batting stance (a good stance has the feet set a few inches outside the hips)
  2. Place hands on hips (all muscles in the chest, neck shoulders and arms remain relaxed during this drill).
  3. Have an object, which is even with the batters front foot and in the center of the strike zone, for the batter to look at throughout the action (keeping the head in place during the drill is very important, though difficult at first for most kids).
  4. The batter slightly turns their front knee back, resulting in their front heel coming off the ground. (Many batters have some inward turn of the upper body as a result of this action).  Head remains fixed on the object referred to in #3.
  5. The batter then quickly drives their front heel down and back (the front foot finishes at approx. 45 degrees…there will be some variance from person to person)

 

...while executing this action with the front heel, the back heel turns up (in an actual swing, involving a bat, many

batters finish entirely up on the toe of their back foot)

 

This drill is simple to execute and repeat.  A batter can repeat this action 10-15x in a minute.  If practiced daily – yes

a minute is a big time commitment ;) - in just a few days, a young batter begins to  FEEL their legs to powering the

swing action.   This drill is also done prior to a batting practice session..

 

 

2.   Switch Heels Drill

Take a set of swings with this action as the focus point.

 

Watch these videos of Albert Pujols (:00, :40, 1:35) and Mike Zunino (:03-0:18, 0:31) crushing Home Runs.  The action of "Switching Heels" is very clear.

 

 

3.   Head in Place / Head Down  

Batting - Head Down LoMo cropped.jpg

Head facing the ball on the tee prior to the swing.  Complete swing (always full speed) while keeping head looking at contact point (top of the tee) after the ball has been hit.

Movement of the head is a common flaw for kids when swinging the bat. A player can get top notch instruction and have a great mechanics, but if their head is moving the value of everything else is out the window. The body follows the head, when the head moves it throws off the whole swing.

Mastering the ability of power generation and completing a full swing, while at the same time keeping the 'Head in Place' takes some time, but a youth baseball player or softball player can accomplish this...and many can achieve a good level of mastery in a couple of weeks.

There second element in the foundation of a good swing, along with the Legs, is The Head.  Before anything else, to build a fundamentally sound swing, a batter needs to 

  1. Generate energy and power with their legs
  2. Keep their head in place

 

When “Head in Place” is the focus during Tee Work, the batter has their Head Down, facing the ball, in their stance.  After hitting the ball the batter wants to then be looking at the top of the tee.  Its simple for the batter to check if their head moved …either they are looking at the top of the Tee following their swing or they are not.

(Note: Keeping the head down until the conclusion of the swing is a ‘drill/focus point’ for a set of 8-10 swings.  This is not something a batter does during a swing in normal circumstances.  When executing a quality swing, the momentum of bat extension takes the back shoulder past the head forcing the head off contact point.  However, a high level batter has their head down at contact an for a few brief moments after the ball leaves the bat.)

 

 

4.   Feet in Place 

Batting - Feet in Place.jpg

A lack of leg strength is a reality for most youth baseball and softball players – and kids in general.  Often when completing a swing, young players lose balance and reposition their feet (this is not to be confused with ‘stepping in the bucket’ prior to the swing). This repositioning of the feet to regain balance, following the swing, is generally a result of one, or both, of these factors:

  1. Using the upper body (primarily the shoulders) to initiate the swing action
  2. The momentum of the bat in the final stages of the swing

When a batter feels off balance at the end of their swing, we ask them to keep their “Feet in Place” and make every effort to re-balance themselves without repositioning their feet.  When this adjustment is made it sends a message to the muscles that balance is the goal.  Through repetition, the muscles learn to be more balanced and effective during the swing.

While each point discussed here is are a high priority, it can be argued that “Feet in Place” is most important.  When doing this, a batter maximizes the power in their legs and minimizes unnecessary body movement during the swing.  A batter who executes a swing with the combination of:

  1. Legs Turn Fast
  2. Head in Place
  3. Feet in Place

…will find it difficult to have a poor swing.

(Note: in each swing the batter wants to turn their legs/lower half at full speed and swing the bat full speed (most of the swing effort is made with the legs and hands/wrists).  The faster the swing action, the more accurate the swing – this will be addressed in the next two parts of this series.)

 

 

5.   Centered and Tall 

Extension Todd LHH.jpg

When in their stance, a good batter’s head is pretty much centered between their feet. At the end of their swing, their head is still centered between their feet.  In addition to their head, a batter’s torso is also centered, while their posture is ‘tall’ (head, torso and hips aligned, vertically, with the back knee, at the conclusion of their swing. 

Many young batters are bent over at the waist during, and following, their swing. Others allow their torso to ‘sway’ forward during the swing.  The torso of accomplished batters  is centered, straight and tall at the conclusion of their swing (some stronger batters may have slight tilt back at the conclusion of their swing).

 

 

 

Practice Session

  • Switch Heels Drill 15-20x
  • Take 10 swings each, following the five focus points above - for a total of 50 swings
  • Live swings (just for fun)

 

 

 

The Next Step

The path of hands is added to our workouts once the batter has gained some level of proficiency in using their legs and establishes some consistency in the focus points mentioned in the article.  

Since there is more to learn and practice, the swing will have some flaws.  In the next two articles in this series hand path is covered along with utilizing Soft Toss, Front Toss and Swings Against Live Pitching.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Batting - Front Toss.jpg
Batting - Soft Toss 2.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fly Balls Three Toss Drill …multiple skills, fast paced, lots of reps, fun

Trout.png

How can we improve out players’ fly ball catching skills in a short amount of time?  The ‘Three Toss Fly Ball Drill’ is part of the solution. It is great for infielders as well as outfielders; is challenging and fun.

 

This is a drill that is run at a lightning fast pace.  The player is moving at full speed throughout.  The pace, coupled with the changes of direction, conditions, builds agility, and develops a variety of catching skills. It applicable to any age ...including teens and high school players.

 

The player catches three different fly balls in this drill, which takes 7-8 seconds per player:

  1. Ranging Laterally
  2. Coming in
  3. Going Back

 

Fly Balls - 3 Toss Drill -.jpg

Ideally this is run with no more than 3 or 4 players.  Once each player has been through the drill, the time spent waiting for their next turn is spent catching their breath. If we start with a bucket of 30 balls, depending on the age and skill level of the players, we can get through 15-20 reps, before having to take a break and pick up the balls. 

The best situation for using this drill is as a station in a skills rotation.  During a five-minute stop at this station each player will get a chance to make a play on 20-30 fly balls.

 

Keys for the drill to be most effective

  • Coach makes low arcing throws – this is Not a drill to train kids to judge high fly balls; we are working on the skill of catching a ball while on the run.  Coach is a quarterback throwing passes to a receiver.
  • Use an underhand arm action when tossing – this is much more accurate than throwing overhand
  • If there is a left-handed player in the group, and you have younger kids (nine and under), run the left-handed player in the opposite direction for the first toss. Otherwise they are making a backhanded play, which is much more difficult.

 

Keys for the drill to remain fast paced

  • Most important – if a ball is not caught the player does not retrieve it; they get ready for the next toss
  • Coach is constantly reminding the players to ‘sprint full speed’
  • Have as many balls on hand as possible
  • Limit instruction to two points:
  1. Run full speed
  2. Catch the ball away from your body – reach out with the glove arm

…this is a repetitions activity, not a teaching activity.  Make a mental note of teaching points to share afterwards.

                                                                                                                    <SEE THIS DIAGRAM ON THE BASEBALL POSITIVE WEBSITE>

 

What is Going to Happen?

  • Coach will make inaccurate tosses – no big deal. Tell the player, “Hey, bad throw, I’ll get better; keep moving”
  • Players will miss catches – we clearly instruct them, prior to the drill, that when they miss a catch, to not stop to pick up the ball.  They are to get to the next starting point asap and get ready for the next toss
  • The rhythm and flow of the drill, the first time it is run, will be a bit clunky – any new activity is less than perfect the first time around.

While We May Know Baseball As It’s Played on a Full-Size Field …are we prepared to coach the small diamond game?

