How to run your first baseball or softball practice: ideas for the new coach

hardball_9532For the new baseball or softball coach (or even seasoned veterans) the first practice of the year can be a daunting challenge to get through.  Getting to know new players, families, setting expectations and routines for the team, and establishing a culture are all objectives for the coach to try to accomplish in the first session with the team.

This post focuses on what a new coach should try to assess from his or her players during the first practice, and some suggested activities to achieve these goals.  This assumes that the coach has group of players that he or she is not fully familiar with.  If the coach is new but has a good understanding of the players’ abilities, a different approach would be preferable for the first practice.

Areas to Evaluate

By the end of the practice the coach should have an idea of how each player performs in the following areas:

  1. Athleticism/Coordination/Mobility of each player
  2. Defense
    1. How a player throws
    2. How a player catches
    3. How a player fields groundballs and flyballs/popups
  3. Offense
    1. How a player swings the bat, including stance, balance, and coordination
    2. Whether the player seems to have an eye for the ball (either from the tee or via soft toss)
    3. How a player runs the bases
  4. Attitude
    1. Which players may require additional motivation
    2. Which players are eager for each new challenge

Activities

Here’s a sample agenda for a 60-minute introductory practice for a coach at the beginning levels of the sport with a 12-player roster and 2 assistant coaches.  Coaches should maintain a positive energy and a good pace for the practice, especially for young players who can be easily distracted or lose interest:

00 – 05 Minutes: Introductions

What to do: Ask each player to introduce him or herself, and introduce your self to them.  Let them know you’re looking forward to a season with them where they’ll work hard and have a ton of fun learning baseball or softball.  Make sure they understand expectations around effort, attentiveness, and any other team guidelines/expectations.

What to assess: Start to see personalities of the children, who is outgoing, who is shy, who is respectful, who has a shorter attention span, etc.

05 – 15 Minutes: Baserunning

What to do: Have the players run home-to-first a couple times at full speed, let them go home-to-second a couple times, and then close it out with an inside-the-park home run.

What to assess: This will give you a gauge on athleticism, speed, coordination, and stamina.

What to watch for: Make sure the players maintain discipline in the line, keep their hands to themselves, and pay attention.  It’s recommended to keep the line moving and the activity fast-paced so the players maintain interest and focus.

15-18 Minutes: Water Break

18-48 Minutes: Stations Activities

This is where you’ll start to get an idea of the baseball skills each player possesses and begin to formulate what coaching points you’ll need to emphasize throughout the first part of the season

What to do: Use your two assistant coaches and yourself to set up 3 stations

  1. Hitting: This can a combination of swings from a tee or from soft-toss, and this is the station that sets the pace and keeps everything on track. Over the course of 10-15 swings, the coach should be able to gauge whether the player watches the ball, can make contact consistently, has any kind of power, has a balanced approach, etc.  Only one or two players are needed here.  
  2. Throwing: The second station can focus on throwing.  There are many ways to do this, but the players at this point at beginning levels should be throwing to a coach only, and not to their teammates.  Using wiffle balls if safety is a concern or real baseballs if there is a reasonable level of trust.  The coach can simply have the players pick up a ball from a bucket or pile, and throw the ball to the coach.  The coach should be able to tell whether players use correct footwork and arm-path, can focus and throw to a target area.  Four or five players at a time can be at this station.
  3. Fielding: This final station will be to gauge the defensive abilities of the players.  For beginners and players at lower levels, there are good reasons to simply have players field the ball in an activity like this, and not necessarily make a throw after fielding it.  Basically the skills of fielding and throwing are separate and distinct for new players, and can be developed in parallel without always combining them in an activity.  For this, a coach can line players up 20-25 feet away and start by rolling each player a ground ball when it is their turn in line.  The players can then run the ball to the coach and run back in line, or they can drop the ball in a bucket and run back in line.  The idea is to get each player a many repetitions as possible while avoiding wasted time retrieving bad throws or missed balls.  The coach should be able to identify which players have a sense of how to move to the ball and field it, and whether they can follow directions and get the ball to correct location (either the coach or the bucket) after they make the play.  The coach can mix in light pop-ups for new players to see how  each approaches a ball in the air vs. a ball on the ground. Four or five players at a time can be at this station.

What to assess: The general skill level of your players when it comes to hitting, fielding, and throwing.

What to watch for: Players that are attentive and follow directions, and that move quickly between stations when it is time for them to switch.

What to strive for: Repetitions!  While a player may only take 10-15 swings, they should be able to get in 20-30 throws and 20-30 fielding plays.  The pace of the coaches is important to keep things moving and keep the players engaged.

48-50 Minutes: Water Break (additional breaks can be mixed in the station rotations as reasonable)

50-60 Minutes: Competitive activity

Here is where a coach can get creative, but the idea is to begin building a competitive spirit in the players and help them have fun while or practicing skills.  Sample activities for a first practice include:

  • Relay race
  • Longball contest: each player gets 3 swings off a tee, furthest hit wins
  • Long-throw contest: same as above, but with throwing

Wrap-up

At the end of practice the coach should bring the team together for a 1-2 minute wrap up.  Let them know how excited you are about their effort and all the things they are going to learn over the course of the season, and remind them of the next practice, and to work on the sport at home in between team sessions.

