This is an excerpt from Youth Baseball Drills by Peter Caliendo.
Practice organization can help a coach improve the skills of individual players and prepare the team overall. If you are well organized and run a fun practice, players become better and stay in the game longer. When a player improves and shows signs of success, he will want to play the game longer.
This book cannot organize your practices for you before the season begins because we don't know the age of your players, their abilities, and the current level of their fundamentals. But we can lay down a foundation that you can follow to set up your whole plan. You establish your practice plan by considering the number of practices you have before the season begins, the ability of your players, and the equipment and facilities available.
Come Prepared for Practice
By structuring practices for competition and preparing for game situations, you can improve the success rate of your team. To run a successful practice, you need to do several things to accomplish your final goals. The following equipment will help you operate successful practices. Each section has a description of why that equipment or item is important and how it may be used.
A clipboard gives you a place to store all your notes for practice and to write any observations that you might have about a particular player or the overall practice. Many coaches use tablets or other smart devices these days to access apps and record data at practices.
By setting up batting tees at stations, you can have more than one player hitting at one time. If you cannot afford batting tees, you might get someone to donate orange cones that can serve as makeshift tees.
These hollow plastic balls eliminate fear and allow players to concentrate on working on the mechanics of a swing or catching a baseball. Also, Wiffle balls do not go far when hit, so your player can get more swings when hitting. Wiffle balls can be used with any age or ability level, too.
Soft baseballs are the next stage after Wiffle balls. They also reduce fear, so players can build confidence in their mechanics. A coach can toss the ball from a kneeling position in front of a player and not fear being hit.
Players like to be timed. A stopwatch allows you to time runners around the bases or from base to base (from home to first, for example) and time stations so that you know when to rotate.
A whistle helps you keep the practice structured. Instead of yelling, you can blow the whistle when a certain part of practice ends and you need the players to get together with you. Use the whistle to rotate stations. When you do a team drill, you can use it as a way to say, "Go," instead of yelling it all the time.
You can set up flat bases in the outfield when you have several stations for throwing or fielding drills. With flat bases, you can set up a field anywhere.
Assistants allow you to have several stations so that all players are doing something all the time and no one is standing around. Volunteers who are educated about your teaching principles, drills, and philosophy can help you keep the practice going and organized.
You can use these cards as an incentive for players to listen, hustle, improve, win a game, score high on a drill, and more. You can use baseball cards when you see a player paying attention, hustling, trying to make a mechanical change, or accomplishing something positive like knowing the number of outs during the game. Cards can also be taken back when a player does something negative like not hustling, not know the number of outs, and so on. A player who sees a teammate receive a reward for a positive behavior will want to do the same thing.
Cones can be used to lay out the area when you are doing warm-ups, drills, and more. Cones can signify where a player stands or where he goes during a running drill.
Audio Recording Device
By having a recording device in your pocket and turning it on during practice, you will have a record of your practice session. Later you can listen to it to hear the tone of voice that you are using and what you are saying to the players. Use this recording to critique yourself and improve as a communicator.
Video Recording Device
A video recording on a smart phone, tablet, or regular video recorder allows players to see and believe both what they are doing wrong and what they are doing well. To videotape players, you need to have parents fill out and sign a permission and consent form. You may want to make copies of the tapes with notes for parents so that they understand what you are trying to work on with the player.
Coaches should set up drills for players during their practices. The drills should include not only the fundamental motion used to accomplish the drill but also a competitive game. Players are more likely to do a drill with passion if it includes some kind of goal and competition. For example, if players are hitting off a batting tee, they should try to hit as many line drives as they can out of 10. Avoid having them just take 10 swings and rotate to the next station. When they do the same drill the next time, they should try to beat their previous score. When a competitive game is included with the drill, players concentrate more on the task. This translates into more learning and being able to deal with competition during a real game. Coaches should organize gamelike drills so that when players get into a real game situation, they have already been through it.
Fundamentals of Every Practice
At the end of the chapter you will see a chart that shows you how to prioritize your practices. The first part of practice should include the fundamentals that players use the most in games. They should practice these skills daily because they are the foundation of development. Then you begin looking at individual positions, such as pitching, catching, infield, and outfield. These individual positions are specialized areas that need special attention and require extra work. Last, you need to look at what your team might need to do to improve defensively, offensively, and strategically.