Ballfields - Youth - anthem.jpg

The Game Played on The Smaller Diamond is Different

 

Folks who know the game as it is played at higher levels (HS, College, Pro) now find themselves on the smaller diamond coaching their kids' teams. 

Does this knowledge translate to teaching the game to kids?  Is there a need to modify the approach to coaching youth baseball and its skills?

The answer to these questions are, ‘Not Really’ and a definite, ‘Yes’.

 

 

 

It is important to recognize that the game played on the smaller diamond is much different than the one played on 90’ base paths.

 

 

 

Ballfields - Wrigley.jpg

First, these are little kids, not teens or grown-ups.  Their bodies are not as strong as ours are - or were :)  Their understanding of baseball clichés and ability to grasp complex concepts is limited. 

Our knowledge of the game played on the full-sized diamond, coupled with decades of basebalisms collected in our brains, it is easy to forget the perspective of the kids we are working with.

 

 

We want to catch ourselves when we ask them to perform physical actions their bodies are not entirely equipped for and when talk of the game making assumptions of the kids’ knowledge and understanding. 

Most of these instruction mistakes are unintentional and the adults working with kids are unaware that what they have said was not grasped by the kids.  After a decade of working with youth level coaches, I see these communication snafus occur on a regular basis.

 

 

 

 

Effectively Communicating to Kids

We want to be sure the terminology we use can be grasped by our young ballplayers.  An example is the concept of a batter making contact with the ball where the they can maximize strength and power.

At higher levels of play common statements are, "Let the ball travel", or "Let the ball get deep". ...travel where? ...get deep relative to what?  These statements easily go right over a kid's head.  Another way to communicate this concept, so kids can understand is, "Let the ball get to your feet". 

This is a literal statement.  Contact is made, give-or-take, when the ball is even with the front foot (with some variance on inside and outside pitches).  A youth player can see where their feet are.  The reference of the ball getting to their feet enables them to clearly understand where they want to make contact.

A statement commonly used when teaching fielding is, “Get your butt down”.  Is that really what we want the kids to do?  If they squat their butt down, while their feet are close together, is that what we wanted our fielder to do?  …the thing is, if they do squat down in that manner, they are 100% fulfilling what we instructed   : )

The teaching phrase for fielding a ground ball, used by Baseball Positive, is, “Feet Wide to Catch”.  A good fielding position involves the feet being wide apart.  When a player gets their feet wide apart…..their butt goes down toward the ground.

Talking in literal terms is the cornerstone to effectively communicating baseball skills to kids.

Throughout the BP website there are ‘Teaching Phrases’ that have a clear and literal meaning. You’ll find the same words and phrases come up over and over. These are not absolutes; they are terms I feel comfortable with.  If you have a different word or phrase you prefer, use what flows best for you. 

The key is consistency in the terminology we use when instructing.  By using consistent terminology for common, fundamental actions, we can be sure our kids truly understand what we are teaching.

 

 

Physical Capabilities of Kids

This is a game of explosive movements requiring a good amount of body strength to perform them well.  Pre-pubescent bodies are much less powerful than those that are well into, or have gone through, puberty.  For most of us coaches, that stage of life is a distant memory.  We’ve been moving through the world with big strong bodies for so long, it is likely we’ve forgotten what it feels like to try to pitch, field a ground ball, or swing a bat using the body of a little kid. 

A common mistake made by youth baseball coaches is explaining and demonstrating skills from the perspective of how they are executed by an adult body, rather than the perspective of a kid’s body.

 

BATTING

An example of our familiarity with our adult strength is when teaching kids the loading action for swinging a bat.  For a child, this action requires a of leg strength and effort.  It is easy for them to ‘just skip it’.  Many kids do not use a loading action prior to their swing.  We don’t want to make the mistake of jumping ahead to teaching other aspects of the swing without first teaching the load.

(The action of the load, for most batters, involves a slight inward turn of the front knee, and for some, the front shoulder as well. A slight weight shift back accompanies this inward turn.  The teaching phrase that Baseball Positive uses when working with batters is, “Turn Back”; this is literally what a batter does when they load.)

The purpose of the load is to prepare the legs to initiate the swing.  For most kids, it never occurred to them that the legs are a part of the swing.  First, we make them aware of using their legs, then get into the process of training the use of the legs.  It is a process of constant emphasis and reminding.  However, after a few weeks of pounding it into their heads, significant improvement in a young batter’s swing is clearly visible, because of them using their legs - “Turn Fast”

 

Fielding - Feet Wide, Reach Out - Jeter.jpg

FIELDING

A fundamentally sound fielding position, with the feet wide apart,

hips low to the ground and hands extended, is difficult for many

kids, if not impossible, to execute.  Recognizing this allows us to

adjust our expectations. 

 

 

Fielding a ground ball - Kid Version.jpg

 

 

Presenting our instruction with an upbeat tone, “We are working

towards getting in this good fielding position every time”, rather

than gruffly saying, “If you are going to be any good at fielding,

you have to get into this position”.  The way we express our

expectations, not just in our words, but also how those words are

delivered, has a significant impact on how our instruction is received. 

We want to demonstrate, in our messaging, that we recognize the

physical challenges our players are facing.

 

 

PITCHING

Finishing the pitching delivery properly, on a firm, but flexed front leg with the arm accelerating down, concluded with the chest over the front knee, requires a good deal of strength in the legs and core.  Most young, growing bodies are short on the amount of strength required to finish their delivery using a fundamentally sound action. 

A specific body type to be aware of, is the kid with a long, lean frame whose bones have lengthened out faster than their muscles’ ability to move those longer bones effectively. 

Given these realities, it doesn’t mean we don’t instruct our kids to work towards a good finish, we just do so with the understanding that they may not execute the action exactly the way we have in mind.

 

 

Differences in How the Game is Played

Beyond our expectations of their physical performance, and their capability to follow our teaching, it is important we recognize that the game is slower and that positional responsibilities are different, in some instances, on the small diamond.  Below are examples:

  • No need for the catcher to run down the line with the batter - at most parks (urban ones for sure) the perimeter fence is only 20'-25' beyond the base.  We don’t need the catcher running down the line to cover a possible overthrow at first base.

 

  • The pitcher breaks for third on balls hit to the left side of the infield - at this level we have runners on first and second a lot.  These runners are not that fast.  Double plays are rarely turned.  Getting an out, any out, is a big deal.  Training our pitcher to break for third, cover the base and prepare to take a throw properly, is a priority.  When planning team infield drills incorporate plays that involve the pitcher and third base (first base as well).    ---> Drills involving the pitcher on balls hit in the infield    A team that practices having the third baseman and shortstop making throws to the pitcher covering third will get a good number of 5-1 outs and complete a few 6-1 plays over the course of the season.  We also train our pitchers, when they field a ball that takes them to the third base side of the rubber, to feed the third baseman for a 1-5 put out.

 

  • The second baseman covers first – there are more than a few instances where the first baseman fields the ball and is not in position to get back to first base before the runner. Coaching youth baseball on the small diamond includes training the second baseman to cover first base when not fielding balls hit to their left. In cases where the pitcher reaches the bag first, the second baseman continues beyond the base to back up the throw.

 

  • The pitcher is the cut-relay to home on All balls hit to the outfield - reasons:          

                  1.   Usually, the pitcher is one of the best athletes on the field; we want them handling the ball as much as possible

                  2.   Unlike 90’ baseball, the pitcher does not back up home plate. In most cases, there is not enough room behind home plate for the pitcher to get enough depth to properly back-up an over                                        throw.  If we  send the pitcher back there, the backstop ends up doing most of the backing-up

                  3.   Kids play a variety of positions at this level; at the very least, they play positions other than pitcher.  That fact, coupled with limited practice time we have at the youth level, results in kids                                not getting the reps needed learn the nuances of each position.  Making the pitcher the cut-relay player on 100% of the plays to the plate, simplifies learning and execution.

