This is an excerpt from Play Ball by Thomas O'Connell.
Most of us follow a model of practice that has produced great benefits for us over the years. The paradigm of the traditional method is tried and true. Practice starts with a little stretching and a little running. A throwing warm-up follows. Then we pick a skill that we need to work on. Maybe in the last game, the team didn't handle relays and cutoffs well, so in practice we start with a relay drill, focusing on hitting the cutoff, throwing with good technique, getting the feet in position to throw before receiving the ball, and so on. From there, perhaps we move into other drills that cover skills that need retooling—the double play, bunting, pickoffs at second, and so forth. We follow those up with batting practice. We keep everyone busy with stations leading up to hitting on the field. They take 10 cuts, or 15 cuts. During batting practice, we give our pitchers work by having them throw to hitters or letting them throw on the side. After batting practice, we have the daily scrimmage, or we finish up with infield and outfield practice. We might throw in some physical training at the end—running bases, doing sprints—and then everyone grabs a rake. We police the field and then send everyone off to the showers. Some days we eliminate the scrimmage and do more drill work, hoping to get the kinks out of the bad plays that occurred during our last game, but practice is largely the same every day.
This model has worked for many teams. It is organized and moves from point to point well, but it does have shortcomings. For one it overemphasizes mechanical skills. Our players might become better at fielding techniques or double-play pivots or playing the ball off the wall, but at what expense? The traditional approach also puts too much stress on direct instruction. The coach tells players what to do and how to do it. It also relies heavily on the use of drills—usually out of context of the game. Often, the result is that players learn how to do drills well but can't execute the same skill with proficiency in the game. Every coach has seen players jump into the batting cage in practice and tear the cover off the ball on the tees or against the pitching machine but then have trouble making good contact once the game begins. This type of hitter has learned the art of performing well in drills but has not learned how to transfer those technical skills to the tactical situations that they face when at bat during a game. Some people call this choking, but a more accurate description would be a failure to adapt. The same sort of thing happens to the player who can field every ground ball flawlessly in practice but bobbles easy grounders in a game or lets them go through his legs. These examples show that sometimes players haven't been able to translate the work in the cage or during infield drills into game situations. This transfer of learning is a key in education today and should be a key in coaching.
Drills also stand the risk of being boring, especially when repeated without change from one practice to the next. I've seen players going through the motions with a drill even on the first day of practice because, as they say, “We've done this before.”
Drills should have a prominent place in practice, but they should not be the focus. Drills work well at times, especially when teaching a skill for the first time or when trying to lower the risk of injury. Teaching players how to slide or how to drag bunt might fall into this category. The best way to teach these skills would be to (1) explain the skill, (2) model it, and (3) create a drill for the players to work on the skill, all along providing good feedback.
But practice that focuses on drills, live hitting, and scrimmaging does not increase players' baseball sense. The alternative approach, the games approach, helps your players become smarter and puts the coach squarely in the role of facilitator, not commander in chief. This method allows players to learn the game through enjoyable learning activities featuring gamelike practices that create realistic situations through which they can develop baseball sense.
There are three major components in the games approach. The first of these elements is shaping—taking a drill and tweaking it a little so that it fits the purposes of the skill that you want the players to learn. This can be done by changing the rules, changing the number of players involved, changing the size of the playing field, modifying the objective of the game and scoring, or modifying the equipment used. Knowing how the tactic fits into the team's game or season plan also helps players buy into the tactic. Coaches can assist their athletes with this by providing them with clear objectives and explaining how learning these objectives elevates their capability to play and helps their team win games. When play is shaped—say, for example, by reducing the number of players—the weaker players are put into positions where they will have more opportunities to play active roles. In short, shaping means redesigning the game.
The second element of the games approach is focusing play. This means that a coach can stop the game at any time to explain a point or correct mistakes in judgment. Using a bunt game as an example, if a fielder in a sacrifice situation bunts the ball back hard to the pitcher, enabling the pitcher to make a play on a lead runner, then the coach can stop the game and point out to the bunter why the bunt was unsuccessful. The player, we hope, will not do the same thing the next time. If a fielder tries to make a play that might be beyond his physical limitations or not appropriate for that moment in the game, the coach can use a freeze replay to put the play into perspective. Freeze replays are crucial to the concept of the games approach. Simply put, they capitalize on teachable moments, the mantra of the classroom, and give the coach an opportunity to put the players and the ball back into the positions where they were when the tactical error occurred and have the players note the situation. Then by questioning players about why they were doing what they were, the coach can let the players come to the realization themselves about why their actions were incorrect. This method gives players the responsibility for solving the dilemma of the situation, which in turn helps them build their baseball IQ.
The final element of the games approach is enhancing play. This goal can be accomplished by challenging players further than they will be challenged in games. Limiting the area into which they can hit or handicapping drills helps keep the games competitive. Using a bunt game as an example again, placing cones on the field to delineate a hitting area further limits and focuses players on their bunting skills. Not allowing fielders to charge, even when they know that a bunt is coming, challenges the defense even more. All games test players' mettle by having them compete against their partners, part of the team, or the whole team. These challenges enhance practice and build players' baseball IQ.