Hitting is the most difficult skill for players to learn because it involves balance, vision, coordination, and timing. Young players are still developing physiologically in these areas, so you need to devote attention to detail when working with your players on hitting. Hitting is difficult at all levels but specifically at the youth level because players are still developing their physical skills. Also, because most young players select a bat that is too heavy and too long and they get too close to home plate, they develop a fear of the ball and they do not have sufficient balance while swinging the bat.
Throwing and Catching
The game is all about throwing and catching; if players cannot do this well, they will have a hard time competing as individuals or as a team. If your players can throw well, you will find it a lot easier when you need to start working on pitching. The ability to throw and catch a baseball well will enhance your teamâ€˜s defense and overall confidence. Coaches often assume that players know how to throw and catch a baseball, but the question is how well they can execute in a game situation. Most of the time, players play catch at a slow to average pace. They catch a baseball, look at it, grip it, and then throw it back. The other player often catches the ball one handed and goes through the same process before throwing it back. This routine can be easy because of the pace at which it is done. Players should usually catch the baseball with the bare hand near the glove so that they can transfer the ball from the glove to the bare hand quickly. If they have to reach to catch the ball, they should use one hand and bring the glove to the center of the body begin to throw the baseball.
Players often have a poor grip on the baseball, which causes them to throw incorrectly. Another thing that young players do is fail to turn the body sideways before they throw because doing so feels uncomfortable. By turning the body sideways, they can use the whole body to throw the ball.
To reduce their fear about fielding, players need to work on fundamentals. Players who feel comfortable in their ability to field and get out of the way of a bad-hop ball will become better fielders. Their ability to react to a bad hop will increase. A major obstacle in fielding is fear of the baseball, so you should use softer baseballs when working on fielding so that the players can concentrate on technique. Players also need to learn to get into proper fielding position so that they can see the ball better. One way to work on this is to have players start in the fielding position when they field a ball so that the body is aware of the correct position at the time they field it.
Players run bases all the time, so they have to get good at it. This fundamental is also an instinct that needs to be practiced every day. Baserunning can also serve as your warm-up, so you do not have to waste time running laps around the field before practice. Baserunning for young players is fun because they are running, not standing around waiting, but it can be difficult to learn because it involves technique, balance, coordination, and awareness. Players often start out incorrectly from home plate. Most runners have an unbalanced swing that puts them in a poor position to run to first. So, when you are working on running to first base, have your players swing a bat, freeze at the end so that they have a balanced swing, and then start running to first. This drill helps them just drop the bat in a balanced follow-through instead of throwing it. As they run to first, many players wait until they get to first before making the turn to go to second. One way to correct this mistake is to have the hitter swing, look to see where the ball is, and, if it is past the infielders, immediately start angling toward the coach's box and start the turn early rather than late.
Bunting can help young players improve their hitting and become more complete players. When working on bunting, start with softer baseballs, work on the technique, and then build up to using a hard baseball. After the player is confident, you can start by throwing the ball underhand and build up to throwing overhand. At a certain point you have to start throwing the ball hard to simulate game situations. Players have trouble in two areas. First is the stance. By having a good balanced stance, they gain confidence and can run after they bunt. This stance, described in the bunting chapter, has the feet in a quarter turn to home plate. Players also have a problem with gripping the bat, also described in the bunting chapter. Players who become good bunters will become better hitters because when they bunt they learn to track the ball longer. Coaches may want to have players bunt for a hit when they are struggling with their hitting.
You should begin working on pitching as soon as you think that the players are throwing well. Pitching is where it starts and ends with a team. You need to have good pitching to compete. You should work with all young players on pitching. Instead of having just two or three pitchers, you want most of your guys to have the ability to pitch. Pitching is the most important part of the game because it all starts there. Most young players should start in a set position, not the windup. When they start in the stretch position, all they have to do is lift the leg and throw. Starting from the windup takes a lot more coordination and balance. After players learn to pitch from the stretch, accomplishing the windup is much easier. Another problem area for young pitchers is the grip of the baseball because their fingers are small. Make sure that the thumb is under the baseball and splits it. If they have to throw with a three- or four-finger grip to have better control, let them do it. Pitchers needs to learn to throw the baseball over the plate on the outside part, inside part, middle, up, and down. One way to do this is to have them aim for the catcher's knees and shoulders. These larger areas are easier for them to focus on.