 

  • Outfielders back-up bases on every play.  Even at the 12-year-old level, outfielders are not that far from the infield.  When they are not chasing balls in the outfield, they need to be sprinting to the infield to back up throws to bases.  This habit is developed through drill work.  Simply telling them they are supposed to back up bases in not gonna do the trick.  If you are new to this level, you will soon find out how important it is, on every throw to a base, to have a player backing-up  : )

 

  • The underhand toss is used a lot more often.  On the smaller diamond, players are much closer together. Also, there are runners on base in higher numbers, setting up a lot of force out opportunities.  Given these two points, each game has many situations calling for short throws. The underhand toss is more accurate and easier to catch when throws are made from a short distance.  Kids need to be taught how to execute this throw and it needs to be practiced throughout the season (see 'Pre-game Practice' - plug this work in on game day).  I urge coaches at every level of youth baseball to incorporate drills, using the underhand toss, into each practice.  Btw – you might be surprised  by the number of kids who don't know that tossing the ball underhand is even an option.

                                                                                         

 

Let’s Do This

Coaching a team that plays on the smaller diamond may require some learning on our part before we get started.  We will also need to file away some of our baseball knowledge and save it  a few years until the kids we are working with get older.

We can scale back our teaching of skills to simple points and consistent terminology.  By doing so, we’ll find our kids learning quicker and enjoying more, the process of developing their fundamental skills.  The kids we work with will improve and their understanding of how to play the game will increase, but they still won’t look like pros …or even young teens. 

More important than anything we teach this year, we want to create an environment where the kids enjoy themselves and gain a positive feeling toward the game.  Our primary goal for the season when coaching at this level, from my perspective, is for each player to walk off the field on the final day of the year thinking, “I want to play again next year”.

Next year they will be bigger, stronger, their brains will have a greater level of maturity, they will better understand how to play the game…..on the small diamond.  And hopefully, together through our efforts, we will contribute to the increase in the percentage of players who play the game long enough that there will be a need to learn how to play the game on the big diamond.

A Decades Long Tradition ...snowshoe softball in idaho

Snowshoe 2018.jpg

 

Great Friends. Honest Competition. The Great Outdoors.

 

This is the experience of playing snowshoe softball in the mountains of northern Idaho.

 

 

Snowshoe 2018 (4).jpg

The winter of 2018 marked the 49th year of the three-weekend-long tournament and the 29th year for

my group, The Grinders. (Started by a college football teammate who also played hockey at Michigan

State …’Grinder’ is a term used to describe a hockey player who is relentless in their play and makes no

hesitation to stick their nose into the toughest spots on the ice.)

 

 

This is modified fastpitch with teams made up of many former high school, college and even a few

former pro athletes.   …I can let the cat out of the bag now.  A few years ago, my younger brother

Todd, who played five seasons in the Major Leagues, came up and played with us a couple of weeks

before heading to Spring Training with the Giants.  They would not have been too happy if they had

found out what he’d been up to ...and yes, he hit a couple of balls really far  : )

 

 

Todd OF Fielding Giants.jpg

 

Games usually end in good baseball scores: 6-4, 8-5, 3-2, etc.  The athleticism possessed by the players is neutralized somewhat by the

snowshoes and the snowy terrain.  But while the environment is challenging, we still see a good amount of quality action …double

plays, diving catches and close plays at the plate.

 

 

We started out as a group of young kids fresh out of college, full of energy and a nose for adventure.  We did find our share of

excitement in the evenings at one of the two watering holes that bookend the playing area.  Now, we are all fathers with families and

the weekends are quite a bit mellower.  About half of the group has retired in recent years, but still come up each winter to enjoy the

camaraderie. 

 

 

 

The club is now made up of two generations, with a couple of the original players’ sons (and a few of their former college teammates) playing side by side with their dads.  We have one player who has

achieved the title of Grandpa!

 

 

The friendships extend beyond just our club.  Many of the players on opposing teams are friends or acquaintances the rest of the year.  The games end mid-afternoon, then we all mix together later in the

day for food and a couple adult beverages.  A spin or two on the dance floor to the sounds of a local band is not unheard of, and of course, there is some good-natured trash-talk of what transpired on the

field earlier in the day.

 

Snowshoe 2018 (3).jpg

 

The thing about getting older is the realities of life come to the forefront.  This year we dedicated

our play to members of the families of some of the players.  One has a father battling cancer,

another lost his father-in-law a few days before the tournament started.  Perspective has a way of

taking off the pressure that we all seem to put on ourselves, even if it’s just playing recreationally.

 

 

Over the years we’ve won the title six times, while finishing second 12 times.  Yes, we know very

well what the Buffalo Bills and their fans feel  ; )   - Twenty-Eighteen marked the first time we won

the title in back to back years …I guess it took the second generation to help us sniff anything that

might be considered a dynasty. 

 

 

While winning is always fun, it’s the three decades old tradition of getting together with a lot of good folks, many of whom you only see once a year (though it always seems like you just talked to them

yesterday) that is the real joy of participating in the tournament. 

 

 

And it’s not just the players.  Wives, girlfriends, children, siblings, and other family members make the trek to the mountains to share the experience.  There is also a fair contingent of man’s best friend

attending the games …or at least enjoying playing in the snow nearby.  Its nice to have a furry pair of ears to scratch after you’ve had a poor at-bat.

 

 

Snowshoe 2018 (2).jpg

 

Without question, this is the event that I look forward to most each year.  Hopefully the body will

hold up and make a few more years of playing possible.

 

 

I feel very fortunate to be a part of such a unique experience and great group of people.  We often

look back at our childhood, high school and college days and find that many of our fondest

memories, and some of our most solid friendships, are those made playing team sports.  The

relationships built over these 29 years are iron clad and its beyond words for me to describe what

they mean to me.

 

 

Thanks for reading and allowing me to share the Snowshoe Softball Experience with you.  All the best for a great season mentoring the kids on the ballfields this spring; helping them create memories and

establish friendships they will hold onto for years to come.

Catchers Stance, In Relationship To The Batter …the effect on the success of your pitchers and your team

Catcher Too Far Back 7.jpg

Want to cut down on the number of wild pitches and past-balls for your youth baseball or softball team this spring?  Want your pitchers to be more confident and throw more strikes? Want to cut down on the number of runs your team gives up?

 

The solution is as simple as teaching your catchers proper positioning in relationship to the batter. 

Catcher Too Far Back 8.jpg

 

When a catcher has their arm extended to catch a pitch, we want their glove to be no more than 4”-6” behind the batter’s rear foot. Many youth catchers position themselves three or four feet behind the batter’s rear foot.

 

This extra distance results in more pitches hitting the ground before getting to the catcher than would occur if the catcher were positioned properly.  How many times over a season do base runners advance because pitches get past the catcher in youth baseball or softball?  (Not to mention that games take longer when the catchers are constantly running to the backstop.)

 

Catcher Too Far Back 3.jpg

When the catcher is positioned too far behind the batter it puts additional pressure on the pitcher. Simply getting the ball to home plate is a challenge for a lot of young pitchers. We don’t want to compound that by having our catcher further away from the pitcher than necessary. 

 

Having the catcher positioned properly helps older pitchers as well.  They can throw off speed pitches (which travel on more of a downward plane) with greater confidence, knowing the ball is less likely to bounce before getting to the catcher. Pitches thrown to a catcher positioned too far behind the batter tend to be higher in the strike zone.  Off speed pitches that are up in the zone usually get hit harder and farther.

 

For all levels of play, the closer the catcher can receive a pitch in relationship to the batter, and home plate, the better chance those pitches are called strikes.

Catcher Good Depth MLB 7.jpg

 

The pictures included with this article, of pro catchers, show the catcher’s positioning in relationship to the batter.  The other pictures, which may look familiar, illustrate the distance commonly seen between a youth catcher and a batter.

 

It is understandable that kids set up so far back - they don’t want to get hit by the bat. 

 

Catcher Good Depth MLB 6.jpg

We want to educate our kids on the swing plane of the bat, so they recognize they can confidently set up much closer to the batter knowing they will not get hit.

