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?
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
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)
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!