Video Blog: Softball Practice #1

I signed up to coach my daughters’ softball team this year and just wrapped up practice #1 over the weekend.  This is 8U coach-pitch rec softball, with some players who are brand new and others who have played for several years.  The first practice was an hour long, and my objective was to evaluate the players to understand their skill levels and begin to assess what we’ll need to work on in preparation for the season.

Enjoy!

Here’s a summary of the 60-minute practice agenda:

  1. 00-05 minutes – Introductions and team rules
    • Rule #1 – listen
    • Rule #2 – hustle
  2. 05-15 minutes – Baserunning
    1. Home to first to run through the bag
    2. Home to second to learn how to round first base on an extra base hit
  3. 15-18 minutes – Water Break
  4. 18-50 minutes – Stations
    • Hitting: players hit 15-20 balls (plastic balls) off a tee
    • Throwing: players stood by a cone on the foul line, and threw past a cone 50 or so feet in front of them in fair territory
      • Emphasis on proper footwork, throwing hard, and aiming for a target
    • Fielding: groundballs, throwing the ball bag to the coach
      • Emphasis: “Alligator” technique, quick release of the ball to throw back to the coach
  5. 50-55 minutes
    • “Tour” of the defensive positions
  6. 55-60 minutes – Relay race
    • half the team started at home plate, the other at second base

All in all I think practice went OK; thinking back the throwing station could have been better.

 

Looking forward to practice #2 in a couple days!

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!

 

TBB Essential Drills Series #4 -Fastpitch Softball Outfield Drills – Carol Bruggeman

This is a longish watch so buckle up, but in it Carol Bruggeman, Executive Director- National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), gives some great drills to work with for outfielders.  I’ve incorporated several of these into practice sessions, and the players love them.  The competitive and fast paced nature of the activities adds a pace and urgency to practice and allows participants to really focus on producing great results.

TBB Essential Drills Series #3 – Jen Schro Catching Army

 

Shoutout to my buddy Blake Paul for sharing this with me!  Here’s a cool quick clip from softball player Jen Schroeder showing an easy fundamental drill for catchers.  Emphasizing the importance of being strong in the stance, tracking the pitch, framing it, blocking it, etc., WITHOUT EVEN THROWING A SINGLE BALL, Jen is able to demonstrate how to teach and instill key elements of the position in a short period of time.

This example also goes to show how drills and activities need to be simplified to allow players to focus on consistent execution without having to memorize a complex set of instructions.

How to find a good baseball instructor or coach for your player

This is easy:

  1. Move in next door to a former player, preferably a major league baseball alum.
  2. Make sure he has exclusive access to an indoor training facility, and guaranteed field time at a local park when the weather is nice.
  3. Ask him to coach up your kid.
  4. Make sure he’ll do it for free.
  5. Make sure he’s available on-demand.
  6. Make sure he won’t yell at your kid or criticize him in any way.
  7. Make plans to spend the future millions that your child is sure to earn as a first-round draft pick.

Right?

I wish.

This topic of private baseball instruction is a big one in the game.  When to start, where to go, how much to pay, how often to go, and when to stop are all components that go in to the decision-making process here.

When to Start

I was 9 or 10 when I first went to camp, 12 when I first started taking specific lessons.  Surely that makes sense now.  Not even close.  Youth sports and baseball in particular are barely recognizable now to the game I played as a youngster.  The key factor in determining when to start looking for an instructor is less tied to a specific age as it is to specific needs in the player’s development. Often parents believe they can teach the game as well as they know it.  This is good so long as the child is receptive to the instruction, but if things get to a point where the player is simply not picking up the lessons, or when the aspects of the game become more complex with new age groups, it may be time to consider a private instructor.

Where to Look

Aside from Googling for instructors or baseball schools in your area, there are additional resources available.  Perhaps the best to use would be to ask around on your team or in your circle of friends to see if any one can recommend an instructor who works well with their child.  Additionally, attending different camps can allow you to see instructors and how they approach group sessions and instruction to gauge how they might work out for your player.

What to Look For

This is a tricky one, right?  Presumably you’re looking for someone who can provide objectively correct instruction, while also being able to develop a rapport with your player and personalizing their delivery to them.  This may sound pretty “new school”, but every player is different and communication in a one-on-one setting should be tailored to the individual.  If a coach can recognize this and tailor their communication to the personalities (and even moods) of different players, then you may have found a winner.  This is where you can “test drive” different coaches to see who knows what they’re talking about, and who your player responds well to.

Cost

Rates can be anywhere from $40-$50 for 30 minutes to over $100 for hour-long sessions.  Pay what you think makes sense.

What to Expect to Get Out of It

At minimum, warning track power and 10+ MPH on the fastball after 2 sessions.  AT MINIMUM!  Seriously, as with any skills that a person develops, the ability to execute the skill can differ between different scenarios.  A player may struggle to pick up a principle in a lesson, then execute perfectly on it in the final innings of a bracket championship game 3 days later.  And we’ve all seen the opposite be true as well.  The key here is patience and trust in the process.  If the coach is teaching the right concepts and the player is enjoying the instruction and learning from it, it’s sometimes a matter of time before the results come.

The Parent’s Role

If you’re paying for the instructor, you kind of have two choices:

  1. Reinforce his or her concepts in no-instructional scenarios
  2. Undercut the lessons by trying to impart contradictory principles on your child.

If you choose #2, just save your money and either find a new instructor or resume teaching the child yourself.


Personally I’m a proponent of private instruction so long as it makes sense for the player.  In my experience, it’s helped me learn the game better seeing it be taught by professionals, and also helped my communication in different scenarios.