 

Get your catcher in their stance and have them fully extend their glove arm.  Stand in as a batter, so that your rear foot is only 4”-6” in front of their glove.  When working with a younger catcher, you can stand with the back of your rear foot even with their glove. Younger kids generally don’t have the strength to fully extended their arm when receiving a pitch, so they can be positioned a bit closer to the batter.

 

Catcher Good Depth MLB 13.jpg

Once you (as the batter) and your catcher are set up, slowly swing the bat.  The hands and the bat travel forward during the swing.  Your catcher will soon recognize they can set up close to the batter and the bat will not hit them.

 

When a catcher is set up in a proper relationship to the batter (as close to the pitcher as possible) it increases your pitchers’ confidence and effectiveness. They don’t have to throw the ball as far to get it to the catcher, they get more strike calls and the number of balls that bounce in front of the catcher and find their way to the backstop is reduced.

 

Teaching your catchers proper positioning will significantly increase the success of your pitchers, and your team, this spring!

Off Season Training Facilities …have we considered all of our options?

Off Season Training.jpg

Daylight savings time has come to an end and the wet, cold and dark days of winter are right around the corner.  Now we start to think about how we can help our kids improve their skills during the off-season.  The most prevalent options are 1. Hit in a batting cage, 2. Get involved with a local club team that runs off-season workouts, 3. Work with a private instructor.  Each of these has its merits and benefits.  However, we are not limited to these options.

 

Rent a Local Gymnasium                                                                                                                            

A gymnasium, approximately 90’ x 50’, provides a large space where almost any baseball skill can be practiced.  And renting a gym is inexpensive.  In urban areas, there are a lot of organizations that rent their gyms: public and private schools, boys and girls clubs and community centers.  Many communities have additional private and non-profit groups that have similar type spaces that are available for use.  Most of these facilities can be rented for $40-$80 an hour.  If we share that cost between a half dozen families, this option is affordable for most anyone. 

In smaller communities the options are fewer, but less red tape and the inherent trust from ‘knowing each other’ makes up for the lower number of options.  Most every community has a school or two with a gym.

Keep in mind that basketball takes up a major chunk of gym time, but through a little investigation and a few phone calls open time slots can be found and reserved. 

Note: You will find a full range of responses from gym administrators regarding this type of activity in their facility.  Some will say ‘no way’, some will have insurance requirements you may not be able to fulfill.  Others, when hearing that you want to get a group of little kids together to play, will welcome you with open arms and possibly have a lower ‘kids’ rate.

 

Objectives: Repetition and Fun

Repetition is a key factor in developing physical skills.   Kids in the 6-12 age group, more than anything, just need to play more in order to improve their skills.  There is a wide variety of drills and activities that kids can do in a gym setting and there is plenty of equipment designed for indoor play.  In addition to skill development, the open space afforded by a gym is more conducive for energetic kids and having fun versus the confines of a batting cage.

 

Equipment Needs

Below is a short checklist of items needed for running baseball and softball activities in a gym

Baseballs or Softballs Conducive to Indoor Use – One Dozen.  These are often referred to as ‘Safety Balls’. Safety baseballs cost $25-$35/doz., softballs are $5-$10 more.  Most sporting goods stores carry these types of balls and there are oodles of suppliers on the internet.  Below are two links.  The first was found by Googling ‘Baseball Safety Balls’. Through the second link you will find the brand name ‘Incrediballs’.  These are made of cloth and are very safe, but do cost about $10 extra per dozen:

Safety Balls - (Level 1 balls are very soft and Level 5 balls are moderately soft.  Level 10 balls are pretty hard and I would not recommend them for indoor use. Brands may rate their balls differently. The best thing to do is give a ball a squeeze and you can determine if it is appropriate.) </span>

Incrediballs  - these are balls made of tightly compacted cloth.  They are regular size and weight, but are a bit softer than what is ideal.  However, if you have limited facilities to choose from and there is push back regarding using 'baseballs or 'real softballs' this is an alternative that should be approved for use by the facility operators.

 

Batting Tee(s) - 1 or 2.  Your local youth league likely has a good supply of tees.  If the kids in your group are members, it is quite possible the league would loan you a couple.  You might consider purchasing a batting tee; there are many on the market for around $25.  A tee is possibly the best investment you can make for your young ball player.  Tees are used as a training tool by players at all levels including college softball players and Major League baseball players - Josh Hamilton Working Out Using a Batting Tee.

 

Whiffle Balls - 1-2 dozen.  These are used for hitting off the tee(s).  They are also what you would use for some fun game play by the group at the end of a workout (we still use a regular bat, not a plastic whiffle ball bat).  Whiffle balls sell for $10-$15/doz. and can be found at most sporting goods stores.  Standard whiffle balls do have a tendency to split, however.  The best quality ball available, and a much better investment, is a ‘Pickle Ball’.  These are much sturdier and often last for years.  Pickle Balls cost around $25/doz.

 

Throw Down Bases - These are easy to transport rubber bases that can be bought in a set from a sporting goods store or online.  A set of lightweight bases is around $15; heavier and sturdier bases are available for about $25.  These can be found at most sporting goods stores or on the internet.

 

Bats and Helmets - Be sure to instruct the kids to never drop a bat on a gym floor.  When they are done hitting off a tee, they are to set the bat down gently.  When you are playing a game, have the player hand the bat to an adult as they begin to run to first base.  Take good care of the gym and you will be welcome to come back again and again.

Anytime there are multiple players swinging at balls off a tee at the same time, they each must wear helmets; not to protect them if hit by a ball, but to protect them against injury from a bat.

 

Workout Activities and Drills 

Note: Diagrams and instructions for all the activities listed below will be added to the Coaching Guide over the next few weeks.  Additional content will be added throughout the winter and spring.

 

> Playing Catch Practice

 

> Drill Rotation:

  • Ground Ball Footwork – roll ground balls to the kids’ right and left from 20’ away.

 

  • Ground Balls, Fielding and Throwing to a First Baseman.  Instead of hitting the balls to the kids using a bat, throw the ground balls to them.  This is more accurate and eliminates flubs and misses 100%.  The person acting as the first baseman can be an adult or child.  I find using an adult to be best.  When a child is acting as the first baseman poorly thrown balls or missed catches slow down the flow of the activity quite a bit.

 

  • Side to Side Move and Catch – start with four balls, stand 20’ from the player.  Make a semi-firm shoulder level toss 5’-10 to’ their left, the player moves to catch the ball (then drops it off to the side), you then immediately toss the next ball 5’-10’ to their right.  Repeat back and forth.  The simple act of moving and catching and getting multiple repetitions improves skill and athleticism.  The older the player, the quicker you can run the drill.

 

  • Same as above, except you bounce the ball to the player, so they are catching near waist level.

 

  • Fielding Ground Balls Followed by a Short Underhand Toss - to a base covered by another player.  Position a player 20’ from a base and roll a ground ball approximately 5’ to the base side of them.  They move to the ball, field, and then continue toward the base executing an underhand toss to a second player at standing at the base.  Position yourself about 20’ from the player to whom you are rolling the ground ball.

 

  • Tossing Short Fly Balls – send a player off in a given direction, after they run about 10’ toss the ball another 10’-15’ beyond them.  The arc of the toss does not need go higher than 10’.  The act of catching while running (and getting many repetitions in a short period of time) is the objective. Run the kids back at 45 degree angles, in at 45 degree angles, straight in and straight back - don’t run them into a wall :)

 

  • Tee Work – set a couple of tees 15’ from a wall and have the kids hit whiffle balls (pickle balls are ideal) off the tee toward the wall.

 

  • Live Swings – position yourself 20’ from a batter and pitch whiffle balls, from a knee.  (I will post a video with detailed instructions on pitching technique that will turn you into a strike throwing machine.)

 

Pick out a few of the activities listed above, divide the kids into 2-3 groups and set up drill stations spread out around the gym.  Work for 3-4 minutes, and then have the kids rotate stations.  After they have gone through each station set up a new set of drills and run the kids though the rotation again.

