provided by Coach Michael Payne, The School of Baseball
From a coaching standpoint, one of the biggest challenges in youth baseball is getting your players enthusiastic about practice. Attention spans can be short during practice drills that are not “fun”. Most often your players will be motivated by batting practice, pitching, and live games; however, there are many other fundamentals that are necessary to teach in the game of baseball. So, tailoring your practice to get kids enthusiastic is the key to the success of your team.
Young players typically respond positively to individual challenges, team games, or anything that forces them to focus on the drill. The concept of making practice fun for the players is important to your team’s success because it will help the team stay focused on baseball and will allow you to make the best use of practice time. An average youth team practices 1-3 days per week depending on field availability, weather, and other factors, so time is limited.
The best solution is to create a practice environment where kids can have fun and be enthusiastic about the practice drills. In the rest of this article, The School of Baseball (TSOB) will outline drills and practice games that can help manage your team’s practice time efficiently.
The Line Drive Game (Hitting)
Anytime you take a drill and turn it into a game, young players will latch onto the competitive edge and increase their focus. The line dive game is basically batting practice, but it forces the players to take their swings seriously and focus on making solid contact. The rules are fairly simple. Each player will have an opportunity to bat while the others are fielding their positions in the field. A pitching machine or coach will be throwing batting practice style pitches and each player will have 5 swings.
Scoring can vary depending on the coaching style. For example, you can rate each hit on a 5-point scale; 5 - solid line drive, 4 – well struck fly ball or ground ball, 3 – softer line drive or ground ball up the middle, 2 – routine ground ball or pop-out, 1 – dribbler to the pitcher or pop-up to infield, 0 – swing and a miss or foul ball.
Another example is to rate each hit as a hit or an out. With only 5 swings, players will most often tie in the top amount of hits, so the players who tied for the most hits will continue into the next round. Typically there are about 3-5 rounds before the last player is standing.
There is no right or wrong way to score this type of game. It is the concept of competiveness that simulates a game style atmosphere for the players. As a coach, you will notice more line drives over a few weeks of practice. Lastly, it’s important for the entire team to encourage one another because baseball is a team sport rather than an individual sport.
Consecutive Clean Plays (Fielding)
Taking a practice drill and turning it into a competition applies for fielding as well. An easy way to gain your players focus in the field is keeping track of the number of clean plays your team makes in a row. Instead of going through the motions of taking ground balls and fly balls, your players will give meaning to each play that involves them.
Clean plays involve any type of defensive practice: An outfielder tracking down a pop fly and making an accurate throw to the cut-off man; an infielder fielding a ground ball cleanly, following with a good throw to first, or turning a double play; catchers can practice covering a bunt and making a good throw to 1st base; pitchers can work on backing up plays as they happen, for example, backing up home plate when there is a play at the plate. The options are endless, but vocalize the number of consecutive clean plays a particular player is making because others players will strive to continue working toward being better.
Remember, kids want to scrimmage and be involved in live situations and there is only so much value in hitting countless balls at your team or throwing endless batting practice. Those drills are great for developing fundamentals and muscle memory but they lack a real game feel. So, let the kids scrimmage but follow these rules in your scrimmage to maximize your team’s time.
Say you have a team of 12 and you break the players up into 3 groups of 4 kids per team. This will allow one team to hit, and the other two teams to play the field while a coach pitches. When the batter comes to the plate he or she will automatically have a 1-1 count, which will speed up at bats and get everyone a few at bats during the scrimmage. Each inning will be played with 3 outs, but if the team goes 1-2-3, the 4th batter will receive one at bat before the inning is over. Play however many innings you can fit in during the game and keep score of the teams runs.
The 1-1 scrimmage is a great way for players to development teamwork on defense and offense. Players will be put in real game situations where they need to communicate with one another. As a coach, communicate with the team to show them how to talk through some of the challenges of playing on defense. Look at pitching this scrimmage as an opportunity to communicate to your infield and outfield and helping them develop good baseball IQ.
An alternative to the 1-1 scrimmage is giving the pitchers the opportunity to face live batters. Instead, focus on hitting, give the ball to pitchers to work on the pressures of pitching and being involved in every play. The options for this game are endless and can be tailored any way a coach chooses.
Live Bunting Drill
One of the most undervalued tools in baseball is bunting and this stems from the fact that players want to hit, and they want to hit home runs. The bunting game is perfect to maximize your practice time toward bunting. How it works? Set up a points system, similar to the line drive game that was talked about above. The perfect bunt is between the pitcher and the 1st baseline or the 3rd baseline, so set up two helmets on each side of a perfect bunt (keep the opening of the helmet open to a baseball). On a 5 point scale: 5 - Bunting the ball inside the helmet; 4- bunting the ball next to or in front of the helmet; 3 – ball at the helmet but very short or very long, 2 - ball right back at pitcher; 1- bad bunt with bad mechanics; 0 – missed bunt or fouled back.
Let all of the players rotate through the drill once while one coach is keeping score. Just the thought of score being kept will raise the focus of each player while he practices his bunting skills and technique. Use this as a good time to stop and help point out flaws in the player’s set up (feet, knees, hands, bat angle, etc). As a coach, you will be thanked later down the road for teaching these ball players to bunt because it is important to baseball and winning games.