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.
– 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.