 

>Scrimmage

After the drill session, set up a diamond in the gym and have a whiffle ball game for the last 20-30 minutes (there is nothing wrong with parents participating too).  A scrimmage also has developmental value.  The kids get additional swings, they experience performing in a competitive environment, get multiple opportunities to react to the ball off the bat, run the bases and deal with basic game situations.  It’s not real baseball or softball, but the kids are playing the game, getting reps and having a blast.  The mix of work and play will develop skills and further engrain a love of the game in your young ball player. In some environments it may be possible to scrimmage using “Incrediballs”.

 

 

Instruction

Let’s first put things in perspective.  We are not preparing for the Major League baseball season or to perform for college scouts next spring.  These are kids.  The simple act of playing and getting repetitions will help them improve.  It is not to say that getting some basic technical help is bad idea.  Below are some ideas for stepping up the level of learning in these workouts:

 

  • Get a coach from your league involved.  They have a child the same age as yours and live close by.

 

  • Many high schools now require their students to complete a given number of community service hours.  Recruit a player from the local HS Varsity or JV to join you at the workouts.  The kids love working with teenagers and look up to them.  Simply having their presence at a workout inspires and motivates young players.

 

  • The Baseball Positive website will be adding instructional content, drills and video throughout the fall and winter months.  Moving forward, this site will become a resource for everything you could need.

 

  • Some professional instructors are mobile, especially if they live in your neighborhood.  It may be possible to work out a deal for them to come to the gym and work with your kids.  There is some cost involved, but dividing that among the group makes the cost per family reasonable.

 

 

Get Involved in Other Sports and Activities

Getting your child involved with traditional winter sports or other non-sports activities during the off-season is very important.  It is not make or break time for baseball and softball careers at this age.  In fact, getting involved with other sports has many benefits:

 

  • Reduce the chance of overuse injuries.

 

  • A young body gains strength and increased coordination by going through the different movements required in other sports.

 

  • Many actions and techniques in other sports are similar to those in baseball and softball.  Experiencing these outside the baseball or softball environment will increase your child’s athletic aptitude. It is quite likely their chances for success, when they get back to baseball or softball full time in the spring, will be higher as a result of playing other sports.

 

  • Participating in other activities gives your child a mental break and reduces burnout.

 

  • Keep ‘em hungry.  Spending time away from one sport (or moving it down the priority list) for a while can be rejuvenating.  When the calendar turns and it is baseball and softball season again, following a break, our kids will find a renewed excitement and eagerness for playing the game.

 

Check Out the Coaching Guide

Batting is like Jumping …how to generate greater bat speed and power

Batting is Like Jumping.jpg

Note: this article touches on a couple other aspects of the swing beyond the leg action.  Those aspects are not explained in detail.  Additional aspects  of the swing are addressed in other Baseball Positive articles and videos.  Please let me know in the comments section if This article creates questions regarding the swing; I will reply and try to provide some clarification.

 

The energy for power and bat speed for the swing is generated by the legs.  When the legs are fully utilized, the initial action in the batting swing is much like Jumping.                                   

 

When a person jumps, they squat down, swing their arms back, then with a quick burst of energy, extend their legs while accelerating their arms straight- up. The first sections of this article describe the basic actions that create that burst of energy to produce a quick and powerful swing. 

 

At the end of this article, I share a very simple drill to help a young batter develop their ability to maximize the use of their legs in their swing.  The information presented prior to the drill gives some background on why this very simple drill is so valuable for a youth baseball or softball player.

 

 

 

HOW POWER FROM THE LEGS IS MAXIMIZED IN THE SWING

The difference between the jumping action and the swing is a batter doesn’t fully extend their legs in the swing as happens in the jumping action.  In the swing, a batter ANCHORS their back leg, which stops their leg extension mid-‘jump’.  The ‘stopping’ of the ‘jump’ is a key to transferring energy and momentum from the legs to the hands. (Anchor is discussed later in the article)

 

 

WEIGHT SHIFT

Stance - Jason Werth.jpg

The shifting of body weight in the swing is fairly subtle; there is much less movement in the weight-shift action than many people think - or teach; )  (I do not make any reference to Weight Shift when working with kids)

 

In a ‘traditional’ stance, and in many of the stances we see at the professional level, the batter starts with their weight pretty much evenly distributed.  Their torso and head are centered between their feet.  Some batters have a little extra weight on their back foot/leg in their stance.

 

From this Centered and Balanced position, a makes a slight inward turn with the front side of their body and shifts their weight slightly to their back leg - The Load

 

(I prefer using the phrase “Turn Back” rather than ‘Load’, when working with kids.  It is important that we recognize, in all our coaching communication, that kids have a smaller vocabulary than adults and have had less exposure to the terms associated with the game.  Many don’t know exactly what is meant by the term ‘Load’.   The phrase, “Turn Back” is a literal description of the loading action.)

Turn Back 3.jpg

 

From this loaded position, the batter shifts their weight forward, to where their weight is pretty much (again) centered between their feet….not forward (past center) to their front foot…the ‘weight shift’ is from back to center.

 

(In the 80’s, a more dramatic forward weight shift was taught by some high-level coaches; this trickled down to the youth level and from time to time I see coaches teaching this concept.  In previous decades the stride was taught; this continued through the end of the century.  Today you will have to look very hard to find a successful MLB batter who shifts their weight to their front foot.  Also, you will notice that few MLB batters stride.  These dramatic changes in the teaching of the batting swing have occurred over the past 15-20 years). 

 

The Weight Shift is from ‘back to center’, involving a minimal amount of forward movement.

It is during this slight movement, from back to center, that the batter is ‘Jumping’.  While it takes place in a small space, through this action a batter is fully utilizing the strength in their legs to generate power and energy for the swing. Many youth players are unaware of the importance of the legs in the swing and few, if any, are trained to maximize their legs in their swing.

 

The following information gives some basics on how the swing works. 

 

 

Anchor  2.jpg

ANCHORING THE SWING

The action of anchoring the swing has the batter driving the muscles of their back leg straight down against their back knee.  This driving down action takes place as the batter is turning their legs/hips (the action of “Switching Heels” is shown in a three videos below).   

 

(A teaching phrase used constantly in Baseball Positive instruction is “Turn Fast” - said with a lot of energy and emphasis.  Because most kids are not aware of the importance of their legs in the swing, or that the legs have anything to do with the swing at all, it is critical that we constantly talk ‘legs’.  When we teach, we want to put extra emphasis on our statements referring to the use of the legs.)

 

‘Anchoring’ the swing keeps the head and torso from moving forward past ‘center’ and aids in maximizing the transfer of energy and power from the legs to the hands.  Coordinating this transfer of energy, with the assistance of Anchoring the back leg produces bat speed and the acceleration of the swing through contact.

 

When the teaching focus is on Anchoring the Swing, we have our batter remain in the finish position of their swing.  Then firmly run our hand down the side of their leg, so they gain an understanding,  through 'feel’, that they want to drive down with the muscles of their back leg.  Recognizing ‘Feel’ is an important part of learning, and maintaining, proper actions of the muscles.

 

The end of the turn, the anchoring of the swing, is the end of the ‘Jump’.

 

The Leg/hip turn is accomplished by “Switching Heels”.  Watch the three videos below:  Albert Pujols and Mike Zunino blasting home runs.............and a Soldier doing an ‘About Face’.  ................This is included to demonstrate that the Switch Heels action is not  a ‘secret’ action for swinging the bat.  The Switch Heels action is basic Body Mechanics.

Albert Pujols, Switch Heels-   Four examples at:        0:260:340:440:53 Mike Zunino, Switch Heels-   Three examples at:        0:00-0:130:14-0:200:30-0:35

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                            Soldier, About Face: 0:00-0:10

 

 

 

 

f

 

 

At the end of the Leg/hip turn, the lower half of the body ‘stops’ right in the middle of the swing (see the Zunino Video at 0:09).  When the Legs/hips stop, the energy they produced has to go somewhere….it is transferred to the hands…this energy transfer is a key for maximum bat speed and power

 

The end of the turn, the anchoring of the swing, is the end of the ‘Jump’.

