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.
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.
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”.
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