Again, the first practice of the season can present a challenge for a new coach, but having a plan (and being flexible) can help him or her get through jitters and make the first event a success!

 

Should beginning softball and baseball players play catch in practice? 

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No. Absolutely not. When it comes to softball and baseball players, 4,5,6 and even most 7-year-olds at the beginner level simply do not have the coordination or skillset to have a productive round of catch.

I see it time and again. A coach tells a team to go play catch to warm up and it turns into a game of fetch. A very slow game of fetch. A player throws the ball, her partner misses it, he chases it, picks it up and throws it back, and she misses it and the cycle goes on. Eventually the coach wastes 5-10 minutes of valuable practice time, the players are no better off than when they started, and the team moves on to something (maybe) more productive.

You might be saying get out of here it’s baseball/softball, they need to play catch!

No, no they don’t.

Look at this video of a top-5 google video search result for “baseball throwing drills for youth”

Regardless of whether you agree with the coach’s principles and what he’s teaching the players, it’s easy to see that the players were unable to consistently throw and catch successfully.

A solution:

The skills of throwing and catching are related but independent. As a coach you need to recognize that and at these early age groups set up your practice to emphasize each independently until such point the players have the skills and experience to make it productive.

Instead of wasting time with these players on a non-productive and inefficient activity, split them up into groups and have one assistant work on teaching players how to throw, and another one can teach them how to catch. It’s better at this level for a coach to be throwing to a player because the coach can (hopefully) have better control over where the throw is going such that the player has a higher chance at catching it.

Baseball and softball are all about confidence. Build the players’ confidence  up so when they are physically ready to play catch down the road (a month or 2,maybe a couple years), it’s a worthwhile activity.

Top 33 baseball or softball topics to teach to T-Ball and Coach Pitch Players

 

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It’s hard for a new coach to understand where to start or what should be taught when they take on the challenge of leading a group of youngsters in a baseball season.  The list below is intended to serve as a guide for new coaches and a reminder for experienced coaches of many of the objectives that should be covered over the course of a baseball or softball season.  The list is directional and generally comprehensive.  As a coach your goal at the end of a season should be to check off as many of these boxes as possible.

Certain leagues may have longer or shorter seasons, and teams may have larger or smaller rosters, so you will need to consider these variables when deciding what to cover.  The absolute essentials are bolded, start with those, and move on to the others to make sure your players have the foundation they need to enjoy the season and the desire to continue playing.

First Things First

Before we get to the list below, the #1 thing to impress on the players is that they’re engaging in a game and it’s meant to be FUN!  That fact gets lost in the shuffle too often at all levels.  The chance to step on the diamond and PLAY a GAME is a great opportunity that should be cherished.  Sometimes things will go their way, and sometimes they won’t, but a coach should always strive to keep things in proper perspective for the players.  The coach’s prime objective at beginning levels should be to instill an enthusiasm for the sport such that players develop the passion to continue playing and potentially strive to improve.

Shoutout to @CoachYourKids for this reminder!

Overall

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  1. Safety first
  2. Hustle as much as possible
  3. The 9 (or 10) positions on the field
  4. Pay attention and know when it’s your turn to hit
  5. Get in and out of the dugout quickly in between innings

Defense

  1. Pay attention and get ready for every play
  2. Don’t fight for the ball
  3. Infielders – get the ball and quickly throw it to first base (most of the time)
  4. Infielders – get the ball and quickly step on a base to get a force out (sometimes)
  5. Infielders – get the ball and tag a runner (sometimes)
  6. Infielders – don’t assume a play is over just because an out is made – stop the lead runner!
  7. Outfielders – keep the ball in front of you
  8. Outfielders – back up the infielders
  9. Outfielders – get the ball and throw it in – don’t run it in!

Baserunning

  1. Don’t watch the ball when you hit it
  2. Run as hard as you can to and through first base
  3. Break down properly after hitting first
  4. Advance on overthrows
  5. Look at and listen to your base coaches
  6. Run as soon as the ball is hit (most of the time)
  7. Learn the rare times when you don’t have to run

Hitting

  1. Swing hard
  2. Watch the ball all the way to the bat (coach pitch)
  3. Don’t chop down, try for a level or upper cut swing
  4. Balanced stance

Throwing

  1. Look where you’re throwing
  2. Correct Footwork
  3. Correct Arm Action (elbow above shoulder)
  4. Throw, don’t push the ball

Catching/Fielding a Ball

  1. Alligator style on grounders
  2. Two hands on pop-ups
  3. Get in front of the ball
  4. Get your glove on the ground

 

This post is intended to help you as a coach understand what you need to cover over the course of a baseball or softball season when you have a mixed group of new and experienced players who are just learning the game.  If you have older or more experienced players, these foundations are still important, but your focus will be on teaching and reviewing more advanced topics under each category.

 

Good luck to you and have fun out there!