 

Watch this slo-mo video (0:35-0:50) of Nelson Cruz' swing. You can see the lower half of the body (legs/hips) literally stop...while the bat accelerates through the contact point with the ball.

 

 

THE LEGS POWER THE HANDS IN A STRAIGHT LINE

Half Way Miller 1b.jpg

 

(The following information is included to point out

what happens following the ‘jumping’ segment of

the swing.  Information on teaching these actions

is not included in this article.)

Half Way Miller 2b.jpg
Half Way Miller 1b.jpg
Half Way Miller 4b.jpg

 

The hands take the energy and power  created by

the legs to accelerate the bat to, and through, the ball. 

The path of the hands in the swing is, more or less,

a straight line.

 

The bottom hand ‘pulls’ the bat ‘half way’ towards

contact point.  The bottom hand ‘stops’

(is finished contributing to the swing) midway

through this aspect of the swing involving the hands. 

 

 

The top hand then snaps ‘all the way’, using a

‘skipping-a-rock’ action where the palm of the

top hand remains ‘facing up’ through contact. 

 

 

The wrists 'roll over' after contact is made.  This 'rolling over' action of the wrists happens naturally as the hands/arm extended in a straight line through the end of the 'swing'.  

Extension Straight Line - End of Swing.jpg

 

Note: the action of the hands in the ‘swing’ is not a circular, as one might think, but more of a straight line.   An efficient hitter doesn’t ‘swing’ the bat, they ‘snap’ the bat.  . ...the momentum of the barrel of the bat continues in a circular path.  It is this momentum of the barrel of the bat that takes the hands off the straight line.  

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

THE DRILL - ‘DEEP LOAD’

Deep Load 1.jpg

This is a modified version of the ‘Switch Heels’ drill shown earlier.  When the batter 'Turns Back' we have them exaggerate this action by turning back a bit more than usual and sinking their butt a bit resulting in a Deeper knee bend then normal.

 

From this Deep Load position, the batter Turns Fast and ‘Jumps’ to the ANCHOR position. 

 

The energy and power of the ‘jump’ is transferred to the hands, which accelerate in a straight line to completes the swing.  The ‘swing’ is completed when the hands and arms are fully extended at the end of the straight-line path of the hands.

Anchor  2.jpg

 

The ‘Deep Load’ is the key point of the drill.  When repeating the Deep Load Drill over and over, the batter becomes aware of and gains are greater sense of the feel of their legs in the swing.

 

 

When working with smaller and younger players it is important to recognize that they have limited strength in their legs and we are asking them to perform an action they have never done before.  They will not master this the first time they try the drill….or the second time, or the third time.  It is important to understand, when working with youth baseball and softball players, they are not going to ‘get it’ as fast as we might expect, from our perspective as adults.  In all our teaching, when working with young players, we must be patient with them…and with ourselves; ) --- the process of gaining some level of master of muscle actions is a weeks or months long process.

 

 

(STRIDE is not mentioned in this article.  Watch MLB batters; very few stride.  Many simply ‘Turn Back’ as described.  Some pick up their front foot and set it right back down.  -  I don’t teach stride and I encourage youth coaches to avoid talking about striding to kids age 12 and under.  When they get to their teens, there will be a few kids who can benefit from incorporating a small stride into their swing.)

 

 

 

 

The drill is executed while working off a tee, doing soft toss (watch this video - 1:35-2:00), or short front toss.(see the first set of pictures, found about half way down the page, inBatting Practice - A 12-Play Drill

Prior to doing the drill we want to prep the batter with a brief explanation of the concept that the legs initiate the swing action and that the legs are where the energy and power for the swing is generated.

The info presented earlier in this article provides some talking points.  The age of the batter dictates how deep the conversation will be.  In any case, this prep talk should not take more than about 30 seconds.  We want to give the batter just enough info to do the drill, then we get them working.  

After they have taken some swings (10-15) their muscles will need a brief break.   During the break, we can give them a little more insight about the importance of utilizing the legs in the batting swing. 

 

 

RESULTS

This, like most drills, is not going to magically make a batter a superstar in a single session.  This is an activity to include in a swing workout.  Over the course of time, the batter’s muscles will become trained to better utilize their legs, which will produce more power and bat speed.

Note: it is important, when working with an athlete of any age, to limit the volume of information we give them at any one time.  This is an easier strategy to follow if we go into the teaching session with the understanding that we are not going to see miraculous improvements in just a few minutes. 

Let’s Give Our Kids a Chance to Play a Lot of Positions …but not all in one day

Playing Different Positions - Benched.jpg

Should youth baseball and softball players work at a variety of positions or invest time in mastering just one or two? 

 

This is a long-standing question and subject of on-going debate.

 

There is a large contingent of folks who believe that, at the ages 6-12 level of baseball and softball, the game should be developmental, which in part means giving kids the chance to play as many positions as possible.  …I count myself as part of that group.

 

After nearly a decade of working exclusively with this age of baseball and softball players, I have seen quite a bit and learned a lot about how the game works at the youth level of play.  My experiences, observations, and many hours of conversations with parents, coaches, players and league leaders are the basis for my viewpoint on this subject.

 

In this article, I am writing from the perspective of Fall Ball in a Recreational League.  I believe these thoughts are also applicable to club/travel ball.  However, if a club/travel team has clearly communicated to a family, when their child joined, that they are going to put players at the position(s) the club chooses, we accept their decisions as a condition of joining.

 

 

 

TWO APPROACHES TO STRUCTURING FALL BALL

  1. Schedule a bunch of games (to ‘just have fun playing’) with no practices.  The line of thinking is practice is boring and games are fun, and the more the kids play the better they will get.
  2. Include an instructional period before each game.  When given a two-hour block to play, the first 30-60 minutes is to dedicated to teaching and the development of skills, followed by 60-90 minutes of game play.

 

 

 

CAN A PLAYER LEARN FROM JUST PLAYING GAMES?

When I coached at the college level, much of the fall was dedicated to scrimmaging.  Game play exposes players to many situations in a short period of time.  Players learn from dealing with these situations.  When mistakes are made, the coaching staff has the opportunity to teach.

It is important to understand, however, that much of that teaching is based on instruction that the players received in a drill/practice setting.  Trying to teach an entirely new concept, or explain the mechanics of a skill, to an inexperienced child in a game setting is difficult, if not impossible.

 

 

 

PRACTICE IS WHERE WE TEACH; GAMES ARE FOR REINFORCING WHAT HAS BEEN TAUGHT PREVIOUSLY

The reality is, a player needs multiple repetitions in practice to Learn a position.  Throwing them into the heat of a game, at a position they are not familiar with, is not the best way for a kid to Learn.  Most likely they are not going to fulfill the position’s defensive responsibilities correctly.  As a result, they get flustered and frustrated trying to figure out what to do at an unfamiliar position in a game environment.

Yes, we can give a player instruction in the dugout after an inning.  Chances are this is going to have limited success.  Likely, we will have multiple players who need feedback following each inning.  If a player has limited familiarity with a position, the 30-60 seconds we might have available to teach them is likely not going to be enough time.  Not to mention the interruptions of all the other dugout chaos going on around our discussion;)

The most effective feedback we can give in a game are reminders of things that we already taught in a practice setting.  A game setting is a difficult environment for teaching new content.

 

 

 

THE APPROACH TO PLAYING MULTIPLE POSITIONS

Something I see a lot in Fall Ball is kids moving to a different position each inning.  A player needs consecutive innings at the same position to get a feel for a that position.

Moving kids to different positions every inning during a game is not be the best approach for giving kids exposure to multiple positions.  Our kids don’t need to play a zillion positions in one day.  We have 5-6+ weeks in the fall to get them experience at different positions. 

My suggestion is to limit kids to 2-3 positions on a given day (and have them, during the pre-game practice, work at the position(s) they will be playing in the game).  I also suggest sticking to the same positions two games in a row.  Then in games 3 and 4 put the kids at new positions.

One thing to keep in mind is that the perspective of the game is quite different on one side of the field versus the other.  As best we can, when moving kids to different positions, we want to keep them on the same side of the field or move them to an adjacent position.