TBB Essential Drills Series #2 – How To Run Through First Base

 

Here we have TCU Baseball Coach Randy Mazey breaking down one of the elemental aspects of baserunning.  The first thing a runner has to worry about as they learn to play is busting it down the line to beat out a groundball.  This video provides great advice on that as well as some iconoclastic tips on how which way to turn when heading back to first.  Every coach needs to watch this because we’d avoid stupid arguments every weekend about tagging somebody out just because they turned in without making an attempt.

TBB Essential Drills Series #1 – Mike Candrea Ground Ball Work

I’ve liked this drill since the first time I saw it.  The principles Coach Candrea covers related to progression, precision, and energy are terrific.  I especially like the back to back to basics approach of simply rolling the balls to the players for several rounds before hitting to them.  Mixing in forehands, backhands, choppers, one-hoppers, slow rollers, etc, is a great way to give players experience in different scenarios, and the throwing aspect reminds them that a complete defensive play consists of two parts – the catch, and the throw.


 

The TBB Great Drills series is where I’ll list out some drills that I’ve found incredibly useful in my years.  Feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments!

How to run a baseball practice – 10 Great Tips

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It’s getting to be that time of year.  Rec teams are being formed, and any travel teams that haven’t started already will begin practice soon.  With all the drills and activities and ways to run practice effectively, here are ten tips that will make for a great experience for coaches and most importantly players.  Here we go.

 

Purpose

I think it’s of the utmost importance to have a purpose and goal for every practice.  Whether it’s the first team session, or a workout deep in the summer between tournaments, it’s up to the coach to determine what the team should be getting out of every practice.  Early on the keys are to evaluate players, get an idea of their strengths and opportunity areas, and begin to build team chemistry.  Throughout the season between tournaments, the focus may shift to working on issues that rose up over a weekend or fine-tuning some areas that haven’t been worked on.  Later in the season, the objective may simply be to lift the team’s morale and maintain a high energy level heading into year-end events.

Bonus tip: COMMUNICATE!  Tell the players what you plan to focus on and expect. Regardless of the age group, their more likely to respond and meet expectations when they know what the expectations are.

Plan

Once you know what you want to accomplish, the next thing to do is figure out how you’re going to accomplish it.  The best practices I’ve seen can be broken down into some sort outline by position group, offense vs. defense, pitching, etc.  Setting aside specific blocks of time for each activity or drill will help you mentally stay on track and work towards your goal for the session.  Smarter and more experienced people than me have put together great plans which are easily found online, like the one here.

Ask for help

Players in older age groups are frequently (mostly) self-reliant and can do what they’re told in small groups.  For the younger age groups and even on teams where there are enough coaches to run the drills, it’s often a good idea to ask for some sort of assistance from parents or siblings.  Whether it’s shagging balls, filling in at positions where a player may be missing, or any number of other roles, it’s much better to request help and support than to attempt to struggle through a situation without it.

Drills and Activities

I’ll save my favorite drills for another series of posts.  The key thing to consider on this topic is that the activities relate to the objective of the practice and keep the players engaged.  Again this is a topic where I’d be a fool to reinvent the wheel; just search youtube for baseball drills and pick ones that make sense for your practice plan.

Rotations

Piggy-backing on the Drills and Activities is the concept of rotations through each station, made up of small groups of players.  This will allow players to get more individualized attention from you and the other coaches, as well as give them the opportunity to consistently be focusing on a new area of instruction.  Whether you split up into offensive, defensive, baserunning, or pitching groups, another thing to keep in mind is the importance of sticking to a schedule and moving the groups throughout the stations.  Depending on the age group, the practice length, and many other factors, you may find yourself rotating anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes.

Energy and Pace

There’s lots of different ways to approach this, from simply forcing players to sprint everywhere to implementing a countdown clock, but the principle is the same: instilling the mindset that time is valuable and consistent effort and hustle is the easiest way to maximize the instruction and development that can occur during practice.  One of the simplest and most recurring actions at a practice is picking up balls; while seemingly a mindless activity for players, showing effort here can be analogous to the sense of urgency that’s needed in games to retrieve errant throws, take extra bases, be alert on defense, etc.

Flexibility

I’m not referring to stretching or agility here.  I’m talking about your flexibility as a coach and leader to adjust your practice plan on the fly.  Circumstances frequently change at practice, which necessitates a flexible mindset to keep things moving and beneficial for the team.  Field space, attendance, weather, and equipment are frequent causes that come up.  Another less obvious one (until you think about it) is that players sometimes are just not grasping a concept or activity and it may be a good idea to just scrap it and move on to something more engaging while still being productive.  It will be less frustrating for coaches, parents, and especially players in the long run to move onto something new vs. trying in vain to bang home a point.

Competition

As long as they keep score, baseball’s a game where it’s typically more fun to win than it is to lose.  Instilling elements of competition at any point in practice can help implement the competitive mindset and motivation that players will need to fuel them through a long travel season.  This post on TeamSnap.com has some good ideas on the types of activities you can use, but really this is a good way for you to get creative.  Contests for bunting, throwing, fielding, hitting, running, etc. are all great ideas to reinforce your instruction while getting the players to compete.

Recap

Mirroring the communication at the beginning of practice, it’s always good to recap for players what was covered.  This is your chance to provide feedback on how things went (good or bad), and start setting the right mindset for the next team event, be it practice, game or tournament.

Fun

Baseball remains a game.  Keep practice fun by not taking it more seriously than it needs to be taken and you’ll create an environment where players are excited about it more often than not.


 

And there you have it.  The big thing is that this isn’t rocket science.  Preparation, planning, energy, and communication are the keys that will lead to a successful and enjoyable practice program for you and your team.  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.