When shuffling nine (or more) players around there will be instances where one or two players end up being moved further than what is ideal when switching positions.  Also, a couple of kids, each game, will end up playing a position for just one inning. 

To ensure that we get each player a good number of innings at a variety of positions over the course of the fall we use a ‘Season Positions Log’ of the positions the kids play in each game.  Then work off that log as we plan position assignments for each game.   

 

Game Positions Chart.jpg

On the right are two tools for managing playing time, by position, for each kid on a team:

Season Positions Log.jpg
  1. Game Positions Chart
  2. Season Positions Log

.

The ‘Game Positional Chart’ helps us set up our player moves prior to the start of a game. 

 

We post the plan in the dugout when we first arrive at the park, so the kids can see where they will be playing in each inning of the game. 

Another benefit of this chart is the kids see when they will be sitting out.  The chart lets them know when they will be back on the field and that most kids are playing a fairly equal amount of time. 

Giving kids this information prior to the game lets everyone know where they fit into the plan for the day, and allows them to prepare their minds for where they will be playing.

 

 

 

NOT ALL PLAYERS ARE CREATED EQUAL

We want to take into consideration, when assigning positions, a given player’s ability to fulfill the skill requirements of a position.  While we want to give our kids an opportunity to play as many positions as possible, the fact is not all kids have the skills or strength required for some positions.  (This is not to say they cannot improve their skills…in a practice setting…and create more future opportunities for themselves.)

There are a few kids on each team who don’t catch the ball consistently; others don’t have the ability to throw strikes if given the opportunity to pitch, while others are not fast and agile or don’t have much arm strength or the ability to throw accurately across the infield.

 

 

CONSIDER THE EXPERIENCE OF THE GROUP OVER THE INDIVIDUAL

A very important question that we want to ask ourselves when making any decision in youth sports, ‘Will this decision have more of a negative impact on the group than the positives it might bring to an individual?’

As we move through our activities it is important not to sacrifice the experience of the group for a single player. In our well-intentioned effort to give every kid a chance to play each position, we can forget that having a player, who is not equipped with the skills required to play a given position, can negatively impact the experience of rest of the kids in the group (not to mention the umpire, players on the other team and the parents and siblings watching in the stands). 

We don’t want to take away from the experience of group by having  an ill-equipped player at a position that has a negative impact on the flow of a game.  We can still let every player play many positions on the field, but not all players can play every position. 

Let’s not forget that a kid can have a lot of fun, have a great experience and learn the game while playing 5-6 of the nine positions on the field.

 

 

 

THE FOUR CRITICAL POSITIONS ON THE FIELD

The four positions that not every kid can play:

1.     PITCHER - If we put a kid on the mound who cannot consistently throw strikes, a baseball game quickly becomes ‘17 players watching 1 player practice their pitching’.  This is not fair to the pitcher’s teammates, the other team, the umpires or the parents and siblings who are in attendance.  Most teams have 3-4 kids who are pretty good pitchers.  There will be a couple more who can do an adequate job.  Maybe there are 2-3 more who can, with some practice, pitch an inning occasionally.                                      

 

2.     CATCHER - A kid playing this position must be able to consistently catch the ball.  This position also requires a player with decent arm strength, some agility and have a good level of focus.  Few teams have more than four kids that they can put behind the plate.  In most cases only 2-3 kids can play this position a significant number of innings.  One unfortunate reality in youth baseball and softball is there is a limited amount of time for giving kids the practice time required to develop the skills of this position.  Quite a bit of practice is. needed to become adequate in the skills of this position.   When putting a player at catcher who does not have the minimum requirements mentioned we are, in effect, being disrespectful to the others involved in the game.

 

3.     SHORTSTOP - Requires quickness, agility, a strong, accurate throwing arm and a fair amount of instincts for playing the game.  Few teams have more than 3-4 kids who can play this position.  Putting a player at shortstop who does not possess a minimum level of competency in all these skills can disrupt the quality of, and flow of, a game.                                                          

 

4.     FIRST BASE - This is another position where we must put a player who can catch the ball…most every time.  This cuts the number of prospects to 4-6.  Of these, we are stretching reality for a couple of them.  Putting a player at first base who cannot consistently catch the ball is being inconsiderate of the other players on the team.  We want to get outs, so we can get back to batting!  :)   .                                 

 

 

Taking into consideration the different factors discussed here, when planning position moves, we can create an atmosphere where all the kids learn the game and get to play a lot of different positions.  These suggestions can result in a game with a better flow, more at-bats for everyone, more action, more learning and the experience is better for everyone involved.

Your Kid Can’t Hit ...because their bat is too long!

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Here’s the pitch; a swing and a miss. OK, buddy you’ll get the next pitch …pop-up, Alright, good; we made contact on that one. Pitch number three: weak ground ball to the first baseman …out again.

Why do many kids take looping swings under the ball, pop up or hit weak ground balls to the opposite side of the field?  There are some mechanical reasons, but a major factor for many is they use bats that are too long.

When the discussion of bat size comes up the primary issue discussed is weight; length isn’t given as much thought (by parents).  Regardless of weight, the longer the lever (bat), the more difficult it is to control.  And while I am not a physicist (nor is it likely that many reading this are) I will suggest that a longer lever puts more stress (the feeling of weight) on the muscles in the wrists and arms. A longer bat feels heavier.

Why do kids want to swing such long bats? There are two reasons I am told by parents (and by some kids too):

1.    The older kids, to whom younger kids look up to, use a longer bat and little kids naturally want to be like the bigger kids (or older brother/sister).

2.  They think they need a longer bat to reach the outside part of the plate...not understanding that the sweet spot begins approximately four-plus inches from the end of the barrel.  If their reasoning was correct they would need a bat that reaches four inches, or more, beyond the outer edge of the plate (how to properly hit an outside pitch is another discussion).

 

The first step to improving kids’ success at the plate is to get a shorter bat in their hands.  Based on my experience working exclusively with the 12u age group over the past six years I feel the longest bat a 12u player needs is 29”.  There is the rare exception of the kid pushing six feet who might need to go up to 30”.  A good length for a Tee-Baller is 24” or 25”.  Most kids age 9 or 10 will do fine with a 27” bat.  Based on these two examples you can fill in the gaps based on your child’s age and size.

The most important factor in determining which bat is best for your child is to find one the feels good to them.  This means taking them to the store and having them hold and swing as many bats as possible until they find one that feels right.  The length of the barrel, width of the handle and distribution of weight along the length of bat varies, giving each bat a unique quality of feel.  While your child doesn’t have the experience of a college star or a pro they will get to the point during your visit where they will tell you, “I like this one best”.

Regarding the issue of weight, it is my opinion that most (if not all) bats on the market are too light.  It will be difficult to find a bat that is too heavy if you purchase one that is a good length for your ballplayer.  Bat manufacturers produce a good percentage of bats to serve the lowest common denominator (kids who swing with their arms and not their legs) resulting in them making very light bats.  I do not fault the manufacturers for doing this, however.  They are in the business of supplying a product that best serves the broadest aspect of the market.

If your child is receiving proper batting instruction that has them utilizing the strength of their legs to power the swing you will be hard pressed to find a new bat that is too heavy.  If finding a heavier bat is of interest, the place to shop is Goodwill or a second hand sporting goods store.  My 5’ 2” 85lb, 10 year old son swings a 27”, 22 oz bat that I bought for $5 from Goodwill.   I am not a cheapskate, but that is the only place I could find a ‘good’ bat for him.  I would guess the thing is 20 years old.  I am not suggesting you take your child to Goodwill and buy them an old bat, but if you want to find a bat that is a few ounces heavier that is where you have to go.

So here I am suggesting you ditch your kid’s bat and get them a shorter one; who am I?  …just some dude up in Seattle where it rains all the time and kids only play the game six months a year.  In order to better support the suggestion of going with a shorter bat I will extend the conversation to a few guys who were fairly accomplished hitters…

Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest batters in MLB history and a grown man who weighed 220-230lbs during his playing career started out his career using a 32 1/2 inch bat and did not go longer than 33 inches.  Barry Bonds (who was a great hitter regardless of what types of enhancements he might have used late in his career) swung a 33 1/2 inch bat part of his career AND choked up.&nbsp; Babe Ruth is even quoted as saying that he would have been smarter to have used a shorter bat, which he did switch too later in his career.

Babe Ruth Preferred a Shorter Bat (click)

 

 

“…I should have known all along, that I could do better with a shorter bat. ...going to the shorter bat was one of my best moves, and I have wondered many times since why any player would bother with swinging a stick an inch or two longer than was absolutely necessary.”

Tony Gwynn used a Shorter Bat (click)

“…first 12 years of his career, he used a 32½-inch bat…”

 

How much should I pay for a bat?

Unless you are sure you have a child that is going to be a core member of the 11 or 12 year old All-Star team, I see no reason to spend more than $60 on a bat. There are many quality, name brand bats on the market for $40. There are more bats available the go well into the three digit range that have the space age trampoline technology that may perform a bit better.  Your family budget might make that an option to explore.

However, when it comes down to it, the person swinging the bat contributes the lion’s share to success.

A couple of years ago I worked with a kid and had him try a 28”, 22oz bat from the batch I picked up from Goodwill.  He ended up using it for his 12 year old season.  Many considered him the best batter in the league and he was using an old thing that cost $5.

Check Out the Coaching Guide

What Does It Take to Get to the Little League World Series? …get insight from a coach who has been there

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Robley Corsi, who I am fortunate to call a friend, took Pacific Little League (suburban Seattle) to the Little League Northwest Regional twice and advanced to the Little League World Series in 2014.  This VIDEO sheds some light on his approach to coaching kids and building a championship culture with the teams he coaches.

 

It Starts By Recognizing These Are Just Kids

Robley and I first met a couple of years before he took his team to Williamsport.  As we shared philosophies and our approach to teaching, I sensed immediately his unique combination of solid baseball knowledge, an understanding of how to connect with kids and his enthusiasm for helping kids learn and grow, and doing so in a fun and positive atmosphere.

Our discussions over the ensuing years usually centered around ideas such as creating a positive team culture and injecting encouragement into all aspects of teaching and interacting with young ballplayers.  We talked a lot about keeping instruction simple, while emphasizing the value of repetition and not investing too time on ‘advanced’ instruction.  My experience, at all levels of baseball, had been that the game is often over-coached.  Hearing Robley’s perspective was refreshing. 

A point that Robley tied in with almost everything he shared with me was that these are kids who, primarily, want to go to the park and have fun playing baseball with their buddies.

 

 

The Williamsport Experience

When I spoke to Robley after he and the Pacific Little League kids returned from Williamsport, I asked him about the interaction between the competing coaching staffs…..I was shocked by what I heard…and pleasantly surprised.

We constantly hear about overly competitive parents and coaches in youth sports.  Given that these were the top eight programs in the country, I assumed many found their way to Williamsport under the guidance of drill sergeant coaches pushing the kids to their limits.  I thought Robley would tell me his positive and encouraging approach was an anomaly.

It turns out that when the coaches compared notes on their journey to Williamsport the formula was pretty much the same for everyone.  The coaches recognized that these were just kids, and just because they may have better than average ability, they still had doubts, fragile emotions and needed to be constantly reassured they could work through the challenges they faced.  

When the discussions got around to how they taught baseball skills and how to play the game, the consistent theme was a belief in focusing on the basics, getting the kids a lot of reps and keeping the instruction simple.  And all the coaches emphasized how ‘keeping the game fun’, was a key component in their success.

 

 

Characteristics of a Little League World Series Coach

The VIDEO profiling Robley Corsi and Pacific Little League illustrates how a positive and encouraging environment, where the kids truly are the priority, can be the recipe for championship level success. 

The defining moment in the video, in my opinion, is at 1:23.  Robley is in the third base coaching box.  One of the kids on the team he is coaching smokes a ball down the third base line; a sure double.  The other team’s third baseman makes a beautiful backhand play, robbing the batter from Robley’s team, and throws him out at first. 

What is Robley’s reaction?  Pure joy and excitement!  Without hesitation, he’s pumping up the third baseman for making the play.  Robley’s first instinct is to acknowledge the great play, it doesn’t matter that the kid is on the other team.  He is taking joy in a kid experiencing and enjoying a big moment.  The chance to make a play like that doesn’t come up often…..to complete the play is a big deal to a young ballplayer.

What about the batter from the team Robley was coaching who was robbed of the double?   Robley’s comments to that batter aren’t shown in the video.  However, I suspect the conversation went pretty much like this… 

“Hey, you Smoked that ball!!!   You picked a good pitch and made a great swing.  The third baseman made the play of the year on you.  That’s baseball.  You can only control so much.  That was a great at-bat.  Grab your glove, set your mind on playing defense and before long you’ll have another shot at the plate.”

 

 

Takeaways From The Video

Coaching kids starts with being genuine.  Kids don’t expect their Little League Coach to be a baseball guru.  They understand that, in most cases, coaches are just the dad or mom of one of their friends on the team. (I recall when Cody Webster and Kirkland National Little League -another suburban Seattle league- won the Little League World Series in 1982.  When their coach was asked about his baseball background, his response was ‘I learned from reading a book on coaching baseball’.  Yes, he was just a dad from the neighborhood.) 

Players want a coach who maintains some level of communication with them as individuals, shows they care and does their best to help them get better at baseball.  We can best accomplish these things by going about our business being ourselves and not thinking that being a coach means ‘knowing it all’ or putting on some other persona.

 

Other points to take note of:

 

Keep Instruction Simple - these players are still just kids; they are far from mastering the skills of the game.  We can easily overwhelm them by constantly teaching more and more new stuff.  Often, we feel that, as coaches, if we aren’t giving them new and deeper instruction we aren’t doing our job.  Coaching is less about jamming kids with a lot of information and more about guiding them in their development by reinforcing the things we have already taught them.  Kids can attain a pretty good level of success with just the ‘A, B, and C’ of a skill and doing those basic aspects well.  Well-intentioned coaches often give too much information, which can result in player’s development stalling or even regressing.

 

Repetitions - when we keep instruction simple and organize practices that keep all the kids moving and ‘doing’, they develop and improve faster.  Talk to a coach in higher levels of any sport and a common theme is that repetitions has a greater impact on improvement then feeding an athlete a bunch of information.

 

Encouragement - baseball (and softball) is a difficult game to play.  Catching, throwing, and fielding a little ball and trying to hit that little round ball with a round bat is not easy.   Mistakes are made each time these young players take the field. Frustration and discouragement are common emotions during the process of learning to play the game.  Constant encouragement and positive reinforcement is vitally important to help kids through the many rough moments they experience on the ball field.

 

Perspective - give some thought to the idea that the game is about the kids.  Why did we choose to coach what I like to refer to as ‘Neighborhood Baseball’?  This isn’t travel ball or select ball; it’s a bunch of kids who share the same parks, schools and whose parents shop at the same grocery stores.  Our role is to teach them, not just about the game, but about working through struggles and adversity.  When we go into coaching Neighborhood Baseball with the perspective that it’s all about the kids, and doing all we can to make it a positive experience, we set ourselves up to gain the greatest satisfaction from coaching.

 

Fun - the results of study after study on why kids play sports, ‘having fun’ and ‘being with their friends’ are consistently at the top of the list (maybe do a quick Google search on the subject).  When asked why they quit sports, ‘not having fun’ is at or near the top of the list.  In all that we do, we want to keep in mind why kids chose to play in the first place.  They come out to play because they look forward to it being fun.

 

 

Each year only eight US teams and eight international teams make it to Williamsport.  Three million kids play the game.  In this VIDEO, we get an inside look at a coach who has taken a team to the Little League World Series.  Who knows, it just may help you get the kids you coach to Williamsport next year.  Most of us however, will not make it to Williamsport, but each of us can take something from this video, apply it to our coaching, and make a positive, life-long impact on the kids we work with.